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COMEDY PIPELINE 'SNL' for the online crowd

The sketch comedy website started as a lark for Will Ferrell and his friends. Now it's become a brand-name powerhouse

November 08, 2009|Gina Piccalo

Inside a darkened Hollywood warehouse, doe-eyed Adam Scott lay on a bed in his boxers earnestly flicking water droplets out of Jake Szymanski's fleshy belly button -- a stunt everyone agreed would be hilarious in slow motion. As the crew held its breath for this tricky maneuver, the gamin-starlet Rachel Bilson stood off camera, waiting to take her turn on the bed, talking about how her childhood admiration for Lucille Ball had led her to this moment.

It was a strange bit of theater, even by's exaggerated standards. But the popular sketch-comedy website revels in awkward moments like these. FunnyorDie's production staff churns out three or four sketches like this one each week, filmed cheaply and on the fly.

And unlike other fledgling comedy websites, FunnyorDie's got a gaggle of stars like "The O.C.'s" Bilson and Scott from "Step Brothers" on speed dial, all of whom perform for free.

"There's been this whole comedy renaissance going on for the last five years, really hitting the culture in the right way and really resonating," Scott said when the scene was concluded. "FunnyorDie is inviting everyone to the party. . . . The free-for-all nature of it is exciting."

Like "Saturday Night Live" for the new millennium, the site has become home for celebrities eager to lampoon themselves in bizarre, even humiliating sketches because this awkward, alternative brand of comedy now holds such an exalted place in Hollywood that no one wants to be left on the sidelines.

"We suspected but weren't certain that it was time for an Internet version of 'SNL' or 'Letterman' where celebrities can go to promote and try stuff," the site's co-founder Adam McKay wrote in an e-mail interview. "Creative freedom is a huge carrot.", launched in 2007 by Will Ferrell and his producing partner McKay, draws hordes of visitors -- an average of 25 million per month. They come to see Lindsay Lohan spoof her tumultuous private life with a fake eHarmony ad and Jon Hamm shed his Don Draper veneer by donning a bald cap to play Lex Luthor humbled by the financial crisis. Studio marketing heads and other deep-pocketed advertisers took notice and now is a hip place to promote a movie or slip in some product placement.

In fact, the website that started as a creative outlet for Ferrell and his friends is itself a brand with a successful comedy tour, an upcoming HBO series, a half-dozen offshoot websites and plans for a feature film division.

So when Bilson gamely volunteered her lovely visage to be superimposed over Szymanski's formidable gut for this sketch titled "Rachel Bilson's Deleted Sex Scene" -- a video that debuts on in the coming weeks -- she (and her manager) agreed to it knowing that everyone in Hollywood would be watching.

"It's harder to be funny than any other thing," said Bilson, eyeing Scott and Szymanski as they rolled around on the bed. "So if it's something you can do, you want to show it off."


Well connected

FunnyorDie was the brainchild of a teenager who aspired to comedy -- which sounds like a typical story except the teen was Michael Kvamme, whose dad, Mark, was a partner in Sequoia Capital, the venture capital firm behind Google. Which meant there was money to hire a top-tier agent, Creative Artists Agency's Michael Yanover, who in turn tapped Ferrell and McKay and their producing partner Chris Henchy.

Since its launch, the site has transcended the initial hype of Ferrell and McKay's debut video, "The Landlord" (with 66.7-million views and counting). Now it's a fledgling new media studio with a CEO, a Silicon Valley office and a reported ($15-million investment. (Though the site is making money, it hasn't turned a profit, according to those familiar with its finances. McKay calls it "our not-for-profit theater.") For the legions of comic unknowns out there, the site offers another way to network and possibly get discovered. For the A-listers, it is a creative outlet, set apart from the conglomerates running entertainment, that may not earn them a dime but pays off with street cred on the comedy scene.)

"What this really represents is a burgeoning sort of world," said creative director Andrew Steele, who spent a dozen years on "Saturday Night Live." "The way stand-up in the '80s or '90s was for development people; the Internet is [now] sort of the comedy go-to. That's what makes it kind of exciting."

There are FunnyorDie-affiliated comedy offshoots in Britain ( and Brazil (, and others for food lovers (, video gamers ( and action sports fans ( Feature-length films distributed online are next. And then, FunnyorDie will inspire greeting cards, humor books and calendars. Maybe even a Broadway show. At least that's Chief Executive Dick Glover's hope. "If they come," said Glover, "we will build it."

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