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Funny or Die on a mission to live large

The comedy website spreads its wings far beyond the Internet, with projects on TV, film and in publishing.

May 08, 2011|Deborah Vankin

There's a pig. And it's wearing a Donald Trump wig.

It's a hectic Wednesday afternoon at the Hollywood offices of the comedy website-turned-digital entertainment studio Funny or Die. The company just celebrated its fourth birthday, and there's a national board meeting underway in lawn chairs on the roof, for which slick-suited executives have flown in from all over the country. Downstairs, the aforementioned live pig -- here to make a video -- wanders the hallway in a jacket and striped tie.

Amid the pre-shoot chaos, comedian Richard Belzer shuffles by, unfazed by the pig. It's all very Monty Python-esque -- one half expects the voice of Moses to suddenly bellow from an overhead speaker.

And yet the organized lunacy seems perfectly fitting. Funny or Die, founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, is a whirling dervish of Web video production. It's also become a veritable pop cultural institution. Its mix of user-submitted videos and "exclusive" star-packed sketch comedy bits draws about 17 million visitors a month to what's now a "comedy community," with a tangle of social media offshoots. Videos often go viral, with the potential to bring upward of 50 million hits each.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 08, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Funny or Die: In today's Calendar section, an article about digital entertainment studio Funny or Die misidentifies the company's president and chief executive, Dick Glover, as Donald Glover. The error was detected after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 15, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Funny or Die: A May 8 article about digital entertainment studio Funny or Die misidentified the company's president and chief executive, Dick Glover, as Donald Glover.

It's no wonder that an appearance on Funny or Die has become something of a status symbol for celebrities, who offer their star power for free to "leak" edgy, fun comedy shorts into the zeitgeist, strategically timed to promote their projects. Or, as Rebecca Mader of "Lost" explains, to tweak their image. "This feels sort of naughty and rebellious -- especially if you're on network television."

The site's a mash-up of famous faces, boasting videos starring Natalie Portman, Mike Tyson, Paris Hilton and Eva Longoria, among many others. Liv Tyler, Katherine Heigl, Bill Paxton and Miranda Cosgrove all have projects in development there.

Now Funny or Die is using the site -- on which it can create short videos quickly and cheaply -- as an incubation lab for pitching and marketing new material to TV networks and movie studios. The company is also stepping into feature films, merchandising (interactive T-shirts, anyone?), iPhone/ iPad apps and book publishing.

"I go out and people say, 'I love Funny or Die,' and I don't know what Funny or Die they're talking about," says creative director Andrew Steele, formerly a head writer on "Saturday Night Live." "Is it stuff we did on the Internet? Soon they're gonna mean the film world and the television world."

HBO just green-lighted a third season of the TV series "Funny or Die Presents" and FOD's new half-hour show, "Jon Benjamin Has a Van," is set to premiere on Comedy Central this summer. There are three other FOD TV pilots "in various stages" in the works, Steele says.

The company also just wrapped its first feature film, "Tim And Eric's Billion Dollar Movie." It's a low-budget movie with big cameos, and the cast includes many FOD regulars such as Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jeff Goldblum and John C. Reilly. Financed by 2929 Productions, which has a distribution deal with Magnolia, the picture is in the editing stage. Steele says they're considering a handful of other film projects, but he's wary of growing too quickly.

"There's definitely a danger of overdoing it," he admits. "We pick and choose quite a bit actually. We have to manage it."

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Crossover concern

Overextending the brand is a legitimate concern. By late 2007 the company had begun expanding into a network of user-curated websites, including Eat Drink or Die. But in late 2008, "when the world collapsed," says President and CEO Donald Glover, they scaled back. "We directed our focus at where we thought we were really good: Funny or Die," Glover says. The company is now "definitely profitable," he says.

Having last week won nine Webby Awards for 2010, Funny or Die has seemingly mastered the art -- and commerce -- of interactive, multimedia comedy, something myriad sites like the now-defunct Super Deluxe (TBS), ThisJustIn (HBO/AOL) and Dot Comedy (NBC) weren't able to do. User content is free, and stars draw traffic to the homepage, which helps sell banner ads and branded content, among other revenue streams.

But will going broad endanger the hipness quotient and business model? And will Funny or Die's Web-first, short-form entertainment translate to other media?

"I think the model will probably adapt," says Will Richmond, an analyst at VideoNuze, which specializes in online video. "But I think [content crossover] is more complicated, and these are the bridges that they still have to cross."

CEO Glover says branching into other formats won't be a problem since it's the ideas that come first. "Whether it's a 11/2 -minute video or 28-minute television show or 111-minute feature length film [doesn't matter] -- the key is, is it a terrific piece of content?" he says.

As Glover talks, he fidgets with a talking bottle opener. When pressed, it snaps "You're an alcoholic!" in Ferrell's voice. Which fits: The offices are awash in an almost manic goofiness.

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