How Funny Or Die Makes Room For What Works

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When I showed up at Funny or Die's West Hollywood headquarters earlier this year, staffers weren't hanging out with Will Ferrell or taping a cool new video with the President.

They were kicking around a ball.

"The Internet went out for 10 minutes, so we were playing soccer," said one young staffer, nudging around a ball in a set of offices which looked more like the home base of a Silicon Valley start-up than a comedy incubator.

It was just growing pains; at the time, the company was completing its third move in four years.

Funny or Die recently celebrated its seventh birthday. Comic Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay founded it to build a comedy bridge between Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

But now, creative director Andrew Steele says they have bigger aims than just creating great online videos. "Our goal is world domination...content provider on the level of, say, Sony. That's our goal."

That's right: the website that made America believe hoverboards were a real thing now wants to craft TV shows and movies right alongside the biggest studios around.

But to reach that modest goal, Funny or Die must develop their larger projects with the same qualities that makes their viral videos work. That means high quality material, made quickly and cheaply, promoted through lots of social media.

One example: standup comic Billy Eichner's off-the-wall quiz show for the Fuse channel, Billy on the Street. It features Eichner energetically tossing odd questions at New Yorkers, sometimes with celebrities like Amy Poehler or Girls creator Lena Dunham helping out.

"He came in and he pitched the idea for this and I was like, this is such a no-brainer," said Mike Farah, Funny or Die's president of production, noting Eichner already had a string of popular YouTube videos he hoped to make into a TV series. "We shot a sizzle reel, a very moderately-priced sizzle reel, and we ended up getting seven offers."

When Farah saw how comics loved to goof about social media on social media, he got behind an idea that became Comedy Central's game show At Midnight. And Funny or Die even roped in established stars like Elijah Wood and Kristen Wiig for a miniseries spoof aired on IFC called The Spoils of Babylon.

What links all these shows is Funny or Die's style: subversive, in your face, and always aiming for the biggest laughs.

To find that kind of material, the company often flips the traditional process for developing a TV project, according to Funny or Die president and CEO Dick Glover.

"So, if somebody just says, hey I want a TV show about x,y,z, here's this great deal...that's not for us," Glover said. "Rather we say, here's a great piece of content, now let's find the appropriate outlet for that."

But not everybody in Hollywood wants to play along.

Comic Kathy Griffin is fiercely proud of her work ethic and jokes about how she'll show up just about anywhere for a job. But at a press event for a PBS show she's in, Griffin told me she probably won't show up on a Funny or Die video.

"Whenever they've asked me to do something, it's for free," she said. "And all my friends that do it, do it to be cool and for free. And I think that's fun if you're Will Ferrell and you have a gazillion dollars. But for me, I have to make a living just like the next working stiff."

Still, plenty of big names have chosen differently, agreeing to trade their work for the exposure which can flow from Funny or Die's popular viral videos.

And with consumers seeing less difference between TV on cable, broadcast or the Internet, Funny or Die just might be in the best position to turn viral videos into the next hot TV project.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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