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FunnyOrDie proves Web comedy is no joke

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Adam McKay, Will Ferrell
Adam McKay: Suzanne Hanover; Will Ferrel: Scott D. Smith/Retna Ltd.

The revolution, such as it was, took place in less than an hour and was led by a 2-year-old. Early this spring, longtime collaborators Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (Saturday Night Live, Anchorman, Talladega Nights) were kicking around ideas for a sketch to help launch their new comedy website, FunnyOrDie. McKay thought it might be amusing to do something with his rambunctious toddler, Pearl, so he whipped up a silly two-minute piece casting her as Ferrell’s ornery, foulmouthed landlord. During a break from Ferrell’s son Magnus’ third birthday party, they shot the bit in the doorway of the Ferrell family’s guesthouse. ”It was so casual — like, ‘Did you cut the cake? Okay, we’ve gotta go do the thing with Pearl real quick,”’ Ferrell remembers, sitting at a small table in McKay’s trailer on the Los Angeles set of their upcoming comedy Step Brothers. ”Then, when it launched, it was mayhem. Complete mayhem.”

On April 12, the video, entitled ”The Landlord,” appeared on FunnyOrDie.com and became an overnight viral sensation, receiving so many hits so quickly that the site’s server eventually crashed. The productivity of the American workforce dipped as millions of cubicle drones watched Pearl get up in Ferrell’s grille, calling him ”bitch” and ”a–hole,” and hectoring him for her rent money so she could ”get [her] drink on.” Soon, Pearl was receiving an offer to costar in a Jackie Chan movie, while Bill O’Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, and other noted child-psychology experts debated whether she was an innocent victim of shameless Hollywood exploitation. McKay and Ferrell, who had agreed to spearhead the website — the brainchild of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mark Kvamme — only a few months earlier, were bewildered. ”It was like, ‘The president is holding a meeting to discuss it right now! Aircraft carriers are being diverted to the Indian Ocean!” McKay says, laughing. ”It was crazy s—.”

Where some just saw a goofy bit of workplace diversion, others saw a new landmark in the evolution of creative content on the Web. As ”The Landlord” went on to rack up more than 48 million hits, becoming one of the most watched clips in Internet history, user-generated comedy bits began streaming onto FunnyOrDie in massive numbers. And it wasn’t just aspiring comedians from the hinterlands looking for exposure; celebrities like Brooke Shields, Jenna Elfman, Danny DeVito, Eva Longoria Parker, and Bill Murray appeared in sketches on the site, seeing it as a low-stress, potentially high-impact venue for their own comedy stylings. Humor on the Internet, once largely the business of lonely, sweatpants-clad webcam jockeys, had a hip new Hollywood home. ”I’d never had a destination on the Internet for comedy,” says Chris Henchy, who runs Ferrell and McKay’s film and TV shingle, Gary Sanchez Productions, and also manages the site. ”Someone would send me something, or you’d go on YouTube and find strange things. But when you see something great on the Internet, you want to find the source of it.”

As it happens, Ferrell and McKay hadn’t originally set out to become that source. When first approached about hitching themselves to what Kvamme pitched as a comedy version of Hotornot.com, where users would vote on the comedic merit of submitted clips, they were lukewarm on the idea. ”We just weren’t buying it,” says McKay. ”We were like, Don’t they remember the late ’90s when it was like, ‘That’s it! We’re all going to live on the Internet!”’ After some back-and-forth, the two realized that there was really nothing to lose. ”We figured, if it didn’t work, it would just disappear into cyberspace and no one would ever know,” Ferrell says. Plus, Kvamme’s firm, Sequoia Capital, would be writing the checks — all Ferrell and McKay had to do was manage the creative side, which was the fun part.

Once ”The Landlord” took off, though, their casual side project didn’t seem like such a lark anymore. ”At first, we had one guy working part-time and it was sort of mom-and-pop,” says McKay. ”Suddenly, there were two months where it was our full-time job.” Having just launched Gary Sanchez Productions the previous year, the pair now had to hire a half dozen writer-producers in their Hollywood office to help manage FunnyOrDie and come up with new content.

NEXT PAGE: ”The goal is to create a channel on the Internet. Programming that channel and creating the content — that’s the key — and that’s what Adam, Will, and those guys do so well.”

Though traffic has subsided since the initial spike, FunnyOrDie continues to draw a steady 3.5 million visitors a month. And despite their busy schedule shooting Step Brothers and ramping up their production company, Ferrell and McKay still keep their fingers in the FunnyOrDie pie. ”They look at the site a lot,” says Amy Rhodes, its director of content. ”Adam will e-mail me at two in the morning, like, ‘Yo, I saw this. Check this out.”’

Last month, writer-director-producer Judd Apatow, who’d worked with Ferrell and McKay on Anchorman and Talladega Nights and was hot off the combination punch of Knocked Up and Superbad, signed on as a third partner on the site, further certifying its legitimacy as a go-to spot for comedy. Apatow has already contributed several clips to the site and is developing more original pieces. ”It’s scary to make a movie,” he says. ”It’s fun to do something like this, where it doesn’t have to make money, you don’t have to market it — it’s just a pure comedy experience.”

That’s not to say FunnyOrDie is completely pure — for the site’s partners and financial backers, all those yuks represent potential bucks. Thus far, FunnyOrDie has yet to turn any kind of profit (”We’re doing quite well, if by ‘well’ you mean getting no money and working a lot,” McKay says drily), but Sequoia Capital has already poured several millions of dollars into the site, banking on a future in which FunnyOrDie operates as a sort of Web 2.0 version of Comedy Central, supported by advertising and available on any device with a screen. ”The goal is to create a channel on the Internet,” Kvamme says. ”Programming that channel and creating the content — that’s the key — and that’s what Adam, Will, and those guys do so well.”

In the meantime, FunnyOrDie has clearly hit a comfortable cruising speed. At a recent weekly brainstorming meeting, the writing staff (who are not part of the Writers Guild and thus free to work) kicked around ideas for bits to do with a weird array of celebrities pitching themselves to the site — from Mary Steenburgen to rapper Ghostface Killah, Jordin Sparks to the L.A. Kings hockey team. Such famous names drive traffic to the site (clips with kids and animals also fare well), but Ferrell is wary of FunnyOrDie becoming a sort of Celebrities’ Funniest Home Videos: ”We’re trying to get kind of past that, so we’re not so dependent on a name person in the video.”

For her part, Pearl remains blissfully unaware of what she has wrought. Even after filming another popular video, ”Good Cop, Baby Cop,” McKay says, ”She has no comprehension whatsoever what has happened.” Though he knows that another Pearl video would be an automatic viral blockbuster, as a parent, he can’t bring himself to dip back into that well. ”It starts feeling a little creepy, riding your 2-year-old daughter,” he says. Then again, he has to admit that the thought crosses his mind. ”There’s a role in Step Brothers, and I said to Will, ‘Pearl could play this.’ He was like, ‘Oh, she would destroy. Four lines from her would bring the house down.’ Even now as I’m saying it…” He looks at Ferrell and shakes his head. ”Oh, it would have been good.”

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