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Five years ago the influential comedy website Funny or Die took a few baby steps and uploaded its first video, a rough, hastily assembled sketch that starred, appropriately enough, a baby.
Pearl McKay was 2 years old at the time, the daughter of parents deeply rooted in Chicago - her mother, Shira Piven, grew up in Evanston, Ill., the sister of actor Jeremy Piven. Pearl's father, Adam McKay, got his start in the Chicago comedy scene in the early '90s, then left in 1995 to become a writer at "Saturday Night Live." The video was called "The Landlord" and featured Pearl screaming at McKay's comedy partner, Will Ferrell. Back then, expectations for Funny or Die, which seemed like just another mingling of originally produced comedy videos and user-uploaded material, fell somewhere in line with scores of other, similar Hollywood-Internet hybrid misfires.
Five years later, Funny or Die, which McKay, Ferrell and "Entourage" executive producer Chris Henchy founded on a whim (and with the friendly urging of a venture capital firm), is way beyond baby steps. You might say, to keep the metaphor going, it already has graduated and become a media mogul: This fall there will be four Funny or Die-branded TV shows, two Web series and a movie in production, said CEO Dick Glover. It recently launched an iPad magazine, announced a deal to provide some of the in-flight entertainment for Virgin Airlines and started a commercial division. It's become the place where stars and corporations alike go to seem a little subversive.
"The Landlord," the most-watched video in FoD history, has been viewed more than 80 million times, and the site gets 17 million visitors a month. Glover, who said Funny or Die became profitable in late 2010, has not ruled out the possibility of an initial public offering for Funny or Die stock.
McKay, currently prepping "Anchorman 2," took time out recently to talk about the site's evolution since 2007. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Q: At "Saturday Night Live," you brought short films back in the 1990s, which had been this marginal thing at "SNL," though the tradition went back to the first season. Sounds like you really wanted to direct.
A: Actually, it went exactly like that! I was going to quit the show. I had been head writer for a couple of years and there was all this stuff I wanted to try, but ultimately it's (Lorne Michaels') show and I should politely move on. My manager said, "If you're going to quit, make an unreasonable demand. What would you want in your dream world?" I didn't want to go to production meetings. I didn't want to be in the room for the actual show any more, which is actually no fun. I wanted a raise. I wanted a budget for short films. And I wanted to name my own screen credit. Lorne said yes. So for the last two years I was there, I was "coordinator of falconry." That was my actual screen credit. Wow, some people were (ticked off)! I'm like, "Relax, this is a comedy show."
Q: Still, you didn't want to do Funny or Die at first, right?
A: I didn't. Ferrell and I still had the dot-com collapse in our heads. The hype around it had gotten so dumb. But the guy who brought the idea to us, Mark Kvamme (of the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital), he had already adjusted. He knew you didn't launch a site like this the way you might have in 1998. It boiled down to, what do we have to lose? None of us, me or Will or Chris, put our money into it. Worst-case scenario, we have an outlet for the stuff we did on "SNL" and it gets 50,000 hits a month. If it was a failure, it wouldn't be a hyped failure. Which is what resonated. It was clearly for the fun of it, and people liked the spontaneity of it.
Q: So "The Landlord" was as roughly made as it looks?
A: Completely. My daughter was going through that phase where she repeated anything you said. My wife would speak French to her, and she would repeat it. I would say "postlapsarian epistemological" and she would repeat it. I said, "You know, Ferrell, Pearl can say anything." So we showed up at his house. My buddy, Drew Antzis, who shot it, was a masseuse at the time. I know him from Chicago, from iO.
Pearl couldn't focus, but with "Uncle Will," she calmed down. It took about 40 minutes. We didn't think much of it, beyond it being funny. We threw it on the site with no announcement, no press release. Will and I forwarded it to friends. That was about it. Within days, Ellen DeGeneres wanted Pearl on her show. It blew up faster than anything we'd ever done.
Q: Early on, the site also began making corporate-sponsored comedy videos. Weren't you leery of that, that it might change this scrappy, spontaneous thing into something deliberate?
A: We were worried. We talked about that at great length. We decided we would just separate those from the rest, the way Second City had done when it started a business unit. With a firewall, it should be fine. The rule is, never do a video unless there's a chance to do something interesting. When this arrangement works best, it's close to TV, working with advertisers behind you. The best example is Zach Galifianakis' "Between Two Ferns" series. There's corporate money behind it. That hasn't affected the drive of it at all.