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 - remember Dot Comedy (NBC), Pop (Steven Spielberg) and SuperDeluxe (TBS)?
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 ("someday, just not right now") of an initial public offering for Funny or Die stock.
McKay, currently prepping "Anchorman 2" (set in the late '70s, during the transition from traditional newscasts to the 24-7 cable universe, he teased), took time out recently to talk by phone about the site's evolution since 2007. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Q: When you first started in comedy, moving from Philadelphia to Chicago in 1990, going through Second City and iO and co-founding the Upright Citizens Brigade, were you making short videos back then?
A: Yes! And there was no place to put them. There was no outlet. We made them anyway. It was like an animal instinct. A group of us stuck together, Matt Besser, Horatio Sanz, Ian Roberts. It was as if everyone's collective (subconscious) knew the Internet was coming. We would show them in the lobby before (UCB) shows. The first video was about a bunch of us coming back from a party. We were in a car, which speaks to how little we knew what we were doing - shooting in cars is the worst. One of us kept doing a Jack Nicholson impression, then kept doing it, until we're like, "Hey, really, stop it." That turns into a fight.
Q: Later, 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."
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