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Q: You did a short, "The H Is O," where Will Ferrell plays Glenn Frey and sexually harasses Ben Stiller.
A: To this day, I bump into people who whisper, "Hey, the H is O." (As in, "The heat is on.") It's like a secret club. And that was also kind of intentional. I never strove to make those shorts popular. It was more like I was going to film school. I had a crew. I had a budget. I shot 16 mm. I was shooting digital by the second year of this. I made a dozen films all together. I wouldn't have known how to direct "Anchorman" if I hadn't shot those videos. But also, some of them were just too crazy for the format. They were not as populist as what the guys at Lonely Island (Andy Samberg and Co.) are doing on the show now. Those guys grew up making shorts, like a lot of people we hire at Funny or Die. Digital is fluid to them - it's a second language.
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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. He said, "I have a couple of massages scheduled. Between them, let's do it." 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, within months of launch, 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.
Q: But co-opting can be subtle.
A: It can, and we live in a corporate society. Depending on your belief system, that's a positive, a negative or somewhere in between. I'm somewhere in between. Friends give me a hard time about the pants I'm wearing, which are made in China. Well, how do you find the right clothes? Or the right movie studio? The right people giving you checks? Good luck doing the right thing all the time. Will and I discussed this early on: What if Exxon wants an ad? Or Wal-Mart? You have to cater a little. Wal-Mart is the biggest distributor of DVDs out there, but personally, I think their manufacturing policies have destroyed our economy and they don't pay their employees enough. I have massive problems with them. At the end of the day, the answer might be that as long as you don't feel a sick feeling in your stomach, you're clean.
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