When HBO first threw some cash—a few million—into Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and and Chris Henchy’s web comedy upstart Funny or Die back in mid 2008, the signs of something more than Landlord re-runs and user-submitted prank videos were in store. The seedlings of a broader comedy enterprise were sown, one that attracted that unique alchemy of Silicon Valley—blue-chip VC firm Sequoia Captial is their primary investor—and the Hollywood entertainment establishment in a way no other web video startup has managed to mimic.
Now the fruit HBO deal is finally starting to appear. This Friday (February 19) at Midnight marks the debut of the 12-episode half-hour comedy series Funny or Die Presents on HBO. The series itself is a series of web series—re-shot for television—in individual segments ranging from 1 to 15 minutes a piece. Many of those segments are well known by web series junkies, with shows like Derek Waters’ Drunk History and 60Frames’ Carpet Brothers dusted off for a TV close-up.
Each episode opens with host Ed Haligan (played by Safety Geeks’ Steve Tom), the conspicuously titled “Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Funny Or Die,” welcoming viewers from a retro computer lab filled with buzzing mainframes and bombshell operators. Naturally, the show is laden with comedy celebs, many of them regulars on Funny or Die—Don Cheadle, Fred Willard, John C. Reilly, David Spade, and Between Two Ferns star Zach Galifianakis, along with up-and-comers on the comedy scene.
“HBO actually let us make the show we wanted to make,” said Adam McKay about the project. The roots of the team behind this one point that it won’t just be paying lip service to what’s made waves from internet viewers. The show’s producer, Jonathan Stern, is himself a Streamy-nominated web veteran for shows like Horrible People, Wainy Days and Childrens’ Hospital, and has carved out one of the web’s most impressive track records.
Funny or Die’s CEO Dick Glover said at a recent event hosted by the The Paley Center that he really is building a multiplatform content studio, where the destination site itself (FunnyorDie.com) is just one piece. There’s even a feature film in production in the company’s pipeline, that still rests without any formal distribution deals. Glover noted at the event that they are exploring a pay-per-download system on Funny or Die where viewers can pay $5 to watch the entire film.
Whether or not the new series scores with HBO’s paying subscribers, Funny or Die is entering its next phase beyond being a playground for celebrity cameos. Now web series that it cultivates on site enter into a more fluid comedic conduit. It can now branch those original online concepts and characters that passed the first wave of ever-critical internet masses, and onto the higher stakes of TV and film’s lucrative channels. It’s the model being employed by the much deeper-pocketed Viacom for its Comedy Central and MTV networks through its Atom.com site. While Atom still needs its own Landlord level mainstream breakout, it has nurtured a dedicated crop of comedy creators that they are just now starting to tap for assignments in TV and film.