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October 19, 2015

Dying for Laughs

Funny or Die has become a multiplatform force in comedy, thanks to Will Ferrell and his producing partners, who’d rather — well, you know — than resist a joke.

Craig Tomashoff

A visitor looking for the L.A. office of Funny or Die might accidentally find himself at the comedy company’s next-door neighbor, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

In which case, five guys who look to be a walkie-talkie away from the president might step forward to inform him of his mistake.

At the next building over, the visitor is greeted by a five-foot-tall model of a woman’s private parts. The giant prop is intended for a video being shot that afternoon by Jill Soloway, the Golden Globe–winning creator of Amazon’s Transparent.

“Funny or Die was on board from minute one,” Soloway says of her humorous treatise on female biology. “And in what world but this place would you get to build a giant vagina for the sake of talking at length about female ejaculation in a public platform?”

In other words, Funny or Die is like Hollywood’s cool uncle — a little crazy but always willing to bend the rules to get a good laugh. Since Will Ferrell launched the company in 2007 with his Gary Sanchez Production partners, writer-producer-director Adam McKay and writer-producer Chris Henchy, it has become one of the busiest production outlets around.

The website attracts more than 60 million video views a month, with fans watching comedic shorts featuring everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Charlize Theron to President Barack Obama.

The company is also dabbling in everything from social media (it’s the number-one comedy brand on Twitter and Facebook and produces content for more than 16 social-media platforms) to web series (Between 2 Ferns with Zach Galifianakis and Gay of Thrones) to TV shows (The Spoils Before Dying, @ Midnight, Billy on the Street).

“World dominance is what we want,” says a semi-serious Dick Glover, president and CEO. “And the way to drive us there is with smart, funny and sometimes anti-authoritarian comedy.” Adds creative director Andrew Steele: “We always say we want to be the HBO of the internet. We don’t have their money, but we do want to be just as talent-friendly.”

That approach has worked, thanks in large part to a belligerent two-year-old girl. “The Landlord became this iconic piece for our site and showed Hollywood it’s okay for stars to do internet videos,” says Glover, referring to the video short in which McKay’s young daughter threatens a deadbeat tenant (Ferrell).

First posted in 2007, it’s now had more than 82 million views and established Funny or Die as the place for VIPs to show their silly side, whether it’s President Obama plugging his health-care plan on Galifianakis’s show or Jane Seymour parodying her Doctor Quinn series by tossing in some hints of Breaking Bad.

“There were a few celebs before Will who had done something on the web, but his was the biggest,” Steele notes. “And we became a safe place for people to play. Now, actors who have downtime will say to their managers, ‘I want to try something interesting and different.’ So they come to us.”

For instance, when Soloway wanted to try directing several years ago, Funny or Die gave her that shot with a parody of the HBO series Hung. Actors and producers, she says, “appreciate that this kind of resource exists. Funny or Die is an invaluable presence in the internet content landscape.”

That popularity with the creative community has made Funny or Die a nationally recognized brand, which in turn has given the company authority to expand its reach.

“When we started, it was just about web videos,” says Mike Farah, president of production. “But now we’re also about tweets and Vines and slideshows. We’ve got Funny or Die news. And television shows. There’s never been more ways to get out a joke, so we have to embrace it all.”

Being web-based, the company can turn a comedy bit around virtually overnight. “When an idea comes to us, we don’t have to shoehorn it in and say it can only be a TV series or a web video,” says Joe Farrell, director of TV and film development. “We can think of the best way to get it out, which can be as important as the idea itself.”

Want to poke fun at a Super Bowl commercial? Post a Vine video. Want to tweak the prez about his 2015 budget? Tweet about the chill-est items it contains.

“Nowadays, it’s not just important what you produce, but for whom,” Glover says. “Content can have a TV component, a web component, a social media component, a social messaging component…. We see a lot of growth opportunity in every emerging platform.”

Funny or Die films “seem like an inevitability,” Steele says. But no matter the format, the company’s content will always “follow our creative edict: is it funny and does it make you go, ‘What the f—k?’ We want to always surprise people, and that comes directly from Will. He loves being in Hollywood and loves to game Hollywood at the same time.”

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