When you call your company Funny or Die, it’s an irresistible invitation for wags to look for the moment to declare your outfit deceased. But 10 years after Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, and Chris Henchy put their heads together to launch a comedy website, FOD is alive and well.
The enterprise has grown into an established purveyor of au courant humor that continues to attract top talent in the cutthroat comedy space. After catching wind in its sails with celeb-driven viral videos in its early years, the L.A.-based company has branched out into more lucrative TV deals and last fall banked an investment from AMC Networks. Funny or Die also has built units dedicated to branded entertainment and production of commercials.
And it has leveraged its comedy cachet to book guests any media outlet would die for: President Obama appeared on FOD’s archly awkward talk show “Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis.”
“They were the first to get highly respected Academy Award winners to make comedy for the internet, get White House access for a comedian to talk policy with the president, and are now producing multiple half-hour cable series,” says Marc Lieberman, The Onion’s former head of business development who now holds the same position as a senior VP at Above Average, the digital comedy studio founded by Lorne Michael’s Broadway Video. “I’d say that’s a nice first decade for a digital upstart in the ever-changing media industry.”
Creatively, Funny or Die’s DNA remains skewed to digital. The company claims to have a worldwide internet audience of more than 70 million, with over 14 million followers on both Facebook and Twitter. The daily sketches and videos are the lifeblood of FOD, says CEO Mike Farah: “What we can do every single day is use our comedy voice to differentiate ourselves from everyone else who is commenting on our world.”
From a revenue standpoint, however, FOD looks increasingly like a TV production house. Its original series include TruTV’s “Billy on the Street,” hosted by comic Billy Eichner; Comedy Central’s “@midnight” with Chris Hardwick; Fusion’s “The Chris Gethard Show”; and IFC’s “Brockmire,” starring Hank Azaria as a disgraced minor-league baseball announcer, which premiered April 5 (and was renewed for season 2 ahead of the show’s debut).
Funny or Die also recently inked a straight-to-series deal with Hulu for a half-hour talk show hosted by Sarah Silverman (working title: “I Love You, America”). Now the company is mulling the development of more movies after last year’s digital release of “The Art of the Deal,” which starred Johnny Depp in a delicious parody of an ’80s-era Donald Trump.
|“I love that somebody can grow with us, then go off somewhere else and make something great; that tells me we’re on the right track and working with the right people.”|
Meanwhile, FOD has produced more than 275 branded-content campaigns for advertisers, another important contributor to its bottom line. Brands have included Cap’n Crunch, Slim Jim, Chevy, American Eagle, the Los Angeles Clippers, Ford, Nike, Samsung, and Verizon.
“We don’t want to just become a production company,” he says. “It sounds lofty, but I want Funny or Die to be the company that makes the best comedy in the world. My job now is, how do we position and leverage everything we’re doing for where we can really take this thing 10 years from now.”
Along the way, Funny or Die has gone through its share of growing pains. Last year it laid off about 30% of its staff, with most of the 37 jobs cut from its Silicon Valley outpost that had been developing stand-alone apps (like a joke-based weather app) that never caught fire. Funny or Die also largely consolidated its creative team in L.A., shutting down the New York office in early January and relocating 10 employees to the West Coast. (“Next year, we’re all moving to Portland,” quips Dan Abramson, Funny or Die’s editor-in-chief, who led the New York creative office.)
Notes Farah, “There was a lot of rebuilding we had to do last year. We had to get back to our roots a little bit.”
Farah, 38, was an early FOD hire who joined in the summer of 2008, eventually becoming president of production. He assumed the CEO post in May 2016, taking over for Dick Glover, who exited the company in 2015 to join Mandalay Sports Media.
Even with the reorganization — and ongoing attrition in its lower ranks — Funny or Die’s leadership team has been stable over the years. That includes creative director Andrew Steele, previously a head writer at “Saturday Night Live”; Chris Bruss, president of digital content, who joined from FOD founding investor CAA; and VP of longform content Joe Farrell, who started as Farah’s assistant in 2010. (“I was Hollywood’s oldest intern,” he says.)
Funny or Die’s principals, including Ferrell, McKay, Henchy, and Judd Apatow, remain actively involved to varying degrees with the company. McKay says that with the investments in TV projects and other creative initiatives, “we’ll be happy if this company, for the next year, is breaking even.”
A decade ago, the founders were skeptical that Funny or Die could become a significant business. “The ambition was very humble and low; it was just a fun place for us to do skits,” McKay says. The core team had connected with Michael Kvamme, a comedy fan and aspiring standup comedian whose father, Mark, was then a principal with venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital. The initial funding to launch FOD was around $50,000, according to McKay.
Then on April 12, 2007, the fledgling site posted “The Landlord” — a two-minute clip starring Ferrell as a guy behind in his rent, and McKay’s daughter, Pearl (who was 20 months old at the time), as the foul-mouthed property owner coming to collect. It popped epically and is still Funny or Die’s top video, with 85 million views to date. After the viral success of “Landlord,” Sequoia led a $15 million funding round, and FOD shifted from a skunkworks operation to a real business.
But even then there were naysayers about whether the site would have legs, says Michael Yanover, CAA’s head of business development, who oversees CAA Ventures. “People rolled their eyes. They thought, ‘Oh, it’s another vanity project.’”
Digital content head Bruss concedes that in this day and age a digital-media startup would not launch itself as a website. “You wouldn’t start FunnyOrDie.com today,” he says. “You would be a YouTube channel, or a Facebook page. We still do have millions of people who go to the site. But we really have to be thoughtful about distribution to platforms as they are evolving.”
Funny or Die faces a slew of rivals, both online and on TV. Those include “SNL,” Comedy Central, CollegeHumor, The Onion, BuzzFeed, and late-night hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Samantha Bee — not to mention dozens of creators on YouTube and Facebook who’ve carved out comedy niches for themselves. Then there’s Netflix, which has bought a bunch of stand-up specials.
CAA’s Yanover says with its minimal bureaucratic overhead, Funny or Die is well positioned to pump its comedy into any number of formats and platforms. “Most companies do not have that dexterity,” he says. “That’s a huge advantage.”
The challenge for Funny or Die at this stage is staying focused on its brand of humor while continuing to evolve, says Henchy, one of the principals at Gary Sanchez Prods. with Ferrell and McKay. Adding to the degree of difficulty: FOD’s most promising writers and producers have been getting poached to work elsewhere. “But it’s been that way [in comedy] since the ‘I Love Lucy’ days,” Henchy points out. “I love that somebody can grow with us, then go off somewhere else and make something great; that tells me we’re on the right track and working with the right people.”
AMC Networks is betting on Funny or Die’s cross-platform content flywheel being a success, both for shows on its comedy-centric IFC network and elsewhere.
“We invested in the business, and the entire portfolio of Funny or Die,” says IFC president Jennifer Caserta. “They’re going to work with a lot of partners, but there’s also a lot we’ll do together.”
Terms of the cable programmer’s 2016 minority investment in FOD — which had been shopping itself to prospective buyers a few years ago — weren’t disclosed. But the agreement includes certain provisions under which AMC may be obligated to increase its investment over time, according to regulatory filings.
The digital-fueled deal provides a more accelerated process for longer-form projects to come to fruition, according to Farrell. “Will and Adam always wanted this to be a place where celebrities and fans of comedy could come to make content quickly,” he says. “TV shows take a year to come out. Our pitch is, come down on a Tuesday and you’ll see it Thursday.”
Says McKay, “It’s still kind of a clubhouse where you can do crazy shit and make a movie with Johnny Depp in four days.”
Still, the TV adaption of “Brockmire” was hardly a fast-turnaround project. Based on the loser sportscaster character Azaria created for a 2010 Funny or Die video, a feature-length movie had been planned before financing fell through. IFC picked up the project as an eight-episode series, which co-stars Amanda Peet and Tyrel Jackson Williams. It was shot over 22 days last summer in Macon, Ga., and Atlanta.
“I didn’t have to bring it back to Funny or Die,” Azaria says. “But what they lacked in experience, they made up for in good taste, smarts, earnestness, and transparency. Their sensibility was good. Creatively, I trusted them.”
Farah said the deal with AMC has allowed Funny or Die to stay independent while giving it an infusion of cash. Five years ago, FOD entered into a deal with Turner (which also invested in the startup) to handle digital ad sales on behalf of Funny or Die. Farah learned something from that experience: “You need to have your own sales team that is hustling for one thing only.” The AMC deal, he notes, doesn’t include an ad-sales relationship.
As for what Funny or Die will look like 10 years from now, Farah says he has no idea. “I don’t know when this content bubble will end, but I don’t know how this can really sustain itself forever,” says the Michigan native, who moved to L.A. in 2001. “With your phone and Facebook Live, Snapchat, Musical.ly — you can turn yourself into your own network. Anyone who says they’ve figured it out, I don’t buy it.”
Pictured above: Adam McKay (l.) and Will Ferrell