FunnyorDie.com – How to Keep a Star Shining
Judd Apatow has joined Will Ferrell and Adam McKay at FunnyorDie.com. This piece of news meant little to me, since I didn’t know what FunnyorDie.com was. Half-expecting a dark mix between Last Comic Standing and Battle Royale, I set out to take a peek. It’s a site that Ferrell, McKay, and now Apatow are using to circulate their own comic shorts, but that also acts like YouTube for comedy alone.
Here’s the announcement of Apatow joining:
The clip raises numerous issues regarding the site’s purpose, its prospects for success, and how “success” could be measured for its participants. Discussion below the fold…First, Apatow’s play with the notion that, in order to make the site money, he wants to start filming hardcore porn, reflects on what surely remains an open sore for most producers of televised or filmed web content: how to make money doing so, when only the porn industry seems to have succeeded handily at doing so? FunnyorDie does not even have ads, so right now there is no source for direct revenue-generation.
That said, the indirect benefits to entertainers such as Ferrell or Apatow are significant. FunnyorDie is full of comic shorts, some of which are good, many of which are pretty crappy, truth be told, but the Ferrell clips up there (especially Good Cop, Baby Cop, and The Landlord) are remarkably funny. And while many of those other shorts are by unknown amateurs, Ferrell and Apatow are big names with considerable fan followings. So their own videos will quickly rise to the top, will likely enjoy more views, and will often – by comparison – further announce their comic skills as superior. In other words, the site could help build their fan followings, but could also help maintain these followings.
Indeed, I would be fascinated to plot the release of their videos on a timeline, to see how strategic Ferrell and Apatow are at using the site to maintain their fan followings when they aren’t doing anything on the screen. Extratextual goodies are particularly important with film, after all, since popular culture moves at speed, yet sometimes stars or writer-directors will go numerous months without a release. The risk is that performers will fall off people’s “mattering maps,” as Lawrence Grossberg calls them. Think of how Star Wars was a pioneer in many forms of extratextuality, precisely because it had to be. With Lucas releasing one film every three years, for the fandom to stay alive and active during the long Hoth winter between films, the fans needed something to work with. Hence the toys, which allowed me to keep the Star Wars universe very much alive and spread out all over the floor of my bedroom and across my parents’ garden. Then, post-Return of the Jedi (how wise George Orwell was to know that 1984 would be a grim year), all sorts of extratextuals, from spinoffs like Droids, to the Timothy Zahn novels, to the deluge of Star Wars video games, gave fans ever more to work with. Later still, building up to the release of the second trilogy, fan film contests, yet more video games, toy re-releases, etc. paved the fannish way to Jar-Jar and co.
Admittedly, extratextuals can be fan-created too, so I don’t mean to suggest that fandom can only live with producer-created, official extratextuals. But producers can’t rely on fans to keep their film alive with such creations.
Other media with significant time lags face a similar problem, as evidenced by Lost‘s alternate reality role-playing game offered in the summer hiatus between seasons 2 and 3. But film is particularly cursed. And while films-as-franchises often have the corporate behemoth of a media multinational behind them, ready to spew synergy and extratextuals on command, actors-as-franchises and writer/directors-as-franchises must turn to other means. I’m sure this partially explains why film stars always seem so eager to get their mugs into Entertainment Weekly or People, or on Extra! or Entertainment Tonight, even if it means jumping on a sofa, checking into rehab for twenty minutes, or so forth. This also explains why an increasing number of stars are realizing the benefits of having a Facebook or MySpace page, or their own website. Keeping fans is capital that can be used to negotiate better contracts, or to warrant attention for a project in the first place (especially when the fandom can be quantified by number of views, DVD sales, or other metrics).
But simply keeping one’s name in the press, or responding nicely to emails from fans, could arguably be seen as providing little extra artistic product. Taking Ferrell as an example, a People exposÃ© of a (hypothetical) drug addiction, an Extra! profile of charity work, or a friendly wall posting on his FaceBook profile may further add to a cult of personality, but at the end of the day, he needs to sell himself as funny and as a good actor if he is to keep fan interest in future projects. (Though it should be noted that another feature of FunnyorDie is that Ferrell and others pick their favorites of other’s uploaded videos, so he can simultaneously be seen as contributing to fostering a comic community, not just creating space for his own material).
Thus I see significant potential for FunnyorDie, or other copycats, to help comedians in particular. Comedy often works best in small segments anyways. Monty Python was more about the skits/scenes than the show or the films, and from The Daily Show to Chappelle’s Show, many other wonderfully successful comedies work in segments. Every year at the Oscars, I cringe when they show the clips of the nominated actors, since they always seem to favor crying scenes and OTT-acting, thereby illustrating how hard it is to cut up good drama. But much good comedy is segmented already. As such, comics can keep their “franchise” running through shorts, and would be wise to look to sites such as FunnyorDie as ways to gain maximum effect from minimal time and effort.
The other element to this strategy, after all, is the tremendous success of comedy online. Apatow may joke about FunnyorDie’s need to film porn to gain an audience, but comedy has thrived online. Just think of Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House Press Correspondents Awards Dinner, a viral video that significantly increased his star value. Or think of the viral video of Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire before that. Or think of almost any viral video, for that matter. Go to YouTube or IFilm, and many of the most downloaded clips are comic by nature. Thus today’s media environment is ideal for comedians to maintain and vastly increase their fan followings with such sites.
All the while, of course, such sites allow lesser-known or completely unknown comedic talents to gain an audience, so it is not just about the stars. But for the stars, FunnyorDie may provide a much-needed way to keep their star-franchise alive, while allowing the rest of us the opportunity to cry laughing at The Landlord and its outtakes.Tags: franchises, FunnyOrDie, Judd Apatow, stars, Will Ferrell