Funny Or Die is far more than a leading comedy website that draws millions of viewers to its "Drunk History" videos or the ones where Will Ferrell gets berated by cranky toddlers. It's a creative sandbox for comic actors and writers.
For example, Adam Scott, a star of NBC's Parks And Recreation, wants to direct. So he's overseeing crew members in a derelict old warehouse in downtown Los Angeles as they spray smoke for his actors to walk through.
Problem: There's too much smoke.
"Hey, are we making a Cheech and Chong movie here?" the actor cracks.
This video is Scott's directing debut. That is, if you don't count a Crimes Of The Heart production in high school. The script for "The First A.D." (which contains strong language) is based on an actual on-set experience, when Scott was asked to perform a scary-looking stunt.
"There were two motorcycles that were going to fly through the air on both sides of me," he recalls. So he asked to watch a stuntman do it first — and was roundly mocked by the first assistant director.
"And it was really an emasculating experience," Scott says ruefully. (He's too polite to mention which movie, but it seems safe to guess it was Torque, in which he played a crooked FBI agent affiliated with a motorcycle gang.)
Funny or Die offers the perfect playground to try something new, says Naomi Scott, one of the video's producers and the actor's wife.
"They have a great infrastructure ... where they actually provide you with one of their amazing producers to kind of staff up and crew up," she says. "They are turnkey."
That means director Adam Scott and actors like Mark Duplass just have to show up.
"Everyone's done a little writing and a little directing and a little acting," Duplass says. "So there's a bit of — throw your hat in and see what happens."
Given its encouragement of the untested and the experimental, it's amazing that Funny or Die turns a profit, but it does. President and CEO Dick Glover says there's a reason.
"There [are] a lot that cost a hundred dollars," he says of the videos. And he says the website's "young and slightly upscale" viewers are a draw to both stars who want to enlarge their fan bases and to advertisers willing to be adventerous in product placement. (Absolut Vodka sponsored a series with absurdist comics Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim who dumped sand and frosting in their drinks at various points and ironically criticized each other for hawking and disparaging the product.)
But Glover says even more importantly, the videos function as development. They're low-cost test balloons for concepts for television shows and even movies.
Funny Or Die has launched two cable shows so far, with a third premiering later this month, Billy On The Street. And its' first feature film, Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, is scheduled to open in March.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
For those of you who have wiled away the hours listening to Spotify, you may also have found yourself spending valuable time online watching Funny or Die. It established itself as one of the four most comedy websites four years ago with a video of Will Ferrell arguing with the world's cutest and crankiest little landlord named Pearl.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "THE LANDLORD")
WILL FERRELL: (as Character) I'm not doing so good, Pearl.
PEARL MCKAY: (as Pearl) (Unintelligible).
FERRELL: (as Character) Pearl, I'm going to pay you. I'm working three jobs right now. I'm working nights. I'm driving a cab. I'm inside with my buddy right now just going over my resume.
MCKAY: (as Pearl) I'm gonna smash you.
CORNISH: Among Funny or Die's other viral hits - an open letter from Paris Hilton to John McCain. The website gives celebrities both minor and major a big platform with little to lose. NPR's Neda Ulaby went to a Funny or Die video shoot to see how it's done.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Adam Scott is trying on being a director. The actor plays Amy Poehler's love interest on the show "Parks and Rec." But right now he's in a derelict old warehouse in downtown Los Angeles overseeing crew members as they spray fake smoke for his actors to walk through.
ADAM SCOTT: Can we get more smoke to where they're going to be like right in the shot? Hey, what are we making, a Cheech and Chong movie here?
ULABY: The plumes of smoke don't faze Naomi Scott, the actor's wife. She's co- producing the video and says this is the perfect playground to try out something new.
NAOMI SCOTT: They have a great infrastructure in Funny or Die, where they actually provide you with one of their amazing producers to kind of staff up and crew up. So, we really lucked out with them, because they are turnkey. It's really great.
ULABY: So, the Scotts just needed to show up. First first time behind the camera Adam Scott's directing a skit about a movie stunt gone terribly wrong.
SCOTT: It's actually based on something that happened to me on the set where I had to do a stunt and there was two motorcycles that were going to fly through the air on both sides of me.
ULABY: Adam Scott is not ashamed to admit he was frightened. He asked to watch a stuntman do it first. An assistant director on the set made fun of him.
SCOTT: And it was really an emasculating experience. This is your mark, OK, and this is your gun. You're going to point your gun at these guys. Now, they're going to charge you full speed. You're going to discharge your gun at them, all right? Keep your elbows in because we don't lose anything. You've got about four inches of breathing room on either side. So, let's get this done. Capeesh, capeesh. We don't want any accident, roll it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE)
(SOUNDBITE OF FUNNY OR DIE VIDEO)
ULABY: Absolut vodka sponsored a Funny or Die web series featuring the absurdist duo, Tim and Eric. They dump sand in their drinks and ironically criticize each other for mocking and hawking the product.
(SOUNDBITE OF FUNNY OR DIE VIDEO)
ULABY: Adam Scott's video is subtle in it's product placement. The main actor is yelled at for being too scared to do a stunt.
SCOTT: Well, I'll go over there. I'll be your stuntman, OK, sweetie? I'll be your stuntman. Why don't you sit over there in your chair and get a Vitamin Water.
ULABY: Even while they're filming, Scott and actor Mark Duplass take a break to make sure the product placement is OK.
SCOTT: Derogatory towards Vitamin Water in anyway?
: Yeah, because they're your sponsor, right?
SCOTT: Yeah, they are my sponsor.
ULABY: Sometimes something that just gets mentioned in a video naturally ends up as a sponsored product, says Funny or Die CEO Dick Glover.
: There'll be times I'll be sitting in my office and watching a video and I'll call the salespeople. You know, hey, did we talk to Vitamin Water? This is a great thing for them and the answer is often, no, sometimes, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
(SOUNDBITE OF FUNNY OR DIE VIDEO)
ULABY: And in inexplicable emphasis on the word shrim. It should be noted not everything on the website is that funny, but that's part of what happens when you try different things. Some stuff's funny, other stuff dies. And when it does, it dies quietly and inexpensively. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.