Inside Funny Or Die’s Viral Video Machine

In a digital world of one-hit wonders, Funny or Die is the Beatles of the Internet, churning out viral hit after viral hit. As a result, the celebrity-laden sketch comedy site has become an oasis of financial success in an online video industry still dominated by garage directors struggling to make premium content. What’s the secret sauce behind their viral machine? First, give your talent some creative flexibility: act more like an editor than a director. Second, viral sharing thrives on topical subjects and the just-barely-believable. Finally, funny is funny: never sacrifice quality for quantity.

Be an Editor, Not a Director

“Funny or Die is successful because we’re pretty good at finding young, funny people,” says creative director and former Saturday Night Live head writer, Andrew Steele, arguing his job is “exactly like what an editor does.” Instead of relying on the ideas of their A-lister comedy co-founder, Will Ferrell, they arm themselves like a newspaper: a small staff of dedicated writers and a wider circle of celebrity freelancers.

Celebrities, Funny or Die’s primary resource for viral videos, often come up with the ideas for the shorts themselves. For instance, one of the site’s top videos was a gut-busting parody of Pizza-mogul-turned-Republican-Presidential-front-runner, Herman Cain. Mike Tyson, who did the surprisingly spot-on impression, came to Funny or Die with the idea himself. “We’re unbelievably talent-friendly,” says CEO Dick Glover; producers would rather create a risky video and build a relationship, than have talent walk away feeling like they didn’t have a stake in the video.

Indeed, some of Tyson’s earlier work with Funny or Die received relatively moderate fanfare. But, Funny or Die had built up a relation with the former boxer, and, when Cain hit the spotlight, Tyson felt comfortable pitching the idea. “Well, we have no idea how that’s going to turn out,” President of Production, Mike Farah, remembers thinking, “but we might as well try and shoot it and see what happens.”

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“There’s no risk, because if it doesn’t work out,” Glover argues, “nobody cares–it was a little ol’ Internet video. However, if it’s a terrific video, then all of a sudden everyone is talking about it.”

Quick and Unexpected

“What is a viral video?” asked Farah. “It’s something that people can’t believe is really happening and they’re so taken by it that they want to share it with other people.”

A few years ago, when Paris Hilton-inspired sex tapes were all the rage, and the Internet was swirling with rumors of fake videos of other sexual icons, Funny or Die decided to make light of the cultural craze. Latina bombshell, Eva Mendez, was an (unfortunate) target of public demand, and dared to shoot a scantily clad night-vision spoof with Funny or Die (video below).

Comparing his time at SNL to Funny or Die, Steele says that “this is a never-ending monster that continues to just eat content.” Internet phenoms come and go rapidly, so feeding the constant demand requires quick production of timely videos.

And, hot-button political issues have been constant food for the comedy beast. For instance, when the recent Republican opposition to birth control procedures became a top political issue, Funny or Die threw together a quick, liberal-friendly parody, “Republicans: Get in My Vagina.” The video has already had more than a million views, and Farah points to the +4,000 comments on The Huffington Post comedy site about the video as an indication of where all the rabid fans of the video are coming from.

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“If you make a funny video for a divisive issue,” explains Farah, the viewer will “want everyone to know how they feel about that topic.”

Funny is Funny, Even Commercials

“Our point of view is that everything should be entertaining,” says Chris Bruss, Vice President of Branded Entertainment, Funny or Die’s new department for sketch comedy commercials. The cash-cow has the makings of a viable alternative to advertising-based revenue, since brands are willing to shell out hefty payments for a viral video that consumers want to watch in their free time. For a new product, such as a new soda flavor, awareness can be more important than persuasion.

“You’re not hitting the viewer over the head with the brand message,” explains Bruss. This stands in stark contrast to more traditional methods, such as the iconic Pepsi taste test commercials of the 80’s.

“Content drives the deal, not visa-versa,” concludes Glover. “There might be a great deal out there, but it might not be smart for us to do it because there isn’t a great piece of content that’s driving that deal.”