Funny or Die, High Noon

High Noon on the Information Highway

Judith Klassen

The chattering classes have seized on a topic: the monetization of the web. Folks who have been making a living in traditional media such as print, television, and radio are experiencing fear, loathing, and a kind of petrified longing for the rumoured riches of the new wild west—that lawless landscape known as the Internet. Aside from the vague promise of mysterious resources, establishing yourself as an internet cowboy is proving to be the most viable way to kick open the saloon doors to the long established inner sanctum —TV. Our beloved idiot box may be slightly scratched and scathed, but it’s still the most popular destination on the entertainment circuit for purveyors of content.

There’s gold in them thar YouTube hits

Comedian Will Ferrell was canny enough to make like Deadwood’s Al Swearengen and set up shop in new and dangerous terrain. Ferrell’s website Funny or Die invites comedy creators the world over to ride the comedy bull and be judged but an unseen (and often unkind) audience. By taking no prisoners and feeding his detractors to the cyber pigs, Ferrell runs the online comedy equivalent of a brothel. He gets it. It’s not about pleasing sponsors, it’s not about making nice—it’s about sitting with your back to the wall with your six-shooter pointed at the door. In the trenchant, muddy streets of the information highway—it’s funny or die.

A Saturday on this site Night Live veteran, and a movie star, Ferrell has had enough mainstream success to rest his big boots on the ottoman, eat canned peaches, and play poker with his buddies until check out time—but he clearly has no intention of folding his hand. With Funny or Die, Ferrell has ensured that he doesn’t blow through pop culture consciousness like some SNL tumbleweed. By reinventing himself at Madonna-warp-speed, Ferrell has managed to build a powerful online presence, discover new comedic talent, and ricochet back to the tube with HBO’s Funny or Die Presents. Having a source of fresh comedy that has already been rated by the masses is a no-brainer for an edgy net like HBO. Hey, no money down and excellent odds that the content will not only attract pay TV stalwarts but also bring its feisty online audience with it. It’s hard to imagine FoD sketches like Afghanistan’s Next Top Model, or, Porn Shooter for American Apparel appearing on television without being pre-chewed by a diversely discerning web audience.

Anonymity breeds contempt.

Success has always inspired loathing from the living-in-mom’s-basement crowd; however, in the past, cellar dwellers were impotent to express their rage. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in The King of Comedy may have never kidnapped Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) if he could have simply maligned him on YouTube. The cyber cloak of anonymity allows the bitter and the wounded to swipe from the shadows with racist, homophobic, sexist, or just straight-up nasty remarks. What with all the sensitivity training and political correctness we thought we had evolved into a kinder, gentler species. But, it turns out that we’re just as vicious as we ever were—we’ve just learned to shut-it in public. Not so our avatars. Yes, our colonizing of cyber space is anything but gentrified. As with the lawless society of 1870s Deadwood, that kind of freedom draws a hardcore crowd. Stop – you’re both right! According to Toronto-based TV and web producer Cathleen MacDonald the web isn’t going to displace television anymore than television displaced cinema. Says MacDonald, “For the short term, television is referencing web content and sending its audience back and forth from TV to websites. I think this is a transitional phase that will move toward further integration, but not total replacement, of one with the other.” MacDonald does think there is money to be made if you stoop long and hard in the cold, rushing force of cyber space, but forget trying to get people who are used to free content to suddenly start paying for it—a web cowgirl’s best bet is to prove she’s a hit-maker to a corporation that can underwrite her budget.

What’s wrong with the web is also what is truly fantastic about it. Sure it’s a lawless land rife with righteous rednecks, but it’s also a place that sponsors and special interests groups have yet to mollify. If you like your content kicky and contentious— get out and ride the range before all the shiny rocks are stripped from the landscape.

Judith Klassen is a Toronto-based writer, performer, producer and host of the celeb interview show Judecast.

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