Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

The serious business of humor on the Web

Jennifer Ordonez doesn’t think the Internet is very funny, or at least, not funny enough to make money.

Writing in Newsweek June 9, in the spectacularly well-named Technologist column, she said, “as a revenue driver, comedy on the Web has thus far been a joke.”

First, “Technologist” is the coolest word in the English language and I want it added to my title immediately. I want glossy black business cards that say, “Michael B. Duff, Technologist.” The title is so pretentious I won’t even have to explain what it means. If anybody asks I’ll just roll my eyes and sneer at them until they walk away.

But back to the matter at hand. Ordonez supports her conclusion by listing half a dozen floundering comedy sites, including Will Ferrell’s FunnyOrDie.com, pointing out that the site had 4.5 million unique visitors in April 2007 and a mere 835,000 in April 2008.

Ordonez blames these failures on a mismatch of content and technology. Companies that make good content don’t have good technology and companies with good technology can’t make good content. An environment that produces good comedy is not necessarily good for business, and the corporate monoliths that know how to keep a business running seem to strangle creativity in its crib.

So how do you make money with funny? At the end of Ordonez’s article, I was ready to admit that it can’t be done. Then I heard a polite cough –a short little b log post that disagreed with Ordonez and pointed her, gently, to the elephant in the room.

The post was from Dan Gurewitch, a writer for CollegeHumor.com. College Humor is a successful business that, according to their sales figures, draws in over six million unique visitors per month. So, if Will Ferrell’s project brought in 4.7 million during their best month and College Humor brings in 6 million consistently, why is FunnyOrDie getting so much press?

Increasingly there seems to be a disconnect between the Internet that journalists write about and the Internet that people actually use. Ask a college student what humor site they go to and most of them won’t even know the name of Ferrell’s project.

But real college kids don’t get press kits in the mail, and they don’t get calls from Public Relations agents. All they want is funny – uncomplicated, uncensored – served on a fast, clean site that doesn’t waste their time.

College Humor is not mentioned explicitly in the Technologist article, but this quote from Dean Valentine of Comedy.com seems to be a shot at them: “We see an opportunity to be broader than what’s out there, and not just guys getting hit in the groin with whiffle balls,”

College Humor may feature a lot of physical comedy and a lot of guys playing beer pong, but there’s a bit more to it than that. The site also features brilliant original videos aimed at 20-something Web geeks.

Where else can you find premises like, “What if business meetings were like Internet comment threads?” and “24: The Unaired 1994 Pilot.”

This is smart, original stuff produced by a corporate culture that seems like a college student’s dream. Video shorts set in the company offices show the staff singing songs, pulling pranks and wasting time in a dozen funny ways.

The video of College Humor staff lip-dubbing Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” makes Connected Ventures look like the coolest company on Earth. If you watch it from inside a bland corporate cubicle, you may weep.

Want to put funny on the Web? It looks like the College Humor guys have figured it out. They’re obviously bringing in eyeballs, but can they really turn cool into money? Only their landlord knows for sure.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 27, 2008 at 03:18

Posted in Columns, Humor, Video

One Response

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  1. I really enjoyed your piece on Lubbock Online today. I tried to send you an e-mail, but couldn’t find the address on the site or here on the blog.

    The fact that you brought up the mismatch between content and technology is interesting, but I think it’s tangential to where the future of the online comedy market really is, at least in the short term.
    It’s my opinion that the real area where money is made in online comedy is in distribution – finding (not necessarily creating) things that are funny and compiling them in one place where it’s easy and convenient for the user to enjoy them. If you look at CollegeHumor’s core business model, you’ll notice this is what they do. Although their original shorts are very funny and draw attention to the site, the vast majority of the videos on their site (and pretty much all of them up until a few years ago) were created by other people. But they got good at finding funny stuff, putting it all in one place, and making finding humorous content easy for the web user.

    In fact, this is the basic model used by many of the most successful sites on the web – DrudgeReport.com, Fark.com, Break.com, and a host of others. On balance, the content aggregators have done much better than the content creators. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the only successful humor site that creates all its own content is TheOnion.com.

    It’s my belief that there’s also value in being the first site where someone sees something funny. That’s what we’ve made it our mission to do with ChuckleDumper.com. We’ve become very good at finding and featuring comedy news and viral content hours or days before the larger sites get around to it – videos like ImprovEverywhere’s Grand Central Station Freeze (http://www.chuckledumper.com/index/site/id/4872/), PicnicFace’s “I’m Your Brother” (http://www.chuckledumper.com/index/site/id/4469/) and Waverly Films’ “Everything Poops” (http://www.chuckledumper.com/index/site/id/4741/).


    June 28, 2008 at 12:27

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