Viral videos online start an epidemic

Before kicking off a weekly staff meeting, Amy Rhodes greets her boss, Chris Henchy, as he takes his seat at a small conference table.

"Wow, it's the first time in ages you haven't been drunk," she deadpans. Henchy raises an eyebrow and his coffee in a mock toast as the assembled gang cracks up. Nearby hangs a framed poster of a grade-school student cringing under a big headline, "Teasing Hurts!"

And so begins another savage brainstorming session at FunnyorDie.com, where the kill-at-all-costs goal is to create a short comedy video that goes viral, capturing water-cooler buzz and millions of hits. And maybe money.

"Admittedly, you're looking for lightning in a bottle, but people wouldn't be investing the time and the money they are if they didn't think this could work as a business," says Henchy, one of the founders of Funny or Die, which was brought to life in April by Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay.

Their timing might be perfect. With the world moving at the speed of a router, we've all become avid attendees of short-attention-span theater. Sites offering comedy and other quick video breaks from the workaday world are betting advertisers will smile on Web destinations that consistently draw a faithful — and happy — audience.

"If you're going to create a video destination that makes a profit, comedy is likely the way to do it," says Andrew Wallenstein, The Hollywood Reporter's deputy editor focusing on digital media. "Short-form video is perfect for an age when everyone seems to be working more and has less time to watch anything."

Tune in to any of the Web's top viral videos, and your day gets an instant lift, whether it's a random clip generated by someone in their basement or the increasingly polished offerings of professionals. That fare includes the musical madness of Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg and the Mentos mints and Diet Coke art of a duo from Maine.

The places to get giggles online continue to grow, ranging from National Lampoon, whose staff pumps out inexpensive gags, to newcomers such as 60frames.com, which is aiming north of collegiate humor by signing Oscar-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen.

The beauty of shorts is "you don't need a huge film studio to create these things. You get your idea and start shooting," says former Entourage writer Henchy, who also serves as president of Ferrell and McKay's film company, Gary Sanchez Productions. "We want to be the place for big comedy names to go when they feel like opening their war chests of great bits."

Ferrell christened his site to global guffaws with The Landlord, a hastily assembled video in which the comedian confronts a drunken landlord — played by McKay's 2-year-old daughter. Given that most comedy producers consider 50,000 views a success, The Landlord's50 million and counting make it the Black Plague of viral videos.

The site has labored in the shadow of that monstrous debut ever since. But hoping to prove such success is repeatable are the site's famous friends and family. Contributors include John C. Reilly, Jenna Elfman and Henchy's wife, Brooke Shields.

In Mama Jams, Elfman plays a tough game of pickup hoops while eight months pregnant. In Playground Tales, Shields and her lily-white daughter converse in hip-hop slang. Reilly's contribution, Satisfaction Guaranteed, can't be described in these pages.

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