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, 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, 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.

Just last week, Funny or Die corralled a new conspirator, Knocked Up director Judd Apatow. The video announcement featured Apatow telling Ferrell and McKay that he was very eager to contribute porn videos in which both would appear.

Getting such big names is crucial "as we go from the information age to the attention age, because the sites that will win are those that provide people with something they specifically want," says Mark Kvamme of Sequoia Capital. He approached Ferrell and McKay with the idea for Funny or Die after his teenage son, an aspiring comedian, complained it was too hard to find comedy on video-hosting sites such as YouTube, which Sequoia also helped fund.

But making a comedy video easy to find is no guarantee it will spread. Timeliness is crucial, says Scott Rubin, editor of National Lampoon. "When something happens like the Britney disaster at the Video Music Awards, we know we have to turn that around within a day," he says. Lampoon's Spears spoof has generated 90,000 views on YouTube.

Kvamme agrees that "to win in this space, we have to be fast with our ideas, keep each video to around two minutes in length and" — he pauses to laugh — "ideally have a kid or animal in it."

In fact, video producers all agree there is no formula for success. Focusing on pop culture helps, as does speed to market. Another ingredient that has worked: music.

"Comedy and songs just seem to be a natural fit if you can get it right," says SNL's Samberg, who hit the bull's-eye with Lazy Sunday and Dick in a Box.

"SNL has a long tradition of doing short films," he says. "It just so happens that (they're) perfect for the Web, since it's still not a place where you'll watch all that long."

Brent Weinstein, CEO of about-to-launch, is banking "today's audience wants their entertainment in bite-size form."

"Trust me, there's not a lot of good talent out there," says Weinstein, a former agent. "So if you can get Samberg and Ferrell or the Coen brothers, that's when you're going to build an audience. Then you can monetize it, and that's when things start to get exciting."

When Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz posted a video last year showing the fizzy fireworks that ensue when you put a Mentos mint into Diet Coke, the reaction was immediate. Today, the duo's schedule is jammed with corporate gigs.

"The world has changed in a fundamental way. Artists communicate directly with their audience," says Grobe, whose video art can be found on "It just shows you that it's not about the budget, it's about your idea."

And when it's a good one, it doesn't take much money or time to score big. Ferrell's Landlord lark was filmed in less than an hour during a party.

Similarly, it took just $1,200 to make Hott4Hill, a tongue-in-cheek love letter to Hillary Clinton, starring former American Idol contestant Taryn Southern. She wrote the song's slightly risqué lyrics in a day, then called friend and TV scriptwriter David Garrett, who always had wanted to direct. "Taryn was all over the talk shows, which was great," he says. "As for me, maybe someday it'll lead to a paycheck. It's give and take."

Give and take, plus a heavy dose of ribbing, is all part of the mix at Funny or Die's powwow as the group digs for comedy video gold.

The first topic on the dartboard is the looming Writers Guild strike, which could paralyze Hollywood productions for months.

"What about a mock news update — you know, StrikeWatch 2007?" says Henchy.

Writer Seth Morris chimes in. "Actors dressed up as if they're out of On the Waterfront, complaining about how tough their lives are."

Chuckles and nods.

Part-time actor and full-time administrative assistant Bryan Safi pulls his head up from his laptop to announce Fox News has listed Hollywood's 10 most powerful Christians. "Can't we do something with this?" Safi asks, pleadingly.

"What if we have someone who's ticked off they're not higher up on the list?" says Morris. "Or maybe we show Jesus taking a studio meeting, but no one will really give him the time of day because he's not on the list."

And so the banter goes. Henchy wonders if there's a way to pull off a video that would star the site's resident Paris Hilton spoof-meister, Perry Hilton, aka actor Eric Olsen. The proposed video would be a meeting among Perry, the real Paris and blogger Perez Hilton.

"That'd be really cool," says Henchy. "Unless, of course, a video that shows a meeting of those three Hiltons causes the world to explode."

Or ideally just the Internet.