- “The Missing Link Moment”: Web Comedy in New Media Industries
I don’t want to overstate the importance of this deal, but this is the missing link moment where TV and Internet finally merge. It will change the way we as human beings perceive and interact with reality.—Will Ferrell, qtd. in Margaret Kane, “HBO Invests”
Comedian Will Ferrell delivered the above proclamation, tongue planted firmly in cheek, when HBO bought its 10 percent minority stake in his comedy Web site FunnyorDie.com. The program that resulted from that partnership, Funny or Die Presents (2010–present), debuted on the premium cable outlet in February 2010. Its first episode begins with an HBO logo and previews of the sketches, Webisodes, and short films (some of which had already run on the Web site) that follow, all while a large progress bar counts down the remaining time until the program actually begins. Then, primitive graphics of a computer and television appear, move toward the center of the screen, and merge to form the logo for the “Funny or Die Network.” A presenter dressed in outdated garb intones with faux gravitas: “Tonight marks a departure from our usual business model as we join the ever declining world of broadcast television. Think of what you’re about to see as kind of a network unto itself, a half-hour network complete with its own lineup of wonderful shows. Basically, the same kinda horseshit we throw up on our Web site.”
The episode’s introduction alone invokes a number of competing aesthetic and industrial discourses in quick succession. Markers of “quality” television (HBO) overlap with Internet iconography (the progress bar) before giving way to joking nods to 1970s design and fashion (the graphics and presenter). While the first two bits of visual information align with FunnyorDie.com’s embrace of forward-looking comedy, the latter two stand out as parodically framed references to an era when the oligopolistic power of broadcast television networks was at its peak. The seventies tropes are, by now, well worn, notably expressed in Ferrell’s 2004 film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and in the BBC’s Look Around You (2002–05) from FunnyorDie.com regular Peter Serafinowicz. But it is not without significance that the program deliberately chooses imagery from that period in framing its launch. In Funny or Die Presents, the movement of FunnyorDie.com content from Internet to premium cable clashes with broadcast television’s traditionally top-down distribution methods to affiliate and owned-and-operated local stations. That the episode characterizes FunnyorDie.com as a “network” expresses both contentment about the supposed end of the broadcast network model and anxiety about the uncertainty of what will replace it.
This article explores the complex and often conflicting ways in which the major media conglomerates and their affiliated talent have managed this tension in the production of original Web video, particularly comedy.1 While many established television producers found profitable ways to supplement and repurpose their broadcast and cable programming online in the 2000s, they often struggled to develop entirely new, Web-based properties. Web production studios from Disney, Time Warner, and GE’s NBC-Universal launched with this goal in mind to great fanfare throughout the decade but faced stiff competition from the likes of YouTube and a barren advertising market brought on by the worldwide recession in 2007–08. As a result, major media conglomerates and their Web production studios have since scaled back their efforts, reshifted focus, or sought to foster talent with an already-formidable following online. Today their goal is not only to find sustainable profitability with Web-original video but also to use it to complement their [End Page 14] growing television holdings online and myriad offline media outlets as well.
Crucial in this shift is the role of comedy in negotiating Web video’s aesthetic traits and industrial circulation beyond the Internet. As producers (and their parent companies) of original Web video have increasingly sought cross-platform mobility, comedy—short, cheap, and accessible across media—has become their preferred genre, providing a cost-effective format for experimentation and immediacy. Hit television shows from many genres presently provide...