We might be standing at the precipice of a golden era of comedy care of the good people at Funny or Die. By masterfully using the gigantic web platform to create worthwhile and relevant comedic content, FOD is emerging as the king of Internet funny, and a proving ground for new comedic talent. The website has seemed to place itself directly at the intersection of comedy and commerce, and the results are both entertaining and sexy.
You probably saw the very funny PSA about California school budget cuts starring Megan Fox and Brian Austin Green, and chances are you liked it because it's both informative and entertaining. It tackles an important issue with great humor and features a major Hollywood star - all in a day's work for writer/director Eric Appel at Funny or Die. I got a chance to sit with Eric, the director of the video, and what I learned was down right exciting. Comedy fans, listen up: we are in good hands. Young people like Eric Appel represent comedy's bright future.
The folks at FOD have created the ultimate breeding ground for new comedic voices. It's an institution, as brilliant as it is incestuous (there don't seem to be two people involved that didn't take a UCB class together at some point). The whole thing kind of reminds me of the X-Men. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are both like Professor Xavier - curators of a school for the gifted.
Check out the very interesting conversation I had with Eric below. We talk about the time Marion Cotillard sent him a box of fart jokes, the Megan Fox video, and the state of comedy. He tells me about the importance of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, about his new sketch show called This Show Will Get You High and the time he dressed up Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul as Weird Al Yankovic. I came into the conversation thinking I was meeting a guy who made a funny Internet video, but I left certain I had met a filmmaker that is emblematic of the future the Hollywood system.
We also recorded the interview on an iPad. Surely we made history there. You're welcome, Arianna.
NK: Tell me about this Megan Fox thing. How did it come to be?
EA: There's this guy named John Koch that works at IDPR. I met John because he was actually doing publicity for Pee-wee Herman and I did this Pee-wee Herman iPad Video. We had this great experience working with Peewee and a month or so later he approached me about this PSA thing. His kid goes to Wonderland elementary school. He told me that Brian Austin Green's kid also goes to the school, and he wanted to do something to raise awareness for the fact that Arnold was going to cut all this money from school budgets. He wanted to use Funny or Die to get a lot of eyes on it. Megan Fox did it because her boyfriend's kid went to the school -- but she was so great and funny, she brought so much.
NK: I think about going to work at Funny or Die and I imagine everyone putting Whoopee cushions under people's seats. What's it like to work there?
EA: Wanna hear something funny? We actually did put Whoopee cushions under people recently. We did this video with Marion Cotillard called "Forehead Tittaes." After, she sent our office a giant box of fart toys. Oscar winner Marion Cottillard sent us a whole bunch of novelty fart items.
NK: She just went from being the most beautiful woman in the world to the most perfect.
NK: So all these big actors and personalities just want to do funny stuff?
EA: They come into Funny or Die and they say, "make me look funny." We're lucky. It's kind of like the new Saturday Night Live.
NK: Who else have you gotten the chance to work with?
EA: My big checkmark system is that I'm knocking off these childhood heroes that I'm working with. I did my Pee Wee Herman video, which was mind blowing because I was the biggest Pee Wee Herman fan as a kid. Even when I was a teenager and all the playhouse VHS tapes came out I, bought the entire box set. I got to work with Christopher Lloyd. Basically, I got to work with Doc Brown, Pee Wee Herman, and Weird Al all within the same year.
NK: Can you speak to the changing nature of a young comedy director's trajectory? In the past, you'd make a short, try to get you're name out there, then tried to get hired on a studio movie. How is different with these new platforms like Funny or Die? Is it easier for young people or is has it become diluted? Is more exposure good exposure?
EA: I think more exposure is good exposure as long as it's the right exposure. You have to be doing good work. A lot of people say that YouTube is diluting things. Well no, because there are only so many good videos.
NK: It seems like the moment you try to "crack" something viral, you totally miss the point.
EA: Right. You never know what's going to work. I remember a video I did a while ago. We thought we were going to create the ultimate viral video - the perfect storm. There was a famous person, it was about a political thing, everyone was going to watch it. It got 40k views, which is a small number compared to other stuff we've done. We thought a million people would see it.
NK: It's the same thing with movies; you can't imitate lightning in a bottle.
EA: It has to be new and fresh. Just do something that makes you laugh. That's always been my philosophy. If I think it's funny and I think it's interesting then hopefully other people will be on board with that.
NK: How did you end up at this amazing community of funny people?
EA: I went to school to be an animator. I always fucked around with my friends and made videos, and then when I was in school for animation, I realized I didn't want to slave over a drawing board the whole day. What I really wanted to do was be writing and directing this stuff. I got involved with this improv show in Pittsburgh called "Friday Night Improv" in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. It was this Friday night show where anybody could get up on stage and do improv. I started going to that every week and made a bunch of friends there. I started getting into the UCB, I went to visit my Dad in the city and saw "Asscat," the Sunday night show. IT was the UCB four (Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh) and Horatio Sanz. It blew my mind. I thought, "This is where I want to be." I graduated school, moved to the city and started taking UCB classes. That's where it all started. That's where I met everybody that I'm working with today. We all grew together. My teachers were Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel and Rob Riggle. Then they broke out first and moved to LA and started showing up on TV.
NK: All these truly funny people. It's a good era for comedy.
EA: It's so crazy. And now my generation is coming up. Donald Glover and Ben Schwartz, Katy Dippold, who writes for Parks and Recreation. There are all these young, great funny people out there. It's a great time for comedy. We all came up together; my first writing gig was for the Andy Milonakis show. That was from UCB too. Andy I met in level 1 class at UCB in 2002. Then we ended up living together. Then Andy got discovered by Jimmy Kimmel. He got his TV show and I asked if I could submit to be a writer. I ended up staying for three seasons. Then I wrote for Crank Yankers, also for Jimmy Kimmel's production company. Then my old teachers from UCB, Paul Sheer and Rob Huebel called me in to write some stuff for Human Giant. Their teachers were the original UCB four. It's really like Comedy College.
NK: I'm starting to see how this works; it's like a fraternity of funny. It works because these are genuinely funny people.
EA: Very. So I wrote for Human Giant and that's what got me noticed at Funny or Die. Owen Burke, a development executive at Gary Sanchez was one of my teachers at UCB, he was in an improv group with Huebel and Scheer and Riggle and so he took notice to my stuff at Human Giant.
NK: Which sketches did you write for Human Giant? I'm a fan of the show.
EA: I wrote one about a police sketch artist, then I wrote this one where Paul is eating corn chowder and they come in and say "man Paul, you're eating that corn chowder like it's your job." And he's like, "it is my job." Then Rob Riggle comes out and he's his boss. Like he's paying him to eat corn chowder (laughs). My other favorite one is one where Aziz's kidney gets stolen and he wakes up in a bathtub of ice.
NK: Aziz (Ansari) is clearly going places. I've been trying to interview him but his publicist won't email me back. I'm gonna call him out like he did those rappers on his RAAANDY mixtape.
EA: (laughs) Yea, Aziz is hosting the MTV awards, I was gonna write for it but I'm doing this pilot. Aziz is awesome. Back when I was taking improv classes, he was just starting out doing stand up. I wasn't even on an official UCB team yet, and we used to do shows with Aziz in people's basements.
NK: How many creative people did Funny or Die staff when you started? How many do they staff now?
EA: When I first came there was a staff of 5 creative people making videos. Now there's like 25. 5 writers, 5 directors, 5 editors, you know. We have about two celebrities a day that come in for meetings pitching us ideas, we're working on a lot of branded content.
NK: How do you guys work with such huge stars?
EA: We used to struggle, we used to cold call agents, and now people come right to us. Now agents and managers say to their clients "you should go make a Funny or Die video." "You want to get in to doing comedy? Go make a Funny or Die video." It's funny though, like that Weird Al video. I'm working with Aaron Paul and Olivia Wilde and I have them dressed like Madonna and Weird Al and they're making out in a basement of a hotel. I'm like, "Where am I? What am I doing?" Then they email me: "We love the video, we want to work with you again!" It's crazy but I guess it's good for when I make movies. My goal is to make them have fun. I want everyone to be having fun on my sets, everyone should be laughing. Aaron Paul is not a comedy guy; he's a very serious actor, an amazing serious actor. He wanted to do something funny so I put him in this thing. My philosophy with these great actors is don't try to be funny, don't play up the comedy. I put Aaron in something funny but played very serious and that worked. You have to trust the writing.
NK: Funny or Die is an awesome adult playground that puts out good content.
EA: Yea, exactly. And you meet people. I met this DP that shoots most of my stuff, this guy Christian Springer. I started churning out stuff that people were into. It was my film school. Then I got hired to direct an MTV pilot. It's called Death Valley and it's kind of like Cops but in a world where zombies, werewolves, and vampires exist. It's about the division of the police department that has to deal with that. I directed that and Christian shot it and they're testing it right now. We'll see if it gets picked up. Then a few weeks later, I get a call from Matt Besser and I go in there to meet about directing his pilot. To hear Besser say "you're our first choice" was really crazy.
NK: You were his pupil. It's very Star Wars.
EA: It's like I made the Dean's list. It feels great. And this is the most fun show I've worked on. It's called This Show will Get You High. It's a sketch comedy show. It's very UCB. All the writers and cast are all from the UCB Theater. We want to create a sketch show that gives you the feeling that you get when you go the UCB Theater. It's that kind of a special, cool, underground feeling. It's not like any other sketch show.
NK: Where is sketch comedy relative to where it's been in the past? I know Funny or Die has that new HBO show, but is this a good time for sketch comedy?
EA: It's always a good time for sketch comedy. There's always a place for it. It's a little harder to get it on TV these days, I feel like the Internet is kind of where sketch comedy went. It plays better on the Internet.
NK: What do you tell a young funny person that wants to do what you're doing?
EA: Just do it. That's all I have done. Jump right in and do it. That's what I did at UCB, you can't be afraid to fuck up. You just gotta do it. I look at some of the first videos I put out and they sucked. But I did it and I learned from it. You get better the more you work. Just keep learning. There are so many ways now to tell stories and be funny.
NK: What's next for you?
EA: As soon as I finish this pilot I go right back to Funny or Die to keep doing what I do.
NK: Do you want to direct movies?
EA: Yes. That's the ultimate goal. I look at someone like Adam McKay. He's like a curator. That's someone who's career I admire. I would love to direct movies, have a production company, and have my own Funny or Die.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more