The revolution, such as it was, took place in less than an hour and was led by a 2-year-old. Early this spring, longtime collaborators Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (Saturday Night Live, Anchorman, Talladega Nights) were kicking around ideas for a sketch to help launch their new comedy website, FunnyOrDie. McKay thought it might be amusing to do something with his rambunctious toddler, Pearl, so he whipped up a silly two-minute piece casting her as Ferrell’s ornery, foulmouthed landlord. During a break from Ferrell’s son Magnus’ third birthday party, they shot the bit in the doorway of the Ferrell family’s guesthouse. ”It was so casual — like, ‘Did you cut the cake? Okay, we’ve gotta go do the thing with Pearl real quick,”’ Ferrell remembers, sitting at a small table in McKay’s trailer on the Los Angeles set of their upcoming comedy Step Brothers. ”Then, when it launched, it was mayhem. Complete mayhem.”
On April 12, the video, entitled ”The Landlord,” appeared on FunnyOrDie.com and became an overnight viral sensation, receiving so many hits so quickly that the site’s server eventually crashed. The productivity of the American workforce dipped as millions of cubicle drones watched Pearl get up in Ferrell’s grille, calling him ”bitch” and ”a–hole,” and hectoring him for her rent money so she could ”get [her] drink on.” Soon, Pearl was receiving an offer to costar in a Jackie Chan movie, while Bill O’Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, and other noted child-psychology experts debated whether she was an innocent victim of shameless Hollywood exploitation. McKay and Ferrell, who had agreed to spearhead the website — the brainchild of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mark Kvamme — only a few months earlier, were bewildered. ”It was like, ‘The president is holding a meeting to discuss it right now! Aircraft carriers are being diverted to the Indian Ocean!” McKay says, laughing. ”It was crazy s—.”
Where some just saw a goofy bit of workplace diversion, others saw a new landmark in the evolution of creative content on the Web. As ”The Landlord” went on to rack up more than 48 million hits, becoming one of the most watched clips in Internet history, user-generated comedy bits began streaming onto FunnyOrDie in massive numbers. And it wasn’t just aspiring comedians from the hinterlands looking for exposure; celebrities like Brooke Shields, Jenna Elfman, Danny DeVito, Eva Longoria Parker, and Bill Murray appeared in sketches on the site, seeing it as a low-stress, potentially high-impact venue for their own comedy stylings. Humor on the Internet, once largely the business of lonely, sweatpants-clad webcam jockeys, had a hip new Hollywood home. ”I’d never had a destination on the Internet for comedy,” says Chris Henchy, who runs Ferrell and McKay’s film and TV shingle, Gary Sanchez Productions, and also manages the site. ”Someone would send me something, or you’d go on YouTube and find strange things. But when you see something great on the Internet, you want to find the source of it.”
As it happens, Ferrell and McKay hadn’t originally set out to become that source. When first approached about hitching themselves to what Kvamme pitched as a comedy version of Hotornot.com, where users would vote on the comedic merit of submitted clips, they were lukewarm on the idea. ”We just weren’t buying it,” says McKay. ”We were like, Don’t they remember the late ’90s when it was like, ‘That’s it! We’re all going to live on the Internet!”’ After some back-and-forth, the two realized that there was really nothing to lose. ”We figured, if it didn’t work, it would just disappear into cyberspace and no one would ever know,” Ferrell says. Plus, Kvamme’s firm, Sequoia Capital, would be writing the checks — all Ferrell and McKay had to do was manage the creative side, which was the fun part.
Once ”The Landlord” took off, though, their casual side project didn’t seem like such a lark anymore. ”At first, we had one guy working part-time and it was sort of mom-and-pop,” says McKay. ”Suddenly, there were two months where it was our full-time job.” Having just launched Gary Sanchez Productions the previous year, the pair now had to hire a half dozen writer-producers in their Hollywood office to help manage FunnyOrDie and come up with new content.
NEXT PAGE: ”The goal is to create a channel on the Internet. Programming that channel and creating the content — that’s the key — and that’s what Adam, Will, and those guys do so well.”