Online comedy business booming

Stalwarts and startups fuel growth of site gags

In the months since Dane Cook first mounted his groundbreaking MySpace marketing campaign and “Saturday Night Live’s” “Lazy Sunday” skit helped vault YouTube to a billion-dollar Google buyout, online comedy sites have become as common as bad party jokes.

Besides MySpace, YouTube and the online presence of established TV networks like Comedy Central and TBS, the parade of would-be laugh brands is enough to slap you silly: Adult Swim, Atom, Babelgum, Blip, Channel 101, College Humor, Comedysmack, Funny or Die, JibJab, My Damn Channel, the Onion, Super Deluxe, the list goes on.

More are sure to arrive on the scene in the days and weeks ahead, smelling venture capital, sponsorship dollars and a millions-strong audience still up for grabs.

But there are signs of consolidation: Stalwarts are hooking up with startups, and while user-generated clips remain the comedic raw material of choice, new sites are locking in star talent to distinguish themselves with original, professionally shot productions.

Viacom, for instance, is integrating its Comedy Central unit with Atom Films — a veteran of the Web 1.0 era and part of Viacom’s $200 million purchase of Atom Entertainment in 2006.

While ComedyCentral.com will continue to promote its cable parent’s programs, Atom.com — long known for its indie-filmmaker fare — will nurture up-and-coming comedy talent not yet on the cable roster.

Atom actually led the comedy pack in August with 5 million unique visitors, according to Internet traffic analyst ComScore.

Comedy Central unveiled in October a dedicated website for its flagship “Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” with a free archive of all the satiric show’s episodes dating back to 1999. Currently sponsored by Wendy’s and TiVo, the site is seen as a savvy response to YouTube, once rife with pirated “Daily Show” clips (and now in copyright litigation with Viacom).

“We’ve gone from Motherload as a video broadband player on ComedyCentral.com (launched in 2005) to breaking out these verticals and putting originals on Atom,” says Lou Wallach, Comedy Central’s sr. VP of original programming. “At the end of the day, it still works for us creatively and from a business perspective — it’s such a great opportunity to incubate young voices and find an audience for them immediately.”

In a similar vein, Time Warner unit TBS supports its original series like Frank Caliendo vehicle “FrankTV” online at TBS.com while leaving the user-generated lawlessness to Super Deluxe.

Then there’s News Corp.’s MySpace, whose social-networking service is tapped by seemingly countless established and struggling standups. It opened its own comedy channel in 2006, based largely on the model of its MySpace Music community for bands. With MySpace launching a music label, as well as its first scripted “TV” series in October, comedy marketing manager Jordan Ellner confirms that humorous originals aren’t far behind.

“I feel like what we’re doing is completely different” from comedy portals, he says. “With those other sites, you get to watch videos from a certain comedian, and that’s it. We try to make ourselves a one-stop shop for comedians, (venues) and festivals.”

Cook, Ellner points out, now has more than 2 million “friends” on the site, while fellow comic Katt Williams has over 500,000. What’s more, MySpace Comedy has hosted exclusive videos for the likes of Weird Al Yankovic, which won an audience of 4 million.

Still, others see room for more laughs.

Funny or Die — a site backed by seemingly infallible comedy star Will Ferrell, “Entourage” co-executive producer Chris Henchy, “Talladega Nights” director Adam McKay and now “Knocked Up”/”Superbad” producer Judd Apatow — parlayed its talent into a bankroll from Silicon Valley’s Sequoia Capital, a key investor in Google (which now owns YouTube).

“We’re trying to be a place where, if you have an hour and a funny idea, we’ll get it up there and get it seen,” Henchy says.

Funny or Die’s top post is its Ferrell-starring “Landlord,” in which the star begs his toddler landlord for a few more days, attracting 48 million views since April. A minute-long, Paris-poking “sex tape” shot in night vision with Eva Longoria has garnered another 3 million in recent weeks. But the question remains whether Funny or Die can sustain itself on user-generated clips, which to date have attracted only thousands, in between Ferrell appearances and Apatow-produced spots.

Enter services like Comedysmack, a free, daily email blast built on a Daily Candy sort of model: Folks in need of a chuckle receive a rundown of top comedy content on the Web, complete with links and snarky commentary. David Moore, Comedysmack’s founder, is a standup comic with a private-equity pedigree; his weeks-old service claims 4,000 subscribers.

Meanwhile, Brent Weinstein, former online head at UTA, recently founded 60Frames Entertainment to be a financier and syndicator of professionally produced Internet content.

Weinstein says his new company, currently staffed with 10 full-time employees, will be rolling out distributor partnerships and original episodic series in the coming months — with comedies at the forefront.

With so much purported talent behind his productions, why not contain 60Frames’ series to their own channel?

“There’s such immense power in the existing (comedy) platforms,” Weinstein says, “that for us to try to replicate that would be short-lived.”

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