Funny or Die sees coin in iPad spinoff

Digital mag plants separate identity from short-vids main site

After five years of distributing its comedy for free online, Funny or Die is launching an iPad app to get paid.

The humor brand is spinning off a new digital magazine — dubbed the Occasional — strictly for Apple’s tablet, starting Thursday on Newsstand in the App Store.

While all content on Funny or Die has always been free on the ad-supported website, each issue of the Occasional will be available for $1.99 (and $3.99 as “in-app purchases”). The bimonthly pub also will be available at an annual rate of $9.99, with additional special issues expected to be added at no extra cost.

Funny or Die and the Occasional will be almost entirely different products, though they will be produced by the same staff and the description in the App Store will make clear the latter is an offshoot of the former. The title is a nod to its infrequent publishing schedule.

Dick Glover, CEO of Funny or Die, explained that the decision to launch the Occasional was prompted both by a creative impulse to do something specifically for the tablet medium and by a commercial desire to supply his company with a new revenue stream. Not that Funny or Die is hurting for dollars.

“There was no urgency to do this,” Glover said, declining to specify how much the company is investing in the Occasional. “This seemed a logical opportunity to give it a shot and see if we could create a product people would be willing to pay for.”

From its inception, Funny or Die has been aggressive about diversifying its business even beyond digital platforms. In addition to merchandising, the company has produced TV shows for networks including HBO and Fuse and is expanding its presence in the film arena starting with “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” which Magnolia Pictures is distributing.

Funny or Die was started in 2007 by Will Ferrell, Chris Henchy and Adam McKay with the backing of CAA and VC firm Sequoia Capital. HBO took a small stake in the company the following year. Since exploding on the scene with viral hit “The Landlord,” the website’s inhouse studio has attracted 14 million unique visitors per month.

While Funny or Die and the Occasional share the same arch tone and well-stocked roster of celebrity contributors, the comedic mix is distinctly different in the iPad app. Whereas the website subsists on a steady supply of shortform videos, the Occasional comes across as a satire of the magazine format itself.

A letter of introduction from editor-in-chief Dan Abramson is titled, ‘Oh s**t, we started a magazine!” The sex advice column “Simple Steps to Making Love to Your Wife” is purportedly written by presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who counsels, “Begin pumping until a baby is growing in her womb.” A gossip section lampoons tabloid fixtures including so-called hot lists and blind items.

But in keeping with the interactive possibilities provided by the iPad’s touch screen, the Occasional is also chockful of multimedia bells and whistles. An interactive timeline projecting what a Mitt Romney presidency would be like morphs the candidate’s appearance as the aggravation of the White House gradually grays his hair, then removes it from his scalp entirely. A satire of child-centric content, Kids Korral, allows users to insert sounds from farm animals along with rather adult-themed comedic riffs from Marc Maron. Other well-known comedians that appear in the publication include Tom Lennon and Simon Rich.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is providing something surprising that happens to bring a smile to your face throughout the product,” Glover said. “Tablets give you that opportunity.”

There will be minimal overlap between the content on Funny or Die and the Occasional, though the first issue includes an exclusive episode of “Between Two Ferns,” a comedic series featuring Zach Galifianakis that runs on the website. The episode, which features an interview with Ed Helms, will be supplemented with access to the full archive of “Ferns.”

Only a single sponsor, Fiat, will be included in the inaugural edition, but more are expected in future issues. In their place, the Occasional created faux ads like those for a fictional brand of candy cigarettes featuring children posed as if they were in a vintage ad for the tobacco companies of yesteryear.

The Occasional will be an interesting test for publishers who are counting on tablets to deliver new revenue streams but getting mixed results while the medium is still in its early days. While most companies simply migrate their existing brands to tablets with minimal investment in original content, the Occasional joins a brave group of entrepreneurial companies looking to mint new brands in the category. They include News Corp.’s the Daily, Virgin’s the Project, Hearst’s CFG: Cosmo for Guys and, just last week, American Athlete, from DavidHenry Agency/DHA Publications.

Last week, Adobe issued an estimate that 16 million digital publications have been downloaded over the past 12 months; eMarketer pegs the iPad market in 2011 at 28 million users, a number expected to rise to 60 million in the next three years.

While comedic content has been a big part of digital entertainment from the Internet’s earliest days, efforts to mine revenues beyond advertising have been few and far between. But they’ve been receiving increasing attention in recent years. In 2010, Funny or Die rival the Onion distributed a 12-minute film, “Future: News From the Year 2137,” for $2 on iTunes, while another competitor, CollegeHumor, followed a year later with a 30-minute installment of its “Jake and Amir” series for $3 across its site, Facebook and other platforms.

More recently, comedians Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan have experimented with selling standup perfs directly to fans online instead of through the usual TV and film distribution points.

There will be minimal cross-promotion between Funny or Die and the Occasional because Funny or Die doesn’t want to risk diluting its comedic voice by marketing too heavily to fans.

While the Occasional will launch only on the iPad, Funny or Die hasn’t ruled out expanding the publication to Android-powered tablets. Most of Funny or Die’s competitors simply repurpose their content for tablets with free apps.

Glover said the company plans to stick with the Occasional for the long haul.

“We think this is a product that will be a part of what we’ll do as long as we’re doing a website,” he said.