Over the past couple of years, big-shot TV executives have gradually noticed that they’re more likely to find a successful comedy idea by doing what college students do best: watching funny videos on the Internet. Take one of the Web’s most popular humor video sites, FunnyorDie.com; HBO snagged a deal with them to air sketches (some recurring ones from their site, like my personal favorite, “Drunk History,” as well as new bits like “Playground Politics”) in a half-hour show, which is probably less time than we normally waste perusing the Web site when we’re supposed to be writing papers. Now in its second season, Funny or Die Presents is full of hit-or-miss sketches, so it really is a spot-on adaptation of FunnyorDie.com.
Another Internet video-turned-TV show that premiered on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim last year is Childrens Hospital, which pokes fun at medical dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy. Like Funny or Die Presents, the cast features several recognizable comedians and TV actors (Rob Corddry, Rob Huebel, Megan Mullally, Paul Scheer) as well as cameos by many other comedy TV stars like Parks and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman and Adam Scott, The Office‘s Ed Helms and Saturday Night Live‘s Jason Sudeikis. Childrens Hospital was born during the writers’ strike in 2008, a period when comedy writers and actors teamed up with their friends to develop web series in order to not go insane from boredom and also be able to keep their creative juices flowing. It was possibly the best thing to happen to comedy nerds everywhere, since no one (big-shot TV executives specifically) could tell them what bizarre, over-the-line jokes they weren’t allowed to air. Ah, the glory of the Internet.
One of my favorite web series to come out of the writers’ strike was The Jeannie Tate Show. It has the same kind of uncomfortable humor as FunnyorDie.com’s fake talk show “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis,” except replace a bitter, bearded comedian with a peppy soccer mom hosting interviews in her minivan while she runs errands. Guests on The Jeannie Tate Show have included Saturday Night Live‘s Bill Hader, Parks and Recreation‘s Rashida Jones and 30 Rock‘s Lonny Ross. Aubrey Plaza played her angsty teen daughter Tina Tate on the webisodes, before she became known for her role as an angsty intern on Parks and Recreation. HBO had reportedly signed on to turn The Jeannie Tate Show into a TV series a couple years ago, but there hasn’t been a mention of it since. In the meantime, the Internet has brought us another gift from the comedy gods in the form of IFC’s new show Portlandia.
Saturday Night Live‘s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Portland-based band Sleater-Kinney) star in this entertaining sketch comedy series that was inspired by their online videos as comedy duo ThunderAnt. While only a few of the ThunderAnt videos have Portland references, Portlandia is fully devoted to the outspoken hipster/slacker lifestyle that thrives in the city “where young people go to retire.” The sketches have been consistently funny, from the “Women and Women First” feminist bookstore featuring Armisen in drag to the couple who have a mental breakdown when they see a dog temporarily tied up to a pole by his owner, because really, “who puts their dog on a pole like a stripper?!” as Brownstein’s character cries out.
In true adapted web series tradition, numerous TV actors pop in on Portlandia, including Kyle MacLachlan (Desperate Housewives) as a peculiar mayor with a clear disdain for Seattle, Aubrey Plaza as an annoyed college student (sound familiar?) who needs books for her women’s studies class, and Jason Sudeikis as an organic farmer worshipped by his multiple wives. There’s definitely a theme of funny people helping their funny friends out among these web/TV series, but Portlandia seems to have executed it best, with a weird indie humor reminiscent of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords and Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program (rest in peace). And compared to a lot of the recent comedy pilots from the fall and midseason premieres, the Internet seems to do funny TV better than TV itself.
Portlandia airs Fridays at 10:30 pm on IFC. Childrens Hospital has been renewed for another season on Cartoon Network and Funny or Die Presents airs Fridays at midnight on HBO.