While the Oscar telecast was drawing its smallest audience ever on Sunday night, Will Ferrell’s Funny Or Die Comedy Tour was finishing up its sold-out eight date run with a raucous show at Radio City Music Hall. It was a carnivalesque take on your basic stand-up comedy gig with glittery costume changes and group sing-a-longs breaking up (and into) the routines. Farrell (along with his alter egos) was the MC introducing the three young performers (Demetri Martin, Nick Swardson and Zack Galifinakis), all of whom have contributed videos to the the Funny or Die website.
The tour is a victory lap of sorts for the site, a YouTube for comic shorts that exploded into the mainstream when Ferrell and director Adam McKay joined forces with it. (Chris Henchy, the writer/producer of “Entourage,” is the third member of the site’s creative team.) Their sketch “The Landlord,” which turns McKay’s toddler daughter Pearl into a foul-mouthed slumlord, has been viewed over 50 million times, and encouraged other established comedians to post their own DIY absurdities including John C. Reilly, Judd Apatow and Jack Black (my personal favorites are the violent environmentalist satire of “Green Team” and the “Drunk History” series which features Black’s randy Ben Franklin).
The charm and lifeblood of the site is the way that it allows amateur videos to brush up against the successes: in the site’s “Platinum Club” section, which lists all the videos that have received over one million hits, you’ll find not only a bunch of Ferrell videos, but a clever masturbation joke from the scruffy unknown Nick Thune. Funny or Die acts as both an entertainment and networking site put up a video and Judd Apatow might select it as one of his favorites.
Venture capitalist Mark Kvamme first pitched the concept to the Creative Artists Agency and fronted the $17,000 to start up the site after a conversation with his teenage son. As the Mercury News’ Scott Duke Harris has reported, the company has evolved into “Or Die Networks,” and is now backed by $20 million. It’s started up sister sites “Shred Or Die” (for skateboarders), “My Blue Collar” (featuring Southern comics) and, apparently, “in the works is a culinary site to be called ‘Eat, Drink, or Die.'” With its brand fully in place, the Funny Or Die tour acts as its coronation into the big time, replete with movie studio backing.
The tour is promoting Ferrell’s (and New Line’s) upcoming movie “Semi-Pro,” and the site itself is laden with promos, interviews and trailers for the film. Aside from Radio City, every other tour date was set on a college campus, luring in that delectable 18-35 year old age group that studio execs drool over. All of which is good business, but it would be a mite distracting if the show wasn’t so inspired and almost entirely clear of cross-promotion itself. All the hucksters were outside the arena, with afro’d “Semi-Pro” hype men handing out swag and timid Funny Or Die interns blanketing folks with t-shirts. There was even a “Harold & Kumar” sighting two guys in orange jumpsuits tossing out one-sheets for the Guantanamo Bay-set sequel. Variety has said that “Semi-Pro” is receiving “the kind of buzz building push that movie marketers dream of” from the tour, and a similar one might take place in support of the Jeremy Piven starrer “The Goods: The Don Ready Story,” the first feature being made under Ferrell and McKay’s production company, Gary Sanchez Productions.
Inside the theater, though, there was barely a whiff of money just the overpowering stench of Ron Burgundy’s man musk. After two solid opening sets from Martin and Swardson, Ferrell’s most popular character took center stage. With McKay as the announcer, the crowd got a taste of how “Anchorman” was filmed in a flurry of improvisation, each man trying to top the either with absurdist glee. In a revealing history of the poorly named “Frat Pack” in Sight & Sound, Henry K. Miller quotes director David O. Russell as calling “Anchorman” “a balance between performance art and narrative film.”
There wasn’t much narrative on this night. When Burgundy called out Tom Brokaw on stage at Radio City, the show turned into pure performative insanity. Brokaw immediately seemed to regret his decision to appear, but gamely soldiered through it, even when Burgundy asked him about the time Diane Sawyer went topless or if he would smoke a vial of crack if it would save the president’s life. Brokaw parried by saying he’d give it to Farrell’s staff, who would probably eat it up. The whole interview seemed close to imploding at every turn, and at one point Brokaw turned his hostility to them, wondering whether the system should allow people our age to vote. Graceful as he is, he quickly maneuvered away from it, and they navigated back to safe waters plugging his books (including Burgundy’s own “The Greater Generation: The Story of the ’69 Miracle Mets”), joking about hit and runs and saying goodbye.
It was a riveting performance by both men, even if one wonders if Brokaw entirely knew what he was getting into. It’s clear Farrell improvised most of the bit audibly cracking up McKay behind the mic and getting energized by the unexpected combativeness of his foe.
After such a display, Zack Galifinakis could only lip-synch to “Tomorrow” in a Little Orphan Annie outfit and toss glitter in the air. It worked, as did his closing slam against Dane Cook. The evening ended with the whole production on stage, dressed in Capezio dance pants tucked into Uggs, warbling to Alicia Keys’ “No One” with reckless abandon. But they couldn’t let the night go without a nod to Friday’s release. Tight shortsed “Semi-Pro” co-star Woody Harrelson was roped in to stand up from his seat, awkwardly take a kiss from Will, and disappear into the poster-strewn night.
[Photo: Will Ferrell on the Funny Or Die Comedy Tour, Â© Funny or Die Inc., 2008]