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The Six Degrees of 'Funny Or Die' Women - Meet The Ladies Leading The Way When It Comes To Laughs

Posted By Rona Edwards, Wednesday, January 22, 2020

How many of us remember what it was like to play in the sandbox with our friends or burst into laughter over something really silly? Often we are trapped by our own sense of adulthood and forget to tap into that creative kid in each of us, to build new worlds where none have gone before, or reboot ideas whose time has come again. Isn’t that why so many producers get into this business to begin with?

At Funny or Die, the innovative, comedic viral video machine founded 12 years ago by Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and Chris Henchy, playing in the sandbox with friends is a daily occurrence. So is finding new ways to tell stories and explore new platforms on which to tell them.

The company’s latest venture, The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon, is a podcast that is essentially a scripted sitcom. And yes, it stars Bacon as a heightened version of himself along with a whole slew of celebrities including his wife, Kyra Sedgewick. The premise revolves around an actor who 35 years ago lost out on the iconic role in Footloose, which subsequently catapulted Bacon to stardom. Years later, as the rejected actor’s life spirals out of control, he moves to Los Angeles to take back what he believes was taken from him—and so of course, he plots to murder Kevin Bacon. Funny, right? However, during the process of planning his crime, he ends up becoming Bacon’s assistant and possibly his best friend. Or does he? Cue the threatening music!

The creative team of The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon
surrounds the star of the Funny or Die podcast. 

Not afraid of diving into new formats, Funny or Die partnered with Spotify to create the podcast, which premieres in February. Making a scripted comedy into a podcast offers its own set of challenges, but some fearless producers were ready to take this on. What is so striking is that these producers are all women. PGA members Whitney Hodack, Senior Director of Physical Production; Becca Kinskey, Vice President of Development & Current Programming, Long Form; and Development Executive Elizabeth Belew, make up the female producing team bringing The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon to audible life.

Bacon originated from the mind of creator/writer Dan Abramson but it was Kinskey, a veteran producer of such shows as I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman and The Rose Parade with Cord & Tish, starring Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon, who pitched and sold it to Spotify with her FOD bosses. “At Funny or Die, we’ve had tons of opportunity and tons of experience with emerging platforms. And they come and go,” Kinskey says thoughtfully. “I think we were excited that Spotify seems to have a really clear vision for what they want to do with the podcast business.” She went on to explain that as a digital company, FOD has floated on the tide of new platforms for more than a decade. However, there are always three things the company tries to get for its content creators: One is paid. Two is a good creative experience. And three is a solid audience.

The first two items seem easily met, but it can really be hard to find an emerging platform that has the necessary eyeballs—or in this case, ears—to make  the content a success. Spotify already has a huge audience, so all the boxes were checked. It was the beginning of a perfect marriage.

However, after selling the show, Kinskey went off to have a baby. Enter veteran comedy development and network executive Belew, who began her career as a field producer on unscripted and scripted series for Comedy Central, ABC and MTV, among others. She, along with Hodack, took the ball and ran with it.

Whitney Hodack with Jonathan Van Ness, star of Funny or Die's Gay or Thrones.
-Photo courtesy Funny or Die

“Beth is newest to the team. We actually got to know Beth when she was an executive,” reveals Funny or Die CEO Mike Farah. “A big part of Funny or Die is people have to wear lots of different hats. And I think Beth’s versatility in knowing how to do unscripted storytelling actually worked very well with scripted podcasts. The pacing, the urgency—all those things that she’s honed as a producer and an executive in ‘talk’—I think parlayed very effectively into Kevin Bacon.”

Hodak is an Emmy-nominated producer for Funny or Die’s Gay of Thrones and has overseen production for shows like Brockmire on IFC, I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman on Hulu and Flipped, an upcoming comedy for Quibi. She’s also had experience with podcasting, producing The Ron Burgundy Podcast for iHeartRadio. “Whitney is next in a long line of great producers who know how to service the creatives, keep talent happy and make everything for a great price,” Farah says.

FOD is a 60-person company that’s known for generating tons and tons of content. At the forefront are these three women paving the way for more diverse content on distinctive platforms. Farah is obviously proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish. “It will be nice when a story about women producing comedy isn’t even a story. It’s just part of life. But I do think it’s important to showcase the people who are doing it really well. And Beth, Becca and Whitney are certainly right at the top of that list,” Farah proclaims.

“I can’t speak for everyone in comedy, but at least to me, and how we want to run Funny or Die, supporting people who have been historically on the margins of comedy should not be controversial,” he continues. “Comedy should absolutely be inclusive in terms of all the things we’ve talked about—gender, race, sexual orientation. We ask comedians to see the world in a slightly different way and help people understand the world through that comedic lens. And of course, since the beginning of time, good producers are needed to support that creative vision. So to me, having a diverse set of producers work with a diverse set of comedians is everything Funny or Die should be focused on.”

There’s not a lot of scripted comedy podcasting to look to for reference. It hasn’t caught up with the hour dramas yet. One of the biggest challenges is that comedy is known for a lot of visual clues, which you can’t use in a podcast. Producers have to delve into a whole new bag of tricks and learn how to tell a story without visuals. Everything has to be done with sound design, even letting the audience know when a character moves from room to room or who is coming or going. What is also exciting is that there’s no limits to what can be written. You can be anywhere, and it’s not going to tax your budget like a TV episode. In the end, The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon had 131 characters in 10 episodes recorded in six days.

“We’re really leading the way even in terms of staffing people,” Belew chuckles. “We couldn’t even find people who have done this before.” The writing room was balanced 50-50 with both women and men. They were able to get a ton of celebrity cameos, because people are happy to come in and not worry about hair and makeup. They don’t even have to memorize their lines. Hearing these producers talk their “sky’s the limit and the cost is low” mantra, makes one wonder why anyone would want to produce anything other than a podcast.

“We place the premium on people and their talent and putting folks in a position to succeed at all times,” Farah maintains. “We make sure that folks are supported in what they’re trying to do.” He confides that “Becca is way smarter” than he is. Aside from being thoughtful and methodical, Farah says she has a wonderful reputation for working well with creatives and comedians. All in all, this merry band of females is forging new paths and new ground for women in comedy.

So what is it like to have so many women at the helm, working together on the Bacon project?

 “It was a very placid experience, and I will say everything was calm,” Kinskey explains matter-of-factly. “There were things that needed to be dealt with that came up, but they were just handled. And I do think that the more I work with women, the more I feel like it’s men who are emotional.” The room erupts with laughter as she continues. “I find the people who actually run hot or run alarmist or run panicky are men, and women tend to just get it done.”

Belew jumps in, saying that because both she and Becca are moms, “Everything is fixable! Always!”

When a window to a new part of the industry opens, it allows young producers or those wanting to change direction to get in and rise fast. “I would tell young women, young people, trying to get into comedy right now, that podcasting is a space that you can really make a mark quickly,” Kinskey says. “And I would challenge any young woman starting today to only apply for jobs that you’re not quite qualified for. Put yourself in the position that you want to be in. Start calling yourself the thing you want to be.

“Look at what you like to watch or listen to, what you like to consume,” she continues. “And if you’re consuming it, then you have expertise in what people want out of it. Don’t waste time in the shadow of Steven Spielberg. Just go figure out what you’re already enjoying, and then go find those jobs. Because the industry reinvents itself every 10 years. Don’t chase old business models.”

“And don’t be afraid to just make stuff,” Belew chimes in. “I think men are more inclined to  write the thing they want to write, make the thing they want to make, pitch the show they want to pitch. They have maybe more confidence or whatever it is that drives them. And I think that women have a tendency to wait for someone to ask them to make something. They don’t want to do it until they’re 100% qualified. Don’t wait until you’re 100% competent! Because the guys at your same level aren’t waiting. That’s how they keep moving ahead.”

The first show Belew ever sold as a producer was to TruTV. “Some friends of mine at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) were doing this weight-loss competition and I thought, ‘We should shoot this. Why is no one shooting this?’ And they said OK. So I paid some guys beer money to shoot a pilot, essentially, and we cut it into a 10-minute sizzle reel. I sold it in the room. Nobody asked me to do that. And if I hadn’t done that, I never would have gotten into development. Nobody needs to give you permission to do it.”

“The cool thing about doing the podcast is that it is a great way to stay in touch with the very principles and origins that Funny or Die was based on,” Kinskey says. “Which is just getting people to come down in the afternoon and make something that would later be up on the internet. What’s so great about working in comedy is that people want to do a day of work because they want to play with their friends and laugh. The podcasts really keep you in touch with those roots. Because people can just come in for four hours, have fun together in a recording booth and go home.”

Sounds like the perfect way to start playing in our sandboxes again.


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