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MIKE FARAH - Funny or Die's CEO Considers How To Run A 12 Year-Old Startup

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Back in 2007, as online digital video was taking its early steps into public consciousness, a new website gave its viewers an abrupt and unusual binary choice. Faced with a brief video clip featuring Will Ferrell getting berated by a foulmouthed toddler landlord, the audience was invited to render an ultimate judgment: Funny Or Die.

Throughout the 12 years of its existence, the content put out by Funny Or Die has more often than not been chalked up on the left-hand/funny side of the ledger. Some of that credit lies with the site’s founders—Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy. Another chunk of it lies with the talent the site has featured and nurtured, including Zach Galafanakis and Sarah Silverman. But save a healthy morsel of credit for the dude who was hired 10 years ago as the site’s first producer and today holds the operation together as its CEO. His name is Mike Farah, and he’s the original guy who started out making funny short videos with his friends and simply never stopped until it turned into a career.

When it launched, Funny Or Die was, pretty much by default, the premier website for comedy online. If there’s an achievement that Farah can take to the bank, it’s the fact that 12 years and a couple of tech revolutions later, Funny Or Die is still first in its class as an online comedy destination. Even as the company’s offerings have diversified into long-form efforts that have found their way to HBO, Netflix, IFC and other platforms more identified with “traditional media,” Funny Or Die remains a vital comic incubator, a place where emerging talent can find support for ideas and material that can generate big laughs and thousands of clicks in under five minutes.

Farah is keenly aware of—and just as grateful for—Funny Or Die’s unique position in the entertainment infrastructure, a talent-friendly shop whose deep connections to comic artists allow it to play by its own rules. Name another company that could put together a telecast featuring real-time coverage of the Rose Parade by a pair of fictional hosts played by Ferrell and Molly Shannon in what’s effectively an hours-long, character-based improv jam.

Farah is evidently the right guy to be curating the ever-evolving showcase of Funny Or Die. Grounded and reflective, he’s still a good-natured Midwesterner casting a cockeyed glance at a crazy industry he can barely believe exists, let alone has allowed him inside it. Hollywood is still very much a game to Mike Farah, one he excels at and has a blast playing in, but one he holds no illusions of being born to. That inside-yet-outside dichotomy is part of what makes for a great producer, with the job’s characteristic tension between the big picture and its granular details. He’s also pretty funny. But you guessed that already. After all, he’s not dead yet.

So how did you find your way into entertainment?

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and went to school at Indiana University in Bloomington. My whole life I thought I was going to go to Michigan like my brother and my parents. But I decided to go to IU, and it was a great decision. I was a finance major, and the key thing I learned was that I never wanted to work in the world of finance. I had a really awful summer internship in corporate finance. I got back to IU my senior year and, talking to a fellow I was friendly with, Josh Golsen, I said, “Oh, what did you do this summer?” and he said, “I interned in Hollywood. I had this internship with a production company at Warner Bros.” And my mind was blown. He showed me the Hollywood Creative Directory, a book that I don’t even know if they still publish. And I thought, “What is this? This book that lists all these companies that make movies and TV?” I didn’t even know that was a thing. It sounds so silly now, but coming from the Midwest I had no idea you could actually do this as a job. So Josh Golsen blew my mind. And from that moment, I just said, “Well, fuck it. I’m going to move to Hollywood. That’s what I’m going to do.”

I’ll never forget when I was getting close to graduating, I was out to dinner with my good friend Frank Parker and his mom. She was an administrator, high up at Ohio University. She asked me, “Well, what are you going to do after graduation?” And I told Pam Parker, “I’m going to move to LA.” She looked at me and she said, “Well, I hope you have a better plan than that.” And honestly, I didn’t.


You just showed up?

I showed up, and I’ve been here ever since. I drove across the country in fall of 2001. Within two or three days of being in LA, I knew I was never going to leave. I loved everything about it … The hustle! The competition! The weather! The artists! The business! The phoniness! It was a perfect storm of things that I really responded to. I don’t know what that says about me. [laughs]

Mike Farah (back, center) and team emmbers celebrate President Barack Obama's unlikely appearance on
Funny or Die's
Between Two Ferns. 
Photo courtesy of Pete Souza.


So after showing up, how did you work your way into production? As a guy having no plan, you could’ve gone anywhere, but you ended up producing.

My very first job in LA was working security at movie premieres. There I met a kid who called himself “Kowboi,” K-O-W-B-O-I. He was a busboy at The Standard on Sunset, and he helped me get a job there. I became a food expeditor. Not to be confused with a busboy. Or a waiter. I’m just the dude who brings you food. So I expedited food for 2 1/2 years at The Standard.

That was my graduate school. Everyone I worked with was an aspiring something: writer, director, actor, model, musician. I have the fondest memories of being a very poor food expeditor but getting along so well with creative and talented people. So I started producing the little short films that that group of people was trying to put together. I asked myself, “Well what can I add?” I didn’t want to be on camera. I didn’t want to be a director. But I love to organize things. I actually have a passion for logistics. I love to curate experiences to serve a story. So that’s what I brought to the party, a knack for getting things made.


Obviously at some point you moved beyond food expediting.

Oh I was thoroughly fired from expediting food, as I should have been. I was much more interested in meeting people and producing shorts than delivering food promptly. I worked at what felt like a hundred unpaid internships for different production companies, but my big break was getting a job at United Talent Agency in the mailroom. Peter Benedek, one of the co-founders of UTA, was and is a big University of Michigan supporter. A friend of mine from home, a writer named Yoni Brenner, was sleeping on my sofa at the time. He told me that Peter was having a get-together for the Michigan Film Department. I showed up to that reception, and I met Peter that night. I spoke to him for probably a minute or two. The next day was my 25th birthday. The morning after that, I woke up to a message from UTA telling me I had a job and to come in on Monday.

At Funny or Die's 10th anniversary party, from left: Will Ferrell, Billy Eichner, Mike Farah, Andrew Steele, Chris Henchy, Pauly Shore.
Photo courtesy of Pete Souza.


Hey, “happy birthday.”

Yeah. That amazing gesture really changed my life. I worked at UTA, for an incredible agent named Shana Eddy, who represented writers and directors. Shana and I hit it off very well, despite my being quite immature and probably not ready for the job. But I loved the agency. Before I was kind of on the outside looking in. But when you get inside an agency, you’re in the game.


It doesn’t get more inside than that.

And I loved it. The competitivness, the delusions of grandeur, all the people! [laughs] It’s all so silly, so funny. Only Hollywood can make entertainment a real job that’s taken seriously. It’s incredible. Less than a year after I started there, I went with Shana to the Sundance Film Festival; it was the year that Hustle & Flow, Craig Brewer’s movie, premiered. January of 2005. That movie blew me away. It really resonated with me, because it was about this guy with a dream who would do almost anything to make it happen.

After the movie I saw Craig out on Main Street, and I introduced myself to him. We kind of hit it off and chatted. It turned out that Craig and his producing partner, Stephanie Allain, were looking for an assistant. I interviewed with Stephanie and we got along great. I’m still good friends with both of those guys. I left UTA to go work for Stephanie and Craig. Stephanie is a total badass. I’m really fortunate to have had these two talented, smart women, Shana and Stephanie, as my mentors starting out.


So what sort of stuff did you take from them that you still bring to your job today?

Both Shana and Stephanie were great with talent. They had great taste. They worked hard. And they were both very comfortable in their own skin, which I really responded to.


What work did you find yourself doing for Stephanie? What stuff was she working on that you got to be a part of?

Very soon into the job, I got to be on set with Stephanie. She made a movie called Something New, with Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker. Sanaa Hamri directed it. So I was on the set. I got to see the whole process and met so many people. A great crew. A diverse crew. All the stuff that people are trying to do now with hiring inclusive crews … Stephanie was ahead of that curve by decades, as was Sanaa Hamri.

I also got to be a part of the whole Hustle & Flow juggernaut, because Paramount got behind the movie in a big way. Obviously I didn’t work on the production, but because I started working with those guys so soon after Sundance, I got to see all of the marketing process, the distribution plan, the release strategy and all that. That was terrific.

They got a deal at Paramount. Brad Grey had recently started there. I believe one of the first overall deals he gave was to Craig and Stephanie. So then we got to be on the studio lot.


Nothing like being on a lot.

That was the best. My only other time working on a lot was an unpaid internship on the Fox lot at New Regency. I was actually fired as an unpaid intern. This is because I was a terrible intern. I mean, they put you in a room and they tell you to make copies all day. And right next to your room is another room with these big filing cabinets. There was one whole cabinet that just said “Fight Club.” And I open it up and, oh my god, there are all these emails between David Fincher, Brad Pitt and Ed Norton talking about the script. So obviously I’m going to be reading that stuff all day and not making your copies.


I don’t see that you had any choice.

Yeah I was fired. Justifiably so. [laughs] So then to actually have a job on a lot that I loved … this was new to me. So we got some stuff set up, and we had a nice little run at Paramount. But on the weekends, I’d sneak on to the lot and shoot my own stuff at the office. I still loved putting together these short films and different comedy projects. This was around when Upright Citizens Brigade opened in LA. So I got to know Seth Morris, who was the Creative Director at UCB in LA, and started going there to meet comedians and shoot their stuff.

When the writers’ strike happened in fall of 2007, Craig and Stephanie kind of went their own ways. And so I started focusing completely on producing comedy videos. At the time people were actually paying for web series, which was crazy. It was way too early, because no one really knew how to monetize any of it. But at that moment, during the strike, I started producing all this stuff. Sometimes we’d have money. Sometimes I’d pay for it, just because I wanted to see it get made. Nothing cost a lot of money… $500 or something like that. I was on unemployment. I was living with four people and two cats in a two-bedroom apartment. So we just did it. Why wouldn’t we?


So how did you ultimately hook up with Funny or Die?

My first contact with Funny Or Die was Owen Burke, who’s now an executive at Gary Sanchez. I started shooting stuff with the actor Jerry O’Connell, who’s one of the all-time great guys. I produced some stuff with Jerry that did pretty well. Jerry knew Owen Burke because Owen was a PA on Joe’s Apartment, the MTV film. Jerry connected me with Owen, and that’s how I got my job at Funny Or Die as its first producer in 2008.


So in terms of being the first producer, at Funny or Die … what did that mean? What was in place before you got there?

They mainly had writers. Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy founded it. They had recently hired their buddy Andrew Steele from SNL to be the Creative Director. There were super-talented writers here. One of them was Seth Morris from UCB, who I mentioned, and Jake Szymanski and Eric Appel and Ryan Perez … a great group. I can’t speak for what it was like before I got there. But when I got there in the summer of 2008, I just knew I could sell Funny Or Die.

There was so much talent they had put together that I knew we would have ideas that people would want to do. In many ways, as a producer you’re only as good as the talent you’re working with and the stories and the jokes and the ideas that people have. Ours were great. I felt like I could get traction with this company. And, by the way, when you have Will Ferrell as the founder? Yeah, that helps. No one else had that. Even now no one else has that. I give Will a ton of credit. Not only is he one of the all-time great guys, but he is still right there in it with us all the time, as is Chris Henchy, and I love him. So I knew, “Yeah, I can do this.” I saw it. I felt it.


What was the nature of the job then as opposed to what it is now? Is it just a bigger version of the same job? Or has it evolved in different ways as the brand has grown?

There’s definitely been an evolution. Thematically there’s some things that are similar. When I got here, I was asking “How do we make as many great digital videos as possible?” I knew I could help extend the company. I felt like we could expand to athletes and musicians and other folks who weren’t necessarily known for comedy. I focused on trying to merge outside talent with inside talent. My schedule was basically 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., six days a week. Sundays I’d only have to work half the day. But it was email, set it up, get there, shoot and on to the next one, over and over again. Sometimes we’d have three celebrity videos going in one day. It was bonkers. And that’s the way it should be. I loved it.

Now it’s different. This year I’m trying to get back to some of my roots, but back then I was the producer. Later I became President of Production, then 2  1/2 years ago I became CEO. Staying successful is still about working with great talent, creating opportunities for talent and storytelling, at the same time that we’re thinking through how to position the company in this ever-changing and exhausting media landscape. I don’t love the word “disruption” but things are being disrupted nonstop. And so you try and navigate this, all while making good stuff, and having a business, and treating people well. It’s a combination of knowing who you are, sticking to that core of talent and taste. But it’s also, hopefully, stretching those muscles in a way so you can grow and evolve the best you can, despite not really knowing where any of this is going. [laughs] So it’s a worthy challenge.


Certainly I’ve seen the Funny or Die brand on a lot more content than just funny videos on the internet.

Yeah. We’re very fortunate in that we were able to diversify organically years ago in a way that I don’t think many digital-first companies were set up to do, because we had backgrounds in “traditional Hollywood,” TV and film and things like that. We were also fortunate to work with really good talent who we could grow and develop material with. For example Brockmire started off as a Funny Or Die video with Hank Azaria. After a lot of work and many years, it became a show on IFC.

It’s still a matter of trying to take advantage of the relationships we’ve built, take advantage of the brand and the heat, when it’s there. Heat in Hollywood is a real thing—it’s crazy, but it’s true. Perception really matters. So we try to extend what we were doing to TV and film and other things, while also staying true to our digital roots. Sometimes we’ve succeeded, sometimes we’ve failed, but today our business is 50% digital and 50% what we call “long-form.”

The biggest part of our digital business is the custom content that we make for brand partners. Last year we did over 60 original campaigns for different brand partners, whether it’s Walmart or Kroger or someone else. We create a lot of content around our own TV shows that we make. It’s a great, diverse portfolio. We’re also able to license our content to different platforms. Amazon, in particular, has been a great partner for us. The Funny Or Die library on Amazon Prime, I believe, is some of their most watched content.

So that’s our digital business. The long-form business is more of the traditional production company model, where we do series like American Vandal, I Love You America, Brockmire and No Activity, as well as the two movies that we produced last year, both of which should be coming out this year. And so it’s a matter of balancing those two things—digital and long-form. We can’t just become a production company, but we also know that the world of digital publishing has changed dramatically. We still want to be a publisher. We still want to have production capabilities. I’m really excited about the Rose Parade special we did this year with Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon. Will grew up in Orange County. He always loved the Rose Parade in Pasadena, and he seriously wanted to announce it. He came up with a character and asked Molly to be a part of it. It took a few years to work through everything with the Tournament of Roses, our partners in Pasadena, but we got it done. The first time we did the special, we did it with Amazon. The second time we did it, this year, we wanted to do it on our own and own that content and add to our library. We got four different brand partners to help deficit finance the special. Something unique about Funny Or Die is our ability to talk to brands. We have a sales team that raises money. We also have the ability to distribute our content on our own through our website and all of our social platforms. Because we have an audience north of 40 million people, we were able to market it directly to consumers. And we were able to produce it at effectively a premium TV level because of all of our long-form production infrastructure. Will and Molly trusted us to do it right, and I think that trust paid off.

That’s a model for what we want the future of Funny Or Die to be—as many of these hybrid projects as possible that take the best of digital and long-form and create great options and ownership for talent. I don’t think any company out there can combine the digital and the long-form in a way that allows these opportunities for creators. American Vandal is another example. I’m very proud of that show, and part of me still can’t believe it was canceled. But a big reason Netflix canceled us was because Netflix didn’t own the show themselves. In the short term that’s disappointing, but in the long term it means a lot more opportunities for us. I look forward to working with our partners to bring back an entire American Vandal world/ecosystem. I think American Vandal can become the Law & Order of comedy. It is a true premium procedural show that can have so many extensions and create so many worlds. I get fired up thinking about it. So really I think the cancellation was a blessing in disguise, letting us own more of that show.

That’s the key. I’m focusing on how Funny Or Die, with the right talent packages, can create more ownership for creators. The streaming wars are coming, and with the amount of money being spent on all this disruption, I think it’s important for producers and creators to be thoughtful about how to position their work to create as much ownership as possible. Think through the ramifications of whatever deal you’re making, because if you’re getting “X” amount, you can bet that whoever bought it, whoever owns it, is getting 100 times “X”, somehow, some way.

Farah (right) consults with director Chris Henchy on the set of Funny Or Die's upcoming feature film Impractical Jokers.
Photo courtesy of Boris Martin.


Other than expanding the company in new directions, how has the basic business of making funny content changed over the last 10 years?

To some degree that answer has remained the same. There’s always the combination of the talent, the idea and the timing. But there is so much content out there that only the best things have a chance to pop. That’s how we looked at videos back then, and that’s the environment that helped create Between Two Ferns and Drunk History and Billy on the Street and The Presidential Reunion and Prop 8: The Musical. They all felt special and unique but still accessible to audiences.

For me that was really the heyday of premium digital comedy. Now, because social is such a big thing, and people can self-document and basically create their own channels with their phones, it’s different. There was that moment where the MCNs and “the influencers” arrived. These people would just talk about their lives on camera and other people seemed to like it. That was a moment. Then there was the question of, “what goes viral?” For a moment talk show hosts getting emotional about the state of the world was going viral. The reaction to Trump made a whole bunch of things go viral. Now what’s gone viral? A picture of an egg. So sure, why not? I mean, the egg should have its moment.

But it’s a little sad for me, because with everything going to social platforms, I think to some degree, that golden era of digital sketch comedy is overthe kind of stuff we were able to do when digital video became much cheaper and creators could write and edit and direct very quickly. These young filmmakers were taking advantage of it, the timing was right for it. What is the ecosystem now? I mean, I would argue content still needs those basic ingredients, but the audience has been so spread out that there’s just not as clear of a formula for success. For example, digital publishers were forced to move to Facebook, because that’s where the audience was going. Then you’d see, “Oh, my god, we just got a hundred billion views on Facebook, but we made $14.”

With the proliferation of platforms, there’s almost too much content being made. I don’t know how long it can sustain itself. It also means that right now, the power is with the platforms. And honestly they’ve earned that right. They’ve succeeded. They’ve disrupted distribution and consumerism enough that creators are now trying to play catch-up.

But don’t get me wrong, Funny Or Die has been lucky. We are a startup, right? Most startups go out of business. A very few get bought. Even fewer achieve the “unicorn” status of being bought for huge multiples and becoming self-sustaining businesses. We, on the other hand, are still independent, and still going strong. There are not many 12-year-old startups, but we are a 12-year-old startup. That gives us the freedom to produce all these different types of exceptional premium content. It also naturally creates challenges. But I don’t think Will and the guys would have it any other way. It’s crazy and it’s stressful and it’s the best and it’s the worst. But it still doesn’t really feel like work. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this.


I gotta say, it doesn’t sound like you have many regrets.

I’m far from perfect. I’ve made a bunch of mistakes, but I don’t have any regrets. I believe in staying positive. I love betting on Funny Or Die. I get fired up just thinking about how many opportunities are out there for us. I would take our staff, our group of creators into any situation and know we’ll make it work. That’s why I’m here. The people and the work and the challenge, they’re everything.

 


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