‘Funny is not enough,” says Ricky Van Veen, the 29-year-old CEO of CollegeHumor, a website devoted to being funny. He’s sitting in his corner office in the Gehry-designed IAC building, overlooking Chelsea Piers, and he’s talking to Sam Reich, CollegeHumor’s 26-year-old head of original content, about their “family recipe” for making comedy videos that reliably go viral. “Viral videos aren’t just about being funny,” Van Veen continues. “They’re about identity creation. You send the video to your friends to say something about yourself. You’re saying, ‘I get this. Do you get it?’ ”
“There’s a difference between merely funny and viral funny,” says Reich. He was hired in 2006 based on his work for an Internet sketch-comedy group, and his first video for CollegeHumor was merely funny. Titled “Gwammi Mufasta,” it was a spam parody about a dying Nigerian finance minister who fires off an e-mail to an American stranger who, of course, deletes it immediately. And it taught Reich a lesson. “If a sketch relies on a last-minute twist, then there’s no way to describe that to your friends without ruining the joke,” he says.
It also led to the formulation of the “family recipe”: The title of the video (for example, “The Matrix Runs on Windows”) should serve as the joke’s setup while the video delivers the punch line (the Matrix is full of glitches and is always freezing up). A subsequent sketch by Reich had the much more tantalizing title “Realistic Hollywood Sex Scene” (“Two souls intertwine forever. One of them is still wearing socks”) and it became a viral sensation, topping 20 million views.
This trusty recipe, though, has become a kind of dilemma, as Van Veen looks to expand the site beyond the viral-comedy business. “All Internet comedy is niche comedy,” Reich explains. “If you do an Internet video about Halo, every Halo fan will send it to every other Halo fan. But if you did an episode of a network comedy that parodied Halo, most of your audience wouldn’t even get it.” So Van Veen is looking to reformulate the recipe, to accomplish his next goal: to transform CollegeHumor from a successful comedy website into a successful movie-and-TV-production company. Or, more specifically, a successful company that makes whatever it is that will replace movies and TV.
Van Veen launched CollegeHumor in 1999—when he was an 18-year-old student at Wake Forest—along with a childhood friend, Josh Abramson (now the company’s president). In their own personal Social Network moment, the two of them were invited by Josh’s older brother to D.J. a party thrown by an advertising start-up called TeknoSurf. “We saw all these twentysomething millionaires partying, drinking, and getting high,” says Van Veen. “And we thought, We want to do this. So I literally started building the CollegeHumor site right there. On the laptop. At the party.”
At first, CollegeHumor (CH) existed as a bare-bones aggregation site, basically a curated bulletin board for college kids to post funny stories and ribald photos (lots of topless girls and beer-can pyramids).
Van Veen now describes that period as Phase One.
In 2006, Barry Diller bought a majority stake in the site’s parent company, Connected Ventures, for an undisclosed sum, estimated at the time to be about $20 million. Diller has earned a reputation as a dogged collector of talent, using his IAC flagship building to house a glass menagerie of name-brand hires, such as Tina Brown and former NBC head Ben Silverman. Even so, Diller took a particular shine to Van Veen. “It’s instantly clear that he is compelling—of brain, and instinct, and curiosity, and energy, and edge. He’s worthy,” Diller says. Van Veen was 25 at the time and already an Internet star: He and his three partners had been featured in a New Yorker profile that portrayed them as wide-eyed frat-boy transplants to New York, watching Sex and the City DVDs and sharing a $10,000-a-month loft in Tribeca. “That profile was a huge moment for them,” says David Cho, Van Veen’s college friend and now the publisher of the Awl website. “After that, it was all kind of unstoppable.”
Following the acquisition, Van Veen refocused CH from posting user-submitted content to creating original videos and web series like “Full Benefits” (about two co-workers hiding a relationship) and “Jake & Amir” (about two co-workers feuding), which can draw half a million viewers per episode.
That was Phase Two.
Phase Three began this fall, and it involves creating the kind of content we’ll be watching tomorrow—even if no one’s exactly sure what that content might look like yet. “Before, if you were in entertainment, you just had three containers to put content in: the 22-minute TV show, the 44-minute TV show, and the feature film,” says Van Veen. “Now you have to say, ‘Are we going to do a 30-minute short and sell it on iTunes? Or are we going to get this brand to fund a five-episode series of three-minute shorts?’ Not only do you have to decide what to put in the container, you have to build the container.”