Over at IAC, like an industrious factory, they are building a lot of containers. Van Veen also heads Notional, a CH spinoff that’s sold a few conventional reality shows, such as Chopped on the Food Network and Rocco’s Dinner Party on Bravo. DumbDumb, another IAC property, uses the production capabilities of CollegeHumor to create boutique commercials under the guidance of actors Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. DumbDumb is partnered with Electus, headed by Ben Silverman, which—well, we’ll let Electus describe itself: “A next-generation studio enabling premium content creators to engage with advertising and technology partners at the inception of the creative process and partner on the finished product across a global and multiplatform distribution model.”
All this talk of next-generation studios and multiplatform models can start to sound like the kind of shell-game gobbledygook spoofed by “strategenius” Alex Blagg at his parody website Bajillionhits.biz. (“It’s Social Media, not Social Youdia” is a typical Blagg koan.) Indeed, a common knock against IAC has been that the business strategy behind headline-grabbing maneuvers (for example, merging Daily Beast with Newsweek) seems to involve throwing a lot of spaghetti at the digital wall to see what sticks—except instead of spaghetti, it’s Diller’s money. (Diller, who remains chairman of IAC, recently stepped aside as CEO, saying, “It’s been clear to me for some time that this company needs a full-time, aggressive, and aspirational executive in the CEO role.”)
Yet there are dozens of other companies engaged in this same high-stakes pursuit, racing to answer the questions that hound Van Veen—questions like: Would you like to watch a late-night show on your iPad right before you fall asleep? Are you willing to watch a five-minute commercial for Orbit gum if it stars Jason Bateman? Do you or your friends even watch TV anymore? And if not, what is it you watch?
“People always talk about, ‘When this all gets figured out . . .’ ” says Van Veen. “But it’s not going to get figured out! Technology is not going to just stop.” Which leads to yet another question. “CollegeHumor was a genuine phenomenon,” says Nick Denton, of Gawker Media. “But Ricky would say himself he’s unproven in TV. So there’s the question: Do TV hits take the same skill set as Internet hits? Ricky works on the Internet. But does he work on cable?”
“I literally cannot believe that just happened!” says Van Veen in the back of a cab. “Did you see that? That was just like a cartoon!” He’s reacting to a cyclist who’s fallen over, though it’s more complicated than that: The cyclist had been stopped at a green light in the middle of the street, fiddling with his iPod. When the cab honked, the cyclist turned, pointed at the cabbie, and let loose a maniacal cackle. Then he lost his balance and toppled, in what was perhaps the most direct example of karma you’d ever hope to witness.
These kind of surreal episodes tend to track Van Veen down, if he doesn’t track them down first. His personal blog is titled “Get Excited!!!” and unlike many things that involve three exclamation points, it isn’t meant entirely ironically. He is super-psyched and upbeat. As a result, he comes across as a refreshing antidote to your typical TV executive, who, when asked to talk about the future of his medium, will grow sullen and grim-faced, as though you’ve asked him to detail the logistics of his own execution.
Van Veen also loves stunts and weird pranks, such as when he hung IN-N-OUT BURGER COMING SUMMER 2010 signs in Union Square for April Fool’s Day. He describes this hobby as “selectively putting an obscene amount of effort into absolutely trivial matters,” adding, “the ideal end result is somebody scratching their head and saying, ‘It has to be real, because I can’t imagine why anybody would bother doing this.’ ”
And he’s fond of a game called Would You Rather, in which he proposes absurd scenarios, such as: Would you rather have one abnormally large hand and one normal hand or two abnormally large hands? Would you rather go a year without sex or a year without the Internet? Neel Shah, a sitcom writer living in L.A. and a friend of Van Veen’s, says, “He once asked me, ‘How much money would it take for you to agree to only drive around L.A. in a UPS delivery truck?’ On the face of it, it’s a stupid little hypothetical. But we talked about that for, like, an hour. It’s interesting to see how his mind works, how he’ll process it and run through the algorithm as to all the different decisions you might make.”
At 10 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Van Veen summoned his four main deputies—Reich; Abramson; Amir Cohen, his director of product development; and Kai Hsing, VP of media operations and strategy—for a meeting in his IAC office. They’d gathered to talk about Phase Three, which, as it turns out, involves looking not to the future but to the past: basically, turning CollegeHumor into a hybrid of seventies-era SNL and a thirties-era movie studio. Van Veen already employs a large staff of writers, directors, and editors (most fresh out of college); now the site has added a cast of full-time actors. When he heard that SNL had hired Jay Pharoah, a stand-up comedian and YouTube sensation, Van Veen thought, Oh man! A few weeks ago, we could have hired him to do stuff for us!