‘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.”
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!
The goal is to eventually transform CollegeHumor—which is a profitable website—into a kind of mini-network, drawing revenue from advertising, branded content, and sponsorships; using the Internet instead of the airwaves; and distributing its programming through a growing list of subscribers on social sites like Facebook. To that end, Van Veen has a small grid of index cards on his office wall: A recently announced programming “schedule” (another throwback technique) by which web episodes are released at the same time every week, for viewers to watch on their computers or phones or wherever. “If you’re a content brand, you have to be in every place your audience is,” he says. “Sometimes your audience is on the couch and wants to watch a 30-minute show, and sometimes they’re checking their Facebook feed and want to see something that’s only a minute long.”
At the meeting, it doesn’t take long for Van Veen to bring up another question that’s been plaguing him: Can you build a TV show around “network effects”? He’d seen a video of Sean Parker—the “billion dollars” guy played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network—giving a talk about network effects at the Web 2.0 Summit 2009. This concept is what drives, for example, the popular Facebook game Farmville: The game is designed so that the more people who play it, the more fun it is for each person, so you’re inclined to recruit new players. Van Veen’s question for his deputies: “How do we translate network effects to original programming?”
Reich thinks for a moment, then says, “What if we did a show called ‘Ransom,’ where each week you hold the next episode for ransom until the previous episode hits a certain number of viewers?”
Van Veen likes this. “It’s not crazy. That could be the basis for something that really works.”
“Or what if we did a show with zombies and humans, with different episodes from each viewpoint?” says Reich, gathering steam. “So whichever episode gets the most views, that confers some advantage to that team and changes the story.”
Van Veen gets excited.
Then he pauses. He ponders.
“I wonder if it’s too on-the-nose,” he says. “When you’re in the business of getting views to videos, and you can make that part of a game, that’s smart. But you don’t want it just to seem like, ‘The more dollars you give to me, the more likely you are to win!’ ” This seems like an appropriate time to remind everyone: “Of course, the series itself has to be good.”
They table the discussion—not every question, no matter how compelling, has an immediate answer—and instead look at some retro-style promo slides for the site’s new slate of shows. “Now, these I love,” Van Veen says, as they gather around his monitor. “They look like old-time broadcast TV.” And just like that, he gets excited all over again.