'There are easier ways to make money...' | Matt Lucas on his new internet comedy venture

'There are easier ways to make money...'

Matt Lucas on his new internet comedy venture

What do you do after you have conquered TV comedy as comprehensively as Matt Lucas and David Walliams have done? Movies might have been the traditional answer, but not any more, it seems.

Just days before embarking on their assault on American screens, the duo have announced their move into the still largely unchartered territory of online comedy, as partners in the UK version of Funny Or Die.

The American site was set up by Will Ferrell last year, and in August claimed a record eight million unique users. And given how Little Britain is based around short clips, with catchphrases have that have spread virally through Britain’s playgrounds, the match seems a natural one.

Like everyone else, Matt and David became aware of Funny Or Die when a friend sent them a clip. In fact the link was to The Landlord, the single sketch that is the cornerstone of the entire business. There are 37,000 videos on the US site, but the scene of Ferrell arguing with his ruthless, cantankerous landlord – a two-year-old girl called Pearl – is responsible for more than a quarter of all traffic, with just under 60 million views to date.

‘David and I were watching it when we should have been working,’ Lucas said. ‘We became huge fans. We jumped at the chance to be partners in the British version.

‘We met briefly with Will Ferrell, then went to a gig at the Radio City Concert Hall the website put on, with Will Ferrell doing Ron Burgundy [from Anchorman], Demetri Martin and Zach Galifianakis; and I’m a massive fan of Zach’

‘The site is very interesting. From a creative point of view, you can just do a sketch and get out it online very quickly.’

‘On Little Britain we spend a lot of time on the scripts and the production, but Funny Or Die is intimate and low-fi, like home video. The appeal is watching people mucking about, and the funniest things can be when you just point a video camera at people mucking about.

‘The site is a great platform for comedians to be experimental; and it’s an opportunity for aspiring comedians to get their stuff out there. They can showcase their stand-up, or make a little film and put their Edinburgh festival dates up there at the end. People will use it as a publicity tool.’

‘We’re going to use Funny Or Die to experiment. Plus we’re going to put up Little Britain USA clips not seen anywhere else, as well as exclusive behind-the-scenes content.

‘Making some new Rock Profiles, with a new batch of pop stars, might also be something we do; because that’s fairly simple to produce.’

Funny Or Die, which will also invite users to contribute content, isn’t the only big-player website offering comedy, not by a long chalk. Last year, Warner Entertainment launched comedybox with veteran producer John Lloyd, which is now MySpace’s Comedy Channel, while RDF Media has recently launched Comedy Demon, with clips sitting alongside shows you can buy. Then, there’s the YouTube behemoth, supposedly threatening the entire TV industry

But making money is difficult. Only a very few clips attracts viewers in their millions – even fewer if you restrict the field to content that isn’t in breach of copyright. Last week, Henry Normal – who co-owns production company Baby Cow with Steve Coogan – said: ‘There’s no real way of funding comedy online… there’s no way of making money.’

‘We’re not doing it for financial reasons,’ Lucas concedes. ‘There are easier ways to make money. Funny Or Die is not about making Hollywood levels of money, but about getting things up quicker.’

But he says comedy could go the way elements the music industry have done, where performers use the internet to promote more lucrative live gigs, as the income from album or single sales dwindles. He believes Funny Or Die, which highlights videos chosen by editors and by the online community, will help people find the good comedy.

‘YouTube is amazing as a research tool,’ he said. ‘But it’s brilliant and frustrating at the same time. Funny Or Die will become a destination for comedy, bringing order to that chaos.’

But while the UK site launches today, Matt and David have another small matter to contend with: cracking America. The pair are doing the late-night chat show circuit this week to plug their HBO series, starting on Sunday.

‘We hadn’t expected to make more series of Little Britain, but we were approached by [Pop Idol producer] Simon Fuller, who set up a meeting at HBO

‘We thought it would be like The Office, with a group of US comedians making their own version of the show. We thought we might be making a cameo, but not starring. But we got a six-part series.

‘It’s entirely set and shot in America with about 60 per cent of the original characters: Daffyd is now in university so he’s the only gay on campus, Sebastian is the British Prime Minister flirting with the American president, and Vicky Pollard is a juvenile delinquent in brat camp.’

So is America ready for this? And will they take to a show that’s so clearly branded as British?

‘HBO is the network behind The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm, so their programmes are more edgy,’ Matt says. ‘They’ve shown Extras and Ali G, too, so their audience should be familiar with British comedy.

‘The image is that the Americans are less intelligent or more parochial, but that’s a lazy stereotype. I don’t see it like that.

‘Lots of British people are done well out there: Simon Cowell, Cat Deeley, Simon Pegg… They’re more open to British entertainment.’

And after the promotional tour, Lucas is returning to the set of Krod Mandoon And The Flaming Sword Of Fire – the sword-and-sorcery comedy being made for Comedy Central in the States, and the BBC in the UK.

‘I’m enjoying it tremendously,’ he said. ‘It is the most fun. When I work with David it takes six, seven, eight months to try to be funny. So it’s nice to come on to so someone else’s show and find it’s just brilliant.’

And for all his fame, the comic wasn’t a shoo-in for the role of the villainous Dongalor. ‘I got sent a script and was asked to come down and audition… That’s how it should be, I’m happy to audition – and I’m so glad I did.’

Viewers will have to wait until the end of the year to see how it turn out… if they can tear themselves away from watching comedy on their computers, that is.

>> Funnyordie.co.uk

Published: 22 Sep 2008

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