Lindsay Lohan and the irresistible rise of 'mockumentary'

Troubled actress has revived her career – by posting a witty video on the website that's redefining comedy

Lindsay Lohan hasn't had much to laugh about lately, what with the public meltdowns, court appearances, and endless fights with paparazzi chronicling the breakdown of her relationship with Samantha Ronson. But the headline-prone actress has, it seems, managed to retain a passing acquaintance with her sense of humour.

In a bold display of self-awareness, Hollywood's most prominent "train-wreck," last week posted a video-taped message to fans on the internet. It took the form a spoof dating advert, in which she claimed to be searching for a life companion who doesn't mind her (alleged) alcoholism, or colourful nocturnal habits.

"I would define my personality as creative, a bit of a night owl," she said, with a perky smile. "I'm a workaholic, a shopaholic and, according to the state of California, an alcoholic… Well crash a few parties, a car or two, but at the end of the day I promise you: I never lose my Google hits - just my underwear!"

The 90 second video was watched by a million people in its first day. Pundits were smitten. "It's not just getting laughs, it may get her career back on track," reported Robin Roberts, the influential ABC news anchor. "It's almost like an audition tape for people who could be hiring her," cooed US Weekly's Dana Sansing.

By yesterday, it had pulled nearly 3 million views, prompting widespread speculation that Lohan, who starred in hits like Freaky Friday and Mean Girls before her erratic private life saw her shunned from major Hollywood roles, might suddenly be on course to light up the screen once more.

So far, so normal, in the fickle world of Hollywood. But the clip's real significance had less to do with Lindsay Lohan than with the website where it appeared. It is called Funny or Die, was founded by the comedian Will Ferrell in April 2007, and in two short years has become one of the most important and talked-about brands in show-business.

Funny or Die, which is essentially a version of YouTube for comedy, is changing the way fallen celebrities rehabilitate themselves. It has become the "go to" venue for film and TV producers searching for new talent, or trialing fresh material. And in the eyes of some experts, the way it makes and markets content represents a blueprint for the future of television.

In October, Funny or Die helped Paris Hilton create a video mocking John McCain, who had used her image in a campaign advert during the Presidential election. "He's the oldest celebrity in the world… like, super old… But is he ready to lead?" It stole the news agenda. Nine million people watched.

Earlier last year, when the rumour-mill suggested that an intimate video of Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria was doing the rounds, she took her heat out of headlines by recording a spoof sex tape for the site. "I've gotta go to sleep," she said, at the end. "I have an audition tomorrow. Something called Desperate Housewives. It sounds crap." The film clocked up eight million views.



Funny or Die works as follows: it contains thousands of short, comic video clips. Some are created by either private users (there are tens of thousands); others by the site's own creative team, which is run by Ferrell, his writing partner Adam McKay, comedy producer Judd Apatow, and the screenwriter (and Mr Brooke Shields) Chris Henchy.

After watching the clips. Users click on a voting switch labelled either "funny" or "die." The more positive votes a clip gets, the more prominently it is displayed.

That, broadly, is that. But recently, thanks in no small part to the starry team that run affairs at the company, it has become a favourite outlet for short comic films recorded by Hollywood celebrities who, for whatever reason, are in need a bit of positive PR.

Last week, in the run up to the launch of his film 17 Again, Zac Efron - who despite his massive profile could use some artistic credibility - appeared on the site. Other celebrities to have volunteered their services for it include Jack Black, John Hamm, Natalie Portman, Ron Howard and Gina Gershon.

"In the old days, if a celebrity had something to say, or if they were in trouble, they would go on the late night chat-show circuit, like Hugh Grant did when he was caught with the hooker," says LA media consultant Jacquie Jordan, the owner of tvguestpert.com.

"Now, they can also do a skit for Funny or Die. In PR terms, it has clear advantages. First of all, it's instantaneous. It also feels a little understated. From the public's point of view, seeing a famous person doing an internet skit is like catching a famous person eating at McDonalds rather than Mr Chow's. Its cute."

The site's first ever hit was called "The Landlord," and featured a character played by Will Ferrell being harassed for overdue rent by a two-year-old infant. That clip, released on the day Funny or Die launched, rapidly went viral. It now boasts 62 million views, and is one of the most watched video in the history of the internet.

Today, the website boasts 45 full time employees in the US. A spin-off UK version, run by Matt Lucas and David Walliams, was launched in September. It is also taking to the traditional airwaves: HBO recently announced that it had struck a deal to develop a series of comedy TV programmes, called "Funny or Die presents."

"I don't want to overstate the importance of this deal, but this is the missing link moment where TV and Internet finally merge," says Ferrell. "It will change the way we as human beings perceive and interact with reality. Okay, I overstated it. But it is an exciting deal."

In fact, Ferrell had a point. Funny or Die's tie up with a mainstream broadcaster may very well represent the future of television programme development.

In the past, new shows could only emerge via the expensive route of filming TV pilots, with all the vetting and market research that entails. Funny or Die, and sites like it, provide a cheap proving ground for new comic material.

"It's an incredibly quick, artist-friendly system," says the firm's CEO Dick Glover. "That's the point of it. You can literally do what you want, when you want, without 28 page legal documents. With the Lindsay Lohan clip, for example, she called us on Thursday, we had a script Friday, it shot on Saturday and went online on Wednesday."

"Studios are also using us to try out new talent and formats and see if public takes to them. On the other side of the coin, they are using it to find new talent. CAA have already signed one or two writers who put material on our site. So have UTA."

Comedy is, of course, a perfect medium for internet TV, providing most of the content for several leading online stations such as the UK's Channelflip which carries a weekly skit by Peep Show's David Mitchell, and Sony's US site Crackle. Most rely on viewers using email to forward humorous clips or shows to friends.

"You can tell a joke in a minute. Or less. And that makes comedy ideal for the internet, which is all about short attention spans. It's about snackable content," says Chris McLure, the president of Candortv.com, a site that carries material by stand-up comedians.

The million dollar question, of course, is whether it can also make a profit. With audiences for network TV falling drastically, and advertisers vanishing in the face of recession, the industry's finances are in a parlous state. Internet TV, with its low overheads, and vast reach, represents a beguiling commercial proposition.

"If you can reach the right audience with the right content, you can make money with all sorts of things that in the past wouldn't wash their face," says Scott Nocas, a Vice President at Sony, who is responsible for helping Playstation users get downloadable video content through the console.

"I think of a show on one of the online TV stations called "You suck at Photoshop." It's just this guy at a computer manipulating images and making snide comments, and it's very, very funny. The show would never exist in a network TV world, where you need 10 million viewers. But online, it can be made for very little, distributed almost free, and with a relatively tiny weekly audience still make commercial sense."

All of which, in a roundabout way, is same as saying that Funny or Die and its peers work on the basis that laughter really is the best medicine. As Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and the host of stars taking a sudden interest in internet comedy, would no doubt agree.

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