Damon Wayans: 'I'm the Filter!'

Comedian's Wayout TV Wants to Be the Gatekeeper for What's Funny on the Web

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Seven years ago, when Damon Wayans was creating "My Wife and Kids" for ABC, he still hadn't so much as touched a laptop computer.
Damon Wayans
Damon Wayans Credit: Scott Gries

"I was afraid I'd break it," he explained, "that if I pressed the wrong button, it'd explode."

Today, Mr. Wayans is pushing Madison Avenue's buttons, recruiting brands to underwrite what he calls "his legacy": Wayout TV, a multiplatform production company that has been incubating shows for the internet. His venture also aims to serve as a creative haven for up-and-coming writers, directors, producers, actors and musical talent. He started uploading material onto a Wayout TV channel on YouTube in February (he's negotiating a similar deal with MySpace) and is on the prowl for both artists and advertisers for WayoutTV. This time, though, Mr. Wayans hopes his computer effort does explode.

TV career
Mr. Wayans has spent the past two decades periodically surfacing on TV, first as a featured performer on "Saturday Night Live," then in the ground-breaking Fox sketch-comedy show "In Living Color" (often as the truculent ex-con-turned-kiddy-harlequin Homey D. Clown) in the early '90s. Most recently, he created and starred on ABC's "My Wife and Kids" from 2001 to 2005. He is not optimistic about the future of the medium.

"Not many of my peers are doing this," Mr. Wayans says of his web venture. "They say its small potatoes, like cable 30 years ago -- something you did in your basement. I see it differently. With television dying, viewership down, there are too many options. Entertainment has become like the menu at Jerry's Deli," he said, referring to the pages-long, forest-slaying document at the famed Hollywood eatery. "You know? 'Just tell me what's good!' And so I've decided to be the one to tell people what's good."

The question, of course, is: Will Mr. Wayans be able to retain creative oversight, let alone outright ownership, of the content -- especially if he pairs with marketers for branded content?

"Because I'm spending my own money, yes." he said. "On a business level, I think it's very smart for brands to own their content. They walk into networks and to studios with a stronger position in terms of, 'We own this, guys, so give us the best prime-time spots.' But on a creative level, it's a little scary, because nobody wants to tell or hear a story about soap. I could create a character that likes to wash a lot, but the character is just not the soap."

Watching closely
Industry players are keenly watching Mr. Wayans and noting with interest how much leeway brands may give him both financially and creatively.

"Brands are expressing a great desire to work with professional Hollywood talent," said Brent Weinstein, CEO of the newly formed online content creator 60 Frames Entertainment, which works with established artists such as the Coen brothers.

"But [brands] also have a sincere desire to have greater [content] ownership, because they can advertise heavily in a show at its inception, but then they retain virtually no interest in a show downstream, when it's become successful. So they're excited to work with professional talent" and so will forgo full ownership, even if it means splitting revenue and letting talent keep most of it.

'Urban destination online'
Mr. Wayans declined to offer specifics of his deals with YouTube and MySpace but indicated that the revenue from any ads or partnerships will be split between Wayout TV and those portals and that the split would favor him when he brings a brand to the table.

"'Funny' is not the problem," Mr. Wayans said. "The problem is: Can I stay in the race? Can I not get distracted by films and television projects that are, in the short term, the bigger reward? ... This is like [BET founder Robert] Johnson 20 years ago: There is no urban destination online. Everybody goes to YouTube, but they're digging way too long and too deep to find something good. Who's the filter? I'm the filter!"