HOME OF THE BELLY LAUGH: THEY STARTED WITH AN ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT BUFFET OF GREAT COMEDY SPOTS, AND NOW THEY'RE MOVING INTO FILM AND TV. CALL IT A GUT FEELING, BUT IT LOOKS LIKE HUNGRY MAN WILL BE GETTING SECONDS ON DESSERT.

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A mere two years old, New-York based Hungry Man, founded by creatives-turned-directors Bryan Buckley and Hank Perlman and executive producer Steve Orent, can already lay claim to the title of funniest production company in America. As if that weren't enough, they recently signed a two-year development deal with Brillstein-Grey Television and started a feature film division.

So with all this success, are the Hungry Men still hungry? Sorry, they never were. "To this day, I'm not sure about the name," says Perlman, 33. "But it has nothing to do with being hungry. We don't want that meaning attached to it."

"It could lend itself to tabletop," the 35-year-old Buckley chuckles. "Comedy tabletop. There's money in that. We're gonna get there."

OK, it's not about being acquisitive -- Buckley and Perlman suggest they pulled the name out of a hat, where it was competing with the likes of Vida Blue and Gigantic. Nonetheless, Hungry Man spots have grabbed everything from Cannes Gold Lions to Ad Age Bests, all with gobs of stick-to-your-ribs humor. A brief runthrough of comic highlights:

Buckley, one of the founders of the now-defunct agency Buckley DeCerchio Cavalier when he was only 24, has shot for ESPN SportsCenter, E*trade, Fox Baseball, the Bud Lizards, Snickers and Monster.com (kids saying things like, "When I grow up, I want to be a brownnoser.").

Perlman, a former Wieden & Kennedy copywriter on ESPN, boasts spots for the Independent Film Channel, Snickers, Sprite, Yoo-hoo and Doritos' hilarious "Experiment," a Monty Pythonesque cavalcade of exploding cows.

John O'Hagan, the director of Wonderland, a Cable Ace Award-winning documentary about Long Island's Levittown, also directed the Cliff Freeman & Partners' Outpost.com campaign, which of course includes the notorious gerbil shot from a cannon. No one-shot wonder, he has great comedy spots for Dial-A-Mattress (another Gold Lion winner), MTV and Cartoon Network as well.

David Shane, an ex-Chiat/Day writer, directed for Quokka.com, MTV, BellSouth, and ESPN Hockey.

Paul Norling, a dual-careerist who is also a very accomplished editor at FilmCore, has done a ton of SportsCenter spots, plus Tidy Cat and PNC Bank.

David Levin, who also edits, wrote and directed the "Film 101" campaign with that fabulous Russian instructor, Boris, for the Independent Film Channel.

Lara Shapiro, in a writing and directing collaboration with Perlman, created IFC's "Christie" campaign, starring little Hallie Eisenberg as the world's only auteur with an 8 p.m. bedtime.

The list goes on. There are a whopping 12 directors in the Hungry Man stable right now, and even an artsy guy with a fashion background like Young Kim has a funny reel, including a bizarre spot for Washington potatoes in which a woman cavorts with a giant spud. Was Hungry Man formed specifically as a comedy house? "No," says Perlman, seemingly in earnest. "I guess we're sort of known for comedy," he adds, in the understatement of the year, "but we do dialogue, storytelling -- just good work. We'd like to be known for just good work."

They both reject the notion that they've been hopelessly typecast by the industry as a funny farm. "I don't think we're in a comedy pigeonhole," insists Buckley. "Each director has his own voice. When we opened, it was a big concern that we didn't want to be known as 'the mock-documentary company.' Or as 'the sports guys.' I think people come here mainly for dialogue."

"You can't say Hungry Man has a clearcut style," says Goodby Silverstein & Partners ACD David Gray, who's worked with Buckley on E*trade and Snickers. "It's just straight humor. They're the funniest directors in the business, and they're willing to improvise. There's this sense of spontaneity on the set that's very refreshing. Older directors are set in their ways. These guys have no attitude."

Maybe they get swelled heads about their success with the mock-documentary. Didn't they invent that seemingly ubiquitous style?

"No," Buckley says firmly.

"I thought we did," says a puzzled Perlman.

"I think Woody Allen invented it with Zelig," says Buckley. "There was also The Rutles movie."

"Well, the point is the fake documentary was never an idea," Perlman insists. "We never said, 'Hey, let's do a fake documentary.' There's an idea, then there's a way to execute it."

Fine, but is it over? Has the mockumentary outlasted its welcome? "It's misleading to say it's over," Perlman believes, which may be another way of saying the SportsCenter campaign is still going strong. "Sometimes the best way to execute an idea is with a fake documentary."

They agree the style is "tired, but don't confuse it with naturalistic performances and a lack of slick camera work," cautions Buckley, who points out that a certain lack of production sophistication is part of the standard commercials repertory nowadays.

Mockumentaries aside, many of the Hungry Man reels are steeped in a similar outrageous comic sensibility. As Perlman proudly declares, "We all have something in common: comedy with intelligence and irreverence." But are clients buying Hungry Man or are they buying a particular director? "I think it's probably a combination of the two," says Steve Orent. "We do get calls from agencies where they'll ask us, 'Who do you suggest?' But if you put the same board in front of 10 different directors, you'll get 10 different spots."

"We didn't want to hire a bunch of directors who all came from advertising and all do the exact same thing," says Perlman.

"There's a lot of work that will come in for certain people," Buckley notes. "There's a certain tone of work that'll come in here, and if a particular director is not available, it can be moved over to another guy."

There's also plenty of Web weirdness on hand. "Close to 75 percent of the boards we get now are dot-com comedy spots," says Buckley.

"We usually run a credit check on 'em first," jokes Perlman. Not in the case of E*trade, whose "budget is through the roof," he gleefully notes. "These dot-com companies know they have to get out there, and TV is the way to do it." Buckley has a new round of E*trade spots out, including a gross-out :30 in which a young hunk is kept by an old bag, who demands he massage her disgusting feet. Tag: "Be your own sugar daddy."

"I think the best dot-comedy elevates the whole business," says Buckley, who also directed none other than a slimmed-down Anna Nicole Smith in an elaborate E*trade action movie trailer parody. "We just went to Bryan with the idea to do an action movie," says Goodby ACD Gerry Graf, David Gray's partner on E*trade. " It was his idea to hire Smith and also to get George Takei [Star Trek's Mr. Sulu] to play the bad guy." The Hungry Men "are the most talented people in the business, but they're completely approachable," adds Graf. "They just love to collaborate."

And they love to be politically incorrect. "Hey, Outpost comes out and blows a gerbil out of a cannon, and you can either blow a gerbil out of a cannon now or hit the sidelines," says Buckley. "Everyone has to be more aggressive to be noticed."

Gerbils everywhere are cowering in fear at that news, we're sure, especially considering the sheer breadth of this company. Is 12 directors too many? Could there be a production equivalent to Jay Chiat's well-known adage, "How big do you have to get before you get bad?"? The Men aren't concerned. "We haven't set a limit," says Buckley. "We have an L.A. office now and we're just starting to make some inroads in London. As we've grown, we've set up a structure to make sure it doesn't get out of control."

"Adding directors has been very selective," says Perlman. "Many of them have started here, they're home-grown."

And there are some spots that are co-directed and co-written, as well. "This comes out of the fact that we like working with each other," says Buckley, "There are no ego problems, we're willing to share credit."

"And we're equally selective about boards," says Perlman. "If you look at our worst stuff, it's still good. We're always tempted to take the bad spots. They do come in here, and we're always thinking summer houses. I think we've been good about that."

Choosy as they may be, there is still a downside to being a conquering comedy corps. Complains Buckley, "During conference calls, everyone we talk to expects

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