I didn't necessarily expect to LOL at the first episode of "The CollegeHumor Show," a TV spinoff of CollegeHumor.com that makes its debut on MTV this Sunday at 9:30 EST (and, per usual with MTV, will repeat endlessly; for the schedule, check MTV.com). But halfway into watching the advance screener at home (during a scene involving an unfortunate accident in a glass-walled office that has been converted into an IKEA-style ballroom) I laughed so loud I scared my girl cat, Ella, off the couch. A cheerfully amateurish production, the show combines short viral-video bits -- of the sort that CollegeHumor has been producing in-house, as original content, since 2006, when Barry Diller's InterActive Corp. bought the site -- with a workplace comedy a la "The Office" or "30 Rock." You expect it to be sophomoric and stupid -- and it is -- but it's also strangely delightful.
In this latest installment of Dumenco's Media People, I spoke with CollegeHumor Editor in Chief and co-founder Ricky Van Veen about the making of the show. Van Veen, who plays a fictionalized, highly self-absorbed version of himself on the show -- which is shot in CollegeHumor's actual Manhattan offices -- has been something of a media celebrity since January 2005, when Rebecca Mead profiled him and his fellow boyish CH co-founders in The New Yorker. Diller's surprise purchase of the property the following year not only made Van Veen and his college buddies wealthy, it made them blog-world obsessions (Gawker in particular has enjoyed torturing the CollegeHumor gang). Meanwhile, advertisers (including AT&T, Virgin Mobile, Axe and Pepsi) attracted to CollegeHumor's 6 million monthly unique visitors -- and lock on a certain fun-loving, male-skewing consumer that 30 years ago might have read "The National Lampoon" -- have made the property one of the few bright spots in IAC's portfolio of content properties.- - -
Simon Dumenco: First, describe the show.
Ricky Van Veen: It's a hyper-real workplace comedy with sporadic random sketches. So maybe "The Office" on methamphetamines meets "SNL Digital Shorts"? Or maybe "30 Rock" meets a show that won't win awards?
Dumenco: Did you approach MTV, or did they approach you?
Van Veen: They actually approached us. We had been making these sketches and low-budget shorts around our office for a while. Sam Grossman, one of their development execs, had the idea to put them together in a TV-friendly format. That idea evolved into what is now a 30-minute, single-camera comedy with a narrative through-line.
Dumenco: How does that work, exactly? Because watching your random viral-video sketches and low-budget shorts over the years, I've always gotten the sense that you have a rather informal system, in which different in-house writers will work with different in-house producers and different on-air talent, totally depending on whichever ideas actually stick. Actually, I guess that's basically the Lorne Michaels "Saturday Night Live" model.
Van Veen: We do have a pretty flexible in-house production system where different directors will work with different writers, editors, etc. And there's a ton of overlap in roles. That said, it's by no means a sloppy operation. For the TV show, we brought in a show runner from L.A., Scott Tomlinson, who, unlike us, has experience running a TV show. That's proved to be really helpful, as we had no idea how to interface with a TV network.
It's interesting that you bring up Lorne Michaels, because he's built the model I'm trying to emulate for a different medium. I had a meeting with him a few years ago, complete with his customary hourlong wait time, and he gave me some really great advice about building a stable of talent and an entertainment brand. As much as people perennially talk about the "good old days" of "SNL," I honestly think it's at the top of its game right now -- one of the best shows on the air.
Dumenco: Totally agree with you about "SNL." God bless Lorne, you know? Anyway, when you spoke of bringing in a show runner to tell you "how to interface with a TV network" -- that sounds to me like bringing in someone to tell you how to avoid date rape. And how to ignore "notes" from network suits.
Van Veen: To be honest, there has been so little interference from MTV throughout the whole process. It's been really surprising. It could be the result of us producing the show ourselves or the fact that they don't want to disrupt the tone of what we've been doing the past few years. Either way, it's been great.
I think we officially got greenlit in August, but our show runner got here Oct. 1, so that's when the process got under way. Factoring in the holidays, it's been an incredibly short time to write, produce and edit six episodes of a new TV show.
Dumenco: Just to dwell further on the "SNL" model, it seems -- judging from your original video content over the past few years -- that you've purposely recruited writers who could do double duty as on-air talent.
Van Veen: The show has nine people who act and write in it. There's a Wikipedia page already that lists them. We hired our staffers based on their ability to write and only found out later that everybody was interested in being on camera and shooting these little sketches around the office. So we kind of lucked into that. That said, our acting isn't going to be winning any awards. But we're going for a casual amateur vibe to the show, so hopefully the fact that we're having fun with the characters will take the focus off of our acting chops -- or lack thereof.
Dumenco: Let's talk about the business structure for a minute. And I'm wondering if there's any overlap between your online sponsors and the MTV show.
Van Veen: MTV sells the on-air time. The show went from green light to on-air so quickly that we didn't have time to coordinate any big cross-platform brand deals, but our contract allows for stuff like that to happen down the road. The endgame is definitely to connect the CH brand with the MTV audience and do more seasons. Right now, it's not only a great way to build and legitimize the brand, but it's an additional revenue stream for us in what appears to be a shaky new media climate.
Dumenco: I have to say that I'm a little sad that CollegeHumor isn't in the main IAC bulding, because it sure would have been fun to see you treat a Frank Gehry-designed corporate trophy hut as a glorified jungle gym. Also, I'm hoping that your boss, old Hollywood hand Barry Diller, will have a cameo appearance in the show. Is that too much to ask?
Van Veen: While I'm a huge fan of going to the IAC building for meetings and parties, I don't think the show would have happened if we were based there. A big part of the reason we could do the show was because of the cost efficiencies from shooting in the actual place we work. I'm not sure the other businesses there would have been cool with us shining production lights in their faces and yelling at them to be quiet because we're about to do a take.
I haven't asked Barry about being on the show, but it would obviously be great to have him do a cameo. He's one of the funniest people I know -- not funny for a guy in his sixties, or funny for a media mogul, but legit funny. Though if he doesn't want to come on, we could always have Alan Dale play him. That might be even better.
Dumenco: Alan Dale -- nice. Though I think Jeffrey Tambor could also pull it off. I'd also like to see a Nick Denton character. You know, like, a cuddly blog mogul who is vaguely obsessed with both you and Barry Diller -- just as Gawker is in real life. Could you write that in please?
Van Veen: Knowing Nick, I think he'd much prefer to be a character in "Battlestar Gallactica" or "Friday Night Lights."