Former “Daily Show” Producer Karlin is Humorist Behind WonderGlen Comedy Site

12/11/08Follow @wroush

Since October, the Internet has been abuzz with discussion about WonderGlen, a fictional TV production company whose fake company intranet is a window onto the obsessions of a staff that takes dysfunction well beyond the levels of Dunder Mifflin, the fictional paper company in NBC’s “The Office.” Much of the buzz has focused on the identities of the site’s creators, unknown until now; speculation has centered at various times on Los Angeles personalities such as director-producer Judd Apatow and on Jesse Thorn, host of the podcast “The Sound of Young America.” But according to a source who contacted Xconomy this week, the force behind WonderGlen is Ben Karlin, the former executive producer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central.

Karlin, who was also executive producer of “The Colbert Report,” stepped down from the two hit shows in August 2007 to start Superego Industries, a TV, film, and new media production company formed in partnership with HBO. The WonderGlen site is Superego’s first public project; Karlin’s partner on the project, according to Xconomy’s source, is Will Reiser, a TV producer who has been involved in such projects as “Da Ali G Show,” a satirical interview program hosted by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

WonderGlen (also spelled Wonder Glen, with a space, in various locations on the site) is an example of an increasingly common form of Internet pseudo-hoax or viral marketing campaign—a website that purports to be real but which, upon further examination, dissolves into an entertaining fiction or an amusing parody. I’ve written about such sites before—one of my favorites is one devoted to saving the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, created by Washington-based cartoonist and Web publisher Lyle Zapato. But WonderGlen is one of the most elaborate examples of the genre, and considering that the site first appeared almost three months ago and has been widely discussed on the Internet, its creators have stayed anonymous for a surprisingly long time. (Even lonelygirl15, the heroine of a viral YouTube series that debuted in June 2006, was “outed” as a hired actor after only about three months.)

The Wonder Glen websiteThe news of Karlin and Reiser’s involvement in WonderGlen comes via Christel Whittier, the director of business development at a West Hollywood, CA, Web production studio called FanRocket. Whittier, who first contacted me earlier this week, said she did so because she is from the Boston area and is a longtime reader and “personal fan” of Xconomy. I’m not clear on the connection between FanRocket and Superego Industries, and I have to admit I wondered a bit if I was being spoofed myself, but so far Whittier seems legit, and tonight she forwarded me a statement with the details on WonderGlen.

In that statement, WonderGlen Productions is described as “a fictional film, television and new media company with a very basic website. However, the real discovery happens upon logging into the site’s ‘intranet.’” That intranet, which is updated regularly and contains a smorgasbord of made-up messages between employees detailing abortive but hilarious projects such as a home-improvement show featuring hobbit houses, has been fascinating and irritating Web audiences since the WonderGlen site surfaced in early October.

The site was featured on December 1 by the Internet newsletter Very Short List, which called it a “multifaceted, superdetailed send-up of corporate culture” reminiscent of the work of Christopher Guest or Ricky Gervais (creator of the original British version of “The Office”). The editors of Very Short List added: “Half the fun consists of trying to figure out who the site’s actual authors and owners are. (Yes, we know—but, irritatingly, we’ve been sworn to secrecy.)”

Karlin and Reiser, apparently exercising their pull in Hollywood, have enlisted personalities such as actor James Franco (co-star of the Spider-Man movies) to help fuel the viral campaign around WonderGlen; in a video posted on YouTube in late October, Franco is the host of a satirical tribute to WonderGlen co-founder Aidan Weinglas, a gay man who is never pictured without his Australian Shepherd dog and whose partner, Dr. Dean Payne, is a New Age “multi-modal therapist” who specializes in the treatment of Gudjonsson-Payne’s syndrome (“Pervasive fear of work, obligation, or commitment, combined with high-risk sexual and drug-taking behavior”).

Though the characters inhabiting the WonderGlen universe are a little too off to be real, the WonderGlen site is full of links to absurd but apparently non-fictional content elsewhere on the Web (such as a site about hobbit houses in Bend, OR), suggesting that the WonderGlen project is, in part, an exercise in bending readers’ sense of the boundary between fiction and reality. But it is still not clear precisely why Karlin and Reiser created the site, or whether it is the first step in promoting some larger project (an HBO show, perhaps?).

In the statement forwarded to Xconomy, Ben Karlin had this to say: “There is no model for what it is we are trying. Which is exciting, but it also feels like we are in Jamestown circa 1610. We may very well successfully colonize a new world or, we could starve to death because we didn’t bring enough salt.”

Update, December 12, 2008, 1:45 pm: I’ve spoken with more folks at FanRocket, who confirmed all of the details above and explained that Karlin’s company hired FanRocket to help with the technical implementation of the WonderGlen site and with viral outreach. I am attempting to reach Karlin and Reiser for direct comment. But either way, I will be posting more on the story behind WonderGlen later today.

Update to the update, December 12, 2008, 2:15 pm: Jesse Thorn, host of the (wonderful) podcast “The Sound of Young America,” has published a blog post explaining his connection to the WonderGlen project and introducing a new player into the drama: the Kasper Hauser Comedy Group, a San Francisco comedy sketch troupe whom Thorn names as the writers behind the WonderGlen employees’ antics. Thorn’s post says in part:

“Well, the cat’s out of the bag. The amazing, amazing virtual world of Wonderglen Productions was created by producer Ben Karlin (long-time Daily Show showrunner) and written by our pals The Kasper Hauser Comedy Group. I’ve been dying to share this information for months, but was sworn to secrecy. Now, web sleuths [meaning Xconomy] have revealed the truth, so I can finally speak. Not only is this possibly the most ambitious project Kasper Hauser have ever worked on, it’s one of the most ambitious in the history of web entertainment. This isn’t an advertisement for something else—it’s an independent ecosystem of hilarity.”

Further update, December 12, 2008, 8:25 pm: Nothing yet from Karlin, who, I’m told, is busy producing four real films (which makes you wonder how he has time to fool around with a website about a fictional company producing fictional films). But I was able to confirm with the folks at FanRocket that, just as Jesse Thorn says, WonderGlen is not advertising or viral marketing for something else. “This is it,” I was told. “There is no TV show to come, no movie. It has no purpose other than to entertain. There is no other curtain to be raised.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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