WonderGlen Comedy Portal Designed to Plumb Internet’s Unreality, Says Karlin

1/30/09Follow @wroush

I outed Ben Karlin. Not that way: he’s straight, at least judging from his mom’s foreword to Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me, the 2008 essay collection Karlin edited. I mean I outed him as the creator of WonderGlen, a painfully funny comedy website that appeared out of nowhere last October.

Purporting to be a real company intranet, the site chronicles a small Los Angeles TV production studio working on such misbegotten ideas as “Hobbit House,” a pilot reality show where the homes of unsuspecting families are made over to look like Bilbo Baggins’s burrow. WonderGlen caused a stir among Internet literati, who diagnosed it as some type of viral mockumentary along the lines of the The Office or the notorious Web-based video series lonelygirl15, but who couldn’t pinpoint the fiction’s authors.

Through no special effort on my part—I got a note out of the blue offering me a scoop—I learned last month that WonderGlen is the work of SuperEgo Industries, the production company Karlin formed in partnership with HBO in 2007. Karlin, 38, was born and raised in Needham, MA, and was a writer and senior editor for the satirical newspaper The Onion from 1993 to 1996. He jumped from print into film and television, eventually winning eight Emmy Awards as executive producer of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. He’s now working on several big movie projects, and says he and SuperEgo partner Will Reiser started WonderGlen as a relatively low-cost experiment in online comedy.

Ben KarlinHaving broken the WonderGlen story, I wanted to grill Karlin about the origins and intentions of the genre-busting project, which isn’t a website so much as “an independent ecosystem of hilarity,” to quote radio host Jesse Thorn’s perfect description. While the WonderGlen intranet functions as a core repository of vacation snapshots, company policy memos, audition videos, grousing message-board posts, and the like, the world of WonderGlen leaches far out into the Internet, including items like a James Franco YouTube tribute to WonderGlen founder Aidan Weinglas, the website of Aidan’s boyfriend Dr. Dean Payne (a “multi-modality therapist”), fake job ads on career sites, and links to the real (I think) erotic furniture ordered by WonderGlen’s employees. This is comedy on a scale nobody’s really tried before—an interactive smorgasbord that’s meant at least in part to underscore the way the Internet has “virtually obliterated” the line between fiction and reality. That’s a quote from my interview with Karlin—which I finally scored this Tuesday, and which is presented here in full.

Wade Roush: Thanks for making time to talk, and thanks for directing that scoop my way. A lot of people had been speculating about who was really behind WonderGlen.

Ben Karlin: It was never the intention for it to be that big of a secret. It was more of an experiment to see how something can develop a life, absent any traditional media push. There wasn’t supposed to be any big reveal or anything. But you can’t control that shit. You can get to a point where it seems like the point of it is to be a big mystery, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was more just putting something out there, this Internet flotsam if you will, and just see what happens as it’s going through the universe. But it just grew into something where I thought it would be the wrong idea if we tried to keep everything secret.

WR: But all the mystery about who was behind it certainly helped the buzz.

BK: A little bit. I would much prefer—any creative person would prefer—that the buzz be about how good something is, rather than who’s behind it. But you can’t really manage buzz.

WR: Part of your problem managing the buzz may be that it’s so hard to categorize what WonderGlen is. It doesn’t fit into any existing genre. Where did the idea come from?

BK: It’s definitely either a terrible idea, or so ahead of its time that it might take several generations to appreciate it—if that day ever comes, which it still may not. The idea was kind of a weird evolution. It started with the simple idea that I was going to be doing stuff for HBO, and I wanted to do some stuff for the Web as well. I thought, well, what if I took some of the TV stuff I was developing and created this intranet site, because I’m in New York and a lot of the executives are in L.A., so they could see samples of what I was working on—script editions, shorts, things that would serve as mini-pilots for potential TV shows. A development platform, basically.

Then as I started thinking of it more, I thought what if the site had two purposes—one, to show HBO all this stuff, but two, as a comedy site. Then it started to get more complicated and layered. The thing that it started out for, to show HBO our work, ended up getting scrapped, and we said ‘Let’s do a comedy site, and maybe some of this stuff we do will have a life in some capacity.’ Then as we got further into the narrative of this company and all these people and these fictional productions and projects, the conversation about having it function as an actual platform for actual people kind of went away.

WR: Do you think the original concept of a dual-purpose site really could have worked?

BK: It might have. But those two things are at such cross purposes. One of the things we discovered early on was that for it to be a site that had actual functionality for internal purposes, you’d have to have things on there that you wouldn’t necessarily want the general public to see. And then if we did this totally transparent thing with budgets and advertising, you’d open up legal problems like you wouldn’t believe. So we doubted we could do that and we started to look at it from a different angle. I had some experience doing websites before, but most of it involved translating an existing thing like The Onion or The Colbert Report, where the conversation was more about how does something that has an existing format work on the Web. With Colbert, for example, we came up with this idea that the website was all going to be from the point of view of an obsessed fan.

WR: Right, but nobody is fooled by that—they get the shtick right away. Was that also the idea with WonderGlen, or did you really set out to fool people?

BK: As we were developing the site, we started out with the idea that at the beginning, a percentage of people were going to think it was an actual company that had actually left its back door open, and people could get into this intranet and see this stuff they weren’t supposed to be seeing. But once we started getting into the content, we realized that it was so funny that … Next Page »

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

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