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

1/30/09Follow @wroush

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most fans of comedy that we wanted to be checking out the site were never going to be fooled. And the type of people who would be fooled by this type of comedy are the people who still think The Onion might be a real newspaper—and you don’t want those as your customers.

We had gotten pretty far down the road with the design, development, information architecture, and all the bones of it when we realized this idea of fooling people was off the table. But we’d gotten so far that we couldn’t throw out what we’d done. We decided to plow ahead, realizing that most good things have a 1.0 version and a 2.0 version. So this will be version 1.0 and we’ll live with some of the things that don’t quite work, knowing that we can fix it another day.

So that’s where we are. The content has gotten out there to a certain degree, but I don’t really think it’s been seen by as many people in as many places as it eventually will be. It’s still relatively early in its life. There’s definitely a lot more that we want to do with it.

WR: Are you talking about marketing the site differently, or adding to the content?

BK: I don’t understand this whole marketing thing very well, so I’ll stick with content. I love the content. I think some of the strongest content, unfortunately, is not the type of content that is typically shared virally. The most common things that people share virally are video links, obviously. And we consciously decided not to make this a totally video-driven site. Some of the best stuff on the site is stuff like the health insurance form they have to fill out, because they can’t get into an HMO. They can only get into an “HVO”—a Health Vector Organization. So they have this form filled with really funny, intrusive questions. It’s a PDF document. You’d think that would be a really interesting thing to pass around. But there isn’t a culture of passing around things like that, like there is around videos. So it’s not as much that I would change the content, as that I’d like to figure out a way to make that stuff easier to access.

The WonderGlen websiteWR: I think when you try to use the Web as a comedy medium, you’re up against the fact that the Internet is not really like anything that came before, like older media were. With television, people could say ‘Oh, that’s like the radio, but with pictures.’ So the first sitcoms were basically filmed radio shows. But there’s no model for what you’re trying to do.

BK: The Web is still very much an evolving medium. You see certain things that only work in one medium, and it would be a big mistake to try and turn them into something else. Some of my favorite websites are so simple and elegant you can’t imagine them working in any other context or medium. Take a look at Stuff White People Like. That’s really funny, and I really truly like it, because it’s a very simple idea really well executed. I guess they did do a book, but you don’t turn something like that into a TV show or a movie. It just is what it is. It’s unique to the Web.

What we are trying to do with this site is make it something that is wholly organic to the Web—a comedy experience, in a world where video is the shorthand that most advertisers and most people know and are familiar with. It’s probably going to take some time before someone cracks the nut of a wholly immersive site that is both a destination site and also something that lives in this very scattered way that things live on the Internet, where 90 percent of our content is seen not on the home site but elsewhere.

WR: Our focus at Xconomy is on how to take good technology ideas and build them into real businesses, so I have to ask you the business model question. How can you make money with something like WonderGlen?

BK: I’m from the school that still believes that content is king. Creating a valuable property is still the soundest way to make money. People can figure out ways to sell loans to other banks, and then somebody repackages the loans and sells them to other banks, but they’re not making anything. They’re just figuring out ways to reorganize things.

WR: Being a journalist, I’m compelled to agree with you that content is king. But WonderGlen isn’t like Stuff White People Like, where there’s only one passionate, unpaid blogger behind it. You’ve got a whole production company to pay for, and behind that you’ve got HBO.

BK: The idea at first was just to make something that was good for relatively little money. You’re right, it’s not a blog that’s one person’s passion project, but relative to other Internet ventures of varying degrees of ambition, this didn’t really cost very much. We got a lot of people to do things at a fraction of their normal rate, or even for free, because they just liked the idea. So it has some of that good Internet mojo that you need to have.

But this isn’t just one person’s project either. We wanted to make something that would hopefully become a valuable property that people would like and want to check out and see more from it. Absent some kind of scary business model—’Here’s exactly how we are going to make money’—the first thing was just to make something good, because usually when you make something good, good things come out of it.

I honestly did not know this word before I started, but there are various ideas about how to ‘monetize’ it. But because we are primarily dealing with HBO, which does not have an advertising-based business model, it’s not like HBO is going to say ‘We’ll just send over a phalanx of advertising people to work it out.’ The first plan was just to make it as interesting as possible, and when we have something worth talking about, there will be ways to pay for it.

WR: But there are some fairly expensive-looking pieces of content on WonderGlen, like the “Hobbit House” sizzle reel.

BK: We did those videos for an amount that was, from what we understand, comparable to if not slightly less than what decent-quality Web video costs. Some of those videos cost as little as $1,500, and the most we spent was about $7,000. That’s the world we’re living in, with digital video. Plus, a lot of the directors are writers were excited about doing it and didn’t need to get paid. Certainly someone like James Franco didn’t need to get paid for his thing. More than anything, when you work in TV and film, if you are a creative person, you just want the opportunity to do cool work. Even if it’s not a huge payday, it’s something fun you can show people.

The other thing is, I’ve been trapped in development land, where you’re working on these mythical projects that may never materialize for several years. Even once we had a bunch of interesting things going with HBO, I wasn’t going to see anything get made for at least six months or a year, between getting a project and a script and casting it and making it. The great thing about this was that it was relatively easy to get something that made us laugh and that we could put online. That “Hobbit House” video has been seen by something like 1.5 million people.

WR: Can you talk a bit about your collaborators on WonderGlen? I understand that the Kasper Hauser comedy group in San Francisco did a lot of the writing.

BK: Kasper Hauser did almost all of the writing. Kasper Hauser has been by far the greatest creative contributor and comedic driving force of this project. The original idea for the site and the world it would inhabit and how it would function was basically mine, but as far as breathing life into it, and especially the specifics and the amazing little details and the back stories and the biographies and a lot of the show ideas—the sample shows that WonderGlen is producing—that all came from Kasper Hauser. Those guys are basically just geniuses, and they have such an incredible … Next Page »

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

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