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 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 comedic voice that comes from a weird combination of just being really smart and having interesting life experiences. And because they’ve performed, they have that added element of knowing how to write for character. Those guys have just been unbelievable.

WR: What about FanRocket, the digital marketing studio in West Hollywood? From what I understand, they’ve been helping with the viral marketing and building out the details of the WonderGlen world.

BK: When we originally had this idea, the question was how do you market something like this. And one of the ideas we had was that we should create as long a tail as possible of back stories on some of these characters, to make them feel as real as possible—never with the idea of fooling people, but more so that people would appreciate it. Things like the idea of posting job listings at WonderGlen on Craigslist, and going to Comicon and interviewing people about what kind of reality shows they wanted to see, and building basic MySpace pages. FanRocket helped tremendously with all of that.

WR: I know artists probably hate this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. It’s about your vision for WonderGlen. It seems to me that the Internet is a place where the boundaries between what’s real and what’s fiction are very easily blurred. You don’t have to be an actual person to have a MySpace page, for example. I’m wondering if part of what you are doing with WonderGlen, by starting out with this pretend company’s intranet and then extending it out to all this other pretend content, but putting it on the Web right next to real content, is consciously trying to call attention to that blurring.

BK: Well, first of all, thank you for calling me an artist. But without sounding more pretentious than I already do, which is really hard: Absolutely, the point of the site is that those lines have been virtually obliterated online. It starts with something as simple as communication—when you’re chatting with someone who presents themselves as a 28-year-old woman from Tarzana, California, there is a better than average chance that they’re not that person. And it goes all the way down the line, to companies going to enormous lengths to mask their connections to a website. You may think it’s cool, and then you find out that Sprite is behind it. It exists elsewhere in the economy, too, but it’s so widespread online it’s unbelievable.

I love the idea of a website that fluidly moves between all those worlds. You’re on this fake site with a fake message board and the employees are talking about furnishing a fake office, but they have their ideas about furniture, and if you click on the links, they’re for real furniture that you can actually buy. That is, for me, the glory of the Web—that you can go from a site that’s not even based on anything real, that is a fictional fabrication, to a corporate site with a real business model where you can buy a chair, and they both exist in equal measure. Behind one is a billion-dollar industry, and behind the other is a guy at home with his computer, but they are equal.

WR: What do you want to do next with WonderGlen?

BK: I want to get the site out there more. Only a fraction of the people who would like the site have actually seen it. Some of that has to do with getting press, some of it has to do with getting up that terminal velocity where people start showing it to other people. We haven’t really had that breakthrough moment yet.

And consequently we probably need to make some tweaks to make the site a little more friendly. If it’s living more in that idea of having to function as an intranet for an office, then it’s not a comedy portal. It’s not doing anybody any good if there is a barrier to entry. There is no glory in people not getting it. So we’d like to make it so that if people don’t like it, at least we’ve showed them.

WR: If I could hazard a guess about why you haven’t picked up that momentum yet—I think one of the reasons people become fans of other pseudo-documentary-type productions, like The Office, is because they come to like or dislike certain characters, like Michael or Dwight. Some of the WonderGlen characters, like Aidan Weinglas, sound really funny when they’re writing a memo or an e-mail, but I’m not sure whether that makes them strong or quirky or sympathetic enough for people to care about them.

BK: Yeah, the problem is that the point of reference we have for this is things like TV shows and things like lonelygirl15 that are focused on this one thing, video. I didn’t want to do something that has one flavor, where we serve up these first-person testimonial videos, or whatever. I wanted the site to have so much breadth that it is ultimately a commentary on the entire Internet. That’s ridiculously ambitious, probably too ambitious. But we really want to poke around with every single way we use the Internet—and that’s probably caused some distortion or dilution of the message.

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

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