How Jack Black Finds the Funny in Web Video

The actor on mining 'comedy nuggets' with Yahoo

Headshot of Tim Nudd

CANNES, France—Looking a little bleary-eyed after a night on the Croisette, Jack Black shook off the cobwebs at a Yahoo panel here this morning and hailed the Internet as the next venue for the awesomeness of his mind-blowing comedy.

Asked by Adweek editorial director James Cooper, who moderated the panel, what's up with Web video these days, Black replied: "Um, I drank a little bit too much last night. That's what's up!"

After making sure everyone in the Grand Audi theater knew that he wasn't Zach Galifianakis but in fact "the other fat, funny guy," Black gave an overview of his new project with Yahoo—a scripted Web comedy series called Ghost Ghirls about two young female ghost hunters.

"We're excited about dipping our toe into the Internet world," he said. "The show is about two really hilarious, beautiful girls who have a talent for contacting the other side. It's kind of a Ghostbusters for the new generation."

The Web is a great medium for comedy shows in general, he added, as it can accommodate a more freewheeling creative process and cater well to shorter attention spans.

"I think about the way I like to watch content on the Internet," he said. "I watch it on a small screen over short periods of time. I find that the smaller the screen, the shorter my attention span. And comedy nuggets are good in shorter time spans."

Black was joined at the seminar—titled "The New World of Online Content: Appealing to the Habits of Today's Consumer"—by Priyanka Mattoo, a partner at Black's production company Electric Dynamite; Erin McPherson, head of video at Yahoo; and Nick D'Aloisio, a high-school-age programming whiz who sold his news-aggregator app Summly to Yahoo for a reported $30 million.

Mattoo said creating content for the Web is intrinsically a more flexible experience than doing so for TV, one that allows artists to release much more material much quicker.

"All we want to do is make stuff, but the opportunities have been few and far between," she said of the traditional bracketed network system. "I always say a lot of the best material we've produced is just sitting on my computer. Now, every year we can do a couple of Web series. And that fills the creative void a little bit."

McPherson confirmed Yahoo's commitment to video. "This huge platform shift to mobile is happening, and with it, this huge shift to video consumption," she said. "We're committed to sourcing, producing, developing and distributing video content to serve and enhance people's daily habits online. What's unique is the speed at which you can bring an authentic voice to an audience, and the fluidity of the medium allows us to create and then optimize in real time."

The other crucial piece of the puzzle is data, she added. "We're able to test and assess what people want, and then produce content to those wants," she said. "And there are kind of no rules, which makes it even more fun. We're not bound by any particular length or number of episodes. We can really let the creative dictate."

Yahoo produces around 50 original programs now (about 10 of them are comedies), streaming 400 episodes a month, and plans to stay about that size, McPherson said. The company also recently signed a deal with Broadway Video to be the exclusive online home of the Saturday Night Live archive, going back to 1975.

D'Aloisio's mandate, meanwhile, extends beyond video. He is charged with using summarization—the process of describing a video or photo or news article in shortened form, retaining only the most important points—to tease Yahoo content on the small screens of mobile devices.

"It's all about saving you time," he said. "And that's amplified when you're on a phone."

Black, frequently over-enunciating words in his trademark droll fashion, also teased a few other projects that he's working on—a festival for music and comedy called Festival Supreme; a possible Web series with music-video directors Daniels ("Let's just say that there was some dancing involved"); a concept for a show he would star in called Citizen's Arrest; and an animated Web series starring Tenacious D, Black's band with Kyle Gass.

"I don't want to give too much away," he said. "These ideas are like gold. You've got to keep them in the vault! This is a very frustrating conversation, because I can't tell you anything. I can only tease you. Our archrivals, who shall remain nameless, are listening as we speak, dying to know what we're going to do next, so they can do the same thing slightly better."

Black also spoke about finding good talent, saying you have to "go to the wellspring of genius," i.e., people who steer clear of cliche. Originality is more important than pure humor, he said—he would pass on something even if it's funny if he feels like he's seen it before.

Asked if technology ever gets in the way of the creative process, Black demurred. "It's another way to deliver entertainment, and it's been overwhelmingly positive so far," he said. "Now, if there's ever a robot Jack Black that does my job better than me, then I would say yes, technology has gone too far. But so far, there's no JB 1000 on the market."

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.
Publish date: June 17, 2013 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT