Internet Nostalgia

Let’s Revisit Will Ferrell’s ‘The Landlord’

Remember when internet comedy was the future?

This is the next installment of our Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at stories that captured the imagination and attention of the internet for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. The world of the internet moves so quickly that things that happened five years ago might as well be black-and-white newsreel footage at this point. This series looks back at those phenomena and what they told us about the internet and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com. Last week, we looked at The Subservient Chicken. Today: Will Ferrell’s “The Landlord.”

Date: April 2007

The story: It was a simple little video, only two and a half minutes long, and it appeared to be shot on a camcorder made in the mid-90s. It featured Will Ferrell and a friend nobody knew (it turned out to be future Oscar winner Adam McKay, Ferrell’s longtime collaborator) making eggs and talking (amusingly) about the news of the day. Then a knock at the door. It’s Ferrell’s landlord. She’s two years old. And she’s very angry.

Thus sprang “The Landlord,” a comedy short from the Ferrell/McKay duo that was on top of the comedy world at the time. It was everything you’d expect from Ferrell, then one of the biggest movie stars in the world: raunchy, silly, surreal, and unquestionably funny. How could it not be? It was a two-year-old girl — McKay’s daughter Pearl — screaming “bitch” at Ferrell. It was an instant smash, but there was a tie-in: McKay and Ferrell were launching a site called “Funny or Die” that very day. They couldn’t have picked a better video to start with.

Pop culture crossover: As McKay later said, the video was such a smash that his daughter was actually offered a role in the next Jackie Chan movie. He turned it down, though they did make a sequel called “Good Cop, Baby Cop.” The short does show up in McKay’s film The Big Short and, notably, the film Boyhood, in a short that all the characters are watching when it was filmed in 2007.

Where are they now? Pearl gave an interview to Vice in 2017, when she was 12 years old, saying, “I don’t remember filming the video but I have a couple loose memories of being there but not really.” Funny or Die became a massive hit, leading to crossovers like Between Two Ferns and Billy on the Street. But eventually, it became just another pumped-up internet stock: Weighted down with too much venture capital during a boom, it laid off much of its staff in 2017. The site still exists, but it reads as part-watered-down Onion and part content farm. McKay, who, again, is out winning Oscars now, and Ferrell have long since moved on; they have no association with the site anymore.

What we’ve learned: For all the work put in to make Funny or Die look like some sort of DIY anyone-can-make-comedy organization, it was always beholden to the talent involved. The biggest hits all involved comedians who had followings elsewhere and used the platform to try out the weird stuff that wouldn’t work in their careers; that’s precisely what Galifianakis did. And their largest crossovers involved stars from Jim Carrey to Kristen Bell to Michelle Obama. If anything, their lasting success came from producing shows for traditional television, from Billy on the Street to Drunk History to Brockmire.

As all that expanded, the website itself began to wither. Part of this was because it evolved into a producing business, but part of it was the internet itself: Who goes to websites to see video anymore? You can watch funny videos, of crazy cats, of hilarious wipeouts, of presidential disinformation leading to the potential collapse of American democracy, on your phone through social media anytime you want. Funny or Die productions started to become expensive, which didn’t just hurt the business model, it went against the very notion of the site in the first place: Just a place to make cheap funny stuff and get an audience of fellow weirdos. Funny or Die exists still, like blogs and a few video content providers, but they have been swallowed up, like so much else, by social media. The world keeps moving on. And so does Pearl. Who is now 16.

Got a suggestion for Internet Nostalgia? Send it to me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com.

Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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