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'Funny or Die' wants to make PSAs people 'actually want to watch'

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NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 16:  Staff writer for WIRED Issie Lapowsky speaks on stage with Managing Director and Executive Producer of Funny or Die DC Brad Jenkins on stage during the 2016 Wired Business Conference on June 16, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for Wired)
Brian Ach/Getty Images for Wired
Brad Jenkins is the managing director of Funny or Die's office in Washington, D.C.

Brad Jenkins, who runs Funny or Die's D.C. office, discusses how they make politics funny, and the fine line between making entertainment and propaganda.

Can humor be found in our nation’s capitol? Brad Jenkins, who runs the Washington office of Funny or Die certainly thinks so.

The most recent episode of "Between Two Ferns" had the highest first-day viewership in the history of Funny or Die, with more than 30 million views. The success comes in part from Jenkins, who formerly worked in the White House's public engagement office in the Obama administration. 

When Funny or Die opened its D.C. branch last year, The Frame's John Horn went to the nation's capitol to chat with Jenkins. He explained how the company has partnered with institutions such as The American Heart Association in order to create public service announcements that are both entertaining and informative. 

Interview Highlights: 

You have a belief, and I'm quoting you now, that "Laughter crosses party lines. If it's a funny joke, it's a funny joke. It doesn't matter if you're a Republican, Democrat or a Libertarian." What do you mean by that?

The biggest challenge in our office was we had to work with a Congress that was pretty hostile to a lot of the President's priorities. Even on issues where there was bipartisan support, Republicans had to figure out a way to sell it to their base, which didn't really like the White House particularly much. So, one of the jobs we had was trying to find unique allies, trying to find messengers and trying to find, in some cases, advocacy groups who spoke to a constituency much better than we. And using humor on an issue that can sometimes be hard to swallow — sometimes a partisan issue — was something that we had tremendous success with, particularly with using a lot of the attacks against the president as tropes to really push back and make light of the view of the president from the other side.

Issues and comedy to a lot of people would not seem to go naturally hand-in-hand. Issues are, by definition, serious subjects and comedy [is] unserious. How do you figure out a way to marry the two and have something that's entertaining and comedic, but also is talking about something that the creators believe is important to the nation?

Funny or Die was started by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. They came from that SNL background where they're able to, in a week's time, put together the most-watched live program. And much of it was on what's happening in the country and what's happening in the world. So Funny or Die has always had that mindset of finding issues that are happening around us because, in some cases, this town could use some humor. There are some really great public servants, some really great advocates and members of Congress that are doing a lot of good, but there's a lot that's dysfunctional and that's not working in this town. There's a lot of frustration on inaction on issues that pretty much every American agrees on. Humor can be used to speak truth to power. I think it's a lot more engaging and compelling when you can use comedy to poke fun at things that aren't working. Sometimes you need humor for people to pay attention to issues that are under the radar. That's what we're doing here in D.C.

Our writers have a certain perspective on the world and we're unabashed about that. But when it comes down to whether we're propaganda or just doing things because we believe in issues — that couldn't be further from the truth. Our job is to be funny. If those issues somehow align with humor, we're always open to explore them. 

Do you think people react to an issue presented in a comic way differently than they would react if it were presented in a dramatic way? 

Comedy is a great entry point. There are a lot of PSAs that this town churns out, and about 99 percent of them are melodramatic. Particularly for young people, we are so challenged. In a different era, we had four television channels and a couple of radio stations, and if you were able to get your spot up on the air, people were going to watch it. It's a brave new world. Kids aren't even watching television anymore. They're not watching commercials. They have Netflix subscriptions and they have Hulu Plus subscriptions. One of the things that we think about is, How do you create content that young people actually want to watch? Not many people are seeking out PSAs to watch. I think they come across a PSA and it makes them think. But we know there are so many other competing mediums: Vine, Instagram and Facebook. How do you create content that is educational, that's inspiring, that's engaging, that people are actually seeking out? With "Between Two Ferns," the amazing thing is, people were Google searching "Between Two Ferns Obama." They were seeking out, in many ways, an advertisement for Obamacare. That's the type of work that we want to be doing.  

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