Inside Modern Humorist with Co-Founders Michael Colton and John Aboud
The breeding grounds for professional comedians are well known at this point: comedy performers have Improv Olympic, The Second City, Groundlings, and Upright Citizens Brigade, and the scribes have, well, The Onion. But once upon a time there was a website that was churning out powerhouse comedy writers by the dozen.
In May of 2000, Harvard Lampoon alums Michael Colton and John Aboud launched Modern Humorist, a parody website that filled the chasm between the New Yorker’s highbrow satire and The Onion’s fake news forte. The Modern Humorist brand would eventually be slapped on books, TV and film projects, but for three years you could turn to the website to get a daily dose of parody, satire and general absurdity.
And it came at the hands of people who went on to create, produce or write for shows like Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, The Office, The Daily Show, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and Conan, among others.
Colton and Aboud, whom you might recognize from their five-year stint ripping on low-grade celebrities for VH1 shows like Best Week Ever and its ilk, have remained writing partners ever since their days at the helm of Modern Humorist and now pen scripts for for film and television. I recently caught up with the affable duo to chat about Modern Humorist’s origins and legacy, famous interns and their latest project: adapting a biography of National Lampoon Co-Founder Doug Kenney.
So what was the initial idea for Modern Humorist? Did you feel there was a market for this type of content?
John Aboud: When I graduated from college, I remembered thinking all I wanted to do was create a National Lampoon for the digital age. I didn’t have any idea how to do that.
Michael Colton: Until I came in.
JA: Until Mike had this idea to do a parody of Talk Magazine in 1999.
MC: In the summer of ’99, John and I were both working as journalists. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, all anyone in the media world was talking about was Talk Magazine — the Tina Brown-Harvey Weinstein thing. I registered the URL talkmagazine.net. I brought in John and put together this parody of Talk Magazine that went up two weeks before it launched and the reaction we got was so disproportionate to the effort we put in. It got coverage around the world. It was put up on Earthlink — they hosted the site — and then Miramax complained and Earthlink pulled it down and it became this whole thing. It got coverage in the New York Times.
JA: That created a whole another wave of coverage.
MC: This was back in 1999 there wasn’t much on the web that was funny other than The Onion. McSweeney’s was just starting around then, but that was pretty much it. There weren’t all the video sites yet.
JA: It was a very different landscape. That’s almost impossible to imagine today.
MC: We started doing all these pranks. And then at the end of ’99 we decided to create a company that would do these pranks but also be a humor magazine online. Our model was the National Lampoon of the 70’s. If they were starting out now, it would be a website, eventually spinning off books, movies, and TV projects. We got together with writers we knew and friends of friends and a lot of people in the New York comedy scene.
JA: We were able to get venture capital money. I went through my old boss. I had been working in online advertising after college. My boss had been very sympathetic to this idea. I had joined Grey Advertising, kind of thinking that we would be able to incubate content there. When that didn’t turn out, I left that job and went back to my boss and said hey, we got this idea now, and he put us in touch with the people who ultimately became our investors.
MC: We had one meeting with investors and showed them our business plan and got a million dollars to start the company. I couldn’t be at the meeting cause I was still writing for magazines and I was covering the 2000 presidential campaign. So I was on my cell phone in the bathroom of John McCain’s campaign bus, when John was in New York in the room with the investors. So one good thing came out of the John McCain 2000 Campaign.
[Apologies in advance for any links/images that don’t work. We have not kept up maintenance over the years, and now stray cats roam the grounds.]
Our most iconic image, created by our incomparable art director Pat Broderick. This continues to have a life of its own. Several textbooks on intellectual property have reprinted it. That’s right, we’re in textbooks.
This still pops up on “Best Viral Videos” compilations and was probably the most popular thing we ever posted. Back in 2002, we had to host the video ourselves, and the bandwidth costs were over $10,000 per month. Thankfully, someone then invented YouTube.
We handed these out at the conventions in 2000 — although the print shop refused to make the two stickers at the bottom of the page, for reasons of decency.
HOLY TANGO OF POETRY — If Poets Wrote Poems Whose Titles Were Anagrams of Their Names
One of our more highbrow series, but very popular.
Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner wrote our first book, MY FIRST PRESIDENTIARY, which was #1 on the Washington Post bestseller list. It was Bush’s journal/coloring book from the innocent, pre-9/11 days, when Bush was considered just stupid and not yet evil.
ZOOMY’S FUN PAGE — Dirk Voetberg was a fan of the site who then started sending these bizarrely hilarious submissions and became a regular contributor.
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Though we didn’t do that much video, we made a lot of audio pieces. These still hold up pretty well:
For our first big SUMMER MOVIE PREVIEW we created five wildly overproduced songs for upcoming blockbusters, including Will Smith’s “Bigger and Bagger” from “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” (“I caddy for Matt Damon and I’m loyal like crazy / Handin’ him a driver like he was Miss Daisy / The kid slays me, back in the days we / Kickin’ up divots cuz they in the way, see.”)
After we posted Jewel’s “Wolverine’s Theme” from “X-Men,” we got a phone call from the movie’s producer Tom DeSanto. He told us they were playing the song as they finished editing the movie. On YouTube, several fans have made their own videos of that song. Anything we did with geek content (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings) went viral, unsurprisingly.
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The first thing we posted after 9/11 was this letter, titled “The View From Here.” It is (mostly) serious, and was incredibly hard to write. But people really responded to it, and we received more emails about it than anything else we published. So apparently our emotional vulnerability was more compelling than our humor.
A couple weeks after 9/11 we got back to publishing humor, including the great JAI AL-LENO MONOLOGUES by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, which parodied both the Taliban and Jay Leno (aka, the axis of evil).
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The predecessor to Modern Humorist was our parody of Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein’s TALK MAGAZINE, whose imminent launch was all anyone in the media could talk about in the summer of ’99. Our parody went up at TalkMagazine.net two weeks before the actual magazine debuted. The success of this parody — the attention and traffic it received was far disproportionate to the amount of effort we put in — convinced us we should start an ongoing Internet humor magazine.
One of the contributors to the Talk parody was Dave Eggers, who didn’t want his name on it because of his magazine-world connections. But fuck it, now he’s untouchable. (Dave urged us to publish the Talk parody in print, but we knew the Internets was the future!)
The fact that Eggers was a friend didn’t stop us from parodying him, though.
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Here are some random pieces that still make us laugh:
BUILDING THE PERFECT SALMON by Chris Painter
HOW TO WRITE SUSPENSE by Jay Pinkerton
The cartoons of MARK O’DONNELL (writer of Hairspray)
Martha Keavney was another writer who started as a fan emailing her submissions. Her work was so funny we ended up hiring her full-time. Here’s her piece on MOVIE TRIVIA, and her “anti-joke” FAQ: JANUARY 28.
Some “found” comedy: AT THE MOVIES WITH EBERT AND RIVERS
And of course, there’s this 404 page.
Was the pitch to the investors basically an update of National Lampoon for the digital age?
JA: Our pitch was “Look, no one is going to do fake news better than The Onion, our brand is parody.”
MC: It was prose satire that you would see in the New Yorker, but more accessible. We made a decision to stay away from being an Onion knock-off.
JA: The official launch was in May, 2000. It was basically a daily magazine where we were posting one new piece a day. That was the model at the time. All the prominent sites in ’99: Nerve, McSweeney’s, etc. you had one big piece of the day.
MC: We also didn’t do very much video stuff, cause we made a rule that we didn’t want to post anything that we couldn’t access from our home computers, which at the time were…
JA: 56K modems.
MC: We only started to get into video toward the end of the run.
That was a couple years even before YouTube.
JA: I think it was four years.
MC: One of the most popular things we’ve ever done was a video of John’s puppy, a Boston terrier, humping this Pokemon doll. I put this video together and we posted it and it was by far the most popular thing we had. It went everywhere. But this was before YouTube, so we were paying for the server costs, so it was actually costing us a tremendous amount of money to have this really popular piece.
JA: We got a $10,000 bill for serving the video. The video of the dog humping a Pikachu almost put the company under.
MC: Back to the business plan, part of it was we would get some online advertising, which we did, but we always envisioned most of the money would come from…
JA: Outside projects. Books, magazines, what have you. We’d sell pieces to print magazines. We had a syndication deal with vh1.com, we had a three-book deal with Random House, we sold a pilot to Comedy Central, and a treatment for a movie to New Line.
JA: We thought the venture capitalist firm was going to cover our expenses for three years, but the dot com bust put them out before we completed the first year. So we then survived on whatever we were bringing in, and were able to survive on our own income for another two years plus. But by the end, it was basically just Mike and I working as screenwriters so we realized if this is how all our income is going to come in we can’t support the infrastructure of the company, so that’s how we transitioned into becoming writers.
MC: Part of the reason we couldn’t sustain is that we were paying all our writers. Nowadays the model is the Huffington Post. It wasn’t huge rates — it was like $200 or $300 for a daily piece. But we definitely wanted to compensate our writers.
And this was in an era when it was still very difficult to leverage revenue from online ads, right?
JA: Yeah, this was pre-Google AdSense. That’s how fucking long ago it was.
MC: I mean, I first heard the word blog while we were working on Modern Humorist.
Did you have any guidance in terms of the business end? Did you feel you knew what you were doing?
MC: Jon Stewart was on our board of advisors. We had some people we could consult, but in a way, no one had ever done this before. There was The Onion, but they were a print newspaper, so we were definitely feeling our way through it.
JA: People were inventing how to make money online as they went. There really wasn’t anyone to turn to.
MC: There was no clear road map for us.
JA: We were dogmatic about certain things that in retrospect were not seeing the potential of the internet. We hated doing user-generated stuff. Because the technology wasn’t there to very efficiently sort and sift through it all. All the things you take for granted now for social interaction, we would have had to invent that out of whole cloth and we couldn’t do it.
MC: But that said, we found plenty of great writers who came to us after we had launched who were fans of the site and started sending submissions. In terms of the talent, that’s the legacy of the site. The people who wrote for it, some of them we already knew and some we discovered while working for it.
MC: There were a few people we knew from college. [Parks and Recreation creator] Mike Schur, [Forgetting Sarah Marshall director] Nick Stoller, [The Simpsons producer] Mike Reiss. And then there were people we just found. Tim Carvell was a journalist as well, and someone recommended him and then he became our number one contributor. And now of course he’s the head writer of the Daily Show. These two guys Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner were huge contributors for us and did our first book. John is a professor now and Kevin is a novelist. Charlie Grandy is at The Office, Dan Goor is at Parks and Recreation. Daniel Radosh was one of our staffers and is now at The Daily Show. Half of those people we knew before we started and then the other half became fans of the site and started emailing us stuff that was amazing.
Did you have the sense with any of your writers that they were exceptionally talented and would go far?
MC: We had one intern who was an NYU student who was with us for like two weeks and then like five years later I was reading Rolling Stone or something and I turned to John and said “Aziz Ansari, didn’t he work for us?”
JA: (Laughs) He was so efficient. I couldn’t keep this guy busy enough. I had to invent busy work for Aziz cause whatever we threw at him, he would turn it around in like two hours. It was like, oh my god, this guy is too good.
MC: And of course we realized after the fact we should of have had him write more stuff (laughs).
Was he fetching coffee? What was he doing?
MC: No, it was more like database stuff.
JA: I remember for a while Aziz was looking at the submissions and he came back and was like “I finished all those” and I asked him was anything good? And he just gave me this look that he had just been traumatized and told me they’re all terrible.
MC: There was a lot of crap you had to wade through to find the gems. We also — toward the end when we were looking for new income streams — John and I started teaching a comedy writing class once a week.
JA: It wasn’t that we thought we were the end-all and be-all, but we had access to all these talented people.
MC: One of our students was Nick Kroll. He was starting out as a comedian. And then years later we ended up writing for him on a show on fox that we worked on, Sit Down, Shut Up.
Was there a formula you were looking for in content? Did it need to be subversive or have a certain sensibility?
JA: Our dream piece was always very smart and very dirty. We wanted something that would go viral. Something that was so funny that you had to email your friend and say check out this link on Modern Humorist. And, of course, back then you had to email it because there was no Facebook or Twitter or anything like that.
MC: We did a lot of pop culture parody. Pop culture or internet-centric comedy that was sort of twisted or smart.
JA: Or that was definitely wrong.
MC: We got tons and tons of cease and desist letters. Ask Jeeves came after us. But we had great lawyers and we knew what was covered under Fair Use. There were two things we had to take down. One of our writers did this great series where he would write Encyclopedia Brown mysteries about topical issues. Like the first one was Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Dead Child Beauty Queen. Encyclopedia Brown takes on Jon-Benet Ramsey. It was really dark, dark stuff, but really funny. The writer was putting together a book. But he didn’t change the name and the Encyclopedia Brown author came after him and brought the hammer down.
JA: The other was a bizarre collection of excerpts from terribly, terribly written romance novels. Each one tied to a specific state. This woman wrote 50 romance novels — one for each state. One of our editors picked the most hilariously bad excerpts.
MC: In that case, we knew we were quoting so much from the book that we were not in the right. The best part of that was we had some live shows at the Knitting Factory, and we had a bit where we had all 50 books on stage and the audience could name a state, and David Rakoff would read the excerpts.
JA: Hearing David Rakoff read those excerpts would make already hilarious material just fantastic.
JA: I really think a lot of the success we had is attributable to the way Pat Broderick, who was our art director, made the site look beautiful. Every piece had gorgeous artwork thanks to him and the artists he recruited to illustrate things. He and Dyna Moe, who’s now famous for the Mad Men artwork that went viral. That was a real dynamic duo.
Do you pine for the days when there was more of an opportunity for humor pieces both in print and online? The outlets have continued to dry up. It seems like now if you want to pursue comedy writing you’re almost forced to go into film or television if you want to make a living at it.
MC: We were trying to create this brand which would represent a certain sensibility and there were a lot of writers who fit into that sensibility. Today, everybody pursues their own brand. That’s what Twitter is. There are plenty of crazy funny people, but they’re all promoting their own brand. It’s hard to have what we had.
JA: The need for a Modern Humorist has been greatly reduced by the ways technology has changed. It was perfect for its time, but time moved on.
MC: But we certainly miss it. We also miss the immediacy of it. We both tweet, but I don’t tweet that much.
JA: Nor does he tweet that well (laughs).
MC: Now we write mostly movies and TV, and especially with movies, it takes years and more often than not, no one sees the product of your work. We look back fondly at those days when we could have an idea and then send it out within hours.
With your film and TV writing careers, would you say that Modern Humorist was helpful in getting your foot in that door?
MC: It got us our agents at first.
JA: I gotta say there was something that really changed when we wrote our first feature spec script. And then we sent that in to our agent, and he called us up and said “All right boys, you did your little picture books, you did your little web site, Oh we’re at the Knitting Factory we’re so cool, now you’ve got something I can actually go sell.” And that’s when we realized that as much as Modern Humorist had been fun and had been a great thing to be involved with, in order to make the transition to screenwriters, Hollywood didn’t fucking care.
MC: I would say when we first moved to LA, we would meet executives or whoever who were fans of the site. The last few years, I would say Modern Humorist has become more and more forgotten.
JA: As have all the big brands from that time.
MC: Basically, you could only ride so high on your success in another medium.
JA: “Great website, what else you got?”
But Modern Humorist played a specific role in you guys getting on VH-1, right?
JA: (VH-1 honcho) Fred Graver had been a fan of Modern Humorist. We were working down the hall on a pilot and he was shooting his pilot, Best Week Ever, and he said, “You know what? I need bodies in seats for this thing. You guys crack me up, you do it.” So we were in the pilot for Best Week Ever, and later he came up to us and said “Well guess what, you fuckers tested really well,” so we got to be on the actual show.
MC: We did it for five years.
JA: It was a great run.
MC: But you do run out of things to say about Paris Hilton after a while. People would assume I was into all that crappy reality show stuff and would want to talk about it when the truth is they would send you a bunch of clips the night before.
JA: It’s not like we had some encyclopedic knowledge of Tour Bus of Dick (laughs).
Me: So what are you up to now, are you still involved with Leverage?
MC: No. We’re on a new animated show starring and co-created by Jonah Hill that is going to air on Fox in October I think. It’s called Allen Gregory. With an amazing cast: Jonah Hill, Will Forte, Leslie Mann, JB Smoove.
JA: It’s gonna be funny.
MC: We’re doing a lot of animation work. We’re also writing an animated superhero movie for Fox.
I wanted to get your thoughts as comedy gurus and let you pontificate a little bit about where comedy is at right now. It’s a whole different scene from when you guys were writing Modern Humorist with Twitter and Funny or Die and everything. What’s your take?
JA: Well this is not in any way to blow smoke up anyone’s ass, but the existence of Splitsider kind of shows where we’re at right now. There are enough people interested in comedy, and identify themselves as fans of comedy, that comedy has become like indie rock in the 90’s. There is a hardcore audience that follows its favorite comedians. There is enough of a cult behind Arrested Development, behind Flight of the Conchords, behind stuff that is really edgy and daring that that kind of content can succeed. We are a long way from the Modern Humorist days in that there was no self-identified audience like that. Now people like Aziz can be superstars. Look at podcasting and how podcasting is killing the comedy album because incredible, incredible people like Paul F. Tomkins are turning out stuff for you every month.
MC: It is a great time to be a comedy nerd. There is more material out there — I mean I wish I could watch twice as many shows as I do, I just don’t have the time.
JA: And with Twitter, there are days when I don’t turn on the TV cause I get sucked into my twitter feed of all the best comedians and that’s like an hour gone.
MC: Speaking of comedy nerds, we’re writing a screenplay now, and we’re hoping there are enough comedy nerds out there that would be interested in this story: we’re optioning a biography of Doug Kenney, who was one of the founders of National Lampoon, and who had this crazy life and mysterious death. We’re writing the screenplay about him. Hopefully there are enough comedy nerds out there that will allow this to see the light of day.
JA: It’s our dream project. It seems like the kind of thing that this audience that’s out there right now would embrace.
MC: It’s sort of tracing the history of comedy. In addition to National Lampoon, he co-wrote Animal House and Caddyshack, which are sort of the primer texts of modern comedy.
Has anybody approached you about a podcast? Because you seem tailor-made for one.
MC: We’ve talked about it. It’s just a matter time. We’re full time on this Jonah Hill show and we’ve got a couple movies. We would love to, but we’ve both got kids and just don’t have the time.
JA: We would need to join forces with Nerdist or something, or Earwolf, something’s that’s already up and running and has the infrastructure. And who we could develop something with. On our own, we’re not happy unless we’re juggling more things than we can handle.
Phil Davidson is coming to terms with his comedy nerd-dom.