Michael Colton - Modern Humorist
Since it's conception in April 2000, Modern Humorist has built itself into one of the web's most popular comedy brands and has earned itself a nomination for the web's most prestigious award, the Webby. Along with a team of writers with experience ranging from The Simpsons to The Onion, co-founders John Aboud and Michael Colton have created some of the most intelligent, powerful satire available online or off. Modern Humorist is creating more than just a website though, MH is becoming a premier comedic brand in all venues; television, radio, books, magazines and the web. I spoke to Michael Colton via email about the challenges he's faced over the past year and what lies ahead for Modern Humorist.
What did you do before Modern Humorist?
I was a journalist and comedy writer in New York. I had worked for the Washington Post as a staff writer in the Style section for about two years, then moved to New York and wrote for various newspapers and magazines while figuring out my next step.
How did Modern Humorist come to come to exist?
My co-founder, John Aboud, and I, started crafting Web parodies just for fun. The first, in July '99, was a parody of Talk magazine which we posted 2 weeks before the real mag launched. The response from the press and the public was tremendous, so we started doing more parodies--of the fall TV season, of the millennium hype. We realized that a) there was a hunger for this kind of smart, detailed satire online; b) we could create a viable business based around a comedy web site; and c) this was a shitload of fun.
You started MH in April 2000 and just celebrated your first birthday with a swanky New-York party. How was the cake?
Like the sweet nectar of the gods.
How has MH grown, evolved or changed over the past year? What lessons have you learned?
We grew a little too quickly. There were many days early on when we posted pages and pages of material, which I think was too much for even our diehard fans to keep up with. Now we keep to a more realistic schedule, and we also spend a lot more of our time--most of our time, actually--on offline projects. That was always the plan, but it happened a bit sooner than we expected.
What projects does Modern Humorist have planned offline?
Our first book, "My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook by George W. Bush" is on sale now. Our second book, "Rough Draft: Pop Culture the Way It Almost Was" comes out this fall. We produce comedy regularly for off-line venues like TV Guide, Fortune, Yahoo! Internet Life and National Public Radio. We've started an advertising business, called Humor Dynamics--we produced Microsoft's Clippy site. We'll be producing a site for comedycentral.com at [this URL]. Also, we're working on some television material.
How's the response to the book been?
It's been great. We were recently the Number One nonfiction paperback in Washington. That's Washington City, not Washington State. The book's co-author, George W. Bush, lives there.
How did MH raise funding to get off the ground?
The same way a lot of companies raised funding in 1999: put together a business plan and take it to venture capital companies. The difference is that our business plan was not completely ludicrous, which is why we're still around and a lot of those other companies aren't.
Has the banner-revenue collapse affected MH?
Nah. We never really imagined that advertising would float this company, and it hasn't. It's definitely produced less revenue than we had expected, but we've compensated by focusing on other areas, like our advertising-services division.
How do you build your site's readership? Did the "MP3s = Communism" poster and teenslutwarehouse.com have a big effect?
We don't do any advertising, and we don't employ a publicist. I spend a lot of time getting the word out to people via e-mail. For instance, if we have a new piece about George Bush on the site, I'll e-mail various political sites along with some journalists who might get a kick out of it. The MP3/Communism poster was huge for us--I've seen that all over the Web, and we've sold it as T-shirts, posters, mousepads. Teenslutwarehouse is a fun side project, but I don't think many people know about it. Do they?
No, just me. In your media kit you mention that Frank Marshall (Sixth Sense producer) is on your Board of Directors and Jon Stewart (of The Daily Show) is on your Board of Advisors. How did you start working with such Hollywood bigwigs?
Our CEO, Kate Barker, used to be an executive at Universal Pictures. She made the introduction to Frank, and he was excited about our vision for the company. As for Jon, some of our contributors write for The Daily Show and introduced us. We took him to lunch, told him about our plans, plied him with tequila shots, and he came on board.
You've just been nominated for a Webby Award for best humour site along with FuckedCompany, The Onion, National Lampoon and SatireWire. How do you feel about the nomination?
It's an honor just to be nominated, and I believe I'm the first person to ever express that sentiment.
Speaking of competition, does the list of nominees also list your biggest competitors? Any others not nominated?
People often group us with the Onion, because we're both building comedy brands. We're big fans of theirs. But other than the fact that we're both producing smart comedy, I don't think we're really in competition. It's like Letterman and Conan.
Which one are you?
I didn't really mean it that way, that we're like one and the Onion's like the other. I mean that both Conan and Letterman consistently produce great comedy in the same medium, but you wouldn't really call them competitors. There's plenty of room for both. I view MH and the Onion the same way.
MH has made some small forays into rich media thus far, any plans to make animation or video bigger part of the site?
Not really. When we started out last year, there were a lot of broadband comedy sites. (Many are defunct now.) We always positioned ourselves differently. Occasionally we offer some video, audio or animation, but for the most part you can enjoy our site with a 56K connection, and we want to keep it that way. Also, we pride ourselves on producing four new pieces every week. We don't have the resources to produce four rich media pieces per week and still keep up with our offline activiites.
MH selects the headlines for Plastic.com's humour section. How did you get involved with Plastic?
It's a long story that involves Joey Anuff, a late-night trip to Foxwoods and $4 million in gold Krugerrands.
Modern Humorist in May 2002, what's changed?
The most popular holograph at our nation's cineplexes is "Modern Humorist's Girls Gone Wild." Meanwhile, our Ginger-powered Web portal can now be accessed from MH's Mars bureau, as well as from the diamond mines of Rigel-7. And surprisingly, that new Bob Saget sitcom ain't half-bad.
Can I be your best friend?
There are currently slots open for my fourth and fifth best friend. Sorry, but that's the best I can do.
Check back next wednesday for my exciting interview with Cafepress co-founder and VP Business Development Maheesh Jain!