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Mike Farah is at the helm of one of the most important companies in comedy. Some of the most famous comedians in the world have graced their content, but in a world where the playing field is changing constantly how do you continue to grow your company?
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The Man with a Death Wish, Mike Farah CEO of Funny Or Die
Welcome back, listeners. We have the incredible Mike with us. Mike, I’m going to let you introduce yourself. Please, let the listeners know if they guessed correctly. Who are you?
My name is Mike Farah. I am CEO of Funny or Die. We are a comedy company that was founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy. I’ve been here over nine years. We are celebrating our ten-year anniversary in 2017. You may know our work from Between Two Ferns or Billy on the Street or the early Drunk History or @midnight. American Vandal is a really popular show that’s recently come out on Netflix. We have been very fortunate to work with amazing comedians, both very well-known and up and coming and athletes and politicians and you name it. We’ve been able to work with them to try and bring a little bit more comedy into this crazy, crazy world we’re living in.
I’m a huge fan of a lot of your content. I’m super curious, when people discover what you do, what’s their biggest question?
Depending on who I’m talking to, if they have no idea what Funny or Die is, they look at me and say, “Funny or what?” because they just don’t really get it. If people do know and fortunately most people have heard of it, they always want to know how Pearl is doing. Pearl is from The Landlord which is the very first video that Will and McKay made. People actually think that was Will Ferrell’s daughter in the video. It’s actually Adam McKay’s daughter. Pearl is now twelve and everyone always wants to know how Pearl is doing. I see Pearl from time to time at Adam McKay get-togethers, but I can’t say that we’re close enough for me to give people the real-time updates they’re looking for.
That was not what I was expecting at all. I expected more stuff like, “What’s Will Ferrell like?”
I do get that and I have a great answer for that. I say, “Will is one of the all-time great people.” Any organization, the leadership starts at the top. He, Henchy and McKay set a very high standard and they are wonderful people.
I think it’s super funny because I interviewed Jesse Carmichael from Maroon 5. I asked, “What’s the most common question people ask you?” The guy has toured all over the world. He’s hang out with everybody. He’s like, “The first thing they asked, ‘What’s Adam like?’” Your industry is notorious for being just brutal. People come in by the busload to California trying to find their stardom or their success in the entertainment industry. You have almost the most stereotypical LA story. You started off in a mailroom, is that right?
Yes. Even before the mailroom, my very first job in Hollywood was working security at movie premieres. Then I graduated to working as a food expeditor at The Standard on Sunset. My big break was getting that mailroom job. I’d been out here over two years before I got that opportunity.
Let me get this straight because I’m obviously coming from the scientific world. People will go for two years trying to get a job delivering mail at an office. Can you explain this? Just for the people who are not in the industry, this seems mind-boggling because it almost seems like a punishment, right?
It’s a very special mailroom. Like a lot of industries, relationships are very important and who you know. That happens whether you’re in entertainment or law or dentistry or in the scientific field, whatever it might be. Especially in Hollywood where a lot of the currency is information and access, working in a talent agency’s mailroom, I was at United Talent Agency, puts you in the middle of so much information, access, relationships that it’s really an honor to work in the mailroom. I loved every second of it. I had read a book called The Mailroom, which is an oral history of entertainment agency mailrooms. I read that probably two or three times even before I started in the mailroom. You have to be willing to sacrifice certain things to make it in entertainment. To me, it wasn’t a sacrifice at all. I was thrilled to get there. It didn’t happen overnight. I was working my way to that for two years. I liked the work. I’m glad that I didn’t have that job waiting for me right after college because I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much.
When you’re in the mailroom, is it that you get to see scripts? What actually happens there that gives you the access? Is it that you’d personally deliver the mail to the agents and have conversations with them?
This was 2004. When I was there, it was a room that’s maybe 20 feet by 30 feet. Maybe it’s more electronic now but back then, there were different scripts, different resumes and different deals. All that would come in through the mailroom and then be distributed out. Unless something said confidential, you were really able to read anything you wanted. You were able to make the rounds and get to know the assistants and at least say hello to the agents. It just gives you information. So much of everything is just awareness and knowing what is going on and reading The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, etc. and knowing what’s going on and being able to articulate a point of view on it. The mailroom just amplifies that access so quickly that it’s a great opportunity. Literally, you are getting mail and distributing mail and mail is important. What would we do without mail? It would be anarchy. I loved it. For the right type of person, the right type of guy or girl, it is everything you want it to be. For the wrong person, they would have zero, zero interest.
From there, your plan was to become an agent, manager or something?
I never really wanted to be an agent. I loved the agent that I worked for, Shana Eddy, who represented writers and directors. We got along very, very well. I love agents. They have a very tough job and I don’t disparage it but I felt like, “Do you want to set the meeting or do you want to be in the meeting?” I wanted to be in the meeting.
What’s something completely unexpected about reaching this level of success?
First of all, I’ve been able to reach some levels of something but I feel like there’s a long way to go. I don’t know if it’s unexpected, but one thing that is true is that the exact same attitude and work ethic and excitement that I had when I showed up at the end of 2001, whether I had an unpaid internship or I’m the CEO of this company, it hasn’t changed and it always works. It doesn’t matter what position you’re in or what you’re doing. If you’re excited to be there, you’re going to find a way to add value and differentiate yourself, then you just go along for the ride. It’s been reassuring that those fundamentals really can take you wherever you want to go. You need some help along the way. You need some breaks. You need to get lucky. You need to be good. You need to have a lot of things. Those core values, Jon, they don’t let you down.
It’s interesting because if I wasn’t passionate about something, it would be so grueling going in and out of work every day. I remember somebody told me, “The difference between a job and a career is that a job, you can’t wait until the hours pass but a career, you can’t find enough hours in the day.” What’s very clear to me is that you have a career that you really enjoy.
I have all the white hair to prove it. When I started at Funny or Die, I see some old pictures and my hair was a deep, deep brown. Now it’s a light, light white but it has all been worth it.
What are some of the pitfalls in your industry that people tend not to talk about or not realize that are coming? That if they knew, things would be different or maybe something that you didn’t realize that if you knew it now, you would have done it differently?
I think the biggest challenge is entertainment is already an industry where you really can’t control much and you really have to focus on the things you can control. In this era of “digital disruption,” how this already uncertain industry is changing because of streaming, the theatrical business of movies is changing and changing dramatically. Facebook and Google and Snapchat and all these different platforms, it creates a lot of opportunity but it also creates a lot of even more uncertainty to an uncertain industry. I think for anyone who’s living it or wanting to get into it, you have to be comfortable and embrace that uncertainty or it will drive you nuts. All the clichés are true. Clichés exist for a reason. You’ve got to stay nimble. You’ve got to stay open-minded. You can’t get complacent. You really have to want it.
What is it that you’re doing at Funny or Die, if you can talk about it, to really deal with all this, to become as nimble as possible? Have you changed the way you produce content? Are you partnering with different companies?
Yes to everything. When we started, we basically had one product. We had a video. Whether it was from the user-generated community or something that our internal staff made with a celebrity or a comedian, we had just a video. Now, we have short form. We have long form. We have live streaming. We have live experiential. We have commercials. We have branded entertainment. We have social. We have audio. The list goes on and on and on. You have to have the right products. You have to be making good content and you have to understand how to leverage those things to make it into a thriving business. Every month is different and that’s what’s exciting and also can drive you crazy. It’s also why you accumulate so much white hair like I have. We’re fortunate that we have a really good foundation. At Funny or Die, we have never produced more content that haven’t been seen by more people and the accolades and the credibility that we have now have never been really higher and I really sincerely believe that. Business is great; it’s just a terrible business. That’s what we’re working to adjust. Lots of companies in the digital publishing space are going through this. It’s like, “How do we take what we’re really good at and put it in a position to excel even more?” That’s a living, breathing organism to figure that out.
To give people a sense of your scope and reach, how many people are on your site? I don’t know what you count. Is it streams? Is it views?
I would say between our owned and operated site and Facebook and our social channels, we reach somewhere between 45 million and 50 million people. We’ll never be YouTube, but we’re proud of the audience that we’ve built up. It’s very young. We have a lot of credibility with them.
It’s also an audience that’s hard to capture. It’s really tough to capture the attention span of a fourteen-year-old boy or a twenty-year-old. You have been doing it for nine years now?
Yeah, it all comes down to who you’re working with. You can’t do anything on your own and we have really good talent and we have a great team here. We’re just trying to get better every day. We just had our ten-year anniversary. I think a lot about how do we get to year twenty and not only get there but get there in a position of strength.
When people meet you, do they expect you to just be hilarious? Is there this odd expectation that because you run a humor company then you’re the funniest guy in the room?
I’ve always been comfortable just being myself. Sometimes, yes. I do think people would be disappointed if I’m not just coming in with a tight five and zingers. When people are just like, “Are you funny?” Have you ever met someone really funny that actually answers that question, “Yes, I’m funny?” If someone says, “Are you funny?” Just by saying, “Yeah, I’m funny,” is a clue that maybe you aren’t funny.
Let’s say you’ve got a random email from a complete stranger and they want to meet you for coffee, what actually has you say yes?
I say yes to everyone who wants to meet me or get on the phone because basically them just seeking me out is enough for me to say yes. Then what transpires is basically anywhere between three and nine months before we actually get on said phone call or have a coffee. Even oddly, the tailor I really like is in Huntington Beach, which is about an hour away. The last time I had to go down to the tailor, on the way down and on the way up, I did four fifteen-minute conversations with complete strangers.
That’s insanely generous of you. I’m super impressed, Mike. I’ve interviewed a lot of people and a lot of people will respond, but that’s a big time commitment.
I definitively know what it means to move out here and not have a clue. If those fifteen minutes can help that young girl or guy get to where they’re trying to go a little bit faster, then I think it’s worth the time.
I’m a total geek and I watch all the comic book movies and everything, so I’m a big comic book fan. Do you have a favorite comic book hero? Is there somebody you’d really want to be?
I don’t. I couldn’t even get into comic books as a youngster. I think the generic answer, because I really like the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, I will say Batman and Bruce Wayne. Christian Bale is obviously a bad-ass actor, so I will go with a very uninspired but honest answer.
It’s easy for people to see somebody who has a certain level of success and think that everything is great. I often ask the podcast’s participants to share something personal that’s really human. Some people have shared that they deal with a lot of anxiety, others that they didn’t kiss a girl until they were in college, things that are completely unexpected. Is there something very human that you’d feel comfortable sharing?
I do a lot of public speaking but I still have a love-hate relationship with public speaking and it’s something I practice. It was weird. I still remember it so vividly. As a kid, I was always the first one to participate and do different things. The one and only panic attack I’ve ever had in my life was in fourth grade giving a speech. It still messes with me. Actually, I really love doing it. I love being in front of people. I’m glad that had happened actually because I think it’s created a lot more empathy in myself. Also growing up, I had an aggressive speech impediment. From basically before kindergarten through fourth grade, I went to Catholic school and a little bus would pick me up twice a week and drive me across town for speech therapy. I love to communicate and I love the power of communication, but I still have a love-hate relationship with it. I’m really comfortable leading a team and doing things together and producing a project and a creative vision. I’m less interested in just being the man on the stage by himself because I feed off of people’s energy and that connection. I’m just not interested in much of having all that energy on me. I’d rather be sharing that energy with people. That’s how I like to do it. When I do do it, I like to really talk to people and make it more of a conversation. I just don’t have that gene where it’s like, “All eyes on me.” Though that’s obviously what I’ve signed up for in my job, so I embrace that and I love it. Sometimes my speech impediment still comes out just like on my way up to Ojai with someone, my speech impediment came out. I was like, “There’s my speech impediment.”
What was it? Do you stutter a little?
No, it’s Rs and Ss. If I have to say the word railroad, I actually have to think about that. Double Rs can be the bane of my existence, but then I’m just like, “There’s my speech impediment.” Then it just takes you back to when the little bus picked you up and you’re just like, “That’s good. Everyone should be reminded of their youth.”
I’m very impressed by how much you embrace your challenges and your struggles. A lot of people don’t. Mike, this has been an absolute treat. Thank you so much for coming on the show. If people want to find out more about what you do, can they find you on Twitter or Instagram?
I love Instagram, @Mike_Farah.
Mike, thank you so much. Listeners, definitely check out Funny or Die, especially if you want to crack up or have an excuse not to do some work at the office. If you want to ever meet Mike for coffee, it might take nine months but he’ll apparently make fifteen minutes for you. Also, stay tuned because next we have an anonymous interview. If you can figure out who the person is, you can win an invitation to The Salon. Good luck.
About Mike Farah
Mike Farah is the CEO of Funny Or Die, the premier comedy brand known for creating award-winning, high-quality content with a global audience of more than 70 million.
He has won two Emmys as executive producer of “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis and was recently named a Maverick of Hollywood by Esquire.
Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Farah is a graduate of Indiana University. From 2002-2004 he was a food expeditor at The Standard, Hollywood.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Welcome back, listeners. I couldn’t be more excited to have Kevin with us. Kevin, thank you so much for coming on.
It’s really my pleasure and honor.
Kevin, you are literally a legend. I want to give the listeners a few hints about who you are so they can get guessing. Where did you grow up?
New Jersey, outside of New York City. My dad worked for a big publishing company in New York City and what we will now call the IT side.
What was it that inspired you to go into your career?
I never intended to go anywhere near where I am right now. In fact, I avoided it. I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s and basically, by the end of high school which I graduated in 1970 I was like a hippie. I wanted nothing to do with technology. My dad was early into computers. I wanted nothing to do with computers. I kept an arms’ length from all that kind of stuff. Throughout my 20’s, I only owned a bicycle, a sleeping bag and a camera. I was very happy that way.
Then you’d travel around shooting things?
I’m a college dropout. I tried one year of college and then I read Ayn Rand and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I just had to travel. I had a friend who was studying Chinese in Taiwan invited me to come over. It was the first place I went outside of New England and my mind was blown. I was in Asia for many years with my trustee little camera, traveling from one place to another in a virtual time machine. The places I was hanging out were unchanged in centuries. They were living in the futile times in 1500s and I was there.
I’m sure people meet you all the time and ask you, is there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?
Yes. I was co-founder of a magazine that was a real thrill to be involved in. It was an unlikely success, we were lucky because I’ve been running a magazine before that that had a very small circulation. I was doing exactly the same thing in the new magazine but now suddenly the whole world was watching. That was just fun.
I remember your magazine, it came out in the mid-‘90s, is that correct?
Just as I was coming to an age where the internet was a conversation, so ’93, ’94, I remember you’d have some of the coolest covers. I think you one month did the OJ Simpson trial and you had a version of OJ that was re-rendered as if he was white. Because of technology at that time, it was really the first you could ever do that.
Time Magazine had him darker, we had him lighter. That coincidentally was something that came indirectly from my father who worked for Time Life. They were using machines what we will now call Photoshop pictures. They were called Scitex machines. They were these very, very expensive huge computers from Israel. They could alter photographic images not even at the scale that we now have a Photoshop. I just thought that that was the future or something. By that time, we had Photoshop but I thought that the power of altering supposedly truth statements like a photographer was very, very powerful and I was very keen to play around with it and use it on the cover.
I remember seeing that and just being taken aback. Let’s give the listeners a sense of what you look like. You have a very specific look. If somebody would have bump into you, they’d know it was you. Who do you think would play you in a movie?
I think there was an old movie with a guy named Gregory Peck. I think he had the same facial hair that I had in that movie. That’s who jumps to my mind. Not that I look like him or he looks like anybody. He had the same facial hair.
Do you wear it for a religious purpose?
I don’t. Although I have an affinity with the Amish, I bet so we have an Amish beard. I had it before I hang out with the Amish although it does make it easier to hang out with them. It sounds dumb but it was practical reasons. I like beard but I hated the feel of the moustache around my mouth and getting food caught in. I just shaved my moustache off.
You very much strike me as a person of eclectic taste and style. I’m curious if that extends to what cause your success. Was there a certain crazy stunt that you did or a bet or dare that you took on that ended up just really panning out?
I would say dropping out of college was probably my most audacious trick. At that time, college first of all was not as common and it was a big thing. It meant more. It decided your life a lot more. It was very rare for someone to thumb their nose at it. I don’t have any regrets. I have only regrets that I went to that one year. I wish I had skipped it entirely. When I did, I was resigning myself in my own head to basically a simple life of poverty basically and it was going to be fine with me. That was the tradeoff that I was willing to make. There was no sense, “This is the path of that the young entrepreneurs do as they skip college to go right into making their own businesses and stuff.” That’s not what I was thinking. This is more like, “No, I’m opting out of the career path.” In retrospect, I think it was the best thing that happened to me.
Obviously, you’ve led a quite interesting and get to engage with some fascinating people. Was there a moment or experience that made you feel like you had arrived to some degree? I know nobody fully arrives ever.
Yes, there was and it was actually very recently. Most of my fans are in China where my books have been translated into Chinese at a better time. They came too early in the US but it was just at the right time in China which is a little behind. There have been a couple of times in China where I have body guards to keep the fans from storming around me. I’m walking through these four big, buff, huge Chinese guys who are keeping the fans at bay. I was like, “Yeah, I’ve arrived.”
What hint or riddle could we give the listeners to help them figure out who you are?
My brand is my initials. I have a very common name, actually. There’s a whole website of people with my names to disambiguate all of us because there are legions of people with my name. You probably went to high school with someone my name. I’m an author of some books that when you hear them, my name would be very inevitable.
Listeners, you have between now and next week to figure out who Kevin is. If you do, you can win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers. Good Luck.