The Funny Thing About YouTube

Video service, marking its fifth birthday, has changed comedy – and TV. Latest proof: Will Ferrell’s new "Funny or Die" HBO show

Two seemingly unrelated, but inextricably tied events in the annals of comedy are worth noting this week: YouTube’s fifth birthday and the scheduled debut Friday of the "Funny or Die Presents" video sketch show on HBO.

There's much to say, of course, about YouTube's impact on everything from the music industry to journalism to politics. But a good number of those 1 billion views logged daily come in the pursuit of laughter – whether it's a zonked boy babbling after a dental procedure, Hitler weighing in on pop culture outrages in “Downfall” takeoffs or the Muppets singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

YouTube has helped democratize comedy: between funny real-life moments captured on video, do-it-yourself efforts and professionals taking advantage of the Internet’s speed and reach, everybody's a comedian these days.

YouTube also has changed the relationship between the Web and TV, intertwining the mediums. Hulu is first stop for comedy fans catching up on "Saturday Night Live," "Family Guy," "The Daily Show," and other favorites. "SNL" has been particularly smart about marketing its Digital Shorts, notching million of views from its video about a certain gift box – appealing to both the sensibility and viewing habits of a younger, online audience.

Comedy Central's "Tosh.O" has built a show (and an online community) around funny – sometimes unintentionally so – videos. Host Daniel Tosh is quickly becoming the Bob Saget of his generation, presenting a snarky Web-driven twist on "America's Funniest Home Videos."

The YouTube do-it-yourself spirit may be best embodied in Funny or Die, a site that debuted nearly three years ago as a place for co-founder Will Ferrell – and just about anyone else with access to a video camera and computer – to post comedy shorts.

Videos live or die based on viewers’ votes. In addition to producing Ferrell gems like "The Landlord,” Funny or Die has become a platform for rising talent and a go-to site for almost-instant satire, with videos lampooning everything from the iPad to "Jersey Shore."

The Internet’s response to the limits of TV comedy comes full circle Friday with the debut of the “Funny or Die Presents” sketch show on HBO, featuring contributions from Ferrell and familiar faces like Zach Galifianakis and Don Cheadle.

Check out the promising preview below, and decide whether to tune in – or log on – for laughs.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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