Nobody does hipster-pop culture, beat-down funny, single-serving one-liners better than Mike Colton and John Aboud, the veteran VH1 talking heads who have been smearing their fingerprints all over the comedy game for the past decade. The duo cut their baby teeth at the Harvard Lampoon in the early 1990s and ultimately forged one of the most renowned comedy sites in internet history, modernhumorist.com, in 2000.
Courtesy Mike Colton & John Aboud
Mike Colton (left) and John Aboud
Gelf recently phoned Aboud at his Los Angeles home and asked him to give up the goods and reminisce about the last five years. Ask the arm-punching, closest-thing-to-brothers colleagues a tough question like "Who's funnier?" and the self-proclaimed geeks from Harvard are far more likely to tell you how much the other one sucks. So, in that spirit, Gelf emailed a transcript of that conversation to Colton, who gave it a Mystery Science Theater 3000-style sniping from the cheap seats. His comments are in brackets and bolded.
Here's what the relocated boys from the East Coast had to say:
Gelf Magazine: What projects are you working on right now?
John Aboud: We're focusing on two projects. The first is the feature movie script for Ivan Reitman's company called "Over My Dead Body." It's a comedic ghost story. The second is a television pilot that we'll be writing for Sony Pictures Television. The TV show is to be determined. [... but will probably feature a fat dude and his hot wife.] That's what they call a blind deal, which means we are contracted to do a pilot for Sony with the story that we're going to develop together. We have two ideas that we're excited about, but they're Guantánamo Bay-confidential.
GM: How has it been working with Ivan Reitman?
JA: That's been the thrill of thisgetting to work with someone who certainly did a lot to influence our sensibilities growing up, through things like Stripes and Ghostbusters and, as a producer, Animal House.
GM: Is it harder to get books published or TV and movie pitches accepted?
JA: It's actually very similar. The experience of selling a book involves coming up with a proposal, and sending that around and going around to publishers with your agent, and having meetings if they're interested. The means of selling a movie are very similaryou have to have a pitch. The difference in the book world is that sometimes you can just send a chunk of the book and they can buy it based on that.
That was the case with something like My First Presidentiary and One Nation Extra Cheese, where we had been doing material very much like what would be in the book on the Web site [modernhumorist.com]. In the TV world or the movie worldespecially the TV worldyou can do that with a 5-minute sample. You just take your camcorder and you shoot a sample bit of the show. [I think that's how Stargate was sold.]
GM: Whator whois bringing the funny right now?
JA: It seems like it's a really great time for comedy everywhere except network TV. You've got comedy movies coming outAnchorman, Dodgeball, Shaun of the Dead. [I know for a fact you haven't even seen Shaun of the Dead. Fucking poseur.] You've got great stuff on cablereally looking forward to the new Stella on Comedy Central. Tom Goes to the Mayor on Cartoon Network is just insanely fucked-up and funny.
It seems like it's network TV that's having a hard time keeping up with what the audience wantsbut it's not really their job. The self-identified comedy audience wants crazy shit like Family Guy-style randomness. And Fox caters to that a little bit through Arrested Developmenteven the production style of Malcolm in the Middle is very edgy, in terms of the quick cuts and the single camera. I think that network TV, overall, doesn't have the mission to cater to people who want that kind of thing.
GM: Can you describe your journalistic background?
JA: Yeah, Mike much more so than me. He was working at the Washington Post and that's a relatively legitimate media outlet. [I knew who Deep Throat was before it was "cool."] I did freelance magazine writing, and then I worked for TVGuide.com for about eight months, which was my job right before Modern Humorist. Being at TVGuide.com basically meant I was a junket whoreI went to see junkets for movies and TV and asked inoffensive, but interesting questions. [Also, you had sex for money.] That was my job for the last half of 1999, into the first two months of 2000. And then I started full-time at Modern Humorist.
Mike Colton and John Aboud can be seen on "Best Week Ever" every Friday at 11 p.m.
JA: It was definitely a risk. [More than the risk faced every day by our men and women in uniform? Didn't think so. Fucking poseur.] It was a big chance we were taking. We were putting ourselves out on the line there, and putting venture-capital money from investors out on the line. But in terms of what we always wanted do, definitelyMike and I were of one mind on that because it was really the dream job. I remember getting a letter my senior year that was sent to the Harvard Lampoon office [Way to drop the H-Bomb! I'm surprised it took you this long.] from AOL's in-house development project called AOL Greenhouseessentially an in-house venture capital company. But the letter basically said if you put together a business plan or proposal for a comedic property, then they would fund it in-house. And I remember holding it and almost being in tears and thinking, "This is itthis is exactly what I should be doing." [Such a pussy. You also cried during "Pay It Forward."]
I really wanted to start a company; I really wanted to continue doing the kind of stuff I was doing at The Harvard LampoonI thought it'd be great to start a National Lampoon for the 21st centurybut I just didn't know anyone with any business sense. I only hung out with people who did the newspaper and people who did the humor magazine. I didn't really know anyone who was good at figures. And so, when I joined Grey Advertising in 1996, the thinking then was that advertisers would create the media properties like in the '50s and the early days of television. But by '98 it was clear that Grey wasn't going to get into that business, so that's when I became a freelance, pseudo-journalist.
GM: When you first started Modern Humorist were there comparisons to the Onion? How did you develop Modern Humorist's identity?
JA: The comparisons were always going to be there, but the identity part, I don't think anyone really ran the risk of confusing us with the Onion. The one thing that was company policy was that we would never, ever do fake news. We knew from the time we were developing the company that we were trying to do everything possible to be different than the Onion, to provide a complement, to provide something else in the marketplace for online-time wasting. No one will ever do fake news better than the Onion. It's just not do-able, so why even bother?
GM: Describe the genesis of the famous "When You Pirate MP3's, You're Downloading Communism" poster.
JA: Easily the two things that we did that were far and away the most popular were the MP3-Communism poster and the Punchie-Pikachu video [My creation, thank you very much. It's been shown in museums and shit.]. We definitely got off on a roll in early 2000 because we had done three parodies leading up to the formation of Modern Humorist. And when we formed the company we did a parody of media-news site Romenesko to announce the formation of the company to reporters and to get the news media excited about it. And based on the Romenesko parody we got a commission from the New York Press for a full-page piece for them. We were doing pieces for Time Magazine. And this was all before the website even launched. The propaganda posters originally ran in Time, even before the site was up. If you go to the page, I think it still says, "As see in Time Magazine," and has a little picture of the Elian Gonzalez cover. [Ah, little Elian. I hear that he's now doing porn.]
The propaganda posters came about when I was just surfing through my bookmarks. I'm a horrific nerd, you must understand, and one of my bookmarks was for the National Archives propaganda poster collection for World War II. There's that famous one, "When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler." So I was trying to find that one and some other examples, and I spent like an hour going through all these propaganda posters. Then I sent an email to everyone on staff and said, "Now accepting propaganda posters for todayfor the internet age." And we just started emailing back and forth and that Hitler poster became: "When you pirate MP3's, you're downloading communism." Pat Broderick, our art director, just nailed it. He just created something that people just had to have.
GM: Describe Modern Humorist's earliest days.
JA: If you put the right people together you're going to get a lot of stuff right out of the gate, and we had an amazing team. That was definitely the height of the Modern Humorist era when we had a fulltime staff: Alexandra Ringe, Daniel Radosh, Noam Weinstein, and then, eventually, Martha Keavney. That was the writing staff. A lot of what made us popular is how those writers' ideas were executed through Pat [Broderick] and the art touch that he brought to it. [Modern Humorist] just looked like nothing else online or in print. And yet it could look like anything we wanted it to because Pat's just that good. The kind of stuff you could throw at him"It should look like a '30s comic book as done by a dragon." He'd sort of nod and say, "What panel size?"
GM: Is it true Jon Stewart was on the board of directors?
JA: Yes. Or was it board of advisors? I think it was board of advisors. On the board of directors we had David O'Connor, one of the managing partners of Creative Artists Agency; Frank Marshall, the producer (IMDB); Eric Rayman, who was the trustee of The Harvard Lampoon and now is the president of Budget Living. It was a great group of people. Our CEO was Kate Barker, who had been in development, a vice-president at Universal.
We had a great team. I think the mistake we all made was not planning on making money. [It seemed so foolproof back then ...] The business plan that we were shopping around was that we needed full funding for three years. And we got less than one; because of the downturn the [venture-capital] firm had to fold. We survived an additional two years just on money we were making ourselves. But obviously, in retrospect, we should have been trying to do that from Day One.
But there was so much confidence. We really thought that three years of funding wouldn't be an issue, and that by the end of three years we would have ramped up to a point that we could sustain ourselves. Turns out we were able to sustain ourselves at a vastly reduced staff level of essentially three.
Product displacement: Mike Colton demonstrates a Red Bull spit take.
JA: [In New York], we looked at Long Island City and DUMBO [Down Under the Manhattan Overpass Bridge] for offices, and DUMBO seemed like the better bet. And it was great to be in an area that was just exploding. The trend had started but it was still relatively sleepy. When we got there I remember thinking, "I really don't want people walking around here at night after work." By the time we left three years later it was entirely different. [Mostly because we didn't have any more employees.]
GM: Describe the media stunt Modern Humorist pulled involving Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com
JA: Amazon had asked us to be one of the first wave of sites to debut the honor system [a program allowing visitors to "tip'" their favorite websites or pay for access to premium content]. They selected 15 websites or so to be the launch partners. And we thought that if this was going to get some attention, we should use this opportunity to do something fun. Again, this was how averse we were to making money other than from our store. We thought, "Is this going to work, to put a little tip jar out front? Does it make any sense? Well, I know. Why don't we collect all this money and then do something stupid with it."
Great business sense, right? So we collected all this money and we bought a gift for Jeff Bezos. We wereand I remaina big fan of Jeff Bezos. He's just a really funny, unusual person, and he's got crazy ideas. [Segway! Wheee!]
So we decided we were going to get him a grill, but we would only give him the grill if he'd invite us over and cook on it. Because why should we give him this grill if we don't get to enjoy hanging out in his backyard or whatever? Much faster than we could have anticipated, we raised more than enough money for the grill. And I said, "I guess now we have to follow through." We called Amazon and said, "I don't know if you've been following this at allwe've got this idea to buy Jeff Bezos a grill." and they said, "Oh, we're all well aware of your little plan." And we said,"'Well, you should know we fully intend on trying to deliver this to him." And they said, "Well, we fully intend on letting you. Why not? Yeah, give him the grill."
It coincided with some good news for Amazon that they were making a profit. So they said, "Why don't you give Jeff the grill at an event. We'll have a cookout. We'll have a barbecue at the Bowery Bar." And it was just a surreal and ridiculous event. There were throngs of camera crews from Japan. I don't know how that happened, but it must have been the lead story in Osaka that night. [They probably confused "Bezos" with "bukkake."]
GM: When did the stunt take place and how do you feel about it now?
JA: It was like July of 2001 and we had gotten to a point where we were trying to survive on our own money, so it definitely felt like a shot in the arm in terms of keeping our profile high. It was good for morale, for me, Mike and Pat. At that point we were the only full-time people. We had a bunch of interns who very clearly had no idea what they were signing on for when they started with us.
It's hard to separate what I feel about it now from what I felt about it then. Because at the time it just sorta felt fun. And now it just seems absolutely fucking bizarre. It's just an era that is gonethat you would do something that silly and whimsical, it doesn't make any sense given what's going on in the world today. Now I'm sounding like a Black Eyed Peas song, I'm sorry.
Even for two of the nation's premiere pop-culture gurus, deploying an occasional "What the hell do I know?" shrug is not without its merits.
JA: Yeah, despite our efforts to kill it.
GM: But when you and Mike signed on to do Best Week Ever, were you trying to keep the Modern Humorist tag?
JA: No, we hate that! Modern Humorist is a publication. It's a company. My wife came up with the name, actually. [Your "wife"? Is that what you're calling Chad these days?] We were trying to name it and for a while the earliest documents were calling it Jest, Inc. But we were like, "No, we don't really like that name. We want something a little more interesting," and my wife said, "You should call it something that sounds like a 1950s trade magazine." Progressive Farmer. Today's Banker. Modern Humoristthat's it! That's the name. That's the one.
If you were to start a comedy duo or troupe or do any kind of performing on-air VH1 commentating, you would never choose the name Modern Humorist. It's the most pompous, bullshit name for two dudes imaginable. It sucks. You would never call yourself that unless you wanted to be instantly hated. And also if Joel Stein appears on VH1, they don't call him "Time Magazine." He's "Joel Stein of Time Magazine." Although now he writes for the L.A. Times.
So it has just dogged us now. It has become this incredible brand confusion. We have names, it's just that no one knows them. They call us "Modern Humorist." They say, "Hey, you're those Modern Humorist guys." Within VH1 and even the other panelists,we just had a big dinner out here for all the L.A. panelistspeople call us "Mohu." Except for Doug Benson who calls us "Moho." We can't dodge the name Modern Humorist.
GM: Have you voiced your displeasure to VH1?
JA: We told VH1, and now if you look at it, they actually put our names larger and "Modern Humorist" is smallerwhich is what it should have been from the beginning. Every week we're like, "Again, guys, why is 'Modern Humorist' much bigger than our names?" They're like, "Oh, yeah, gosh, dudes, we'll totally fix that next week." It was just ridiculous. If you go to coltonaboud.com, you'll see we are attempting to change it, but to some extent we are getting kind of resigned to the fact that may never have names.
GM: How did Modern Humorist get hooked up with Best Week Ever?
JA: Under the auspices of Modern Humorist, we developed this show focusing on geeks. It would be like The Man Show for geeks. That was an idea we sold to VH1 as Modern Humorist. Our executive producer was Fred Graver, who, at the same time, was developing Best Week Ever. So it was just because we were two offices down that he said, "Hey, you guys are kind of funnyyou look funny. Why don't you try this pilot I'm shooting for Best Week Ever.'" We said, "Yeah, sure." We like Fred. We wanted to help him out. Why not? We just sat in on the pilot and the reaction, to our shock and horror, was very positive. "You should do this regularly," they said. This was in mid-2003.
JA: It was fun. We weren't updating the website anymore so we had this vast reservoir bullshit topical jokes that we had no outlet for. The pilot of Best Week Ever was done in July 2003, I believe, and we tried out again in December 2003someone at VH1 must have said, "Are you sure about these two?"and then it debuted in January 2004. It was all done out of New York, but they were also always taping L.A. panelists. So now that we're out here, we just tape in the studios in Santa Monica.
GM: So you've guys have gotten pretty good at it, then?
JA: I think that we are probably, if not the funniest, certainly the sexiest. [We're also the funniest.] I think even if we don't have good material, it's fine. We can coast on our looks.
We have a lot of awe for the panelists who perform for a living. There was one week when Paul F. Tompkins sat in the studio with us while we were taping, and so the pressure was on. We were constantly joking to each other, "How dare you tell that joke in front of Paul F. Tompkins? This man is one of the greatest comedians currently working. How dare you fuck up like that?"
GM: What's your best Best Week Ever line? And what's Colton's?
JA: I don't really know that Colton has had a best line yet, which is good because he has something to aspire to. All of my best lines, well, it's like trying to choose among your children. I love all of my jokes equally. [Come on, what about your bit about how Mexicans take the jobs that not even blacks want to do? That killed!]
GM: Even if they come out retarded?
JA: Well, that's not yet happened. Because you want to make sure they never get on the air. That's sort of the secret. I think VH1 would do well to produce DVDs within a week of all the stuff that gets cut from panelists. I'm sure it's no different than when we tape, they have hours and hours of absolutely profane and offensive material that's not fit for the airwaves.
GM: Can you think of anything that hit the cutting room floor that you wish had made it in?
JA: We did a bit for a year-end episode where we were recapping stuff from the past year. Mike was dressed as an angel and I was dressed as a devil and it was this angel-devil explanation of celebrity meltdowns over the past year. In some ways I'm glad that never aired because I don't know that America needs to see me in a skintight, red devil's suit.
GM: But don't they usually shoot panelists from the nipples up?
JA: This was full-frontal. And honestly, I don't know think America needs that because it would melt TVs ... because it's too sexy.
GM: How are you dealing with the celebrityhood?
JA: You mean the groupies. It's a good thing and a bad thing. Sometimes the paparazzi will crash into your car because they're so desperate to get a photo. And that's crossing the line. [That wasn't a paparazzo. That was an old man who forgot to take his meds.]
GM: Is Best Week Ever a sweatshop or do you get paid in drink tickets? Is it typical comic exploitation?
JA: We're talking over the phonethere's no Web cam here or anythingbut if you could see the gold-plated desk chair I'm currently sitting on ... if you could see that all my teeth have been replaced with platinum fronts, that would answer the question on how they pay us. Viacom is a several-billion-dollar company, and the lion's share of the annual budget goes into Best Week Ever. Other people try to do stupid television. VH1 invented it.
GM: Anything else the fans should know?
JA: I think that the less that the fans know about me the better, really. I reveal too much. This is the most open and public I've been with the media and I feel like a veil of secrecy has fallen. I try to maintain a reclusive, Robert Redford-esque existence. I let it slip this time. ["Also, I'm a fucking poseur."]