Billy Eichner

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Inside Funny or Die and Billy Eichner's plan to 'Glam Up The Midterms'

May 27, 2018 - 9:07 am
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By Saba Hamedy

(CNN) -- For years, comedian Billy Eichner has been known for screaming at people about pop culture on the streets of New York for his show "Billy on the Street."

Now, he wants to yell at people about something else: politics.

"I've been shouting about silly things -- actors, Oscars, thing I've always cared about," he told CNN in a recent interview. "But I want to use my voice to shout at people about more significant things."

Enter Funny or Die -- Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's 11-year-old comedy website that is home to viral videos including Zach Galifianakis' show "Between Two Ferns" (which famously had former President Barack Obama on as a guest in 2014). Eichner has a history with the digital comedy brand, which helped launch "Billy on the Street" and subsequently elevated his career.

So it came as no surprise in February of this year when the website announced it is partnering with Eichner yet again. This time for "Glam Up The Midterms," an effort to bring awareness to voting in the midterm elections across the country.

"Get ready for the hottest event of the year," Eichner says in the promo video. "No, it's not the Grammys, the Oscars, or the Golden Globes. It's the 2018 midterm elections."

As November approaches, Eichner's mission is to reach as many people across the US as possible, one event at a time -- with help from celebrities (such as Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver and Chelsea Handler) and people Eichner described as "hometown heroes," local activists and leaders from across the US.

Funny or Die kicked off its midterms initiative with two events in California: one in April in San Diego, featuring Ron Burgundy, Ferrell's infamous "Anchorman" character; and one in May in Los Angeles, at RuPaul's annual "DragCon."

The plan is to hit the road this summer, and go to districts with the most competitive races to encourage people from both sides of the aisle to get to the polls.

"I wanted to take something that feels like or sounds like a chore or a test you take in school -- the midterms -- and turn it into people and make it something hot, the sexiest event of the year," Eichner said. "That's a joke, obviously -- but that's our way with having fun of what can be traditionally a very dry, chore-like process."

Inspired by a tweet

Eichner said he found himself becoming more vocal in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

"As horrendous as I knew Trump would be, what's truly remarkable is that he's somehow worse than I thought," Eichner tweeted in March of 2017, one of many of his tweets criticizing the President.

Ironically, it was a tweet from President Donald Trump that inspired Eichner's idea to launch a political initiative.

"I honestly do not recall exactly what tweet it was because there were so many tweets to make you angry," Eichner said. "But in that moment [in the summer of 2017>, I called Mike Farah, the CEO of Funny or Die. I said, 'I think we should join forces and do something related to upcoming midterm elections, because all the tweeting and marching is great and nothing really means as much as voting, in terms of trying to get the country back on track.'"

Then the brainstorming began.

Funny or Die's political aspirations

Obama's appearance on "Between Two Ferns" in 2014 wasn't the first time Funny or Die had ventured into politics.

In 2008, the site debuted "Prop 8 -- The Musical," starring Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, Margaret Cho and others, which poked fun at the California ballot initiative that prohibited gay marriage.

A few years later, in 2013, Funny or Die enlisted the help of Alyssa Milano to make a "sextape," which was actually a video created to educate the public about chemical attacks happening in Syria.

However, following the viral success of Obama and Galifianakis' interview, it became apparent to executives at Funny or Die that politically geared comedy videos have a place on the internet, and that politicians could benefit from doing this type of content, too.

"When that episode of 'Between Two Ferns' came out, it was a huge game changer on both sides. We realized we could be doing this kind of stuff all the time," Brad Jenkins, an Obama administration alum who was poached by Funny or Die in 2015, told CNN. "We could be working with nonprofits, foundations, political campaigns, institutions ... and the best comedy writers in the country."

Funny or Die hired Jenkins, who served as associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, in hopes of building the company's brand in Washington. In 2016, the company also brought on David Litt, one of Obama's speechwriters.

Since then, Funny or Die's small DC operation has worked with people and organizations from both sides of the aisle to brainstorm and produce lighthearted, politically centric videos to promote political engagement.

Jenkins said he and Eichner looked at data to see what types of initiatives could be most helpful around midterms. The verdict? Homing in on younger people, from both sides of the aisle, who are maybe less tuned in to politics.

"We started talking about how no young person votes in midterms. It's really bad," Jenkins said. "But it's a whole new universe right now, and we don't even know who's going to be inspired and fired up to vote. Young people may completely surprise us this cycle and outvote a lot of different demographics. We're going to do everything we can in a strategic way to focus on races that matter and people who have never voted in midterms before."

"Glam up the Midterms" also serves as a test for the types of initiatives Funny or Die may want to tackle in 2020, Jenkins said.

Kicking off in California

Already this year, other public figures have announced similar voter registration initiatives. During Turner's annual TCA presentation, TBS' "Full Frontal" host, Samantha Bee, announced the show will launch a nonpartisan mobile trivia game called "This is Not a Game: The Game," pegged to the 2018 midterm elections. (Note: CNN is part of the Turner brand.)

And of course, grassroots voter outreach operations have long been part of each political cycle. Earlier this year, Women's March organizers launched their own midterms initiative "Power to the Polls."

But both Eichner and Jenkins acknowledged they don't want to be atypical Hollywood types who infiltrate small towns and tell voters what they should believe.

And while Eichner himself is not a fan of the Trump administration, he emphasized that "Glam Up The Midterms," like Funny or Die, is nonpartisan.

For its first two events, Funny or Die teamed up with Headcount, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to promote participation in democracy by signing people up to vote at large events such as music festivals.

The San Diego event took place at Oceanside High School Performing Arts Center, and featured a conversation about the upcoming primary in California's 49th District, where Republican Rep. Darrell Issa's seat is up for grabs.

"The event we did in Issa's district we brought Will Ferrell there -- but in order to come to event you had to sign up for election alerts and commit to voting in the primary," Jenkins said. "With our little event we had close to 5,000 people to sign up to vote in that primary."

At DragCon, a three-day drag culture convention, Eichner joined drag queen superstars Alaska 5000 and Peppermint for a panel. More than 50,000 flocked to DragCon this year, according to event organizers.

"RuPauls DragCon is really a three-day celebration of everything we hold dear as Americans," RuPaul Charles, the creator behind hit reality TV show "RuPaul's Drag Race" and the convention, said in an email interview with CNN. "And ... if freedom-loving Americans don't get their s--t together, we are all going to be stuck living  in a country that doesn't allow all of its citizens their constitutional right to be fierce."

Eichner said he was excited to see people show up at these events, and it gave him hope for the events to come (which, he noted, are all still TBD).

"At the end of the day, Funny or Die is an entertainment brand, and I'm an entertainer," he said. "I want this to be fun."

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