This time last year, a 29-year-old Minnesotan named Shezanne Cassim was stuck in a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi, awaiting trial for…well, it wasn't exactly clear what for. He and his buddies in Dubai had been arrested after posting a parody video online that depicted a clique of teen gangsta wannabes attending a fictitious "combat school."
But then, in early December, shortly before the United Arab Emirates sentenced him to a year in prison for supposedly endangering national security with a YouTube video, Cassim's sister delivered him some news that, he says, changed everything: "The guys at Funny or Die are all behind you."
As the name implies, Funny or Die is not Amnesty International: The comedy site, launched in 2007 by actor Will Ferrell and writer/director Adam McKay, attracts millions of monthly visitors with video gags such as "Charlie Sheen's Winning Recipes" and "Lindsay Lohan's eHarmony Profile." But when the crew heard that some kid was rotting in jail for doing what they do every day, it felt compelled to act. Ferrell rounded up celebs, including comedian Patton Oswalt and Veep star Tony Hale, to launch a "Free Shez" campaign to raise money for his defense.
"This was the turning point," recalls Cassim, who was released this past January after nine months behind bars. "It's when I finally felt hopeful. To have these superstar celebrities supporting me, I felt safe."
It certainly wasn't the first time the Funny or Die crew had dabbled in politics. Ferrell and McKay are big Democratic supporters, and their website banks on agitprop. Both men are veterans of Saturday Night Live, where "in election years the ratings went way up," notes Dick Glover, the site's CEO. Average production time for a single Funny or Die political video is about a week, but in the heat of national elections, when rapid-response is as much a necessity for their comedy as it is for any Republican or Democratic PAC, it's closer to a day.
Back in the summer of 2008, after John McCain's campaign ran an anti-Obama ad referencing Paris Hilton, Funny or Die enlisted Hilton to deliver a poolside response to "that wrinkly white-haired guy." Following that November's passage of California's ill-fated ban on same-sex marriage, they released the hilarious, star-studded "Prop 8—The Musical." The crew has reunited Saturday Night Live's presidential impersonators going back to Chevy Chase to make the case for Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, featured Jim Carrey in an anti-NRA Hee Haw send-up, created an Obama-Romney rap battle, done a sketch warning of the dangers of sequestration, and disseminated a "leaked" sex tape of actress Alyssa Milano that, as it turned out, was all about the bloodshed in Syria.
"It was a really fun way to get people to realize that there are important issues our country is dealing with right now," Milano told me. "If people end up learning something about the crisis in Syria that's a good thing—even if I had to do a sex tape to lure them in."
Among the producers' latest efforts is a satirical video about the proliferation of mass shootings in America.
Last July, Mike Farah, Funny or Die's president of production and "ambassador of lifestyle," joined Amy Poehler, Kal Penn, and other Hollywood notables at a White House brainstorming session with President Obama to talk about getting young people to sign up for his new health care program. "It kind of kicked ass," Farah says.
Since that meeting, Funny or Die has released a bunch of pro-Obamacare videos starring the likes of Aisha Tyler, Jennifer Hudson, and Olivia Wilde. On Tuesday, the site posted President Obama's appearance on Between Two Ferns, a community TV talk show mockery hosted by Zach Galifianakis. The humorous "interview" sketch included a link to Healthcare.gov, which quickly made Funny or Die the morning's biggest source of referrals to the Affordable Care Act website. (Some conservatives, as you might imagine, weren't all that happy about any of this.)
"You never want to be considered a mouthpiece for any administration," explains creative director Andrew Steele. "But our politics tend to lean a little left, and all of us passionately agree that health care is important." Then again, he notes, "my own shtick is to attack corrupt power—and the GOP certainly doesn't have a patent on stupidity."
Farah has kept in regular touch with the White House, though—particularly his friend Brad Jenkins in the Office of Public Engagement—to discuss potential celebrity collaborators and different content strategies. "We've started talking about different things we could do to have a consistent political presence," he says. Immigration reform may be the next big item on the list. Ted Cruz, consider yourself warned.