Comedic Web site success is no laughing matterWritten by Amy Campbell | | firstname.lastname@example.org
An increasing number of people are discovering Black20.com, a Web site that offers original comedy, and it’s turning Toledo native Neil Punsalan, 29, and his partners into the rising stars of Internet video. Founded barely six months ago, Black20’s smart and prolific work has already attracted the attention of Jeff Jarvis, founding editor of Entertainment Weekly and director of the interactive journalism program the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, who earlier this month announced he has invested in the company.
“These guys are talented, funny, ambitious, smart and tireless,” he wrote in his blog, BuzzMachine, on May 10. “I’ve just invested in the studio of the future.”
But this is not a story of overnight success. Punsalan moved to New York City four years ago, and says the roots of Black20 can be traced to his back yard in Oregon in the 1990s.
“In the summer, my brother would make me put on a fedora and run around the backyard like Indiana Jones,” he said. “That’s how I started. He made me do it.”
Meanwhile, Punsalan’s partner, J. Crowley, was having the same childhood in Massachusetts.
“He had an older brother who made him do it,” Punsalan said. “And we just happened to find each other.”
They found each other while working as pages at NBC, began writing together and were ultimately hired to produce a broadband series, “Out of Context,” for the same network. Then, with the show’s pilot episode already in the can, the project got bogged down in big business, never to be seen, and the two nascent producers decided to strike out on their own.
Risk is part of any new venture, but Punsalan and his cohorts took it to a new level when, in order to finance their new company, they took half their NBC production budget, drove to Atlantic City and bet it all. Though Punsalan is contractually obligated not to divulge financial information, he said the bet was more than a few hundred dollars.
“It was a decent piece of change,” he said. “It’s an amount that if we lost, in all likelihood it would have gotten us in a bit of trouble.”
But they didn’t lose. They doubled their money, and won a name for their new company as well when the roulette ball dropped into black 20. The event was recorded, of course, and the big win can be viewed on Black20.com.
Since then, the core group of six, plus a handful of occasional writers, technicians and actors, has been producing and posting “net-work,” an office comedy featuring episodes including “Super Awesome Office Makeover” and “Rogue Cursor”; “Black20 News” and viral videos in the tradition of Punsalan and Crowley’s first Internet hit, “The Easter Bunny Hates You.”
For Punsalan, a Clay High School grad, the atmosphere at Black20 makes for an ideal work environment.
“It’s exactly what I, as a kid, wanted to be involved with,” he said. “A collaborative group of guys who lock themselves in a room with a plate of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and just say, ‘We’re going to make this funny, and we’re not going to leave this room until it’s done.’ And that’s generally how the process works for our team here.”
He said the group also uses some guerilla tactics to get the job done.
“I abhor going to the City of New York and asking for a permit to shoot on the subway,” he said. “I’d much rather just sneak my camera onto the train and do it fast.”
Fast is important, since Black20 posts new content every day.
“It’s a little bit raw, and we like it that way,” he said. “We like it to be raw and real and fast and funny.”
It’s also surprisingly clean, so viewers don’t have to click off the site mid-vid when a kid — or a mom — walks into the room.
“Every once in a while we’ll do something a little risqué; someone will swear,” Punsalan said. “But I feel so fortunate to have found comedians and writers and producers who don’t want to take the easy way out. To me, that’s what swearing and sex jokes are — the easy way out.”
The group will continue producing exclusive broadband content, Punsalan said, but has some other irons in the fire as well.
“We have a licensing deal with Direct TV, and we’ve been talking to HBO about a possible content deal,” he said. “We’ve got some good corporate support behind us, and we’re hoping to be able to grow.”
With Jarvis behind them — and other investors who remain unnamed — growth seems likely, and it would be understandable if this group of twenty-somethings was a little puffed-up over their success. But Punsalan is refreshingly humble, generous in praising his colleagues and proud of his hometown.
“I always thought I would move to New York and do TV, then I would go back home,” he said. “I’ve found a little bit of success here, so I’m going to be here a little bit longer than I expected, but still, home to me is Toledo.”