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Passing the JibJab presidential test

Gregg Spiridellis, who founded JibJab with his brother Evan, describes the process behind their humorous work.

Unless you've been completely cut off from the recent pop culture scene, you've heard of JibJab.

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company took the Web by storm with its first animated satire about the 2004 presidential race, called "This Land," and garnered additional praise for a second short film, "Good to be in DC," released to the public last week.

We've gotten some e-mails from Ralph Nader supporters who were mad that he wasn't in there.
The Flash animation filmmakers launched their online assault on the political scene with the hopes of raising their company's visibility.

With close to 60 million combined viewings of the two animated satires thus far, the filmmakers appear to have achieved that goal.

JibJab front man Gregg Spiridellis, 30, who founded the company with his brother Evan, recently spoke with CNET News.com to discuss his company's rise to Web fame and the Internet's burgeoning potential as a tool for creative minds.

Q. How did you choose the Web as your medium for making films and political spoofs?
A. In 1998, I was doing my MBA at Wharton, and my brother Evan was doing some independent animation and developing a TV show. Over a 56.6k modem, we saw John Kricfalusi (the creator of the "Ren & Stimpy" cartoon series) streaming full-motion, full-sound animation.

I think everyone was ready for something that both sides could laugh at together.
It kind of opened our eyes to the possibility of having our own distribution channel and the possibility of building a brand and intellectual properties without anyone between us and the people who liked our work. So when I graduated, we set up shop in a converted garage in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and started putting online content on a Web site.

That was October of 1999, and the next thing you know, all the big guys started showing up, like Digital Entertainment Network, Pop.com, Z.com, etc. There was that whole group of super-funded online entertainment destination sites.

Kricfalusi essentially inspired you guys to go for it?
He was one of the first guys do be doing online animation, and we saw it at Shockwave.com. It was a dancing doodle. It was amazing to us that with a 56.6k modem with Flash, you could create great animation.

Why is it important that the Web removes those layers you mention between the creative people and their potential audience?
It's a question of leverage. If you're two creators trying to break into the system, there are all kinds of gatekeepers. These people don't necessarily know what is good, in terms of entertainment, more than anyone. The number of stories you could find about Hollywood development hell are probably endless.

What the Web lets us do is not just walk in the door with a pitch, it lets us show people a tangible product and to be able to say, "We've got 500,000 people who signed up for our newsletter, 10 million people who sent this, 20 percent sent it to a friend, 15 percent downloaded it, and 5 percent bought merchandise from our Web site." That's the kind of leverage creators have never had before the Internet.

Did your brother Evan's TV show ever get picked up?
We shifted focus, but the ideas for the show are still manifesting themselves in a lot of things we do, style-wise or concept-wise. But since we started it, the Web business has been 100 percent of our focus.

Where did the name JibJab come from?
We made it up. It was 1999, and the whole idea was that nothing was constant except change. We didn't know what we were going to be or how the business would evolve. We just wanted something that was fun-sounding and short. We had all these rules; it had to be one or two syllables and seven letters or less, because people were typing it into their browsers. We wanted it to be something fun and something that didn't really mean anything other than what we might attribute it to, which was our creative sensibilities. No one was a technical person.

When we started, it was all about giving artists new tools, and the people we work with aren't necessarily technical people; they're photographers, painters--all kinds of different artists. They take a unique and different approach to creating with Flash, which is what we use. And that's where a lot of the original photo collage and other visual styles that we use came from. It all comes down to the artistry, especially when you're limited by technology.

So that's where the animation style used in "This Land" and "DC" comes from?
Yeah. Even though it has chop jaws, I think it looks great.

It all comes down to the artistry, especially when you're limited by technology.
(The puppetlike jaws are) also a part of the joke, and that's what Evan and the guys do. They understand the limits of the technology and make that part of the joke. It's crude, but the art looks great, and the crudeness is part of the joke.

We could use Flash to make perfectly fluid, Disney-quality animation, but it's just that bandwidth and processor constraints come into play. Even with "DC," we ran into a lot of constraints. It has a lot more animation than "This Land," in terms of movement. And processors can choke if you don't have a newer machine.

When did you guys develop your interest in political satire?
We've always been interested in politics, but in doing this for five years, you start to learn what works on the Web and what doesn't. Political content works great, because our productions are really involved. It was eight weeks for "This Land" and six weeks for "DC."

To make something work on the Web, it has to be topical and relevant to a lot of people at the same time.

To make something work on the Web, it has to be topical and relevant to a lot of people at the same time...Elections are ideal for that because you have some time to come up with a concept and do all that production.
You need to be able to plan for it if you want to have any impact at all. It can't be a flash in the pan if you want to have any staying power. You need something that, once you put all this effort into production, will play for a while. Elections are ideal for that because you have some time to come up with a concept and do all that production.

The first idea that came into your heads was Sen. John Edwards in a Speedo?
Exactly. That was pretty scary, wasn't it?

How many working hours do you guys lodge putting one of these films together?
We did eight weeks on "This Land," but by the time the animation is in full swing, Evan is the guy burning the midnight oil. He was working at least 14-hour days, seven days a week. And that's Evan--he's an animal with Flash, since he's been working with it for five years. For other people with less experience, it would take twice as long. He went to art school at the New School at Parsons and then just picked up all the technology on the fly.

When did you guys realize that you had a hit?
We released "This Land" in July to about 200,000 people who subscribe to our newsletter.

If DreamWorks can put Pinocchio in women's underwear in "Shrek 2," having (U.S. Attorney General) John Ashcroft come out of the closet isn't really that bad.
We try to send things out on Thursday afternoons, since Friday seems like the best day to goof off at work and surf around the Web. We had typically seen about 40,000 content views the first day, but with this one, we were closer to 100,000 views. Three days later, we were at more than a million and a half views, and after that, things were going nuts. We weren't sleeping. We were doing anything it took to keep the site functioning.

How has the response to "DC" been? You had some site performance issues.
It's been great. The performance issues were tough on Friday. After we appeared on the "Today" show, the site got crushed, but it smoothed out by the end of the day. I think the stat for over the weekend was 7 million views. It's doing very well. It's been well-received, and that's thrilling, because we took a real chance doing the second one.

Everyone was so glowing about "This Land," and as a result, we got invited on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," and he asked us to do another film for the show. You can't say no to that. We just said OK and panicked and did it. If you had asked us what our goal was, it would have been to get a few laughs and not do any damage to the accolades we'd already received. But it seems to be playing just as well, and some say that it's even better.

"DC" is a racier production than "This Land."
We did this one for the late-night audience, with Leno in mind, so it's a little edgier. But in the realm of online content, I think we did a pretty good job of censoring ourselves. If DreamWorks can put Pinocchio in women's underwear in "Shrek 2," having (U.S. Attorney General) John Ashcroft come out of the closet isn't really that bad.

Why do you think the films appealed to such a wide audience?
I think "This Land" took off because of how divisive the public dialogue over the presidential election has been.

I think everyone was ready for something that both sides could laugh at together. Maybe more technically, you don't have to filter it. You can send it to everyone you know. You don't have to say, "I can only send this to my liberal wiener friends" or "I can only send this to right-wing nut jobs." You don't have to worry about upsetting anyone, really.

Has the Web become the best medium for political parodies like this?
For us, it's been great. The best thing about it is, the only things you'll know about are the pieces that are really good. It's sort of like the audience is your filter. If it's good it gets passed around, and if it's not, it doesn't. It's a very Darwinian medium. You're not waiting for some creative executive at some studio to say it's good or should be seen. We don't advertise at all. We just send it out on the newsletter, and if people think it's good, they pass it along. If they think it's junk, it doesn't go anywhere.

Both candidates' sites now feature animated content. (President) Bush has a (Sen. John) Kerry flip-flop meter, and Kerry has a cartoon for viewing the world through Bush's rose-colored lenses. What's your take on that? Are they just trying to tap into what JibJab has achieved?
Obviously, when "This Land" took off the way it did--and you're talking about an audience of tens of millions of people and going on the "Today" show--people take notice. There are a lot of well-paid political consultants in Washington who can look at that and say, "Hey, we could do this for ourselves relatively cheaply and get some good bang for the buck out of it." So I'm not surprised. But I'm not sure how well those have done for them. I think if it's on one side or the other, you're narrowing the audience.

Have the Bush or Kerry campaigns contacted you at all?
No, we haven't heard back from either of the campaigns. But we have seen some things in the press. People seemed to think it was funny and had a good sense of humor about it.

Any third-party candidates upset not to be involved?
We've gotten some e-mails from Ralph Nader supporters who were mad that he wasn't in there. But it's not our job to promote him. If he would have made himself relevant, then he would have been in there. We get e-mails from interesting people all the time. Fans suggested that we should include (New Jersey Gov. James) McGreevey and (CBS News anchorman) Dan Rather in "DC."

So what's next for JibJab? Are the phones ringing more now?
They are. From the beginning, the premise was to build the brand online and use the leverage of the direct connection with fans to go places where the business models exist. So now, we're in discussions with television and film companies about doing projects, and we're also exploring the idea of taking a children's book that we did last year for Disney ("Are You Grumpy, Santa?") and producing an independent animated feature.