By Robert Strauss
For a comedian, an election is usually a dream come true, a never-ending supply of gaffes, flip-flops and barbs swirling between oh-so-sincere candidates. But 2004, with the nation at war and no end in sight, seemed destined to seriousness. “It was such an unfunny year,” says Gregg Spiridellis, WG’99. “It was the year Comedy Central became the prime political network.”
So Spiridellis and his younger brother Evan set out to change all that. They decided both sides of the political spectrum needed a kick in the funny bone and used their Internet-based animation and creative marketing firm, Jibjab, to do it.
The brothers created a song parody of the Woody Guthrie standard, “This Land Is Your Land,” and put it up on their Website, www.jibjab.com, to see if it would find an audience mid-campaign. More than 70 million hits later, with that song and another September-made parody of “Dixie,” the Spiridellis brothers were an election-year phenomenon.
“Really, we were motivated strictly to make people laugh,” said Gregg Spiridellis by phone from the Jibjab studio in Los Angeles. “That and to get the Jibjab name out there and get some buzz for our small studio.”
That buzz has turned into millions of laughs.
“This Land” began with George Bush at a map singing, “This Land Is Your Land” and misspelling John Kerry’s home state, “Mass-Uh-Chew-Sits.” Soon Mr. Bush was smiling and brandishing weapons, singing, “”I’m a Texas Tiger. You’re a liberal wiener. I’m a great crusader. You’re a Herman Munster.”
A somewhat more dour and patrician-voiced Mr. Kerry then got to have his rejoinder: “You can’t say nuclear. That really scares me. Sometimes a brain can come in quite handy.”
Politicians of all stripes got their comeuppance in “This Land” and “Good to Be in D.C.,” the “Dixie” parody. Bill Clinton had his arms around buxom women, got slapped by wife Hilary and, nonplussed, said, “What did I do?” Vice President Dick Cheney called up his buddies at Halliburton, the firm where he was chief executive officer before running for Vice President, from the Oval Office, asking for money. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared fully armed and ready for Terminator duty. Now-former New Jersey Governor James McGreevy bounced across the screen in a lavender T-shirt and diapers proclaiming his homosexuality.
“I don’t think all of those 70 million hits are the typical 21-and-under people you think of as on-line types,” said William Lutz, a professor of English at Rutgers University/Camden and a commentator on humor and language, noting that even the least bit of humor is welcome among most voters these days. “What’s good about this is that it is even-handed and serious about its humor. It’s dark. It’s seriously funny.”
Jay Leno caught wind of “This Land” soon after the Spiridellises uploaded it in July and showed it on the Tonight show. He challenged the brother to make the sequel, “Good to Be in D.C.,” which debuted online in late September.
The Spiridellis brothers complement one another’s talents: Eric is the artistic half of the equation, while Gregg is the writer. Gregg, 33, went to Rutgers University, majoring in finance, and later worked as a Wall Street investment banker. Evan, 30, went to Parsons School of Design in New York, working in commercial art there after graduating.
In the late 1990s, Gregg Spiridellis left Wall Street to get an MBA at Wharton. One day in 1999, Evan visited him in Philadelphia and Gregg showed him a streaming video on his computer of a cartoon by “Ren and Stimpy” creator John Kricfalusi.
“It was a dancing dog doody across a front lawn,” said Evan Spiridellis, laughing at the thought. “It was silly, but what it made us realize was that there was the potential to get a creative product out there without distribution people getting so involved in ruining the creative process.”
The brothers launched Jibjab media from a Brooklyn garage, “despite the fact that starting a business in a garage is a really cliché thing to do,” then eventually moved to Los Angeles, home of the computer animation community. They created break dancing cowboys for a Sony on-line advertising campaign and made the Banana Grabber, the mascot for the family business on The Fox Network’s “Arrested Development,” among other commercial projects.
In 2000, they did an animation of President Bush and his then-opponent Albert Gore, doing a rap contest. On the last weekend of the campaign, it aired on Fox’s “Mad TV,” but by the time most people caught wind of it, the campaign was over.
Then came a set of rapping revolutionaries for The History Channel’s series on Founding Fathers. “I’m getting chilly down in Philly,” raps Ben Franklin to a scratchy deejay turntable beat. “I’m an ancient as a mariner. I still get down. I get electric when I fly my kite.” Last year, they tried again, with a California-recall spoken-word parody entitled “Ahnuld for Governor,” which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival.
None of the parodies have made the brothers money, but they have served as calling cards to get more commercial, and possibly artistic, business for Jibjab. “We’re sifting through offers now, but we’re definitely going to take our time,” said Gregg. “It’s exciting to think that people have seen this and want to do business with us. A new Simpsons, that would be nice, but we can’t count on something like that.”
In the main, political operatives on both sides have good words for the parodies.
“In a tough race like this, we all need a diversion,” said the former head of Bush 2000 in New Jersey and state Republican Finance Chairman Bill Palatucci. “I thought they did a great job of being even-handed. There is plenty to skewer on both sides.” Kerry for President spokesman Mark Nevins agreed: “It breaks the tension of the campaign. We think they are funny, so they will vote for us.”
Meanwhile, the Spiridellises are sanguine about their creative success. “If this had been a record and we had sold 65 million singles, we’d be rich,” Evan Spiridellis said. “But we’re happy with the reaction. It’s been a really divisive election season. People were ready to laugh.”
After the campaign, the Spiridellises struck a deal with Yahoo to create two animated parodies. For the Inauguration, they did a spoof of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” with President Bush glorying in having four more years in the White House. Though a little less pointed than the campaign videos, the parody still included “appearances” from Pope John Paul II, Kofi Annan, and the ubiquitous Clintons.
The other Yahoo video was a Christmas-time paean to one of Gregg’s favorite Jibjab characters, the Grumpy Santa. In it, Santa, always grimacing, laments getting cookies at every stop on his December 24 eve trip instead of what he really wants — cash. A book the brothers wrote three years ago for kids, “Are You Grumpy Santa?”, in which Santa is plagued by elves shrinking his suit, slipping on a noodle, and the like, is still in print.
Gregg said while he likes the business end of Jibjab, the real strength and fun is in the creation of the animations. To that end, Jibjab will continue to look for partners like Yahoo, which can take care of distribution and related infrastructure. “To use a Wharton term, our core competency is creating the animation,” he said. “Our job is to make people laugh.”
But while the political and Santa parodies have been fun, what they have done for Jibjab is get the company noticed in the marketing community. After showing their political animations to the Sundance Film Festival, the brothers last January landed a contract to create the branded trailers for the films in the festival. They are working on a pilot for a potential animated TV series as well.
“But what we would really like to do is be a leader in on-line original content in many areas,” Gregg said. “Right now, in the next 18 months, our goal is to have three to six premium corporate clients for whom we are doing branded work. Yes, movies, TV, all that would be wonderful. We would love to be mentioned in the same breath as, say, Pixar. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.”
Gregg’s wife, Helen, whom he met in Philadelphia, is a banker. “Someone in this family has to have a serious job,” he said. He has the continual lament of many of those who by virtue of the entertainment business need to be in Southern California. The brothers grew up in Manalapan, a suburb in central New Jersey.
So while they now want to capitalize on their fame and concentrate on the on-line consumer business, the brothers still intend to keep on parody-ing.
“I’m sure by summer we will have another political animation out,” Gregg said. “There is always something going on in Washington. We might not know what it is right now, but there certainly will be something.”