There is no one funnier than Brad Neely. At least that’s what my roommate thinks. Just about every day, he comes home from work, yanks his tie off, plops down in front of his computer and starts watching web videos. For hours. He’s pretty much exclusively interested in comedy, but within that category, his tastes are fairly broad. One day he might spend a lot of time on Bush malapropisms; another might be all about kicks to the groin; and still another might find him mining YouTube for old Will Ferrell skits. But for the last month or so, he’s obsessively and almost exclusively watched “Neely Comics,” a series of three-minute cartoons created by Arkansas native Brad Neely. I can tell he’s watching them when his laugh rises to a cackle.
My roommate’s devotion to web video, of course, is hardly unique. comScore, a leader in measuring digital media, recently announced that, in January in the U.S. alone, almost 123 million people viewed 7.2 billion videos online. That means about 70 percent of the total U.S. Internet audience is watching videos online.
Numbers like those convinced Google to pay $1.65 billion in stock last fall for YouTube, the enormously popular video-sharing site. But increasingly, media heavyweights are trying to push beyond YouTube’s user-generated-content model into a new era of higher-quality programming that could look a lot like TV — with distinct channels, polished production and big-name stars.
“The Internet, as we now know it, because of broadband, has truly transcended from just information and communication into entertainment,” says Drew Reifenberger, senior vice president and general manager of SuperDeluxe.com, a broadband comedy channel that Turner Broadcasting debuted in January.
SuperDeluxe.com boasts almost entirely original, in-house material. The site’s roster includes relatively well-known comics like Bob Odenkirk (“Mr. Show”), Dave Foley (“Kids in the Hall,” “News Radio”) and Richard Belzer.
But the broadband channel’s main attraction, the artist who typically gets the most prominent billing, and the person who seems poised to become a true web superstar, is someone who’s far from a household name: Brad Neely.
Neely, who lives in Austin, Texas, but grew up in Fort Smith, started drawing comics when he was 14. After stints at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Fort Smith, he migrated around the country, briefly attending the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and settling in Philadelphia and Chicago. “I always had a lot of fires going at once,” Neely said. “You know, trying to be a real actor, trying to be a painter, trying to get a band going.”
In 1996, while still in Arkansas, Neely began a series he called “Creased Comics,” single-panel cartoons done in a style he’s described as “self-consciously junky.” The comics are far from obvious — sometimes head-scratchingly far — but when he’s at his best, Neely could be our generation’s answer to Gary Larson. One of his sharpest strips shows two male superheroes in a full, make-out embrace hovering in the air while spectators below cry. Another depicts a Native American surrounded by tepees, soldiers in early American uniforms and a cleric holding a picture of Jesus towering above a lion and little children. “Well… I guess he seems pretty cool,” the Indian chief says, pointing to Jesus.
In 2003, Neely recorded “Dear Reader, Wizard People,” an alternate commentary to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Like syncing Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to “The Wizard of Oz,” the audio track is meant to be played on a stereo while the film screens on mute. Delivered in the adenoidal, grizzled voice of the poet Steven Jesse Bernstein, Neely’s telling of the story, arranged like a book-on-tape, presents a decidedly different Harry Potter. Harry, for instance, is not just a wizard, he’s a before-noon drunkard. As the story nears its end, the narrator increasingly confuses the plot to the point that you begin to wonder if he’s paying attention.
I liked it a lot. People in the theater were laughing out loud.