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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.
The project, Neely says, sprang from one of those endless “wouldn’t it be funny …” moments. He was in a bar with some friends, and there was a man wearing headphones and sunglasses playing pool alone, which inspired Neely’s group to try to guess what he was listening to. Out of the blue, Neely started ad-libbing scenes like he was listening to a book-on-tape of Harry Potter. That everyone fell out laughing was enough of a reason to go forward with the project. “I had this semi-resolution,” Neely said, “to take any kind of ‘wouldn’t it be funny…’ that really killed the room, but usually died there, and go ahead and do [it].”
After he made the recording on his four-track, he passed it along to friends and posted it on the Internet, and within relatively short order it became an underground sensation. The New York Underground Film Festival played it, which inspired a review in The New York Times and long piece in Salon.com. Months after it premiered in New York, Neely performed it live in Austin to several sold-out shows. After those performances, independent theaters across the country brought Neely in to do the reading live.
For the most part, he says, he didn’t see any money from any of the performances. Theaters showed the film for free so as not to incite the wrath of Warner Bros. But, evidently, Harry Potter is a brand not to be tarnished. Just before Neely was scheduled to perform throughout the eastern seaboard, all participating venues got calls from Warner Bros. telling them that if they did the film, they couldn’t show any Warner Bros. films ever again. The studio giant never directly contacted Neely, but a film promoter told him that the studio had misspelled his name as “Heely.”
“I kept imagining this guy really named Heely,” Neely says, laughing. “You know, in some kind of dark room with a lamp shining on him surrounded by Warner Bros. guys, saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about! I hate Harry Potter!’ ”
Even today, Neely says he gets weekly feedback. The soundtrack remains downloadable on illegal-art.com.
The evolution into cartoon videos also came about through happenstance. A friend of a friend, who’d heard Neely was funny, called to ask if he could come up with something for an MTV ringtone cartoon promo. Using the same purposefully crude style of “Creased” and employing his musical talents, Neely created “George Washington,” a Revolutionary-era rap video that portrayed our nation’s first president as a sort of superhero giant who ate his opponents’ brains, parted the Delaware like Moses and had four sets of testicles.
There’s little animation in Neely’s work; the panels change quickly, but like an illustrated book. In one frame, Washington holds a bison above his head. In the next, the president’s hands are above his head, and the bison is far in the distance.
Neely said the MTV guy told him it was funny, but wondered if he could do one about Jessica Simpson or Snoop Dogg. “I figured out pretty quickly, we weren’t going to be able to work together,” Neely said.
Undeterred, Neely again passed the video to friends, who in turn passed it to their own friends. Eventually, the sketch made it onto various film festivals, where it caught the eye of SuperDeluxe.com. The fledgling site signed up Neely as one of its first artists last summer.
Since the broadband channel launched in January, Neely has uploaded 17 videos. The experience, he said, has been “a baptism by fire, education by necessity.” The 30-year-old handles every step of the process by himself in his home. He writes the script; records himself doing all of the audio in a home studio; and hand-draws typically 80 to 100 panels. It takes, he said, usually two to three weeks.
Like “George Washington,” his newer work mines scatological humor pretty heavily. But within that fertile territory, Neely often manages to work in an existential level that’s just as funny and often surprisingly tender. “All that stuff is indivisible,” he says. “You can’t take poop away from existing.”
“Neely Comics,” which feature, thus far exclusively, the musings of Babycakes, a rapping, role-playing man child, and the revisionist history lessons of the Professor Brothers, Frank and Steve, are as disturbing and innovative and infectious as the early days of “Family Guy” or “South Park.”
“He’s going to be huge, no question about it,” says SuperDeluxe.com’s Reifenberger. Neely says he’s received regular entreaties to do other projects until he recently found a manager, but he said he hates to think of what he’s doing now as the minor leagues for Hollywood or TV. “I happen to really like doing short, three-minute animation. I don’t know that the things I do would transfer into TV.” Maybe they won’t have to.
In the meantime, Neely is trying to finish a novel on the Civil War that he hopes to release in early 2008. He’s also negotiating the release of an anthology of “Creased Comics.”