It's no secret that Yahoo will be launching a new original-video strategy, possibly with four new comedy shows, at an event at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 28th. And the launch can't come soon enough.
Consider the current lineup. Puppet cops pursue perps in a puppet neighborhood of Brooklyn in "The Fuzz." A 4-inch tall action hero busts bad guys in "Tiny Commando." And an endless series of skits shows what it would be like if men acted like women and women acted like men in "The Flip Side." These are just some examples of Yahoo's attempts at original shows.
Yahoo Screen, the company's online video service, has been trying to carve a niche for itself as the home of original spoof comedy. But Yahoo's own video lineup sometimes looks like a spoof of an Internet company trying to produce original comedies.
"House of Cards" is not an anomaly among Internet-only "TV" show hits. Several tech companies are producing successful, reasonably high-quality shows (not always on huge budgets) that are putting pressure on Yahoo to up its game. Amazon has a hit in the John Goodman-starring political satire "Alpha House," which has been renewed for a second season. Amazon is also beginning production on four promising big-budget shows that it green-lighted based on viewer feedback on the pilots.
Hulu has a compelling, addictive series in the dark magical drama "The Booth at the End" and it's going for supernatural laughs with Tyler Labine's new ghost-medium spoof "Deadbeat." Budget movie site Crackle has a comic hit with Jerry Seinfeld's oddball talk show "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" and has just launched the third season of its action-adventure drama "Chosen."
Against this backdrop, Yahoo's lineup of painfully forced comedies looks mostly amateurish, though there are a few bright spots. One is the Ben Stiller-backed parody "Burning Love." This sendup of dating shows like "The Bachelor" features talented comic actors such as Michael Ian Black and June Diane Raphael, with cameos from Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Rebecca Romijn, Seth Rogan and many others. But even here the humor is sometimes forced. In season three, the contestants are fiercely competing for a whopping $900 in cash, and the stereotyped Pakistani contestant Zakir (Kumail Nanjiani) is fascinated to discover that there are women called lesbians who like to have sex with each other.
"Losing it with John Stamos" is a delightful series of short interviews in which celebs tell the funny and often cringe-worthy stories of how they lost their virginity. The re-enactments using actors, cartoon figures and "Avenue Q"-style puppets are often hysterical. But it's not the kind of show you would keep going back to or binge on for hours, and the four- to six-minute videos are not short enough or so funny as to go viral.
Beyond that, Yahoo's lineup really gets grim. "The Fuzz" is the story of crime and punishment in the drug-infested Brooklyn neighborhood of Puppet Town, as in inhabited by puppets. In "Tiny Commando," Zachary Levi plays a 4-inch-tall action hero/private eye. And "Ghost Ghirls" is a spoof on ghost-hunter shows that could be funny if it weren't so blatant in its satire. In episode one, the airhead character Heidi Button, played by Amanda Lund, enters the house's kitchen and says, "Oh, my God. I'm getting a feeling that this is a room where people cook."
The message is clear in these shows: This is a comedy, so you should be laughing, dammit. Yahoo hits you over the head with blatant humor. But sometimes a joke can be so obvious and overwrought that it's simply not funny.
A chaotic portal
Even if you want to find Yahoo's original shows, you'll have a hard time doing it on the Yahoo Screen video portal. It appears to be a mishmash of whatever video the company can possibly syndicate–prominently featuring clips from "Saturday Night Live," Comedy Central, The Onion and many others. You'll have to scroll on for pages to find Yahoo's original shows, which aren't labeled as such. And when you do, you'll be dropped into the current season with no easy way to get an overview of all the seasons in case you want to start from the beginning.
There is a bright side to all these failings, however –it would be hard for Yahoo's original programing to not get better. Other tech companies are upping their game, and more are entering the competition. This week Microsoft's Xbox Entertainment Studios announced that it would be producing an original sci-fi drama, "Humans," about eerily lifelike androids.
Yahoo is also competing with plenty of other online comedy sites, which it also syndicates, including "College Humor," "BuzzFeed" and Will Ferrell's "Funny or Die." That last site name is a fitting description of the challenge Yahoo faces as it tries to remake its comic lineup.