For the past five years, the website Funny or Die has featured countless hilarious shorts starring celebrities that demonstrate two things: online video is now one of the easiest ways to reach millions of eyeballs across the social spectrum, and pop culture’s biggest talents frequently have too much time on their hands. Enter Wake the Beast, a nonprofit that aims to use that same abundance of time and talent in “Liberal Hollywood” (WTB’s term, in ironic scare quotes, of course) for a more noble cause: reshaping the progressive political conversation.
Wake the Beast was founded less than a year ago by Andrew Epstein–who produced some of Funny or Die’s first content–and former Alliance for Climate Protection staffer Danny De Bonis, whose 2010 “Earth Day Remix” featuring Biz Markie has been viewed over a million times on YouTube. After meeting through mutual friends, the two teamed up to rectify what they saw as the three main ways that your average nonprofit is currently getting viral video wrong. “The first is that they don’t have the budget,” De Bonis explains. “And at the same time, they rarely have in-house talent to make it themselves. What ends up happening is they get an intern who’s maybe used iMovie once, or someone has a cousin who does wedding videos.” His second complaint will be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to be creative in a corporate environment: “These organizations have a lot of internal bureaucracy,” he says. “It’s really hard to make creative content come out of that. From my own experience, ideas would get watered down and be committeed to death. Everything had to be rubber-stamped by all the directors, all the lawyers, and what came out was not the same thing as what went in.”
Finally, De Bonis sees an inherent fear of risk-taking holding many organizations back from creating something impactful. “They have their own brands that they need to protect,” he says. “As an independent nonprofit, we can make content that a lot of these organizations would be shy of, or unable to get approved.” To that end, both De Bonis and Epstein say they have no intention of becoming a progressive ad agency or working as contract labor for a campaign. “At the end of the day, if they hire us, then they have creative control,” De Bonis says. “We want the independence to make the content that we know is the best, and not worry if it’s too hot to handle for the flagship campaign or nonprofit. We are just concerned citizens who care about these issues, acting on our own.”
And despite their Hollywood connections, Wake the Beast also harbors no plans to become your newest source for, say, James Franco overexposure. “Celebrity can work on certain issues, but celebrities come with their own baggage,” Epstein says. “We’re trying to engage writers and directors who basically get paid to create interesting narratives every single day. We’d like to be a production house for creatives that come to us and say, ‘I have this really good idea about this issue. I’d like to do something.’” Perhaps by tapping into this new talent pool, they can avoid one other massive pitfall of any cause-oriented content: the crushing fatigue that comes when an audience is whacked on the head with The Serious Issues, over and over. (And over.) “I think that can be a consequence of too much doom and gloom,” De Bonis says. “We need to make people laugh about these issues sometimes, as a way to keep them engaged. I see online video as a way for organizations to give their constituents content that’s interesting. Not just, ‘Here’s an email, here’s a petition.’ You need to get people riled up.”
One of the first Wake the Beast productions will be a women’s rights video created by director Mo Perkins and writer/actress Mary Elizabeth Ellis (from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia); WTB board member and 50/50 screenwriter Will Reiser is working on a series of videos focused on swing states for the November election. And regardless of this fall’s election outcome, De Bonis and Epstein say they intend to stick around for a while. “There’s still a lot of work to be done on the environment, on marriage equality, on women’s rights,” De Bonis says. “People need to put pressure on our decision-makers to make the right decisions. We want to try to influence the debate, and move the needle on these issues that we care about. They don’t go away once a candidate gets elected.”