Comedy 101

What makes a college kid laugh? Ask these three guys from Timonium, who have made millions figuring that out.

March 23, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Ricky Van Veen is sitting at his desk in the Tribeca offices of CollegeHumor.com, studying a close-up photo of a woman's breasts. "Ehh," he says. The photo was submitted by a reader who badly wants to be featured on his Web site, but Van Veen decides this woman's immodesty isn't that special. Moreover, it's not funny.

"Girls send in pictures of themselves nonstop," he says with a sigh. "We get about five pictures a day of girls who write CollegeHumor on their chest, and we can't put them all up because otherwise we'd be an adult site."

Instead, CollegeHumor.com is a site for perpetual adolescents, an R-rated repository for all the stupid, funny things that college students photograph and send each other. Here's a sign in front of a parking space that says, "Somewhat Disabled." Here's a photo of a kitten in a cookie jar. Here are three girls wrestling in Jell-O. Here are four guys wrestling in pudding.

Ah, college.

In a few short years, the four friends who run CollegeHumor.com -- Van Veen, Josh Abramson, Jakob Lodwick and Zach Klein -- have become the arbiters of comedy for their generation. Their Web site is visited by 8 million unique users each month. They have a book deal with Penguin Press. They're talking to Paramount about a movie. They met last week with Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of Saturday Night Live. They've started a line of T-shirts that's being carried in Urban Outfitters nationwide.

"In a lot of ways, we're a mirror for college," says Lodwick, 23, who grew up in Timonium, like site co-founders Van Veen, 24, and Abramson, 23. "We're not just trying to say what we think is funny. We take everything that college kids say is funny, we select the best stuff and we give it back to them."

At first, the founders of CollegeHumor thought it would earn them beer money, but they soon learned the potential was far greater. In 2003, the site's revenue was $250,000, mostly from advertising. In 2004, when the guys began working on the site full-time, revenue was $2 million. This year it's expected to be several times that.

Though three of the four CollegeHumor guys are from Baltimore County, they chose to base their empire first in San Diego and now in New York. Last July, they moved into a five-bedroom, 4,200-square-foot loft in Tribeca that rents for $10,000 a month. There is not, as Van Veen says some people believe, a beer bong that stretches from one end of the loft to the other. Instead, it is decorated with leather furniture, a glass-top dining table and a cabinet filled with crystal wineglasses.

(In other words, it looks nothing like the dorm rooms featured on their site, which are often a mess of beer cans, leftover pizza and disgusting piles of garbage. The CollegeHumor guys have a business to run, and they act like it, usually.)

Their kitchen is modern and spotless. There's a reason for that, Van Veen says. "We've never cooked in there," he explains. The guys go out to dinner every night, taking full advantage of New York's many fine restaurants, like Grill Cheese, an example of truth in advertising if ever there was one.

On a table by their front door are four small framed photos of the four guys -- useful for a stunt they call mantelpiecing. Most nights, the guys go out to parties, and before they leave they grab a photo and slip it into their pocket. Once at the party, they quietly place the photo on the host's mantel.

Leaving things behind seems to be a theme for them. While visiting home for Christmas last year, Van Veen and Abramson needed to unload dozens of T-shirts they had made that didn't sell. So they folded them neatly, stacked them in shopping bags and walked into the Abercrombie & Fitch at Towson Town Center. Then they placed them on the shelves.

Abramson and Van Veen were in the same year at Dulaney High School, and they said the talent and creative energy in their class pushed them to sometimes outlandish extremes. For the senior class photo, Van Veen dressed up as Waldo from the Where's Waldo books, complete with hat, binoculars and red-and-white-striped shirt.

"They were unique and creative, and they had their own style," says Richard Englar, who taught Abramson and Van Veen at Dulaney. "They were known for their sense of humor. But they weren't cut-ups in class. They were excellent students, and you knew they'd succeed in something."

The CollegeHumor guys take their obligation -- and their opportunity -- seriously. They have neatly divided the labor. Abramson (a talented pianist who put out a jazz CD in high school) handles the business deals. Van Veen (a master of groan-inducing puns) edits the content of the site. Lodwick (who once staged a fight between Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny at Towson Town Center) is in charge of the technical side, and Klein (an avid snowboarder) does the design. They recently hired three employees to help -- a development that means they can no longer work in their boxers.

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