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Friday, January 16, 2009

Heroes tribute odd addition to comedy website

Politics might make for strange bedfellows, but the digital entertainment business is capable of pairing some unusual bunkmates in its own right.

Just look at the newest tenant at budding Internet empire Or Die Networks, home to Funny Or Die, Will Ferrell's comedy dot-com. The company is branching out into new fields, each with celebrity poster boys attached to their corresponding sites, including skateboard guru Tony Hawk for action-sports hub Shred Or Die and video game god Fatal1ty for gamer haven Pwn Or Die.

But they are no comparison to the surprise attending the latest addition to the Or Die world. In November, the site quietly added ( to its suite. It is billed as a home for "positive role models," particularly men and women in uniform, from our armed forces abroad to the cops or firemen in local neighborhoods. It's a strange fit to say the least to see such high-minded content among the snark and sass that pervades the rest of Or Die Networks.

But if is an unlikely addition to the Or Die family, its charter member might strike an even odder presence. Creator and executive producer Matt Daniels introduces himself on the site's home page in a video in which he is seen descending a subway escalator in a rough section of Harlem, an area where he grew up poor. He tells us he might never have survived were it not for role models in his life, thus inspiring a website that serves as a showcase for other heroes.

But what Daniels doesn't mention, nor does the press release that announced the site's launch, is his claim to fame. Five years ago, Daniels was a leading opponent of legalizing gay marriage and even authored a proposed constitutional amendment banning the practice. As founder of Alliance for Marriage, he emerged as a high-profile figure in the conservative movement one election cycle before the gay-marriage issue exploded again in the form of the controversial Proposition 8 in California.

In an interview, Daniels indicates that he no longer is with AFM and his new enterprise is unrelated to his previous claim to fame.

"Anybody looking at the portal and what is actually being promoted, what is actually being celebrated, can make their own judgment on the face of what we represent, and we'll stand by that," Daniels says. "This is an utterly and completely different venture."

As Daniels attests, there is nothing overtly ideological about Still, having Daniels in the Or Die camp is paradoxical given his new associates. Not only did Funny Or Die recently stage a star-studded mock musical salute to overturning Prop. 8 featuring Jack Black, John C. Reilly and Neil Patrick Harris, but the company's investors include HBO, which has long been a bastion of gay-friendly programing.

In the politically charged atmosphere of the post-election period, what exactly is the statute of limitations on someone who was so publicly on record in opposition to same-sex marriage, even if their new affiliation has nothing to do with their stance in that arena? Think of the recent furors attending Barack Obama's selection of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration or the Los Angeles Film Festival's decision to let go of its director, Richard Raddon, for donating to an organization supporting Prop 8.

Or Die Networks CEO Dick Glover does not see Daniels' background, of which he was aware, as relevant.

"One of the very big issues, and it was very extensively discussed, is that this site is not a political site," he says. "Political views don't matter if it's not a business issue."

What's also interesting about is that Daniels was inspired to create it because he takes a dim view of what constitutes most of mainstream entertainment. "We have plenty of people doing 'Spider-Man 3' or 'Batman 4,'" he says. "But what about the real heroes of our day?"

But even a cursory look reveals that the intent of the site doesn't quite jibe with the reality of how people are using it. There are some heartwarming stories to be viewed on soldiers who overcame insurmountable odds, but the most popular videos are the equivalent of combat porn: scenes of battleground violence devoid of any context that reinforces its stated intent of offering portraits of courage or heroism. Whether it was Daniels' intent or not, the site is catering to some of the same bottom-feeding impulses of the mainstream entertainment to which he wants to establish an alternative.

Daniels doesn't quite see it that way.

"It's the reality of risking your life for your country and what that really looks like and sounds like, which in some cases is astonishing," he says.



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