Q&A: JibJab Cofounder Gregg Spiridellis

Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, founders of jibjab.com, have collected more than 12 million disembodied heads, and they're hungry for more. After making a name for their site by putting the heads of political figures on dancing bodies in videos like "This Land," a gentle mocking of the 2004 presidential candidates in a parody of the Woody Guthrie song, the brothers decided George W. Bush and John Kerry aren't the only ones who deserve to star in musical Web videos. "Time for Some Campaignin'," which premiers July 16, lets viewers upload images of their own faces—as those 12 million others already have—to shimmy alongside John McCain and Barack Obama. Users can also put their faces into any of the e-cards that JibJab started offering last year. Gearing up for the latest video release, Gregg Spiridellis spoke with NEWSWEEK's Samantha Henig about why he doesn't want his videos to influence voters and whether farting elves are more popular than dancing presidents. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When you started JibJab in 1999, is this what you pictured it becoming?
Gregg Spiridellis: We didn't know what JibJab would evolve into, and that's part of the origin of the name. We didn't want a name that defined what we did. We knew that the Web evolves so quickly that if we called ourselves "thecartoonguys.com," we would quickly find ourselves constrained by the name. With the name JibJab, we can produce anything.

Who do you picture as your audience when you're writing a video?
Our content has a really broad appeal. We have almost 2 million registered members on the site, so we know gender and age information, and it's across the board: 51 percent female, 49 percent male, and in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s—basically across all age groups. That's unique on the Web because most brands tend to resonate with a specific niche.

Do you think overall they're up on the news?
Absolutely. Anecdotally, we see the people who write in to us and tell us that they like our videos, and most of them are really into the news, especially politics.

Does that give you a certain freedom when you're making videos to make them more highbrow?
We're the company that, for our Christmas e-cards, we do farting elves. When we create something, it's certainly not with an intellectual audience in mind. We try to make them fun and funny and load them up with lots of gags but then to put another layer onto it, so that if you are really aware of what's happening in the world, there might be some gags and some visual elements that you'll catch on to that the average viewer won't.

Do you consider the site nonpartisan?
Yeah, absolutely. When we produce political content, we'll literally sit down and count the gags to make sure they're even-handed. My brother and I have no political agenda other than to try to make everybody laugh. Personally, I don't like one-sided, partisan comedy because it's too easy to make fun of just one side. It's more fun if you can find the consistent threads and themes that cut across both ways and make fun of that instead.

So you have no interest in influencing voters?
In the 2004 election people said, "How do you feel that your video had maybe impacted the way people voted?" and the answer was "Terrified." If our videos are informing the way people are voting, then they should turn off the Internet and pick up NEWSWEEK.

But given that you know that you have this audience watching your videos, do you feel some obligation to use that as a way to get information out?
No, that's not our mission at all. Our mission is to make people laugh. Where I do feel responsibility is to make sure there is no political message—that it stays 100 percent about the fun and the absurdity. The responsibility is not to inform. In my mind there are lots of other sources for information.

Do you think there's some value in comedic delivery of actual informative news or should humor and news be kept separate?
I think there's a lot of value as long as the line is clear. If someone is using comedy as a vehicle to indoctrinate other people with their political views, I think that's scary. If what's comedy is comedy and what's news is news is clear, I think that's perfectly fine. Ultimately it's the viewer's responsibility to draw that line. But you know, who doesn't love Jon Stewart? Who doesn't love Jay Leno's monologues in political season?

It seems like that you're sort of selling yourself short saying that JibJab is only about humor, though. Your videos do cram in a lot of information.
There are a lot of jokes that are gonna resonate with people who are more informed than less informed, but our goal is not to inform. It's to have fun with the information that people have already picked up elsewhere.

Are there certain themes that tend to be more successful than others?
I'm giving away the secrets to our success, but it's all about potty humor and politics.

Which does better, potty humor or politics?
The thing about politics is it's highly relevant to everybody all at the same time. Everyone in the whole world is focused on the presidential election at the same time, so when we create a political video, we're going to get a massive amount of traffic in a very short time. But take something like our birthday e-cards: not everyone has a friend who has a birthday today, but over the next three to five years, that video will take a different trajectory and accumulate a lot of views.

When you post a new video, can you tell in advance, "Yeah this one's going to explode into a viral phenomenon"?
When we launched "This Land," we had a hunch that it was going to be big, but we had absolutely no idea how big it was going to be. Our production cycles can be six to eight weeks, and if we're still laughing at the end of six to eight weeks, we know we've got something that's good.

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