College Humor co-founder Ricky Van Veen pioneered the idea of user-uploaded hilarity in 1999, a full six years before the advent of YouTube. For the past 14 years, his creative team have been churning out a swarm of videos, books and TV shows. Now, this week, they're releasing their first feature film, Coffee Town. And yes, Coffee Town is an actual movie, not some fake out as Humor fans seem to believe.
"People are so used to us putting out parody videos that when we posted the trailer we were flooded with messages like, 'This is a really awesome joke, but if you guys really made this movie, I'd watch it,'" says Van Veen, speaking from his cushy office at the IAC building in New York. "And I'm on the comment boards telling people it's real. I feel like this is an unusual problem for a studio to have."
Coffee Town, a story from by Arrested Development writer Brad Copeland, is about a 30-something website manager who fakes a robbery to prevent his local cafe from closing. "It was so funny I was taking iPhone shots of the lines and sending them to friends. I can't remember the last time I did that," says Van Veen.
"I was just sitting at a Starbucks," adds Copeland, who also directed the film. "I took a look around and thought there was something hilarious about what was going on there." Though a first-time director, his previous affiliations with My Name Is Earl and NewsRadio were enough to give College Humor confidence in his abilities.
Armed with a script and a director, Van Veen's next challenge was to cast an ensemble that could deliver Copeland's quick-fire one liners with straight faces. Despite his tight budget, the response was impressive.
"I'm a huge critic of comedy, because it's my day job," says Glenn Howerton, co-creator and star of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, who was given the starring role a Will in an unusual manner. "I had a meeting with Brad, but nobody told me that he already wanted me for the role," he adds. "At the end, he says, 'I think this is going to be fun', and I left thinking 'I killed that!'"
Despite Howerton's handsome features (which his character on Sunny trumpets), Coffee Town is his first foray into the leading man arena. "I get a lot of scripts, but never see anything I'm interested in. What I enjoyed about Coffee Town was its simplicity. It felt real – the circumstances were wacky, but the characters weren't." While that's true for Howerton, his on-screen cohorts Gino (Ben Schwartz) and Chad (Steve Little) provide plenty of comic relief as the group debates everything from laptop groin burns to "little people" wrestling.
Schwartz, recognizable from Showtime's House Of Lies and his riotous turns on Parks & Recreation, proves that he's a comedy newcomer on the rise. His in-it-for-the-perks policeman is a crowd pleaser, and the role plays on his strong improvisational talents. Little, from Eastbound And Down, plays the narcotic fall-guy role to a tee, and draws comparisons to Stephen Root's Milton Waddams from Office Space. When the three are together, it's comedic gold.
But every story needs a villain, and in this case, it's cafe employee Sam, played by Josh Groban (yes, that Josh Groban), who surprises with a showcase of comedic prowess. "I very loosely based him on Scott Stapp from Creed – like a Scott Stapp who never made it," Groban told Rolling Stone in between European shows. "Plus, I think we all have a little disgruntled barista in us, so it was just about finding him and letting him out."
In the middle of all this testosterone, Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights) navigates herself gracefully as Becca, the romantic interest to both Will and Sam. Palicki doesn't allow the boys to dominate, adding plenty of her own jabs. "They are all so funny, it was hard to keep a straight face," she admits.
Prior to its release, Coffee Town screened at the Landmark Sunshine in New York. Afterwards, Van Veen stood in the lobby, accepting congratulations from his guests. "I'm glad you got to see it here. Now you know for sure it's a real movie."
Coffee Town, which offically premieres at the 2013 Montreal Just for Laughs Festival, is available on iTunes.