‘Very Mary-Kate’ a hit on the Internet


Elaine Carroll as Very Mary-Kate in her Web series about the young celebrity/actress Mary-Kate Olsen. Very Mary-Kate is majoring in ponies at New York University in Carroll’s video series. (verymarykate.com)
December 6, 2011

There are two Mary-Kate Olsens.

You might be thinking, “No, idiot, the other one is Ashley.” But that is someone else entirely.

There is real Mary-Kate. And there is Very Mary-Kate.

“Very Mary-Kate” is the creation of 29-year-old comedian Elaine Carroll, who plays the titular twin in a Web series she writes with her husband, Sam Reich.

Very Mary-Kate takes everything the real Mary-Kate does and elaborates upon it. Imaginatively. Very Mary-Kate abandons reality for a far more entertaining place: comedy.

“What I call it is kind of ‘fan fiction,’ ” said Carroll, a native of Richmond. “Because we don’t really know who she actually is. . . . So I filled in the blanks of her world.”

Those blanks are filled in through two-minute videos, like this: Very Mary-Kate is extraordinarily wealthy. She has a $10,000 hammock and a Vera Wang Snuggie. She intends to earn her “The Bachelor” degree at NYU while majoring in ponies. She consumes absolutely no food — though she often implores her bodyguard, nicknamed Bodyguard, to fetch her “a bagel, but not a real bagel, just a picture” — and indulges in copious amounts of illegal drugs.

Reich, who directs the videos, calls VMK “a caricature. . . . You’re picking out something unique about the person, and you’re making that one thing bigger than anything else on the page.”

He stopped to consider what word best described that characteristic of the real Mary-Kate. “Vapid?” He considered this, then confirmed it. “Vapid.”

This type of Web entertainment has been around since the start of the Internet boom, according to Josh Cohen, co-founder of Tubefilter.com, a sort of “Entertainment Weekly” for online videos. There’s a whole fleet of sites devoted to professionally made original content catered to the strengths of the Internet, such as College Humor, Funny or Die, and My Damn Channel.

“More people are watching things online, so advertisers are interested in getting in front of those people,” Cohen said. “This is a trend that’s going to exponentially increase.”

Carroll, who started doing sketch and improv comedy while majoring in acting at Marymount Manhattan College, wrote the first season by herself, recycling the Olsen impression from an audition she’d had for “Saturday Night Live.” NewTeeVee, a blog covering “the reinvention of television,” wrote up the series after the first three episodes launched in 2010. AOL’s homepage picked up the story. Within a month, those three episodes had more than a million views each.

“[Carroll’s] impersonation is just magical,” said Will Hines, who plays Very Mary-Kate’s NYU history teacher. Keeping with her warped view of reality, VMK calls the average-size character “Fat Professor.” “It’s more like Dana Carvey’s George Bush from ‘SNL’; it’s a silly thing in itself. And . . . her writing is very efficient. There’s a joke every line or every other line.”

Hines met Carroll in 2009, while directing her sketch group at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City. He has performed at UCB since 2000, has taught there since 2004 and currently runs its New York school.

“I’ve been recognized more for Very Mary-Kate than for anything else I’ve done,” Hines said. “It’s always some shy, giggly, college-aged girl, who comes up and whispers, apologetically, ‘Are you Fat Professor?’ They usually say how much they like the series and then apologize for calling me fat.”

After completing the first season, Reich pitched the series to his bosses at College Humor. College Humor commissioned a second season of the show, hiring Carroll as a producer, writer and performer. Writing, directing and producing the videos, each of which take two to three hours to shoot with their five-person crew, is Reich and Carroll’s full-time job.

“We’ve got something called ‘the sieve,’ our secret formula of the elements we like videos to have that make them go viral,” said Paul Greenberg, chief executive of College Humor. “The ones that blow up are the ones that are very applicable to what’s going on in pop culture but have broader themes.”

VMK hits that sweet spot, he said. “The characters are archetypes that a lot of people can relate to. You don’t have to be a fan of the Olsens to appreciate the humor.” The VMK episodes are among the most popular videos on the site. College Humor reaches more than 12 million monthly unique visitors, and Very Mary-Kate “has had tens of millions of views.” The series makes money via general advertising on College Humor’s site along with advertising specifically allocated for the VMK series.

“It’s a form of show that only works on the Internet,” Hines said. “They’re short. You can gobble them up like candy.”

The series is perfect for undergrad procrastinators or employees aching for a break at the office, which makes it ideal entertainment for College Humor’s 18-to-34-year-old target demographic.

And the Internet, where social media facilitate easy sharing, is exactly the right place for VMK. “We tailor our content to the medium,” Greenberg said. Not to say that the future is an Adderall-addled nation capable of watching only narratives that unfold in 90-second clips. “There’s still a desire to watch longer content if it’s good. . . . I don’t think any medium is ‘winning’ or beating out another one. I think different consumers are in different places at different times.”

So could VMK consumers one day be in front of TV sets, awaiting the next installment in Mary-Kate’s misadventures? “It would be great if it made sense” for VMK to transition to television, Greenberg said. But “writing a 22-minute sitcom is different from writing a two-to-three-minute Web video. You end up with different kinds of jokes. The directing is different. The pace is different.”

Mary-Kate Olsen’s press representative was reached for comment but did not respond. People who know the Olsens have told Carroll and Reich that the real Mary-Kate is aware of the series. As for her opinion of the sketch, the two have no idea but, well, they hope she’s not offended.

“I feel protective of [the Olsens], oddly,” Carroll said. Though she will happily portray VMK as an insecure bulimic, Carroll does draw the line somewhere. “I try not to use profanity,” she said. “We have some boundaries!”

Plans for the coming year include a live show and, in an even more ambitious move, a 30-minute episode that viewers can buy online. The series began its third season Dec. 1. New episodes air every Thursday. Perhaps VMK will grow up a little this year, maybe even fulfilling her promise of “changing my major from ponies to something more adult, like horsies.”

Reich said to keep an eye out for the Christmas video. “Mary-Kate still believes in Santa Claus. She has an awful realization.”

“There’s going to be songs,” Carroll added. “And we’re thinking of sending her to jail.”

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