The 2007 Danny Boyle film, Sunshine, is about a last-ditch effort to save humanity from a climate crisis . . . by dropping a nuclear bomb into the sun. One of the scientists involved, who happens to have gone insane, sabotages the mission because he is convinced humanity has had its time in the sun and God does not intend for it to continue any further.
Don’t worry: There’s a happy ending.
In our real-life climate crisis, though, what’s preventing us from fixing the problem is not mad scientists but rather capitalism and apathy. Although we have ways of forestalling global catastrophe (and have known about them for approximately 40-plus years), corporations and politicians are instead foreclosing on our future and cashing in, while the people who might band together to thwart them are either too comfortable and can’t be bothered, or too uncomfortable and have bigger personal fish to fry.
Director Adam McKay, quite understandably, wants to change that dynamic. His latest proposed solution? Dropping a nuclear cluster bomb of comedy, not on the sun but on the people complicit in dooming the Earth.
McKay’s just-launched media shingle is called Yellow Dot Studios, a name that shares its inspiration with that Danny Boyle movie. “Yellow Dot is the sun,” McKay writes in an introductory note, “which, thanks to the heat-trapping pollution from burning fossil fuels, is a part of the problem . . . and also a major part of the solution.”
According to its website, the nonprofit production studio is intended to create “entertaining, memorable, and scientifically accurate videos and other media to challenge decades of disinformation pushed by oil companies and amplified by large swaths of elected leaders and the media.” Although Yellow Dot offers written content like 13 Differences Between Oil Executives and AI Robots, its main focus is video. Specifically, it promises original sketches and custom collaborations from the comedy genius who helped usher in the late-aughts’ dawn of viral videos with Funny or Die. McKay is not merely Yellow Dot’s founder, but its primary selling point.
The director’s path here has been a winding one. He started off writing for SNL in the mid-’90s, before he and frequent collaborator Will Ferrell made 2004’s Anchorman, solidifying their status as comedy kings. Over the next six years, the two made three more big-screen comedies together and co-created Funny or Die—during which time the Iraq War, the housing crisis, and the bank bailout radicalized McKay. His next movie with Ferrell—a sequel to Anchorman in 2013—would be their last together, and the last of McKay’s gonzo-goofy comedies.
Although Anchorman 2 had a prescient message about the corrosive effects of 24-hour news networks, the message pill was buried inside a peanut butter jar of dick jokes. McKay’s next three films—financial crisis postmortem The Big Short, Dick Cheney biopic Vice, and climate parable Don’t Look Up—all reversed the equation, slathering a light coating of dick-joke peanut butter around a Prius-size message pill. They were not hilarious films, and some were more successful than others, but they were prestige hits that allowed the director to say exactly what he wanted.
Somewhere around the time McKay donated $4 million to the Climate Emergency Fund last fall, he dipped a toe back into the waters of short-form video content. Apparently just on a lark, he and producer Staci Roberts-Steele put together a fake ad for Chevron that went scorched Earth on oil companies. When the tweeted-out video racked up 4.5 million views in 24 hours, McKay quickly began assembling a team of producers and advisors for what became Yellow Dot Studios.
The company officially launched last month with a splashy, McKay-penned fake ad for Big Money, created very much in the style of the Chevron ad. The studio now plans on rolling out a new video “or meme” on social media every week for the next half year, drawing on a tranche of scripts banked before the current WGA strike began.
But do funny videos stand any chance of making a tangible impact? And are they even funny?
The quality and humor of the seven videos currently on offer runs the gamut. That Chevron ad serves as the Yellow Dot blueprint: taking a familiar concept, tweaking it with a profanity-laced dose of doom, and heightening it along the way. But McKay and his team wisely diversify their approach based on the format, message, and talent involved. “IRA Kitchen” features comedians and real-life friends June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson drinking wine and discussing the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act, which offers tax benefits and incentives for using clean energy technologies. The two stars are inherently funny, as is the frenetic editing style of the piece, and people should indeed know that they might be missing out on IRA benefits. Lord knows, the Biden administration didn’t shout it from the rooftops as loud as they might have.
An important message, though, can be hampered by a mediocre delivery system, and there’s plenty of that on offer as well. A video introducing viewers to ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods rightly presents him as a focal point for activist agitation, but it does so with chintzy lip-syncing that makes the whole thing look like a JibJab. Similarly, greenwashing is a term that more people should know and be fired up about, but will Chelsea Handler making a pun about taking a bath with Willie Nelson help people remember it? Then there are videos like “A Love Letter from Darth Vader to Exxon,” whose entire humor budget was apparently spent on the title—and makes a compelling case for McKay to write more of these himself.
Even if he did, however, there may be a limit to how often this formula succeeds.
Tonally, a funny video about the climate crisis can sound like someone trying to be funny with a gun to their head. Because it’s fueled by desperation and anger, no matter how merited, the comedy often stings from all that sweat and bile. Even viewers who are on board with the message—as a great many of those seeing these videos, courtesy of a Bradley Whitford retweet, are bound to be—they might feel as though they’re being lectured at by a very funny person on a topic they already agree with. It’s possible to be eminently receptive to a message and also not be entertained by it, nor particularly moved to share it.
There’s a reason Funny or Die stopped producing message-driven short-form comedy beyond the first couple months of the Trump administration. It’s because there wasn’t much that was funny about an inescapably looming threat of that magnitude. Comedy could soothe people during that time, but it proved to be a laughably inept way of fighting back. Because the climate crisis is an exponentially graver threat than the Trump administration, comedy seems even more useless at thwarting it. Don’t Look Up may have made some people think a bit further about their role in the crisis, but ultimately the $75 million budget might have had a bigger impact as a donation to the Climate Emergency Fund.
But while anything Yellow Dot produces seems unlikely to create broad consensus or foment major change, it certainly might have some positive utility. This operation is fully capable of making funny videos with actionable messages, as opportunities arise and more potential partners reach out. If some sneaky legislation is about to pass, for instance, McKay and company now have a mechanism for directing viewers toward the right people to yell at—and in a funny, sticky way. There’s power in that ability, regardless of whether Mark Ruffalo’s Twitter followers also have to endure some subpar videos along the way.
Yellow Dot is not the sun, but it just may be a candle flickering in a dark room. If it can effectively lead people to the right place even once, it will more than justify its existence—even if we are all still just laughing while strapped to a nuclear cluster bomb hurtling through space.