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Karina’s Capsule: ThunderAnt

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In 2007, a significant shift took place in the world of professional comedians as many of them started creating original content for the Internet. 2008 now stands poised to be the year in which the masses start to take notice — thanks in part to the writers’ strike.

The return of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert may forestall the revolution somewhat, but as shows like 30 Rock continue to run repeats, with no end in sight, frustrated channel surfers will likely be inspired to go hunting for alternatives online. This is old news to people like you and me, but for audiences previously accustomed to passively consuming whatever comedy is pumped into their living rooms by the networks, this would represent a sea change in both behavior and attitude. And ThunderAnt is the kind of project tailor-made for this kind of scavenging.

ThunderAnt is a collaboration between Saturday Night Live‘s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, singer/guitarist for the much-missed Sleater-Kinney. ThunderAnt’s hipster celeb credentials are impeccable, while the actual videos are both unassuming and highly conceptual. It’s an interesting bait-and-switch: The stars associated with the project will draw viewers who may not be web video-savvy, but the work itself is odder and far less accessible than the average viral video hit.

The four video sketches currently up on feel very literally like sketches — works of video art that dance around an idea without ever hitting it on the head, almost never funny ha-ha but almost always satisfying in their funny strangeness. In the most recent clip, released last week, Armisen and Brown collaborate on a song over voicemail. For most of the clip’s three-and-a-half minutes, it’s only intermittently funny, and the whole thing feels a little off. And then at the 3:15 mark comes the payoff — it’s not just a punchline, because it’s as sweetly poignant as it is funny — and you realize that “a little off” is exactly on the mark.

This is the way most of ThunderAnt’s material plays thus far, with the exception of Boink! (embedded above). Boink! takes that “a little off” vibe to a delirious new level as it imagining Saddam Hussein as an aging rocker who deigns to make an appearance on an earnest hipster’s cable access show. Armisen plays Hussein in his beard-and-blazer courthouse mode, but with an accent and attitude that’s somewhere between Paul McCartney and Joe Strummer.

After 15 months on YouTube, Boink! has been viewed about 24,000 times, which is OK, but it deserves to be a much bigger hit. I think it may have been too ahead of its time. In the micro-genre of viral videos starring Armisen as a Middle Eastern despot with a double life as a Western sex symbol/pop idol, it’s a clear (although blissfully Samberg-free) precursor to I Ran. And 12 months after Saddam’s execution — which became 2007’s first YouTube sensation after the footage was captured via cell phone — Boink! plays on another level: here in the secular West, we best understand the concept of martyrdom as it relates to stardom.