HBOlab: Weird science

Experiment is comedy on a budget

Inside the Santa Monica office complex HBO calls home, Woody Tondorf is ready to shoot his new series. Standing in the hallway, he stares into the camera, a Panasonic Handycam set on a tripod. His producer, Danila Koverman, stands inside an office, but her hands are visible on screen as she hands Tondorf a glass bowl filled with scraps of paper.

A handsome 23-year-old wearing jeans and a T-shirt bearing the legend "As Seen on Al-Jazeera," Tondorf fishes out a scrap and reads it to the camera.

"Want to hear two short jokes and a long joke?" he asks as his co-star in the scene, Paul Gulyas, peddles past him on a tricycle that he is about 20 years too old for.

"Joke," Tondorf says. "Joke. Jooooooooke."

Welcome to the set of HBO's newest series effort, "Runaway Joke of the Day." Only don't expect the episode to actually run on the network; it is meant strictly for the Internet. And it may be a stretch to call "Joke" an episode, given that it's over in about 30 seconds.

Absurd riffs like "Joke" are a staple of HBOlab, an unlikely off-the-radar experiment under way for nearly a year now at Time Warner's prize programmer. The TV industry's prime mover is finding its footing in the amorphous world of digital media with an 11-member unit willing to try just about anything online. And if you mistake any of them for the rabble on YouTube, you're excused -- that's where some of the HBOlab staffers were recruited.

Michael Lombardo, president of programming and West Coast operations at HBO, envisions HBOlab tapping a creative sensibility foreign to Hollywood. "There is a whole different group of artists who work in the digital space," he said. "They're not performers in clubs, they're not pitching scripts and they're not channeled into the mainstream with agents."

The anonymity of this endeavor is intentional. HBO believes it can't learn how to make its mark online by trading on its esteemed brand. Which isn't to say HBOlab's online home, RunawayBox.com, is entirely disconnected: The URL is a subtle allusion to the full name behind the HBO acronym, Home Box Office.

"We're trying to 'run away' from the traditional Home Box Office brand," said Koverman, who manages HBOlab. "We don't want to raise false expectations that you'll see the next 'Sex and the City' or 'Sopranos' from us."

Which underlines what's most remarkable about HBOlab: It seems to be the antithesis of everything we've come to know about HBO. The network that built its reputation crafting lavish art-house dramas that attract A-list talent and Emmy Awards is churning out cheap comedy most critics would dismiss.

While every programming move HBO makes continues to generate scrutiny, HBOlab toils in obscurity, although toil doesn't feel like the right word to a visitor to the unit's headquarters in a far corner of HBO's sprawling operation. Comprised mostly of twentysomething male cut-ups, HBOlab seems more like a fraternity that's rented office space in lieu of on-campus housing. Scrawled side by side on one white board are ping-pong win tallies opposite Web site traffic statistics that indicate what little pressure HBOlab is under.

As of July 23, Web traffic monitor Alexa.com had Runawaybox.com as the 646,312th most-visited site on the Internet. That's up from 2.7 millionth place when they started counting on May 14.

"When we hit 500,000, we'll have a celebration," said HBOlab producer Andrew Zilch.

Launched in May, Runawaybox.com is home base for a rotating corps of serialized shortform programming like "Elevator," a daily sketch indicative of HBOlab's modest budget. Each sketch is set within the confines of an elevator, which is not only not shot on a soundstage -- HBOlab has none -- it's not even shot in an actual elevator. The scenes are captured within three wood panels affixed together to resemble an elevator, complete with a metal rail that Tondorf disclosed was not in the budget.

"We stole stuff from the construction people working on a remodeled hallway," he said.

"More like borrowed," corrected Koverman, a former producer for "Good Morning America" and "Extra" who doubles as something of a den mother to her young charges.

HBO is mum on how much they're investing in HBOlab, but sources say it's a pittance, likely less than the expense of one episode of its hourlong dramas like "Big Love."

Lombardo doesn't see HBOlab so much as a departure as it is a return to the network's roots. Long before "Love" and others came along, HBO made its mark in original programming with stand-up comedy and half-hour series unlike anything on TV, from "Dream On" to "Not Necessarily the News." As an example of this return to form, he cites "Flight of the Conchords," the low-budget comedy now on HBO.

" 'Flight' is much truer to HBO's roots than a lot of the other shows we have," he said. "I think HBOlab is sort of in that same footprint."

Production values or creative style isn't entirely the point of HBOlab, anyway. While content clearly matters, the unit is just as focused on exploring the distribution dynamics of broadband entertainment. While the Internet is still in its infancy as a programming platform, it is clearly governed by rules quite different than that of television.

If anything, HBOlab operates under the assumption that it can't make any assumptions about viewership patterns online. In an Internet world dominated by one-off sensations, HBOlab is tinkering with making serialized programming stick by attempting many different release strategies. Sampling is being monitored not only at Runawaybox.com but also in syndicated form across sites like MySpace, Funnyordie.com and of course, YouTube, where the few times HBOlab content has been featured on the home page it has generated more than a million streams in a matter of days.

Even program duration is being questioned. The conventional wisdom that anything lasting longer than a few minutes will defy short attention spans online will be put to the test; Lombardo fully expects HBOlab to experiment with programming in double-digit minutes, the Internet equivalent of longform TV.

Using the HBO name would be the easiest way to get as many people to check out the site. But to truly understand online consumption pattern, the tractor beam that is the HBO brand would only get in the way. "I don't really want HBO associated with what we're doing," said Fran Shea, who oversees HBOlab. "It doesn't help me gauge why people are coming in to find our stuff on a growing scale."

HBOlab was the brainchild of Lombardo and Shea, a former top executive at E! whom Lombardo brought on as a consultant in business development at HBO, where she began her TV career in 1980 as a production assistant. Well before the controversy that saw chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht exit and Lombardo, a 24-year-HBO veteran, promoted, Shea was brought in with the mandate of helping HBO establish its brand on digital platforms where many of its competitors had been flocking.

The network has been slow out of the gate, but the race has yet to produce any real winners. It was up to Shea to devise programming strategy.

"I said (to Lombardo), 'What do you want me to do?' " she said. "Our conversations are so short. He said, 'Just do something.' "

That vague directive was not a problem for Shea. Experimentation was the order of the day at HBO when she was there during its go-go early years, when there were no rules to follow in premium cable, a business that didn't yet exist.

She worked mainly on interstitial featurettes that were largely a footnote in HBO history. But that programming did became the basis for a venture in which HBO had a small stake, called Movietime, which eventually became E!. By 1990, Shea left HBO for E!, where she rose to president of the network.

This time around, Shea began with a self-tutorial on the art of programming on the Internet. Much of what she viewed on the Web was terrible, but there were patches of raw talent who when properly managed, she thought, could yield interesting results.

So she went about recruiting. Only Shea didn't proceed through the usual assemblage of agents or managers; she went online and surfed around to find people whose work exhibited potential. She discovered Mike Polk, who produced on-air promos for a CBS affiliate in Cleveland. He moonlighted as a stand-up comedian who also did some sketch work that he promoted online.

"I talked to Michael (Lombardo) and said, 'Could I hire this kid?' " she recalled.

"What are you going to do with him?" Lombardo asked.

"I don't know," Shea replied. "I need people to talk to and start doing stuff."

Lombardo signed off on Polk, who yielded HBOlab's first serialized production, "Man in a Box." Shea's marching orders to Polk were simple: Do something set in an office cubicle, a nod to where most online programming is consumed. Like "Elevator," it also provided a locked frame within which it would be easy to shoot.

Shea's next hires were Tondorf and Joe Sabia, 2006 graduates of Boston College, where they turned "The BC," a clever spoof of the Fox series "The O.C.," into a media sensation. Neither was a trained performer, but these political science majors created, wrote, produced, edited and acted in every episode. Shea happened to learn of them through a friend who was a Boston College alumnus.

How Paul Gulyas joined HBOlab is a murkier matter. Before he was even hired, Gulyas managed to produce arguably the most famous work HBOlab is associated with and is yet not technically responsible for, "Seven-Minute Sopranos." Released on YouTube right before the start of "The Sopranos" final season, "Seven" managed to boil down the story lines of the show's preceding six seasons into a comically edited 456-second highlight reel comprised entirely of copyright-infringing "Sopranos" scenes.

Now here is where "Seven" gets hazy. Gulyas created the clip while he still lived in Connecticut, but it was Sabia who edited the piece independently of HBOlab, which Shea said didn't commission the project. That "Seven" happened to be an HBO marketer's viral dream released right before its final season is a coincidence by all accounts at HBO.

When Sabia showed Shea what he and his friend had done, it presented a dilemma: Though it was a brilliant, marketing-friendly work, it would never pass muster with HBO's legal team, which is especially protective of "Sopranos."

But to Shea's surprise, they cleared it for distribution. HBOlab got the ultimate approval when, within a day of its viral spread online, "Sopranos" producer Matthew Weiner sent a complimentary e-mail.

It wasn't long before Shea approached Gulyas herself. "When HBO called, I knew it was either to arrest me or hire me," he said.

In addition to its in-house team, HBOlab also gets talent contributions from thisjustin.com, the soon-to-be-defunct comedy Web site HBO jointly operates with AOL, and the U.S. Comedy Festival, which HBO has sponsored going back to the 1980s.

For now, HBOlab exists in its own self-contained world. But its future could bring different arrangements. Though nothing is even in the planning stages -- Lombardo declined to impose any kind of timetable for results from HBOlab -- there's talk of establishing formal broadband channels for this new influx of content, and maybe some TV exposure, too.

Already, a series of shorts produced by HBOlab, "A Comic's Climb: On the Road With Ian Bagg," have gotten a window on HBO's VOD platform. There's nothing in the works as far as getting a shot on HBO's hallowed linear channels, but the right execs have HBOlab on their radar to make that happen.

"(HBO entertainment president) Carolyn Strauss is looking very closely at what Fran is doing," Lombardo said. "They're not in isolation."

As for the prospect that HBO could lend its own brand strength to HBOlab, don't expect a Bill Maher cameo anytime soon. However, Shea does have a different kind of synergy in mind: exposing her digital-minded creators to their TV counterparts. "Before you see me take Jeremy Piven and put him in the elevator, I may take a writer like Mike Polk and let him develop some TV chops," she said.

"People who are creative in digital space also have ideas that can work on the traditional television landscape, and that's exciting," Lombardo said. "What the right way of cross-pollinating is, we're not clear, but there's going to be intersection of some kind."
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