HBOlab: Weird science

Experiment is comedy on a budget

Inside the Santa Monica office building that HBO calls home, Woody Tondorf is ready to shoot his new series. In a 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 onscreen 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, pedals past him on a tricycle that he's 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. With an 11-member unit willing to try just about anything online, the TV industry's prime mover is finding its footing in the amorphous world of digital media. 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.

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."

HBOlab was the brainchild of Lombardo and Fran 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.

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.

How Gulyas joined HBOlab is a murkier matter. Before he was hired, Gulyas managed to produce arguably the most famous work HBOlab is associated with but not technically responsible for: "Seven-Minute Sopranos." Released on YouTube just before the start of "The Sopranos" final season, "Seven" managed to boil down the story lines of the show's preceding six seasons to 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 Joe Sabia, a friend of Guylas' who worked for HBOlab, 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.

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.

"(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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