LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - 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 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, 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
"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.
Launchdd 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
"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 not saying how much it is 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 amid
legal difficulties 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
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
It wasn't long before Shea approached Gulyas herself. "When
HBO called, I knew it was either to arrest me or hire me," he
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."