“Girls” exec producer Jennifer Konner might be at HBO today, but she remembers clearly what life under the numbers gun at the networks was like.
“I was programmed to check ratings,” she says.
But at HBO, she got a shock: “I remember calling (HBO Entertainment senior comedy veep) Casey Bloys at 10 a.m. L.A. time, the day after ‘Girls’ premiered, and saying, ‘What were the ratings?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, let’s check.’ And I’m like — oh, my God — they don’t care!”
HBO does care some, but as a pay cable service, execs can afford to care a lot less than the networks. And it comes as a shock to new showrunners to learn that they’ll be working under executives who don’t micro-micro-manage, can brush off ratings and offer flexibility in show and season lengths.
Over the past 18 years that has translated into a series of comedies that have left their mark — though that hasn’t always translated into Emmy wins. The network has one comedy series Emmy, in 2001 for “Sex and the City.”
That could change this year. HBO has half of the comedy series nominations: “Veep” and “Girls” are noted for the first time, while “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has garnered its seventh nod. That’s the most comedy nominations the network has seen in the series category, increasing the odds that this year it will mark its second series victory.
But no matter what happens HBO will likely remain a unique hive of activity for comedies.
“The first thing HBO said to me is, ‘We approach people we like and ask them to do something for us, but the last thing we want them to do is change their methods,’ ” says Armando Iannucci, creator of “Veep.” “You feel you’re dealing with people at the top of their game, who have the voice of experience. … It’s what every creative person in the industry would want.”
It was not always thus. In the early 1990s, HBO plateaued with subscribers and had to undergo a major rethink of original programming. Until then, comedy on the network was represented by stand-up, a few sketch shows (admittedly, one was “The Kids in the Hall”) and occasional scripted shows like “Dream On.”
According to Gary Edgerton, author of “The Essential HBO Reader,” conventional programming wouldn’t solve the network’s identity problem.
“They did a lot of soul-searching, and decided to go aggressively into making original programming unlike anything else on television,” he says. “It was a concerted effort to go out and get talent to develop programming that could not be done on broadcast networks.”
“Regular television was like going to regular school, and HBO was like independent study,” adds Michael Patrick King, who exec produced, wrote and directed “Sex and the City” before co-creating CBS’ “2 Broke Girls.” Not only did his “SATC” earn the series Emmy, it brought the network its only lead actress win, in 2004 for Sarah Jessica Parker.
“You had to get your homework done, but you had to do it on your own,” King says. “And you either passed, or failed. There wasn’t a lot of interference and coaching.”
Bob Weide, who directed and exec produced five seasons of “Curb,” realized this free hand meant they didn’t feel hemmed in about scheduling. “We’d do some shows, then take some time off, and when Larry (David) felt secure that he had enough ideas for another 10 shows, he would call up HBO and say, ‘Let’s do another one.’ ”
Such freedom, Edgerton says, has led to an expansion of the definition of “sitcom.” Instead of punchline, act break, punchline, now “they really can tell a story,” he says.
“Since showrunners are given great latitude to express themselves, they come up with a comic view of the world you don’t find anywhere else on television,” Edgerton says.
Says Konner: “It’s like making an independent film, except you don’t have $5 to do it,” she says. “I’ve never been in a position where all the notes we get are smart.”
In the long run, HBO’s investment in artisanal television production may just pay off with big awards. Or it may not. Either way, the network comes away with hard-won prestige for its comedies — and can afford not to worry so much about the number of Emmys.
As King recalls when “SATC” lost one year, then-HBO CEO Jeffrey Bewkes turned to him and said, “Just keep doing the show you’re doing.”
“It was not about awards,” says King, “because there weren’t any when we started. And by the end, we had won everything.”
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