HBO’s offbeat ways turn into nominations rom

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Comedy Nominees

“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.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Comedy Nominees
Sitcom showrunners seeing spots | HBO’s offbeat ways turn into nom romp | Shows full of big angst theories

More TV

  • SDCC TV News Roundup: Syfy Releases

    SDCC TV News Roundup: Syfy Releases 'The Magicians' Season 5 Clip (Watch)

    In today’s SDCC TV news roundup, Syfy shares a clip from “The Magicians” Season 5, and Amazon sets the Season 4 premiere of “The Expanse.” CASTING Julie Gonzalo and Staz Nair have joined the cast of “Supergirl” for its upcoming fifth season. Gonzalo will portray iconic DC character Andrea Rojas aka Acrata, a polished businesswoman [...]

  • Doom Patrol -- Ep. 101 --

    'Doom Patrol' Renewed, Season 2 to Stream on DC Universe and HBO Max

    “Doom Patrol” has been renewed for a second season and will soon be available outside of DC Universe. At San Diego Comic-Con, series executive producer Jeremy Carver and star Diane Guerrero announced not only that the show will be back for another season but also that it will be available on HBO Max, the upcoming [...]

  • Teyonah Parris

    Teyonah Parris Cast in 'WandaVision' at Disney Plus

    “Mad Men” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” actress Teyonah Parris has been cast in Disney Plus’ “Wanda Vision” series. She will play an adult version of Monica Rambeau, a child character introduced in the film “Captain Marvel.” The announcement was made at Marvel’s Comic-Con presentation. The forthcoming Disney+ series about Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth [...]

  • Zachary Quinto as Charlie Manx - NOS4A2

    'NOS4A2' Renewed for Season 2 at AMC

    AMC has renewed “NOS4A2” for a second season. The news was announced during the show’s panel at San Diego Comic-Con and ahead of the Season 1 finale. Season 2 will consist of 10 episodes and is slated to air in 2020. The series, which is based on the 2013 Joe Hill novel of the same [...]

  • Gabrielle Carteris

    SAG-AFTRA Signs Netflix Deal With Expanded Coverage

    SAG-AFTRA and streaming giant Netflix have agreed to a new three-year contract with expanded coverage for union performers. Netflix has previously employed SAG-AFTRA members under the union’s standard master contracts for television and film and had been signing on a production by production basis. The union announced Saturday that the new deal recognizes performance capture as covered work [...]

  • Cara Delevingne'Carnival Row' TV show photocall,

    Cara Delevingne Says Her 'Carnival Row' Character Is Pansexual, Explains Defending Taylor Swift Against Justin Bieber

    Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom’s love affair may be at the center of the upcoming Amazon Prime Video series “Carnival Row,” but the British actress doesn’t want viewers to assume her faerie character is heterosexual. “I’m a pansexual faerie,” Delevingne told Variety during an exclusive one-on-one interview at Comic-Con adding that there are other queer [...]

  • 'Russian Doll' Star Charlie Barnett Joins

    'Russian Doll' Star Charlie Barnett Joins 'Arrow' Final Season

    “Russian Doll” standout Charlie Barnett is joining the “Arrowverse.” Barnett, who is having a busy year having also appeared in Netflix’s “Tales of the City,” comes on board in the series regular role of John Diggle, Jr., son of David Ramsey’s character. News of his casting was announced at the show’s farewell Comic-Con panel where things [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content