Funny or Die Presents on HBO: Offline and Off-Kilter

[show=fodpresents size=large]Not the first site to get a TV deal, and probably not the last, Funny or Die is the latest online studio attempting to finding the secret of transferring short-form comedy to OldTeeVee. OldTeeVees with HBO (s TWX) subscriptions, anyway — Funny or Die Presents, announced in October 2009, premiered last Friday on the pay cabler.

Funny or Die faces the same dilemma College Humor did when adapting sketch comedy to a half-hour series, and while I wasn’t a huge fan of their sitcom-interruptus format (a half-hour scripted show with comedy sketch interstitials), it did have some narrative flow. FOD, meanwhile, simply treats its half-hour of airtime like a night of prime time TV, laying out the night’s schedule of sketches and serials at the beginning of each episode. All of the shorts featured are new content not findable on the web.

The approach is a much purer one, and also acknowledges that audiences at midnight on a Friday probably don’t have the best attention spans. But it means that Funny or Die Presents lives or dies based on the individual sketches compiled together. And while the first episode starts off with some big laughs, there’s some unfortunate tail-off, and the philosophy behind its programming doesn’t make much sense.

The opening schedule lays out four segments, but the balance between them is incredibly skewed, as over half of the first episode is branded as Derek Waters LOL, essentially a show within a show specifically credited to one of the site’s best sketch comedians. This section includes two advertising parodies, a new installment of Drunk History, and a sketch documenting one epic night at Margaritaville — arguably some of the funniest stuff in the pilot, as well as the most celeb-heavy (including Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, Don Cheadle and Busy Phillips). But while it’s nice to celebrate the talent behind these sketches, from a branding perspective for FOD it doesn’t make much sense. Why single out one guy’s work instead of championing the FOD house style (evolved over nearly four years) to which LOL clearly belongs?

After Derek Waters LOL comes a short but decent recreation of geopolitics as reenacted by kids on a playground, a brash and unfunny night on the town with Ron Riggle and Paul Scheer (love both those guys, but just couldn’t get behind a sketch about two guys yelling at each other), and Space Baby, which invokes the sacred memory of Funny or Die’s first real hit, The Landlord. The baby of Space Baby isn’t quite as cute as little Pearl McKay, nor as violent and profane. But when teamed with Best in Show‘s Fred Willard, she’s still delightful.

The major difference between FOD content on the web and Presents is the presentation, which strings segments together with graphics invoking animation styles from the dawn of television itself, apt for a show that purports to reinvent the relationship between web and TV content. This invocation of vintage technology and graphics is clever although gimmicky. While I liked things like the opening logo, which features TV and computer icons morphing together in an animation style pioneered by classic Sesame Street episodes, too much of the old-school branding is bound to get old eventually over the series’ 12-episode run.

Host Ed Halligan (played by Steve Tom, who’s got a vast string of TV credits to his name) is a part of the same dilemma. He’s got some style, but it’s hard to see the joke of a white-haired Cronkite figure who occasionally says the F-word being all that sustainable.

I’m going to go ahead and make my prediction now that while Presents may have a fun run on HBO this spring, a second season is unlikely and we’ll remember it a year from now as an interesting experiment that never quite worked (similar to how I remember last year’s College Humor Show, tell you the truth). My major hope is that in the meantime we get to see some new great sketches — and that at some point in the future, they’re uploaded in full to the Internet. Which is not currently the case.

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