Executive producer Andrew Steele says HBO’s “Funny or Die Presents” is “true to us”

When the clock strikes midnight tomorrow night, and Friday blends into Saturday, TV viewers tuned into HBO will think they're time-traveling Lost-style, as psychedelic 1960s music leads you into a computer room from the early 1980s, and "host" Ed Haligan gives you your orientation to what's about to happen to your world:

"What you're about to see is nothing short of a miracle. Television so revolutionary that at this point in time there is nothing else like it anywhere. You may ask yourself, how is this possible? Computers. That's how. Funny or Die is at the forefront of computer technology, leading the way in computer comedy programming. Tonight marks a departure from our usual business model as we join the ever-declining world of broadcast television. Think of what you're about to see as kind of a network unto itself, a half-hour network complete with its own lineup of wonderful shows. Basically, the same kind of horseshit we through up on the website."

Andrew Steele not only was responsible for putting the words into Haligan's mouth — as creative director for Funny or Die and executive producer of HBO's Funny or Die Presents, Steele also programmed all 12 of these mixed-up half-hours together. Funny or Die partners Adam McKay and Will Ferrell lured Steele away from Saturday Night Live, where Steele was one of the head writers, in the summer of 2008 to head up both the HBO series and the ongoing need for original videos on the FoD site.

"We worked together there for five years," Steele told me yesterday. "They were always trying to get me to come out to California. I felt like I had done everything I wanted to do at Saturday Night Live, and this was a strange and wonderful opportunity to be a part of the Internet and stay in television as well."

If you haven't seen any of the trailers HBO put out earlier this month for some of the individual segments for FoD Presents, catch up with four trailers I'd posted already. And here's an extended overall trailer:

Since they're on HBO, you'll see nudity and profanity. From what I've seen in the first two episodes, you'll also see some grotesque things, the "Drunk History" short that won an award last month at Sundance, the first part of "Designated Driver" with Rob Riggle and Paul Scheer, 15-minute sketch showcases from Derek Waters (this week) and Slovin and Allen (next week), a new Mike O'Connell video, "The Adventures of David and Jennie," some Playground Politics, and celebrity cameos by Fred Willard and Wayne Newton, not to mention the celebrities who showed up in the Drunk History short. I'd say more specifically, but Steele asked me not to ruin a few of the surprises. Suffice it to say, it's as if several of your favorite up-and-coming comedians had the chance to produce their own SNL Digital Shorts, and for 12 half-hours, you'll get to see that unfold in a dizzying display that's all over the map of Funny Land.

How'd you decide who would get to make contributions to Funny or Die Presents, anyhow? Was it an open process? Could anyone submit sketch packets or videos, much like the website itself? "Mainly just through being in the comedy world for 15, 16 years, the people who Will and Adam and I wanted to work with first, people that we liked on the site, people that we liked on the Internet. It's based on our comic sensibility, so we felt like we wanted to do something that was true to us," Steele said.

The series is their comedic vision, but it was open to some outside interpretations. "There were a few different people, such as Derek Waters, that I wasn't completely unaware of. Someone pointed me to 'Drunk History' a few years ago, and we talked, and I gave him some time. Quite a bit of time. And Jennie Pierson. Adventures of Dave and Jennie."

And there's Brett Gelman's "1,000 Cats." If you lived in New York City over the past few years, you had the rare chance every once in a blue moon to see Gelman's take on a one-man show in the UCB Theatre or alt-rooms such as Rififi. On HBO, it'll be bigger with big stage production values. How on Earth did that happen??? "It's definitely in there," Steele said. "It's one of my favorite pieces. It'll be interesting to see how America responds to that. My hope is that when you see this in America at 12:45 a.m. drunk, that you won't be able to make sense of it for seven or eight minutes."

So how much creative control did all of the comedians have with their segments? "Here was our approach. We have a similar approach to the website. I know who I wanted to work with, but once they were out the door, they'd pitch me different projects and I'd say no or yes, but once they were out the door. I wrote the host segments. But the pieces themselves are fairly autonomous and they're how the people wanted them."

With such different short films, music videos and 15-minute blocks, how did you then go about putting the various pieces together? "It's just a matter of pacing. It's personal taste. I never had the ability to do that at SNL because the show was mapped out by Lorne (Michaels) so many times, and in this show, I got my chance to do that, and I'm sure people will say, 'This doesn't make sense, or why does this go there?' I feel like I know what I'm doing." Steele did have 13 years of experience helping put sketches together weekly on SNL, and before that he worked on the MTV talk-show, The Jon Stewart Show.

Was the midnight Friday timeslot something you guys sought out, or was that negotiated with HBO? "There wasn't so much negotiation, as much as HBO had several thoughts about where to put the show. Every one (timeslot) had its own challenges for us. Adam, Will and I all wanted to see the show get on television. I'm personally very happy with a midnight timeslot. I just think that's a nice spot. There's a lot of R-rated material. I'm happy with all of the shows. They're all different. The Tim and Eric pieces look so different, but they're Tim and Eric. They all have looks and feels to them."

So how soon before you start thinking about a season two, or is that something you need to wait-and-see on first? "I'm planning out how I'd do more already."

HBO's Funny or Die Presents debuts at midnight Friday, Feb. 19 (or 12:00:01 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, depending on your definition of time).

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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