The YouTube-hosted Elevator, launched in May 2007, has survived a 2009 production company changeover (from HBOlab to Break) to produce over 200 episodes of short, wry comedy shot in a single location. And that longevity has paid off, thanks in part to a wide range of guest stars, including YouTube elite like Charles Trippy and Ryan Higa, Garfunkle and Oates‘ Kate Micucci, and Canadian sketch comedy team Loading Ready Run, who have helped the series achieve millions of views and nearly 80,000 YouTube subscribers. Via chat, we talked with series creator Woody Tondorf about Elevator‘s origins, the difference between his past and present corporate masters, and if an end is in sight for the series. An edited transcript follows.
NewTeeVee: So, where did the initial inspiration for Elevator come from?
Tondorf: When we were at HBOlab, our boss said, “We need a series that we can mass produce for cheap. Make that happen.” I was really inspired by the old “Far Side” comic strip, where you only needed a single picture and a single line to tell the joke. So I threw that out there in our next meeting, and it stuck. Luckily, we had a dead end at the end of our hallway that was plain white. We put a camera up on a table and eureka!
NewTeeVee: So it’s not actually an elevator!
Tondorf: People are still shocked about this! Everything on the Internet is fake! It’s just three walls. They’re also the longest elevator rides ever. No one is in an elevator longer than 30 seconds.
NewTeeVee: At the beginning, how much of a narrative were you looking to construct?
Tondorf: None. I had always envisioned Elevator as more of a video comic strip, something you could stop by for one laugh and either move onto the next episode or go back to cats on Roombas. We had a core group of characters, but arcs and storylines were never really a goal.
It’s HARD in web series to count on people to watch the last episode or the next episode or know what you’re talking about, so I try to stay away from it on Elevator.
NewTeeVee: But at the same time, you’ve definitely developed a cast of characters over the years.
Tondorf: Yeah, the characters and actors got to create these organic arcs that I think has really helped the series grow.
NewTeeVee: You’ve had some pretty great guest stars come in from the YouTube world — how have those appearances come about?
Tondorf: Part of them have come from personal relationships and others came from reaching out to managers and seeing if they want to come play. No one’s turned us down yet, which is really cool. I wouldn’t want folks on Elevator unless I thought their work was great.
NewTeeVee: So are/were these appearances done gratis?
Tondorf: A lot are. But we pay our cast.
NewTeeVee: Your regular cast, you mean.
Tondorf: Yeah. Anyone who’s doing several episodes for the day gets paid. We have been able to pay since the beginning. Being under HBO’s wing at the time certainly helped.
NewTeeVee: Speaking of HBO — when Runaway Box was acquired by Break, how big a factor was Elevator‘s success in that deal?
Tondorf: I think it certainly helped. The lab had a proven history of original programming that I think Break found attractive. We were all part of the deal.
NewTeeVee: What’s been the difference between HBO and Break?
Tondorf: We do a lot more branded entertainment now. Series and shorts for SoCo, KFC, Stride, Levi’s, the works. It’s a good opportunity to take our skills from the lab and apply them to making a client happy and keep the lights on. I’m still waiting for the paperwork to go through on Nerf War 2, though.
NewTeeVee: So the emphasis at Break is on the branded stuff?
Tondorf: It’s constantly changing. Right now we’re cranking out new RFPs [Requests For Proposals] every day and getting new show concepts ready for prospective sponsors, but I’m also pitching two new one-offs to film this week and we just finished a blitz of original Halloween programming.
Right now we’re doing a lot of branded content, but we’re always on standby to shift to something new. It’s exciting, in an air traffic control sort of way.
NewTeeVee: Is there stuff you’ve been able to do at Break that you don’t think you could have done while under HBO’s wing?
Tondorf: I think the tone of Elevator has changed, for one. At HBO I had to push back a lot with content that was maybe a little blue, but Break has been better about it. I think I have a little more edge in the writing now. We also try not to swear, but that’s a terms of service thing more than anything else.
NewTeeVee: So is there any scripted web series out there which beats you in terms of length of time online and number of episodes?
Tondorf: I think LonelyGirl might, but does that count? It’s kind of like NCIS or CSI. There’s about five different incarnations of it, and I can’t be sure. But yeah, I’ll say we’re tops in terms of longevity and number of uploaded original episodes. I defy others to beat us. Now where’s my damn Streamy?
NewTeeVee: When you do end the series, do you know what direction it’ll take? Are you like J.K. Rowling, have you written the last episode ever and locked it in a safe?
Tondorf: I actually have written the last episode, and it’s a big disappointment. But this series has become my new media calling card. It will be sad when it ends, but honestly I’m not ready to let go of it yet.
NewTeeVee: When you do end it — any hints as to what might happen?
Tondorf: Ummmm…let’s just say we’re gonna need a bigger boat.
NewTeeVee: A bigger elevator, you mean?
Tondorf: Your words, not mine.