NEW YORK — On the surface, "Burning Love" is eerily identical to "The Bachelor."
All of the hallmarks of the ABC reality series are here: the steady, melodramatic winnowing of suitors, the shallowness masquerading as romance, the cheesy up-lighting on a remote mansion.
But while "Burning Love," a new Web series currently streaming on Yahoo, adheres to many traditions of "The Bachelor," it greatly inflates others. The vacant bachelor is a firefighter who cheerfully introduces himself in front of a burning building. Instead of roses, he awards women hoses. One contestant is so outrageously trampy, she goes through the entire show without pants and her lower half graphically blurred.
"I'm looking for someone who can make me laugh but isn't afraid of robots," says the firefighter Mark Orlando (Ken Marino). "Maybe somebody ethnic."
"Burning Love" – created by Erica Oyama, directed by Marino and produced by Ben Stiller's production company, Red Hour – is one of the funnier Web series to come along. Its 14 episodes, nine minutes each (new episodes are released weekly on Mondays and Thursdays), bear obvious affection for "The Bachelor" while satirizing it mercilessly.
The female contestants include an elderly woman, a pregnant woman (who gives birth on the show) and a homeless woman. Jennifer Aniston (in a panda suit) and Kristen Bell make cameos, as does Adam Scott, playing a therapist. Stiller makes a guest appearance, and Michael Ian Black plays the overly dramatic host, who's full of insincere remarks, ("Good luck, brother").
"What's funny, we noticed during screenings of our show, people became invested in these characters as ridiculous as they are," Oyama says.
"Burning Love" was initially conceived by Oyama, who became infatuated with "The Bachelor" and its sister show, "The Bachelorette," while caring for her then-infant son. She and Marino are married with two young children.
Marino, a co-founding member of the 1990s sketch group The State who's grown into co-writing comedies like "Role Models" and "Wanderlust" while steadily working as an actor (the cultishly adored Starz series "Party Down"), says there are two kinds of viewers of "The Bachelor," those who watch ironically and those who get swept up into it.
"Actually, there are three types of people," Marino says. "I'm the third, which is a hybrid. I know how ridiculous it is, but I can't help but watch."
For Oyama, who's previously written episodes of the Web series "Wainy Days" and "Children's Hospital," "Burning Love" is her first project all her own. (She hopes to make a "Bachelorette"-style second season.)
For Marino, it's another example of his particular gifts as a comic actor. He plays Orlando (as he did his striving but luckless caterer Ron Donald on "Party Down") totally straight, without a wink and with total commitment.
Marino seems to have great sympathy for his characters, even if they aren't the sharpest guys around. Stiller says he's got a knack for playing "incredibly stupid," a harder task than it appears. Black calls his Orlando "a perfect idiot" and Marino's performance "next-level funny."
In the last few years, many of the more notable comic Web series have been products of The State alumni. David Wain created "Wainy Days" and helped develop Rob Corddry's "Childrens Hospital," which co-starred Marino. Michael Showalter made "The Showalter Showalter," and Black starred in "Backwash." The various online projects may not pay their bills, but provide creative freedom to exercise their old sketch comedy muscles.
"This really ages us, but we were creating our own little YouTube shorts before there was YouTube," says Marino, recalling the videos they made for the short-lived MTV sketch show "You Wrote It, You Watch It," that led to the troupe getting "The State" on the network.
Black says the spirit of these digital series ("Burning Love" was shot in just nine days) is "almost identical" to that of "The State."
"There's such an anarchic spirit to these online series, largely as a function that there's no money in them yet," he says. "Once the money gets involved – which it will eventually – you'll start to see the clamps come down a little bit. Right now, people are throwing just enough money at it to allow people like me and Ken to go out and make something and have it look good and do it the way they want to do it."
Stiller, whose company has mainly produced films, got interested in digital work because so many of his friends and collaborators want to experiment with such series, bypassing the development process that comes with a TV network.
"For me, it's kind of an unknown world," he confesses. "I don't really quite understand it – what the platforms are and where the audiences are. But I do feel like if something is funny and feels original and it's something people can tap into, it's kind of a great format. There's a lot of funny stuff being made, but it's about the access to the audience."
"Burning Love" has found that thanks to Yahoo, which has linked to the show from its home page, exposing its considerable search audience to the kind of absurdity that rarely makes it onto television.
Says Stiller: "Don't tell them."