A conversation with TV writer, Alec Berg, creator of HBO's "Barry".
Surrounded by chameleons, rats, and three dogs, screenwriter Alec Berg, at home, looks much more like a PETA employee than a renowned writer. But, renowned he is.
After graduating in ‘91 from Harvard University, Alec moved straight from Boston out west to LA, going on to write for several TV shows (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Late Night with Conan O’Brien). Alec also wrote on several feature films, and he co-created HBO’s Barry and Silicon Valley.
“People always say writing TV is like laying track in front of a moving train… you have to move faster or get run over,” Alec says.
Alec’s career is much like a train: fast-moving and full of people. Starting from his “day one” in LA, Alec has formed a community of collaborators, putting faith in his friends to create amazing work.
“The term ‘genius’ is used liberally these days, but if I've worked with one television genius, that’s [Larry David],” Alec says. “I work with Larry because Larry is willing to work with me. That's really it.”
I believe that Alec’s faith in his community has greatly contributed to his success today, and his numerous partnerships stand to prove it:
Fresh out of college and proactive as hell, Alec first teamed up with TV writer, Jeff Schaffer, a fellow Harvard alumni writer. Together, Jeff and Alec searched for full-time staff writer jobs, all while writing piecemeal episodes for half-hour series, many of which never aired.
“My parents thought I was a drug dealer, I think, because I kept saying, ‘I'm a TV writer,’ and they're like, ‘What have you written that's on the air?’” Alec says.
Despite this hilarious doubt from his parents, Alec and Jeff never lost faith in their growing community. Throughout their first two years in LA, Alec continued to grow his community by leveraging his connections, both big and small.
“It's just calling to person to person,” Alec says. “You just have to be completely active about it… the biggest mistake is to just sit back and wait for something to happen. You really have to be proactive about all that.”
As it turns out (if you couldn’t guess), Alec was right! His faith in himself, in Jeff, and in his work landed the duo a full-time job at Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Alec and Jeff stayed there for months writing late-night sketch comedy before finally landing the sitcom job of their dreams.
“We got hired at Seinfeld, and it was like getting made in the mafia,” Alec says.
Ever since Seinfeld, Alec’s career train has kept on moving, propelling him toward countless awards and growing individual fame. However, Alec has never strayed from his choice to make his projects a group process, often choosing his collaborator before he even comes up with a concept.
This was the case for HBO’s Barry, the brainchild of Alec and comedian Bill Hader. Prior to the official “development process” of the half-hour show, Alec reached out to Bill casually, suggesting they have breakfast together to, and I quote, “shoot the shit.”
“[Bill] and I knew each other from comedy circles, and I respected him tremendously… so we just started meeting, like, once a week for breakfast and knocking ideas around,” Alec says.
After weeks of bacon, toast, and talking, Alec and Bill had run through several ideas for a new comedy series, finally landing on the concept for Barry: a hitman with a passion for acting.
“It's a very fertile premise,” Alec says. “I just started giving us stuff immediately, so we got very excited about that.”
The duo took off like a runaway train, with Alec directing seven episodes and Bill directing ten, himself. This was Bill’s narrative TV directorial debut, but Alec was certain Bill would be great for the job.
“Ideally, there's no division between [writing and directing]. It's all just making stuff, right?” Alec says about the job.
Together, Alec and Bill raked in four Emmy Award Nominations for their directing alone on Barry. So, for the show’s fourth and final season, Alec handed over the conductor’s whistle to Bill to direct all eight episodes.
“I was kind of like, “Look, go with God, I trust you, do your thing. He's happily shooting away, and I'm excited to see it,” Alec says.
Alec cultivated this faith in Bill through active collaboration over multiple seasons, and it’s paid off tenfold. Barry has won nine Emmy’s, it’s been nominated for 44, and it will (hopefully) be eligible for next year’s ceremony.
Just like Alec, I’m excited to see it.
I’m also excited to share Alec’s story of collaboration, faith, hard work, and community, something I hope all young writers like myself will cultivate gradually throughout their careers.
Much like Alec’s trust in his daughter (which resulted in a packed house of animal critters) trusting in your fellow creatives can pack your projects with energy and life: more than you could generate all on your own.
“As long as my daughter makes sure [the animals] don't escape, I’m good with it,” Alec says. “They’re all my daughter.”
And as long as your collaborators work hard and don’t bite, be open and “good with it”, as well.
Thank you so much to Alec Berg for your time meeting at Austin Film Festival 2022. For more on Alec and his work, visit his IMDB.
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Before Payton wrote pilots, before articles and poems, Payton wrote in her journals and on Google Docs, always titling the entry: Thoughts. For this reason, this blog was easy to name.
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