“Showrunners” is a new podcast from INSIDER — a series where we interview the people responsible for bringing TV shows to life. The following is a transcript from our interview with Alec Berg, the showrunner of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and previous writer for “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Listen to the episode to hear the highlights from our interview, and keep reading below for the full conversation.
Subscribe to “Showrunners” on iTunes here so you can hear new episodes (featuring the showrunners from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “American Gods,” “Insecure” and more) first.
How Alec Berg first got into comedy writing
INSIDER: How did you get to where you are now, and specifically how did you get into comedy?
Berg: I grew up listening to my parent’s comedy records, a lot of the stuff that, instead of listening to a lot of music, I was listening to. When I was eight years old, I could do two and a half hours of Bill Cosby, word perfect. I didn’t see the writing on the wall where that was headed with Bill Cosby, but I grew up idolizing him. Steve Martin was the other guy that I listened to every second of his stuff. I was just always, I don’t know why, was interested in comedy. It’s weird. It’s almost like a magic power in a weird way, where you can say a combination of words and you cause convulsions in other people. It’s the closest thing I think we have to wizardry.
INSIDER: Do you remember that first experience of making someone laugh?
Berg: I have one weird snippet of memory [when] I was probably in second grade, of saying something and a girl in my class started laughing. I do remember thinking, “Oh, that’s cool. I did that.” I just went from there.
I went to Harvard and I worked on the Harvard Lampoon, so I found a lot of like-minded comedy misfits there, a couple of which I worked with for years. Jeff Schaffer and I moved out to LA after college to try and write. We lived in a literally flea-infested apartment with no furniture. We spent a few months just calling people and trying to meet anybody that would tolerate us for 15 minutes. That led to a tiny thing, which led to another thing, which led to another thing. Eventually, we started making a living.
INSIDER: So you used to just call people and say, “Can I have 15 minutes of your time?” Who did you call?
Berg: Anybody. Anybody we could think of. People always ask me, “How do I break in?” To me, the one guiding principal of all of it is just honestly don’t be an asshole. That’s the simplest advice you could give. People will send me scripts sometimes and they’re like, “Hey, here’s a draft of the script. Can you read it? Can you give me notes, and then can you send it to your agent?” I go, “Well, let me start with reading it.”
Usually, on page one there’s about six typos. It’s like, “Okay, you’ve asked me for an enormous amount of my time, and you want me to read something carefully that you clearly can’t be bothered to read carefully yourself?” It’s one of those things where it’s just, I don’t know. It always seemed pretty simple to me that it’s like people are busy, and if you’re polite, and deferential, and you ask for a manageable amount of their time, how do they say no to that?
INSIDER: What was your playbook? When you wanted someone to talk to you, what did you say to them?
Berg: I think Jeff and I would reach out and just say, “Hey, we’re enormous fans. We know you’re busy. Can we buy you coffee? Can we bend your ear for 10 minutes and just ask you how you did it, and if you have any thoughts for us?” That was it when we started bugging people. We’d try and go and make somebody laugh for 10 or 15 minutes.
We met with these two guys, Tom Gammill and Max Pross — they were Lampoon guys who were 11 or 12 years ahead of us. We got to know them, and eventually they got a show. It was one of the first shows that they put on Fox on Sunday nights. We got friendly with them, and when their show got picked up they said, “Hey, we’re buying some freelance scripts, so if you pitch us some ideas, maybe we can buy a script from you.”
Jeff and I worked for like two weeks straight, and we went in with just a massive, very thoroughly thought-out stuff. I think we worked probably 200 hours on this one pitch. It was shock and awe of comedy writing. We overwhelmed them with the volume of information that we gave them, and they bought a script from us. That was the first job we ever got. We had reached out, we had touched base, we had known them for months on and off, we had kept in contact. We sent them, I think, a spec that we had written, and they gave us thoughts on it.
Berg’s big break with “Conan” and “Seinfeld”
INSIDER: It seemed like the Conan O’Brien show was the one that people were like, “Oh, that was the big break for Alec Berg.” Is that the case?
Berg: Dave [Mandel] had recommended us to Robert Smigel, we sent a bunch of material in, we didn’t hear back for months. Then all of a sudden we got a call from Robert Smigel and he was saying, “Hey, do you guys want to work on the show?” and we said, “Well, we have this other job in LA.” He was like, “Oh, I was told you were available,” and we said “we were five months ago when we sent that material.”
As luck would have it, the show we were working on got canceled, so we ended up going to Conan for a few months, which was great. It was in the dawn of the Conan show, when it was exhilarating because we were doing five hours a week. Every night there’s probably 15 or 20 minutes of produced comedy. We were producing whatever, an hour, hour and a half of material a week, which just meant if you had even the slightest inkling of an idea, it got on the air, because it was just this carnivorous beast that ate material. Anything you could fling at it would go on.
In that sense it was exhilarating. It was like we were always behind. You’d write the bits the night before. You’d stay up ’til one or two in the morning, and you’d have some kind of a kernel of an idea, and you’d leave voicemails for the casting people, and the costume, and hair and make-up people, and the set people. Then you’d go home and sleep for a couple hours, and you’d come back in at 9:00 a.m. and you’d produce whatever you had written. You’d give direction to everyone, and then you’d be rehearsing it at 1:30 or 2:00, and then you’d shoot it in front of a live audience at 5:30. Just in terms of comedy school, it was amazing training. It was insane. You’re literally running around 30 Rock at 3:00 in the morning, trying to edit something.
INSIDER: When did you feel like that you were not someone breaking in anymore, but someone who had a job? If that makes sense.
Berg: I think was when we got hired at Seinfeld. That felt like being made in the mafia. Jeff and I got there for the last. We were there for the last four seasons of that show, so we were there for just over half the episodes. The show had moved from Wednesday to Thursday night. We were number one or number two every week. It was us and “Home Improvement” that would trade off who had better numbers that week.
INSIDER: You joined the Beatles.
Berg: Yeah, pretty much. It was basically the number one show ever, and it had just arrived in that space when we got on. It was pretty awesome.
INSIDER: It’s sort of surprising how much of America was into “Seinfeld.” How did that happen?
Berg: It makes no sense. It’s such a niche show in a weird way — it’s about four very narcissistic New Yorkers. It doesn’t seem like it’s an all-American story at all, and yet it had such a clear voice, and it was so true to itself, and it was incredibly funny, and I do think that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld brought in a new style of storytelling.
Typically, almost every sitcom up to that point, and many since then, were essentially morality plays, where a character’s faced with the right choice or the easy choice, and they take the easy choice, and something bad happens, and then they apologize and they learn from their mistake. In the end they make amends with whoever they’ve wronged, and there’s a learning moment, and then there’s a joke.
On “Seinfeld,” they always said, “No hugging, no learning.” Characters act on their basest, most petty instincts for self gain, they get caught, they lie, they dig themselves in deeper, they get caught again, they lie or blame someone else, and in the end the entire thing blows up and they’re miserable. It was a very different style than anybody had done up to that point. We were doing a lot more scenes. “Cheers,” I think as a rule, used to do four scenes in the first act and three scenes in the second act, or something like that. That was just the structure of the show. Sometimes we would do 26, 27 scenes, in a 21 and a half minute show.
What it’s like to work for Larry David
INSIDER: How does Larry David work? What was he like on “Seinfeld” at that time?
Berg: He was the hub of the wheel, writing wise. Jerry was enormously involved, but Jerry was also on stage a lot of the time, rehearsing and performing.When Jerry was on stage, Larry was in the office, in the engine room, making the scripts work. The way that show worked, it’s interesting. I guess Dave Mandel, who is now running “Veep,” runs “Veep” in a similar way. There was no “writer’s room” on that show.
You would start laying out the episode, and you’d get a first act, and you’d bring Larry and Jerry into your office, and you’d show them the whiteboard, and you’d walk them through the beats, and they would say, “Okay, that’s four scenes but that should be one scene. That should happen sooner.” You would compact and compact and compact. Eventually you’d get through two acts of the show and they’d say, “Great, write a draft,” and you would write your own draft of that.
There was no sitting around a table doing any of that. It was all done by yourself. I think a lot of writers who grow up in sitcom rooms don’t really ever become true writers. Until you have to sit in a room and be wholly responsible for every beat of the story and a draft, you don’t have to do all the work.
I think there are probably sitcom writers who are just joke people, or story people, or people who have a certain strength, or people who just are in a room and they make everybody else feel good about what’s happening. It’s much more of a team sport, but working at “Seinfeld” you really had to do everything on an episode.
INSIDER: What were Larry’s notes like?
Berg: I remember Jeff and I, the first script we wrote was an episode called “The Gymnast,” where Jerry dates this Romanian gymnast. We handed the draft in, and we’d slaved over every line, every word, every nuance. We gave it to Larry and Larry was going over to a rehearsal, so Larry walked over to the stage with the script in his hand, and we followed behind him because we wanted to watch him read this thing. I want to see his face, I want to see how he’s reacting. I remember he picked it up at one point, and we were spying on him, and he read it. I don’t know if it can frame it in here, but he basically read it like this. We were like, “What’s he doing? He’s not savoring our gems.”
He read the whole thing in like two minutes. He didn’t pause to let any of our clever wordplay sit on his tongue in any pleasing way. I realize now, having done this for 25 years, what he was doing. He was just reading it for structure, which is what happens. “Okay, they do this, they do that. Eh, I don’t know if I’m buying that maybe.” He just was reading it make sure that each beat flowed, and each character was doing the right thing in the right place. This is what I’d learned from him more than anything, and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is exactly the same thing.
In fact, on “Curb” we didn’t even write dialogue really. We just wrote an outline that was just the structure, what happens. There’s a few jokes in it, but the story itself on those shows is the comedy. It’s not here’s this boring morality play, where somebody makes amends with the person they’ve wronged, and there are jokes on top of it. The story itself, and if you go back to your favorite “Seinfeld “episodes, they’re all the one where this happens, or the one where that happens. The what happens is the comedy, as opposed to it’s a straight story with comedy put on top.
INSIDER: It reminds me of one of those novelists that you always see in the grocery store or in the airports, and he writes 70 books a year because he has a team of writers, and apparently he lies on a daybed overlooking the Hudson, and he just writes out scenes like, “You meet the Smiths, husband and wife. It’s clear that they like each other.” He just hands those notes, and then someone else does the actual writing.
Berg: I think that’s something that. Look, Larry David essentially taught me how to write. If you know who your characters are, and you know who’s in a scene, and what they want, and what happens next, I don’t want to say the scenes write themselves, but it’s much, much easier. Sometimes when you’re working on something and it’s hard to write a scene, sometimes that’s telling you something, that maybe the structure’s not right. It’s not that executing this scene is difficult, it’s that the scene’s not right. If the pieces are all in place, it should be easier.
Why TV is preferable to directing movies
Berg: After “Seinfeld,” [Jeff Schaffer, Dave Mandel, and I] started doing a bunch of movie work, because movie work wasn’t covered under the terms of our TV deals. We started doing a bunch of little rewrites, and it was easy to get these one week gigs, because people wanted Seinfeld writers to write clever dialogue. We started learning the movie business.
Then we started selling original screenplays. In that window is when we wrote and then ended up directing a movie that ended up being called “Eurotrip.” In TV, because TV is driven by volume, network shows are 22 episodes a year, somebody’s got to generate all of that. It ends up being the writer who has a lot more control creatively in TV.
In movies, because you’ve got just this one thing that you make over the course of a year or two, writers are much more expendable and the director is the one who has all the control in movies, because they’re the ones that have to make the decisions about casting, and tone, and how’s it going to be shot, and how’s it going to be edited.
When we got into movies and we would write screenplays, we realized, “Oh, we have to be directors.” It wasn’t out of any desire to be an artist. It was really just more about we wanted to be in the room. We ended up writing the script. It was called “Ugly Americans” when we sold it, which I still contend is a much better title than “Eurotrip.” We sold that with the condition that we could direct it.
INSIDER: How’d you like directing?
Berg: It was insane. We didn’t have any idea really what we doing, directing wise. We had done facets of all of it before, but being in charge of the whole ship was, it’s pretty terrifying. You understand why people who are megalomaniacs are very well suited to being movie directors, because it’s a completely subjective, creative endeavor, and you’ve got 150 people turning to you saying, “Okay, what do you want to do? How do you want to do this?” If you’re riddled with self-doubt, you start to crater. The people who are like, “I know what to do. I’m touched by God and I have a gift.” They’re very well suited to that job. I also understand why people are screamers and throw tantrums, because there’s an enormous amount of insecurity, and it’s a way of venting a lot of that.
INSIDER: You’re persistent. You had a great resume. You could have kept doing a lot of that instead of the avenue you went down. Is there a reason?
Berg: The movie business was really hard. For example, I spent a year plus of my life working on [“Eurotrip”] and I learned a ton. It didn’t hit the way we wanted to, but creatively I would say it was a reasonable success and I learned a ton. You spend two years all in on a movie, and then Thursday at five o’clock, they call and tell you whether it worked or not. They know from the first Thursday screenings of the opening weekend, whether you’ve made a bomb, or a hit, or somewhere in between. That’s it. It’s binary.
Part of what I love about TV is that TV is much more about batting average. You get a lot of at-bats, and some you get doubles or triples, and some you strike out, but it’s about average. Week in and week out, if you do a good job, that show will live. Whereas movies, you can make a great movie. I read reviews of “Ghost in the Shell,” which just came out. People seemed to love that movie. It tanked. What happened? I don’t know.
Then there are movies, which, and I’m not going to pick on any, but there are movies that are terrible that are big hits. That randomness of the