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April 18, 2019

Great Expectations

Though he quips that everything is “an opportunity to fail,” Alec Berg has not one, but two shows on HBO. Still, for this hyphenate, the stakes remain high — and his expectations higher.

Sarah Hirsch
  • Robert Trachtenberg
  • Alec Berg with Bill Hader on the set of Barry

    John P. Johnson/HBO

Alec Berg has high standards.

Some call him a perfectionist, while others say he just appreciates structure or is left-brained. Maybe that's because his parents were both professors at Harvard. Or maybe it was the education he earned at that institution, or his time with the famed Harvard Lampoon. Or it could have been his four seasons as a writer on Seinfeld, working for the exacting Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.

But to hear Berg tell it, his disposition is far more hard-wired than that. "I'm Swedish — dour by nature. I come from a long line of emotionless, dark clouds," he says, half-joking. "But it's also one of the things that makes Bill [Hader] and I work well together.

"I think he views everything as an opportunity to succeed," Berg says. "And I view everything as an opportunity to fail."

For Berg, opportunities abound. He is the co-showrunner on two HBO comedies: Barry, about a hitman (Hader) who pursues an acting career, and Silicon Valley, which follows a tech engineer (Thomas Middleditch) struggling to get his company off the ground.

Returning March 31 for its sophomore season, Barry — co-created and executive-produced by Berg and Hader — has already hit the trifecta: critical acclaim, ratings success and Emmy Awards (three in the comedy category — for lead actor, supporting actor [Henry Winkler] and sound mixing — and 10 more nominations).

Yet all that success hasn't raised the stakes for Berg. "Every episode of every season of everything I've ever done, I'm convinced, this is where it stops working. So if it's even harder, I haven't noticed," he says, reflecting. "There's already so much pressure that I put on myself, the external pressure doesn't really make too big of a difference."

The following day would find Berg at Acton Movie Ranch, north of Los Angeles, where his crew would light a bus on fire for a scene in Barry. But today, on Stage 18 at Paramount, he settles into his director's chair, slips on a pair of headphones and studies a bank of monitors. In the next scene, Barry comes to the office of his acting teacher, Gene Cousineau (Winkler), with a piece of information that takes the latter by surprise.

"It should feel like a record scratch," Berg says about Barry's reveal, "so something has to be happening that has then stopped." He and Hader decide that Cousineau will be painting a small figurine when Barry enters. Minutes later, the props department delivers the item. Another chat with wardrobe, and Berg decides on the pair of glasses that Cousineau will peer over.

"This is the shit that takes all the energy," Hader says. "And you don't think of it until you're doing it," Berg replies.

The attention to detail is everywhere. The walls of the rehearsal room set are hung with photos of Cousineau and various celebrities — including Seth Green and Judd Hirsch. These are real photos taken throughout Winkler's career. There are also posters for plays with titles that could have only come from a comedy writers' room: The Hopscotch Tutor, Perpendicular to the Heart, 13 Divorces and Mermaids & Matrimony.

"When I direct, there's always a regret of the day," Berg says the following week over lunch. "Sometimes there are many regrets of the day… and in keeping with that theme, there's almost never a joy of the day," he says, laughing.

He's referring to the camera setup he invariably laments not getting, or the line he thinks up as he's walking to his car. But the standards Berg demands of himself have only bolstered his reputation as a problem solver, which is apparent to everyone he works with, including HBO president of programming Casey Bloys.

"When we would go to a table read in the early seasons of Silicon Valley, Alec was already analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the script," says Bloys, who has known Berg since the writer's days on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

When it came time to discuss notes for a script, Bloys says, "It wasn't so much us saying, 'Here are our issues.' He already knew what they were, so the conversation always skipped to, 'What are possible solutions?'"

Mike Judge, co-creator and co-showrunner of Silicon Valley, points out the same quality. (His co-creators are John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky; he executive-produces with Berg, Tom Lassally, Michael Rotenberg, Clay Tarver, Jamie Babbit and Jim Kleverweis.)

Judge and Berg first met after Judge had already shot the Silicon pilot, when he was struggling to fix some issues. After only a few minutes, Berg pitched the idea of starting off the first episode with an extravagant party to illustrate the wealth that the main character had turned down to retain ownership of his new company.

"I thought, 'Wow, he's solved one of my major problems and this is just the interview,'" Judge says.

"He's very honest with himself and everybody else when something isn't working," continues Judge, who worked in Silicon Valley in the '80s. "Sometimes, if I'm around too many positive people, I'll get talked into something that deep down, I know isn't right. But Alec will just say, 'This doesn't work.'"

Since its 2014 premiere, the series has accumulated 40 Emmy nominations — and two wins in 2015, for picture editing and production design — as well as numerous Golden Globes, Critics Choice and assorted guild nominations and wins. The show is also loved by actual Silicon Valley insiders, many of whom look for Easter eggs hidden in the code on the characters' computer screens.

To ensure maximal realism, the showrunners employed three full-time consultants during season five and spoke to an additional 60 to 70 experts — founders of companies, computer science grad students, professors, lawyers and venture capitalists.

The creative team has faced some criticism over the show's lack of gender representation. Berg says that remains a discussion — even though the disparity is based in reality.

"Do we have a responsibility to depict Silicon Valley the way we think it should be?" he asks. "Or do we have a responsibility to depict it the way it is ? The show is a satire, and satire is about accentuating reality, and portraying it in a way that makes the people who live in that reality uncomfortable. And the reality is, 87.7 percent of people who do what our guys do are men."

With five seasons of Silicon Valley behind him and another premiering later this year, Berg says he and Judge have had their first conversations about the show's end. All Berg can say now is that he expects the characters will achieve success — or fail to achieve it — in some way that has closure.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a biophysicist father and a Latin American history and literature professor mother, Berg deadpans, "I managed to equally disappoint them both by going into television."

After moves to Wisconsin and Colorado, his family settled in Pasadena, California, where he was raised from age 10, before returning to Boston for his college years. "I was sort of peripherally around the film business," he says of his Los Angeles-adjacent childhood, "and it started to occur to me that that seemed like more fun than getting a real job."

After majoring in visual and environmental studies ("a fancy way of saying art"), Berg moved to L.A. with fellow Harvard alum Jeff Schaffer.

"I had enough money saved up for four or five months," Berg remembers. "We got this literally flea-infested apartment, down the street from the 99 Cents store. I don't know how I didn't get scurvy. We started calling everyone we could think of and begging them for 15 minutes of time."

The cold calls paid off — Berg and Schaffer worked nearly full-time for two years, including writing jobs on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, early '90s sitcom Herman's Head and, most auspiciously, an episode of Great Scott — a 1992 series starring a then-unknown Tobey Maguire.

The show didn't make it past a first season; shooting started on their episode the day the series was canceled. But they got to work with Scott showrunners Tom Gammill and Max Pross, who had a deal at Castle Rock, the production company behind Seinfeld.

Having worked on several series that didn't take off, Berg and Schaffer decided to return to Conan. "We rented a storage unit, hired a truck and were going to move all of our stuff into storage and go to New York the morning Tom and Max called us."

An hour later, they were sitting in an office with David and Seinfeld, interviewing for a series they had once watched in college. "That was like being made in the mafia," Berg says of his time on the last four seasons of the classic sitcom.

Working on Seinfeld laid the groundwork for Berg's subsequent career.

He learned how to structure scripts, interweave storylines and not be too precious about his writing. He also got to experience the thrill of working on a cultural touchstone and everything that comes with it — including co-creating a word that now appears in the dictionary: regifting . (Berg and Schaffer labeled the common practice in an episode appropriately titled, "The Label Maker.")

Berg's name even had its moment in the limelight when David and Seinfeld used it for a character on the show. "I got to the table read and it said, 'Alec Berg enters,'" he recalls. "I still have the pages framed on the wall of my office at home."

Perhaps most important, Berg learned the ins and outs of showrunning. "We were in casting sessions, rehearsals and run-throughs; we would meet with the production designer about set design; and get on the phone with the network about promos," he says.

"And then, after Seinfeld ended and we started doing more movie stuff, we'd write a script, hand it in, and go, 'Here's what I was thinking.…' And they'd go, 'No, your part's done,'" Berg remembers. "Sometimes they would do stuff with it that was great, and sometimes they would screw it up. And you'd go, 'Well, if somebody's gonna screw it up, it may as well be me.'"

Berg, Schaffer and another Harvard alumnus, David Mandel (Veep), went on to write several films together — including The Cat in the Hat and The Dictator. "We also wrote and directed a movie called EuroTrip — hold for applause — which was like film school part two. The learning curve on that was nearly vertical," he says of his first directing job.

The trio also worked together on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a job that began with David offering them free space in his office suite in exchange for the opportunity to pick their brains for story ideas. "It started as a land deal," Berg says, "and we basically ended up helping him write season five of Curb."

Berg was interested in comedy from a young age, often listening for hours to comedy albums on repeat. "That was my music," he says.

In fact, he often likens comedy to music. For him, the hardest part about directing Barry is finding the right tone. "It's a lot like tuning a piano, where all these things have to vibrate in concert with each other," he says. "We're playing with it in the writing process, on set and in the edit. And sometimes one thing that's off can make the whole thing sound like shit."

Berg's actors recognize his philosophy. "One of the great things about Alec is that he knows what he wants, and in structure comes freedom," Winkler says. "When he is entertained, it stays in," the veteran actor says of Berg's openness to improvisation. "And when he's not, with great respect, he sets you back on course.

"I've been doing this a very long time. I was 27 when I got the Fonz; I was 72 when I got Gene Cousineau," continues Winkler, who won his first Emmy at last year's awards. "In my speech, it was not a joke when I said, 'If you have a chance to work with these two, run. Don't walk.'"

The successful partnership between Berg and Hader was, as Berg sees it, a long time coming. "I was always jealous of Larry David — that he had a guy like Jerry Seinfeld to work with. I'd watch that relationship between the two of them, how they were opposites in a lot of ways, but complemented each other." As in any relationship, Berg and Hader have had to learn how to settle disagreements.

"We're always pretty respectful of each other," Hader says. "Sometimes it will get heated, but that's usually when we're both tired or one of us feels like the matter's been solved — and then a day or two later it's brought up again. That's when it's like a marriage," he says, laughing.

"The worst it gets is just tense silence. I'm sure in the writers' room they're like, 'Bill and Alec are fighting.' But we're not — we're just thinking — and the tension comes from wanting to get it right."

Or, as Berg might put it, not get it wrong.

"The pilot for Barry is the first thing I had ever directed," Hader continues. "I told Alec when we were on set, '[Directing] is what I've always wanted to do, since I was really young.' And he went, 'Oh. Cool.' In an Alec way.

"And then when we wrapped, he gave me this really beautiful viewfinder, with a phrase in Latin that translates to something like, 'Persistence will lead to your dreams.'"

A fitting gift from Berg, whose own persistence led him to memorize comedy albums as a child, attend an Ivy League school, cold-call everyone he knew to get meetings, prepare for those meetings with a "massive overkill" of pitches and accrue 18 Emmy nominations… so far.

Yet it was only recently, while filming a scene for Barry, that Berg was finally able to say, "For the first time as a director, I was comfortable enough to actually take a pause and enjoy the moment."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2019

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