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In conversation with Bill Hader and Alec Berg

Co-creators of HBO’s latest comedy “Barry” discuss writing process, inspirations for the show

<p>HBO’s latest 30-minute Sunday night drama — “Barry” — stars Bill Hader as the titular Barry.</p>

HBO’s latest 30-minute Sunday night drama — “Barry” — stars Bill Hader as the titular Barry.

HBO’s latest 30-minute Sunday night drama — “Barry” — stars Bill Hader as the titular Barry, a hitman who wants to get out of the killing business and into the acting business. On a trip to Los Angeles to carry out a hit for the Chechen mob, Barry ends up in Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler) acting class and decides his true passion is acting — not the ideal career for a criminal trying to fly under the radar. 

As funny as the premise sounds, the comedy has some seriously dark undertones. Barry is deeply disturbed by his line of work, though he tries not to show it, and struggles with depression. His career as a hitman is not one of glamorous, dramatic violence. It’s a sad, brutal world Barry desperately wants to escape — but his acting skills still need serious work if he wants to quit his day job. The reluctant hitman is a trope some may have seen before, but “Barry’s” almost uncomfortably realistic approach to the subject matter, coupled with its incredibly clever brand of humor, makes it a refreshing and worthwhile new take. 

The Cavalier Daily, along with journalists from several other college publications, got a chance to speak with Hader and Alec Berg — the show’s co-creator and director, previously of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — about the show. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

The Cavalier Daily: Bill, on the show your character is a complete beginner to acting; he’s never acted before. Can you talk about the experience of playing a ‘bad’ actor, and trying to hit that mark?

Bill Hader: I watched a lot of true crime shows, because the reenactments on true crime shows are pretty bad, so that was helpful. But mostly it’s just thinking about what the reality of that would be and not thinking too much about the comedy, and it kind of works. When you push the comedy it starts to feel like you’re reaching for something that might not be there. So if you just have him read his lines — like I think for Barry, acting to him is when you would go around class in junior high and read out paragraphs of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” like that’s acting to him, just a speech class. You try to play the reality of it.

Ink Magazine: In Hollywood there’s a tendency to be excessive when depicting gun violence in dramas, in action and even in comedy. With the seemingly continuous onslaught of mass shootings, do you think, as prominent comedy writers in pop culture, that you have any responsibility in influencing the audience’s perspective on guns?

BH: Well the nice thing was that the story for “Barry” was this guy who kills people, and we had seen those stories a lot, where it’s like the hitman who doesn’t like his life. And it always treats the violence in kind of a glib manner, or it’s like the violence has to be funny because you want to keep the tone that way. But I feel like with this show kind of instinctively Alec and I both hate violence, and as you said it is prominent in the world right now, especially gun violence, and it’s a world that [Barry] doesn’t want to be in. So portraying it just for what it is helps story purposes but also helps us portray a thing the way that we feel about it, which is that it’s very sad and brutal and demoralizing. And so it kind of was about this character who is a product of all this stuff, and he’s not wanting to be that anymore, so the answer was just showing it for what it is.

Alec Berg: I think the way we shot a lot of the violence is almost like it’s security camera footage, where it just is without slow motion and close-ups and making it look cool. It should seem sad and horrifying and uncomfortable because that’s what it is. And so with the idea of glamorizing it, we wanted to do the opposite. In the pilot there’s a scene where Barry shoots at some guys, and that just happens in one wide shot.

BH: I think in an action movie he would’ve shot and it would’ve cut inside the car, and you would’ve seen those guys get shot, and it would've been this rad thing of Barry shooting these guys in slow motion, seeing the shells being ejected, kind of fetishizing it, which as I’ve gotten older I find weirdly inappropriate.

Washington Square News: What drew you guys to working together?

BH: Money. [laughs] No, we had a mutual agent that said, ‘Oh, you guys should work together.’ And then Alec had a deal at HBO, and I had a development deal at HBO, and when I had my meeting and they asked who I wanted to work with, I said Alec Berg seems pretty cool.

AB: And he was right.

BH: And they said, Alec has another show called “Silicon Valley,” but I’m sure he’s free to come up with another show. And so that’s what happened. And we broke Alec’s brain.

AB: It was pretty broken to begin with.

The Maneater: I read that you based your character on the anxiety that you felt working at “SNL” and performing live every week. So I’m curious how much of the show is inspired by your life and your own experiences, and how much of it is fictional.

BH: I think it’s more the emotion of it, the emotion of, I find myself on “SNL,” I’m good at doing impressions and voices, which is just an ability that I had growing up that I didn’t even work on. Everyone in my family does it, my sister, my kids, it’s just in the Hader genes to do voices and be stupid. And “SNL” is the only place on the planet where you can get paid really well — or, okay — to do that. But the problem was that was on live television and I just didn’t have the mental power. It just wasn't good for me mentally or physically, I got very anxious doing the show. So it was based on that, like Barry’s good at killing, but it’s destroying his soul because it’s awful. And Alec and I were talking about it and thought, conversely he should do something he’s bad at. Which I think is also something I see in life, someone trying so hard to do something, but it doesn’t come to them naturally. Like they’re an OK guitar player, but I wouldn’t put all your eggs in the band basket just yet, you know? The other thing was the community of the acting class, especially in that first episode when he’s at the table with everybody, that to me felt very much like when I first got on “SNL” when I so badly wanted to be in a community of people. Just looking around and, ‘Oh my God that’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers.’ All these people were on the cast when I started and I just was like, how do I stay here because I know it’ll enrich my life. Those are the things I related to. But I’ve never killed anybody.

AB: That’s the trick of writing a show is you find something that’s just a super true, relatable human emotion, and as long as that emotion is real and the situation is real, you can put that other stuff on top of it, and people relate to it because the underlying story is true and real. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve never killed somebody or whatever.

The Cavalier Daily: Alec, I know a lot of the shows you’ve worked on have been more classic sitcoms, or day-in-the-life stuff, like “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But then with “Silicon Valley,” you’ve worked with longer plot arcs, and a bit more drama. What sort of balance do you see between those two sides with “Barry” going forward?

AB: “Silicon Valley” is much more serialized — with “Seinfeld,” you could watch the episodes in any order. And “Curb” was kind of the same way, in any given season, if we did 10 episodes, six of them were standalone episodes you could watch in any order, and four of them advanced the overall arc. But “Silicon Valley” you have to watch them all in order, and “Barry” is exactly the same thing. I don’t think we viewed it as eight individual episodes, we kept looking at the whole thing as this is one eight-episode long story.

BH: Yeah, we look at the season that way … it helps to have the whole season in front of you and look at it as one thing. You come up with an idea in episode three and see if that can kind of trickle through the rest of the season. And sometimes, you get an idea and think it’s cool, but then it sort of dies after an episode, so do we want to do that, or this other idea, and oh, that has legs, that makes more sense. So that’s helpful as opposed to writing episode by episode and not knowing where you’re going.

AB: Because we’re on HBO and the seasons are shorter — going back to “Seinfeld,” we were doing 24 episodes a year of that show. You can’t write all 24 before you shoot them, so the network TV game was insane. You’re shooting episode three while you’re writing episodes seven, eight and nine, and you’re editing shows one and two. You’re working on 10 or 12 different episodes in the span of a day, but you have absolutely no idea what episode nine is when you start shooting episode one. So you have to approach it as a little more episodic in nature. Because, at HBO, we do eight or 10 episodes in a year, you can ideally at least have a strong idea of what all the episodes are when you’re shooting.

Ink Magazine: You’ve talked before about the dichotomy between the hitman and the aspiring actor, can you expand on that a little bit?

AB: One thing we landed on as we were writing is that as far as Barry is concerned, the crime world — the stakes are very high — but Barry has no dramatic pretensions about crime. He doesn’t get twisted up, he doesn’t get freaked out by it, killing people is boring. Whereas in the acting world, the stakes really couldn’t be lower, but he’s so much more nervous about whether he can perform in this acting class than whether he’s going to get shot to death or not. We thought that was an interesting twist that he’s much less concerned about getting shot at than getting a bad review. 

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