Alec Berg, writer, director and executive producer of HBO’s Silicon Valley, was hooked on comedy from a young age.
“I was definitely a huge comedy nerd,” says Berg. “When other kids were listening to bands, I was listening to Cosby and Steve Martin and Bob Newhart and George Carlin.”
When Berg attended Harvard University, it became clear a career in the entertainment business was not far behind. Taking filmmaking classes and joining The Harvard Lampoon staff only affirmed his interest in writing.
While at the Lampoon, Berg met his longtime writing partner Jeff Schaffer (cocreator and executive producer of FXX’s The League). Berg and Schaffer moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and worked together as a team. Life in L.A. was not quite glamorous, as Berg describes his “flea-infested” apartment.
“I don’t know how I didn’t get scurvy or jaundice,” he recalls. “All I ate was 99-cent store-brand mac and cheese. Every once in a while I would get a can of peas or something like that so I could pretend I was having a green vegetable. “
After countless hours of writing and calling mentors for advice, Berg got his first break with Fox’s Great Scott!, starring Toby Maguire and run by Tom Gammill and Max Pross. “We wrote an episode, and I think it ended up being a 13-episode order,” he says. “ Then [the show] got cancelled while they were shooting the ninth episode, which happened to be ours.”
The Seinfeld Years
Following short stints at Herman’s Head and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Berg landed on Seinfeld. Pross and Gammill, who moved on to Seinfeld following Great Scott!’s cancellation, recommended Berg as a writer.
“They gave me my first job, and my first good job,” Berg says. “I sort of owe them my entire career twice. They were the first people who gave me a break and got me in the door.”
Berg says Larry David had a profound effect on his comedy writing. “Stories in traditional sitcoms are not hilarious. They tell these stock stories and lay jokes on top of them,” he says. “Larry David’s entire method of storytelling is very different from that. The story itself, what happens, has to be funny. That’s the comedy, which is one of the reasons I think Seinfeld has endured the way it has.”
Beyond that, Berg took notice of the storytelling morality that David and Jerry Seinfeld cultivated on the series.
“It used be that characters learned and apologized and promised to do better. The whole Seinfeld morality is characters would do things that were self-serving and petty,” says Berg. “And then they would get caught doing that, and rather than apologize and learn anything, they would lie about it and cover it up and do something else that got them in more trouble. At the end of the episode, everything would blow up in their faces. There were no happy endings. There were no hugs. There was no learning.…People go their entire lives without learning anything—I don’t know why they have to learn something in 22 minutes.”
Tip of the Tech Iceberg
Following several years of writing films including The Cat in the Hat and EuroTrip and the full run of David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Berg’s longtime agent, Sue Naegle, who at the time was at HBO, asked him to look at a pilot.
“It was one of those situations with [Silicon Valley], where it laid out very nicely in my brain,” says Berg. “I met Mike [Judge], and he had exactly the same sort of thoughts and ideas I did for where we would go from there.”
Despite the challenge of making a show about people who spend most of their days on computers, Berg felt the tech world was ripe for comedy. “It’s such an obvious premise for a show,” he says. “The tech world is full of unbelievably awkward engineer-type people who all of the sudden have billions of dollars and are authorized to act on whatever weird whim they have.”
To Silicon Valley coexecutive producer Dan O’Keefe, who also worked with Berg on Seinfeld, he has succeeded.
“The most salient feature with him is he is harder on his own work than anyone that I’ve met in my life,” says O’Keefe. “In terms of relentlessly pushing for quality, it’s a real advantage when you have someone who is just completely willing to throw out his own stuff if it doesn’t work.”
Throughout it all, Berg recalls a lesson he learned from his four years on Seinfeld.
“Jerry Seinfeld was an enormously inspirational guy,” Berg says. “His whole thing was just never ever worry about the money.…Just worry about the comedy and worry about making it good, and the rest of that stuff will happen. Hopefully, I’ve ended up not being all caught up in the deal. I’m much more interested in just making good stuff, and the rest of it will take care of itself.”