Before he arrived at HBO and began changing the way Americans spend their Sunday evenings, Chris Albrecht was a standup comic. But while it’s tempting to say that TV’s gain was comedy’s loss, apparently comedy didn’t lose much.
“He was destined to become one of the kings of television,” says Paramount Pictures chief and longtime friend Brad Grey. “But he had an inauspicious career, I think, in standup.”
Indeed, Albrecht has done far more for comedy—and for drama, for that matter—since quitting the stage. As HBO’s head of original programming and now as its CEO/chairman, he has drawn on his background as a performer and the relationships he forged later as a talent agent to make the premium cable channel a creative powerhouse. In the process, he has helped set the standard for daring and provocative entertainment programming on TV, with shows like The Sopranos, Angels in America, Deadwood and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Since 1995, HBO has won an amazing 233 Emmy Awards.
A native of Queens, N.Y., Albrecht decided to go into show business only after his dream of West Point and a military career foundered in disillusionment over the Vietnam War.
After studying dramatic literature at Hofstra University, on Long Island, and performing in two seasons of summer stock, Albrecht moved to New York City, in 1973, to become an actor. “I didn’t have any great passion for it,” he says. “But I didn’t have any better ideas.”
Along with Bob Zmuda, a friend from summer stock, Albrecht jumped into the New York comedy scene at Budd Friedman’s Improvisation club as a way to “showcase our skills as actors—as if we had skills as actors.” Their prop-comedy act went nowhere, but Albrecht thrived in a comic milieu that included comers like Andy Kaufman, Joe Piscopo and Keenan Ivory Wayans.
Albrecht began managing the Improv while Friedman was away, and in 1975, he became a partner. He also began scouting talent for ABC, arranging standup showcases for network executives seeking the next Jimmy Walker.
Albrecht moved to California to manage the Los Angeles Improv in 1978. There, he met Charles Joffe, who managed Woody Allen and Robin Williams, among others. Encouraged by Joffe to become a talent agent, Albrecht joined International Creative Management (ICM) in 1980.
He set about signing many of his old comedy cohorts, including Piscopo and Wayans, as well as Jim Carrey, Dana Carvey and Billy Crystal. “It was a chance to use that language I’d learned to converse with them and [share] my perspective on comedy,” he says, though he confesses that he was “not good at arguing about money.”
It was those comedy connections that appealed to HBO, which persuaded him to join as senior VP of original programming on the West Coast in 1985. His first big project was a collaboration with his old friend Zmuda, who proposed a comedy version of USA for Africa, the music-industry initiative that raised money for impoverished Africans.
The result was 1986’s Comic Relief, a comedy revue/telethon to fight homelessness in the U.S., hosted by Williams, Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. HBO unscrambled its signal for wider viewership and raised $2.6
Albrecht credits then-Chairman Michael Fuchs with initiating HBO’s transformation from an “occasional-use medium,” devoted primarily to movies, into a more ambitious original programmer. In 1990, Albrecht started HBO Independent Productions to create comedy series both for HBO and for broadcast networks, including Roc and Down the Shore for Fox. The channel soon scored a breakout hit with the sitcom sendup of late-night TV, The Larry Sanders Show.
In 1995, Albrecht became president of original programming. Working closely with new CEO Jeff Bewkes, he spent the next several years broadening Fuchs’ vision with ambitious—and expensive—programs under a new slogan: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”
“It was really Chris who expanded the depth and range of original programming at HBO,” says Bewkes, who is now president/COO of HBO’s parent company, Time Warner. “He took it from 'Let’s do what the networks aren’t doing’ to 'Let’s do what we want to do—in our own voice.’”
Marveling at the “improbable” roster of talent that Albrecht brought to the channel—Tom Fontana on prison drama Oz, Larry David on comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, Steven Spielberg on World War II series Band of Brothers—Bewkes also praises his “dynamic understanding of the business ramifications.”
“Chris can very much take responsibility for making choices of creative preference,” he says. “But he’s also quite conversant with business mathematics.”
Grey, who has worked with Albrecht as a producer on Larry Sanders, The Sopranos and current-affairs program Real Time With Bill Maher, echoes that appraisal:“Chris is unusual in that he speaks a couple of languages. He understands not only the 'show,’ but he also understands the business.”
Since becoming CEO/chairman in 2002, Albrecht has kept HBO’s focus on programming that “no one else does,” including renewing critically adored but ratings-challenged The Wire and developing a Tom Hanks- produced miniseries on U.S. President John Adams.
Although his new perch demands greater attention to HBO’s business development, he still works closely with his original-programming team—though perhaps not without a tinge of nostalgia for being more creatively involved.
“Sitting in rooms with your colleagues and these great writer/producers? Looking at three cuts instead of the final one?” he laughs. “My old job was a lot more fun.”