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COLUMN: Bill Hader, Alec Berg shed light on process behind their new HBO show "Barry"



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Bill Hader in HBO's "Barry." The show combines intellect and humor with darker themes as it follows a protagonist who struggles to find happiness and fulfillment. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

“Barry” is Bill Hader’s hilarious and dark new HBO comedy. It is about a hitman who tries to leave his violent world behind to become an actor in Los Angeles. Hader plays the titular role in addition to co-creating the show and directing its first three episodes.

It is clear from its first episodes that “Barry” is special. This show has a very precise tone that effortlessly walks the line from being very dark to very funny and back again. In addition, Hader gives an incredible performance that showcases his hidden talents for drama.  

Hader and “Barry” co-creator Alec Berg spoke to college journalists about their show’s development, structure and the benefits of having diverse voices in a writer’s room. 

Hader said that “Barry” grew out of his early days on “Saturday Night Live.” 

"I would have really bad panic attacks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to perform on live television," Hader said. 

The experience led Hader and Berg to exploring a story about someone whose greatest talent is ruining his life but tries to find salvation by doing something he cannot do well. 

Berg and Hader pitched "Barry" to HBO in 2014. Their pitch was darker than most comedies because it referenced violent films, such as “Unforgiven” and “Taxi Driver.” Berg also noted that “Boogie Nights” was a big influence on the show's tone because of its portrait of a community of people who are all deeply damaged.

One of the things that stands out about “Barry” is its tight structure. Every scene and joke moves the story forward to a conclusion that you can’t wait to reach.

“Sometimes you have to cut really good stuff because it messes with the show tonally," Berg said. 

One of the most relevant episodes of “Barry” features an agent trying to sexually manipulate an actress. But Hader and Berg said that episode was written before the scandals of 2017 and was based on something they had heard an agent say to an actress. 

Women’s experiences also shaped another crucial moment on a later episode of “Barry.” Berg and Hader had come up with a moment they thought could be romantic but their female writers thought was creepy. They wrote their reactions into the script.

Berg said that moment was a great argument for having diverse voices in a room.

Despite its dark themes, Hader noted that the set of "Barry" had a fun and familial atmosphere.  Berg and Hader often make audiences feel this joy as well, even as they explore ideas relating to success and the pursuit of happiness. This combination of humor and intellect makes “Barry” one of the most exciting comedies in years. 

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