How to Write Comedy like a Bald Jerk: Larry David's Creative Process Breakdown
What its like to write for Larry David
The INSIDER Summary:
- Alec Berg joined "Seinfeld" as a writer in 1994.
- Larry David didn't "savor" Berg's first script for the show. He skimmed it.
- David taught Berg that the most important part of a comedy TV script is "what happens."
- In David's later show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" all writers wrote is "what happens."
Alec Berg has had an incredible career. He wrote for Seinfeld for four years. He made a few movies. He wrote for "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Now he's a showrunner for HBO's "Silicon Valley," which is in its fourth season.
Berg is a star, which is why we just had him on our podcast Showrunners. (Subscribe, please!)
But Berg wasn't always such an established veteran.
Back in 1994, Berg joined "Seinfeld" as a relatively junior sitcom writer. The show was already a massive hit by then, so Berg felt a lot of pressure to get his first episode right. He and his writing partner Jeff Shaffer spent days carefully crafting every line, word, and nuance of it. Finally, they finished. It was the episode where Jerry dates a Romanian gymnast.
They delivered the script to Larry David, the co-creator of "Seinfeld." David was walking to rehearsal. Berg and Schaffer followed him, curious to watch the genius read their work.
"I wanted to see his face. I wanted to see how he would react," Berg told INSIDER during an interview for this week's episode of our podcast, Showrunners.
What David did shocked Berg and Schaffer.
Rather than find a chair to sit in so that he could lean back and savor every word of their script, David licked his right thumb and flipped through the script like he was scanning a menu. He read the whole thing in about two minutes.
Seeing this, Berg thought:What's he doing?!? He's not savoring our gems!
Today, Berg will tell you that he knows what David was doing. He was teaching Berg how to write.
"Having done this for 25 years," says Berg, "I realize now what he was doing." David was reading the script to see "what happens" in the episode.
It was a great lesson for Berg. When you're writing for TV, forget the clever dialogue - forget your "gems" - what matters is the story of the episode. What matters is "what happens."
When Berg later went to work for David again on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" this lesson was reinforced even more.
"On Curb we didn't even write dialogue really," Berg says. "We just wrote an outline that was just the structure —what happens."
"There's a few jokes in it, but the story itself on those shows is the comedy."
"It's not here's this boring morality play and there are jokes on top of it."
"If you go back to your favorite Seinfeld episodes, they're all the one where this happens, or the one where that happens. The 'what happens' is the comedy, as opposed to it's a straight story with comedy put on top."
These days, if Berg is having a hard time writing a script, he goes back to these basics.
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