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Albrecht: Life on the edge

Jun 17, 2002  •  Post A Comment

During a recent panel discussion in Los Angeles, moderator Bill O’Reilly asked Chris Albrecht, president of original programming at HBO, what he would do if someone gave him $50 million and he could make any movie or TV show he wants.
“But I already have that job,” Albrecht quipped. Only it wasn’t really a joke. He does already have that job.
More than anyone else in TV, and probably including most of his colleagues at movie studios, Albrecht, 49, has a huge amount of autonomy to pursue his creative muse. Not only is everything original that’s on HBO approved and tweaked by him, most of it seems to have got on the air through personal relationships that Albrecht has maintained over the years with principals such as David Chase (“The Sopranos”), Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”), Bob Zmuda (“Comic Relief”), Darren Star (“Sex and the City”), Brad Grey (“The Larry Sanders Show”) and just about every other program producer who ever got an HBO green light.
In the process of putting on some of TV’s best programs, Albrecht has become one of the most influential people in Hollywood. Certainly Bob Wright thinks so.
It was a little more than a year ago when Mr. Wright, chairman and CEO of NBC, wrote his famous letter about HBO to various production companies, proving, at least, that the pay channel looms large in the minds of network programmers.
“I want you to help think about an issue that I believe is having a major impact on our business–the nature of the content in HBO’s `The Sopranos,”’ the letter read. “As you know, the show has been widely acclaimed by media critics and by opinion leaders in New York and Los Angeles. It has won a Peabody Award along with `West Wing’ and is AOL Time Warner’s premier show on HBO. All that said, it is a show we could not and would not air on NBC because of the violence, language and nudity.”
Many at HBO felt that by singling out the most violent episode of “The Sopranos,” Wright was attempting to explain and justify why his network didn’t have such epochal and riveting programming. Mr. Wright has said what particularly caught his attention about “The Sopranos” was its popularity. Unlike previous critically acclaimed HBO fare, such as “Larry Sanders,” “The Sopranos” has drawn a huge audience within HBO’s universe of 26 million subscribers. He was trying to get Hollywood’s creative community to tell him how NBC could air a “Sopranos”-type show.
At first, Albrecht felt the memo was an insult. Looking back at it now, though, he says, “It showed we were really doing well because these guys were paying so much attention to us.”
Aside: Next season, NBC has slated “Kingpin,” a violence-heavy, “Traffic”-like drug story, as a limited series to test both viewer and advertiser reaction.
Darren Star, the auteur and creator of “Sex and the City,” which is about to make its fifth-season debut on HBO, talks about a frank meeting he had with Jamie Tarses, the former ABC programmer, when the idea for his show was still in development.
“My question to her was, Could you even call it `Sex and the City’ on ABC?” Coming off a failed network project called “Central Park West,” Star was looking for a more compatible home, and he quickly found it with Albrecht and fellow programming executive Carolyn Strauss. “They told me they didn’t care about ratings,” definitely a shocker for Star, who was even more delighted when told that the show would have to film in New York and that his idea for a “single-camera film comedy” that would feel compatible with the movie fare on the network was just what Albrecht had in mind.
Moreover, the more time Star spent with Albrecht, the higher the comfort level. “He has a great sense of what’s funny; there’s a lot of comfort there. If Chris Albrecht thinks something is funny, you’re in good shape.”
Star says he sometimes socializes with Albrecht, finding him “fun to be around,” hardly the usual relationship between the “suits” and the “creatives.” Some of the relationships Albrecht has with talent and the creative side are so up close and personal that Albrecht sometimes becomes a character in his own program lineup. An episode of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” featured a top HBO programmer who was considering a pilot that David and Julia Louis-Dreyfus were pushing. During this process, David and the HBO programmer went to the same Chinese takeout place, mixed up their orders and switched them back again, only to find that the HBO guy had purloined some of David’s prawns. The pilot ended as David tried to get the HBO guy to admit he stole the shrimp.
The shrimp incident
OK, maybe the HBO programmer was drawn with him in mind, Albrecht confesses, “But I don’t steal shrimp!”
Even if the shrimp incident wasn’t real, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus angle actually was. The “Seinfeld” star was pitching “Watching Ellie” to HBO more or less at the same time “Curb” was taped. “Julia created the show with HBO in mind,” Albrecht says. “We were very much interested in doing it. But we were doing Larry David’s show at the same time and we felt that it would have gotten a little too close to Larry’s.”
A screenwriter friend sums it up: “Everybody creates their show with HBO in mind. There’s so much freedom there.” Not just freedom, but the format to create award-winning work. Albrecht quotes a review of “The Sopranos” that called the show “the most significant pop culture event of the last 25 years.” That sounds like more than just a TV show; it sounds like–and is–a sociological phenomenon.
Howard Rosenberg, TV critic at the Los Angeles Times, calls himself “an enormous fan of HBO and the inroads Albrecht has made. It’s like the buck stops at his desk. He’s the head [programming] guy. HBO is in a stratosphere of its own, and Albrecht deserves the main credit.”
Not all critics love everything HBO does. Its newest series, “The Wire,” has drawn mixed reviews since it debuted June 2. While Rosenberg is a fan of many current HBO series, he has excoriated the network for carrying programming such as “Def Comedy Jam,” which he believes is demeaning to women. Adam Buckman, TV critic at the New York Post, for example, says he’s “not on board with the HBO thing. Their position in the universe puzzles me. Nine times out of 10, there’s nothing on HBO.”
Buckman is in a minority, and there is the matter of those 16 Emmys that HBO won in November, the six Golden Globes in January and the two Academy Awards in March. According to a posting on the Web site of the Writers Guild of America, “Approximately 20 winners’ speeches at the 2000 Emmys included `Thank you, Chris Albrecht.”’ Howard Rosenberg is on the Peabody Board, and for the 61st set of awards for broadcast excellence, announced in March, he said, “If we’d wanted to, we could have given a Peabody to just about every HBO show submitted.” That’s praise.
Albrecht’s empathy for talent probably comes from the fact that unlike most other programming professionals, he was a performer himself. (OK, Les Moonves was an actor, but still, this isn’t the usual path to programming success.) A Long Island, N.Y., native, Albrecht got his entree to show business in the drama department of Hofstra University, graduating with a B.A. in dramatic literature. In 1970, Albrecht answered a casting call for a part in summer stock at the tiny Mansfield Summer Theater in Pennsylvania. The play was a melodrama called “The Drunkard,” and Bob Zmuda, who would go on to write and perform with Andy Kaufman, was cast as the lead.
Albrecht was then sporting a fashionable mop of curly hair and a Zapata mustache, “Sort of like Avery Schreiber” from the comedy team of Burns and Schreiber, Zmuda recalls.
Mistaken identity
Albrecht got a part–not as big as Zmuda’s–but they didn’t become friends until one night when the two attended a party. Zmuda remarked on a pretty girl in attendance, and Albrecht replied, “She is absolutely crazy about you. She saw you perform and was really impressed.” So Zmuda went over to talk to the girl, got an immediate cold shoulder
and realized that Albrecht had put him on. “It was an Andy Kaufman moment,” Zmuda remembers.
The two young men made it to New York City just as a long-forgotten show business character named Dick Scanga was starting up a new dinner theater in Manhattan called the Little Hippodrome. The lads got jobs there, not as performers but as waiters. After they got thrown out of their apartment, the two actually lived in one of the dressing rooms of the Little Hippodrome. When not at that theater, Albrecht and Zmuda were hanging out at the Improv in Hell’s Kitchen, the city’s first completely dedicated comedy club, just becoming a scene with then-unknown comics such as Kaufman, Elayne Boosler, Jay Leno, Gabe Kaplan, Richard Belzer, Richard Lewis and Joe Piscopo.
Somehow, Improv owner Budd Friedman got the mistaken impression that Zmuda and Albrecht were co-owners of the Little Hippodrome, an impression they let Friedman retain. Hearing that Friedman was going to visit the Hippodrome, they acted the part of club moguls during his visit. An impressed Friedman offered them a prime spot on the very next Saturday night. The only problem was the two weren’t comedians and had no act.
They quickly threw together a routine lamely titled “Albrecht and Zmuda–Comedy from A to Z.” “It was kind of a prop act, kind of vaudevilley,” Albrecht recalls. By the time they went on stage that night, they had worked out some parodies, such as a dead-on Albrecht imitation of Sy Sperling, the wooden owner of Hair Club for Men who was then appearing in a series of deadly commercials; and various wacky takes on “The Exorcist,” in theaters at the time. They would finish the act with Zmuda doing a sword-swallowing routine. Albrecht would pretend to jam the sword down Zmuda’s throat, fake blood would gush. Ba-Da-Bing.
After Albrecht and Zmuda tanked, Chris, only 22 at the time, took off for Europe. When he returned in 1975, he landed a job managing the Improv for Friedman. That graduated to co-ownership of the club and eventually a move West to run the L.A. version of the Improv in 1978. This immersion in the comedy business with key players was an invaluable factor in Albrecht’s later success. Albrecht hired people such as Larry David (always a difficult standup act) when they were struggling, and it was appreciated.
In late 1979, Albrecht sold his part of the Improv and started a five-year stint at ICM, where he is credited with signing Billy Crystal, Jim Carrey, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Whoopi Goldberg. In 1982, Bridget Potter, the first programming maven at HBO and a former head of prime time at ABC, made an unsuccessful try at luring Albrecht back to New York to produce specials for HBO, including the comedy specials that were some of the pay cable network’s first original programming. “HBO was a great place to sell comedy specials to,” Albrecht recalls. “It wasn’t a big part of our lives as agents. We were aware of the fact that you could get your comedy clients work there.”
Potter recalls that she met Albrecht while at ABC when she made a deal with the Improv to put together showcase nights. “I really liked him. He was very smart, very quick and very raw. He was so smart, but he knew only that little [comedy] world.”
Humble beginnings
In 1985, the determined Potter called again and made a pitch for Albrecht to take on a bigger job as head of West Coast programming at HBO. This time, the move seemed right. His first title was senior VP, original programming. To put this in perspective, look at the HBO of 1985 as a virtual tabula rasa. There were no series of note and few original movies. Cable basically reprogrammed network fare and movies at this stage. It was open for anything.
The seeds of original programming at the network had been planted in the early ’80s. Potter recalls that upon her arrival in 1982, two series–“The Hitchhiker” and “Not Necessarily the News”–were in development but not yet realized.
Potter astutely understood that Albrecht had the relationships that counted with the top comedians and actors of the ’80s and could move the network to the next level in original fare. “There’s something about his personality–people liked him,” says Zmuda.
Albrecht asked Zmuda for some ideas that would put HBO on the map. At the time, there wasn’t much of a community among comedians. Watch Tom Hanks’ “Punchline,” a scathing look at the comedy club scene, if you want to see enough fear and loathing to fill a Middle Eastern country. The two men were hanging out in Sherman Oaks, Calif., one day in 1985 when Zmuda proposed, “How would HBO like a Live Aid of comedy?”
Albrecht knew Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg from ICM, and the three became the first hosts of “Comic Relief,” a benefit for the homeless. Albrecht convened a meeting of agents and managers to get their approval. Many of them could relate to homelessness as a cause, having struggled themselves, and they signed on their acts. “Comic Relief,” which was shown unscrambled to all cable subscribers, helped convince potential subscribers and people in the business that HBO was important.
Starting in the late 1980s with such shows as the ongoing serial “Tanner ’88” with Michael Murphy, about a political candidate running in the presidential election while the actual election was taking place that year, Albrecht has been instrumental in developing ideas that stretched what networks were allowed to do.
HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” which ran from 1992-98, is a case in point. The scathing, self-loathing look at a network talk show, while hardly a cultural phenomenon such as “The Sopranos” or “Six Feet Under,” established certain HBO guidelines that Albrecht has followed since. The show was provocative, used questionable language and was true to life as well as funny; it wasn’t anything like network sitcoms of the period.
Then-CEO of HBO Michael Fuchs put “Larry Sanders” on the air partly because he was a friend of the show’s star, Garry Shandling. “But Michael wasn’t interested in doing more series,” Albrecht recalls. “He was thinking that we were really a monthly subscription service,” and that meant movies were the main fare. When Jeff Bewkes became CEO in 1995, that changed fast. Perhaps modestly, perhaps truthfully, Albrecht says his major move into creating memorable series was at least partly Bewkes’ idea. “I was just following Jeff’s lead,” he says.
Albrecht credits “Oz,” the sometimes outrageous prison drama, as one of the first true breakthrough shows for the network. As he recalls it, when series creator Tom Fontana proposed the show six seasons ago, HBO had never done a dramatic series. The network wasn’t totally comfortable with the concept, so Albrecht simply said, “Why don’t we give Tom $1 million to produce a 20-minute pilot?” The result was as gritty as the show has become, and Albrecht knew it would stand out.
Virtually every HBO producer points to Albrecht and his attention to veracity and detail as the reason they’re working with the network. “The Sopranos” wouldn’t be on HBO if Albrecht hadn’t insisted on filming the show in New Jersey. With “Oz” shooting in Bayonne, HBO now shoots more series in New Jersey than the rest of the networks combined. The New Jersey Motion Picture & TV Commission should give Albrecht an award.
From its fairly humble beginnings, HBO is now spending more than the broadcast networks to produce episodes of its series, and its shows have become such appointment-TV landmarks and its reruns are so popular that the network can get by with fewer episodes than its rivals. “Six Feet Under,” for example, costs more than $2 million per episode, higher than the industry norm for hour dramas. But “Six Feet Under,” like “The Sopranos,” isn’t a standard network drama. What other recent network show got an eight-page write-up in Newsweek?
The current HBO lineup relies heavily on Sunday night, with “The Sopranos” coming back, “Six Feet Under” and “America Undercover.” The strategy owes something to the manner in which Fox became a competitive net
work, one night at a time, but there’s something else at work as well. When Barry Diller and Co. were building Fox, they didn’t have the advantage of multiple cable networks to program. HBO fare is multiplexed on tier holders such as HBO Family and HBO Comedy; if you have the full package of channels, you can usually find an HBO show to watch. Even “Larry Sanders” is still running strong on two of these channels. While this can muddy the concept of what a network is all about, and continuity can go out the window, given all the reruns HBO airs, it means the shows are omnipresent and ubiquitous, even with only 13 episodes a season.
When he’s not putting on edgy shows, Albrecht is busy trying to save the planet, or at least the Santa Monica Mountains. He has been active in a coalition of Ventura County, Calif., and Los Angeles County community-based organizations called Rally for the Ranch. The coalition, spearheaded by Albrecht and Rob Reiner, is trying to stop Washington Mutual Bank from developing a big tract of land in the Simi Hills near the L.A. County line with 3,050 homes. The coalition recently appealed directly to Seattle consumers with complaints about the bank’s development practice.
Original programming now makes up about 40 percent of HBO’s schedule, double what it was before Bewkes took over in 1995. Though parent company AOL Time Warner is currently the whipping boy of Wall Street, because HBO has been so successful, its top executives are sometimes mentioned as possible candidates for corporate advancement, and Business Week opined in January that Bewkes “is likely to ascend into the executive ranks of the parent company.” Where that would leave Albrecht is an interesting question, but most think he will find a way to continue bringing creative programming to HBO, one way or the other.