Genre: TV pilot (comedy)
Premise: A low-level hitman heads to LA for his latest job, only to inadvertently befriend his target, an aspiring actor.
About: Today’s script was written by SNL vet, Bill Hader, and Silicon Valley producer, Alec Berg. Whereas Netflix has embraced the “throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks” strategy, HBO still has to slot shows into a proper schedule, and is therefore more discerning about what they air. It’s for this reason that they still have the edge over Netflix. It’s also why, when something gets an official commitment from the network, you know it’s beaten out a ton of other quality material (last I heard, HBO had something like 100 projects in active development).
Writers: Alec Berg & Bill Hader
Details: 36 pages (Third Draft)
Since yesterday’s script was the antithesis of funny, I spent the last 24 hours on a comedy script hunt, a laugh-quest, if you will. After traversing many of Los Angeles’ landmarks – Randy’s Donuts, Rodeo Drive, the Capital Records building, I met a sinewy little fellow who called himself “Maurice Bubblestilskin the III.” “Psst,” he said to me, while I tried to hail a Lyft. “Psssssst!” he said again. And from under his cape, he passed me this, “Barry.” ‘Best project HBO’s got going for it,” he assured me, before slipping back into his tent and screaming at himself for 5 minutes. And that’s how I came across Barry.
Hitman-Comedy is a sub-genre with a lot of history behind it, and that’s because, like all good comedy, it’s built on top of some heavy irony – A comedy… about killing people. I’m surprised we don’t yet have the definitive hitman comedy. Could there be some flaw in the concept that keeps these scripts from being great? I’m sure we’ll find out. Grab my hand and hop in my Scriptshadow canoe while I paddle you through Barry’s plot.
Barry is lonely. But WAY worse than that, he lives in Cleveland. If there is a more hideous fate than being lonely in Cleveland, I don’t know what it is. The only time Barry has anything to do is when he’s on the job. Barry is a hitman, you see. He’s paid to kill people.
Barry has a Charlie’s Angel’s disembodied boss named Fuches who calls Barry whenever he’s got a job for him. And Fuches has a new target in Los Angeles. If Cleveland is our idea of hell, Los Angeles is Barry’s. Barry begrudgingly flies to LA, where he’s introduced to a medium-grade Chechen crime boss named Goran Pazer. Pazer is pissed because some trainer named Ryan Madison is fucking his wife.
Pazer has hired Barry because he can’t have his fingerprints on the murder. And it’s a fairly simple job. Ryan is a nobody trainer. So, theoretically, all Barry has to do is wait until he gets home and put a bullet in his head. But Barry makes the mistake of following Ryan to an acting class (yup, it’s LA, so Ryan is also an actor!). And after being lured into the class by a beautiful young actress, Barry bumps into Ryan, who assumes he’s a fellow actor, and asks Barry to do a scene with him.
Barry does the scene with Ryan, likes it, and is then pulled out for drinks with the acting class. Being such a lonely guy, this is an exhilarating experience for Barry. But now he has a dilemma. He has to decide if he’s going to kill his new buddy, Ryan, or wiggle out of his contract and pursue his new dream – ACTING! Unfortunately, Barry’s hand is forced when the Chechens step in and take care of Ryan on their own. The plan is to kill Barry next, but Barry kills them first. And that’s how Barry finds himself an aspiring actor in LA… with the Chechen mob after him.
I want to take this opportunity to reiterate a great screenwriting device that works every time you do it. It’s mostly a comedy thing but you can use it in any genre. It’s called the “Mid-Scene Twist,” and the structure behind it is quite simple. You make the audience believe the scene is one way. Then, at the midpoint, you reveal that it’s something completely different.
We open on Barry, washing up in his bathroom, getting ready for the day. He looks at himself in one of those, “What the hell am I doing with my life?” ways. He plucks a gray hair, frowns, straightens up, then walks out. As he walks through his apartment, we notice… GUN HOLES IN THE WINDOW? Oh, and then there’s a murdered dude on the floor. This isn’t Barry’s apartment. No, Barry is a hitman, and he’s just finished a job.
In this case, the mid-scene twist was subtle. But it’s a lot more interesting than say, showing the hit. We’ve seen hits before. Hell, I think every single movie in history has a hit. So to start with a mid-scene twist was a much stronger choice.
A more aggressive form of the Mid-Scene Twist came at the beginning of an, unfortunately, terrible movie – Snatched (that Amy Schumer Goldie Hawn jungle flick). But it was a good scene!
In it, Amy’s character is at a clothing store, picking up dresses to try on, excitedly telling the employee helping her about the amazing vacation she’s about to go on with her fiancee. The employee seems a bit overwhelmed as Amy continues to grab new articles of clothing and gab away.
Finally, when the employee can get a word in edgewise, she says, “So are you going to set me up with a fitting room?” And we realize that it’s actually AMY who is the employee, and the other girl the customer. Amy then becomes defensive, frustrated that this woman isn’t appreciating her upcoming vacation, and the two eventually go their separate ways. It’s a simple premise, the mid-scene twist, but very effective when done well.
Start us off one way. Twist it into something else. Usually the opposite of what we assumed.
As for the rest of Barry, it was good. It was a little different. More importantly, it was unexpected. And this is where all the amateur writers screw it up. Because I know the amateur version of this script. I’ve read it a million times. Barry has to kill a guy. He goes over to the house. But, oh no, ZOINKS, the guy shows up with the wife he’s fucking! And the only place for Barry to hide is… ZOINKS!… UNDER THE BED! So he has to hide under the bed while the two have sex! Oh the shenanigans! Oh how the hilarity is ensuing!
NO NO NONO ONONONOONNOONONOON
If you write that version of the script, you are a failure as a writer. I’m not kidding. Your job as a screenwriter IS TO GIVE US THE UNEXPECTED. If you give us what we expect, why would anyone pay you? If they want the version everyone expects, they write it themselves. They pay you to come up with unexpected complications and obstacles that keep the story fresh.
And that’s exactly what happens here. I never thought in a million years that Barry would get drawn into an acting class, and start to like acting, and start to like a girl in class, and wonder if he wants to move to LA, and kill the guys who hired him instead of the guy he was supposed to kill. I didn’t expect any of that. And so, even if I don’t like what the writer did with the story, I acknowledge that he gave me something unique.
Now, as it so happens, I did like what the writers did here. My only issue is with “Barry” is Barry himself. He’s such a quiet character. Quiet characters are hard to make interesting. And to build an entire show around a quiet character is more challenging than they may be anticipating. But I was still intrigued by what Barry would do next. That’s a sign that I’m connecting with the character.
We’ll see what happens once this hits the air. Im predicting, at the very least, a multiple-season pick-up.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When writing TV shows, think about character advancement. Where are they in their career now and is there opportunity for them to move up over time? Because that’s where you’re going to find your Season 2, Season 3, Season 4, is in the character advancing in their career. Breaking Bad is the most obvious example of this. He’s a small time drug dealer at the beginning. Then, by the end, he becomes a major force in the meth business. Here, Barry is a low-level hitman. So there’s lots of room for him to move up the ladder.