When Bill Hader told TV dynamo Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Silicon Valley) that he wanted to make a show about a hitman, Berg thought the genre was glib and played out, but they got to work. When Hader told HBO he wanted to play the hitman, they responded with, "You?"
Yes, him. Hader has delivered another indelible comic character into our lives through Barry. This time it’s someone who kills for a living but seeks an escape from all the low-drama, high-violence world in the high-drama, low-violence world of acting class. The show is an incredible feat of tonal balance that’s equally comfortable going for humor and heartache; it's something truly fresh and original, even by prestige TV standards.
Here are 10 facts about the humane hitman show, which just earned six Emmy nominations, including nods for Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Hader.
1. BILL HADER PITCHED IT AS TAXI DRIVER MEETS WAITING FOR GUFFMAN.
Barry Berkman isn’t exactly as terrifyingly manic as Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, but the classic Robert De Niro character was one of their launch points for the show as they sold it to HBO. Hader asked them to consider Barry as the story of Bickle or William Munny from Unforgiven meeting the awkwardly uproarious local acting troupe in Waiting for Guffman. After bringing it to life, the comparison is spot-on. Barry’s job is intense and filled with blood, and his hobby is filled with the pathetic dreamers of his acting class.
2. THEY ALSO DREW INSPIRATION FROM FARGO and BOOGIE NIGHTS.
Barry’s tone is a tough magic trick to pull off. Few TV shows and movies have so flawlessly bounced between morbid gut punches and silly comedic escapades. While the Coen brothers are legendary for diving between tones, particularly with the bleakly comic Fargo, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s '70s porn narrative Boogie Nights is a bit more abstract and dreamlike in its shifts between the two drama masks, Hader and Berg looked to those two movies to understand how to make us drop our jaws right before (or after) making us laugh.
3. THEY COMPLETELY RESHOT EVERY SCENE WITH FUCHES IN THE PILOT.
Barry’s exploitative father figure Fuches (Stephen Root) was originally an antagonistic bruiser who yelled at Barry a lot. HBO suggested they should instead be friends, which clicked with Hader, and they reshot all of Fuches’s scenes to play off the new dynamic. They also rewrote and reshot Barry’s monologue to Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) about his life as a killer, so Hader’s speech was shot almost a year after Winkler’s reaction shots to it.
4. BARRY’S ANXIETY ABOUT KILLING PEOPLE MIRRORS HADER’S FEARS ABOUT SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.
The key to Barry is that he’s very good at something that’s bad for him. The same went for Hader, who experienced intense anguish and stage fright. “I had very bad anxiety about being onstage. I also didn’t like the live aspect of the show,” Hader told Vulture. Not exactly the best situation for a guy on a show with “Live” right there in the title. He was one of the best on SNL, but it was hurting him.
5. BUT SNL PREPARED HADER TO MAKE HIS OWN SHOW WITHOUT HIM KNOWING IT.
After shooting Barry, it dawned on Hader that his time at the sketch comedy mainstay had quietly prepared him for every aspect of production. He’d already learned how to collaborate with costume designers, set designers, directors of photography, and other crew members by doing it every week for eight seasons on Saturday Night Live. “You don’t realize how much you’ve learned until you’re done,” Hader said.
6. HADER’S TIME ON INSIDE OUT AFFECTED HOW HE APPROACHED THE STORY.
The flipside to Barry’s unhealthy skillset is his escapist desire to dive deep into a world he doesn’t have much talent for. That’s an existential collision that brings about massive change, so naturally Hader turned to a movie about the personified emotions in a little girl’s head for inspiration. Hader voiced Fear for Pixar's Inside Out, and Pete Docter’s original pitch—how his daughter transformed from a joyful child to a sullen teenager—really stuck with Hader, who approached writing Barry not by starting from the joke, but by considering each character’s emotion.
7. THEY DON’T WANT TO GLAMORIZE VIOLENCE.
“[Berg and I] like action movies, but people getting murdered is terrible,” Hader told GQ. That’s a core ethos for the way they shoot and edit the necessary violence for a story about a guy who kills for a living. Those scenes don’t feature slow motion or swelling scores or intense looks. They’re usually hauntingly matter-of-fact, leaving audiences with an uneasy, gruesome feeling, and even the villains of the show are depicted as human beings with children’s toys scattered across their living rooms while the only character who loves violence (Dale Pavinski’s cocaine-fueled Taylor) is portrayed as a profoundly idiotic buffoon.
8. BARRY’S NOT THE ONLY CHARACTER LIVING A DOUBLE LIFE.
One of the show’s slyest tricks is making us focus on whether one of Barry’s lives will ruin the other while quietly filling the cast with characters who all have double lives. Sarah Goldberg, who plays wannabe actor Sally, wisely pointed this out: “Everybody in the show is pretty desperate for something, desperate for change, desperate to get out of their situation, and everyone’s living these double lives.” Gene is king while teaching his acting class, but a schmo crossing his fingers at a hopeless commercial audition. Sally and the other students live partially in a dream world of stardom but then return to their real jobs. Detective Moss (Paula Newsome) is a principled cop willing to sacrifice it for happiness with Gene.
9. ONE SCENE ACTUALLY DISTURBED THE GUY WHO CRAFTED GAME OF THRONES'S RED WEDDING.
Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff is friends with Berg, so they screened the episode “Make the Unsafe Choice” for him. The episode includes Barry slowly strangling a man who gasps and flops and says, “You don’t have to do this,” in Spanish. Barry says, “Yeah, I guess not,” then kills him anyway. The scene’s intensity caused Benioff to respond with a single curse word because he found it so dark. When you’ve shocked the guy who wrote the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, you know you’ve got something.
10. SARAH GOLDBERG INITIALLY THOUGHT THE SEXUAL HARASSMENT SCENE WAS A BIT TOO OVER-THE-TOP.
Sally’s dream of stardom is spoiled in a late episode when the manager who has taken her on provisionally tells her that he wants to have sex with her. It’s a slimy moment, and Sally is taken so off-guard that she ends up apologizing to him for making the situation awkward. “When I first read it, I thought, ‘Is it a little much that he says he wants to f**k her?’” Goldberg recalled. “And now it’s like, 'Jesus, we could’ve gone further. That’s the PG-13 version compared to the horrible stories we’ve all read.'"