Interview Date: Wednesday October 22, 2003
Interview Location: New York, NY USA
Interviewer: John Higgins
Collection: Hauser Collection
HIGGINS: We’re here with Chris Albrecht, Chairman and CEO of Home Box Office, which is a network which changed cable television in its earliest days and is working to change television as a whole in its later days. Chris, now you started out in this business… you were Carrot Top.
ALBRECHT: Back when I had hair.
HIGGINS: You were a prop comic. You were the lowest form of…
ALBRECHT: Of humanity.
HIGGINS: …stand up comic, weren’t you?
ALBRECHT: I was not only a prop comic, but I was a member of a prop comic team. So if there’s anything lower than a prop comic, it’s a prop comic team. I had to have somebody to carry the suitcase.
HIGGINS: Were you carrying the suitcase or were you…?
ALBRECHT: It depended on what night. One guy carried the suitcase, the other guy had to go and buy the jar of Vaseline and the banana from the convenience store – for two different sketches, but still an odd pair of things to have to buy together.
HIGGINS: A bad combination. That’s the embarrassing thing to get in the checkout line.
HIGGINS: You were with Bob Zmuda?
ALBRECHT: Bob Zmuda, yes, who later became Andy Kaufmann’s guru and was a character in Man on the Moon and is currently out there playing Tony Clifton, keeping Tony Clifton alive.
HIGGINS: What year was this and where was this?
ALBRECHT: 1973 and 1974, maybe into ’75, I’m not exactly sure. I try and block out those years.
HIGGINS: What was the good shtick? What was the great gag?
ALBRECHT: We did a lot of commercial parodies, movie parodies, song parodies; we were pretty big on parody.
HIGGINS: Like? Give us a good one?
ALBRECHT: Oh, there was this commercial that was on at the time about a hair replacement center and the guy would come out and say, “Hard to believe I’m bald?” So we did this thing where I would sit on Zmuda’s lap and he had his arms between me and he said, “Hard to believe I’m dead? I know it is.” It was just a… I guess you had to be there, John.
HIGGINS: Did it get ’em rockin’?
ALBRECHT: It got ’em rockin’. We, actually, were probably the only act to ever get thrown off stage at the Tripple Inn for obscenity, or as it’s called, ‘Ye Olde Tripple Inn’.
HIGGINS: Ye Olde Tripple Inn, yes. Oh, I’ve been there. They don’t have comedy there anymore.
ALBRECHT: They don’t? Well, there’s a reason for it.
HIGGINS: So the big act broke up.
ALBRECHT: The big act broke up. We played in a bunch of different places and it was very hard to make money as a comedian then because there really wasn’t a club circuit and in making money one of the things that we did was bartend and wait tables and help build an off-Broadway dinner theater on 56th Street that was called the Little Hippodrome and the guy that had put that together was a guy called Dick Skanga, who was a big general manager of Broadway shows and so when Bud Freeman who ran the Improvisation nightclub in New York wanted to go away on vacation for three weeks, he asked me if I’d manage the club for him. I needed the money and so I managed the club and I ended up running the club, becoming a partner in the club and moving on from there. So, having to make money is what kind of broke up the act, but Zmuda became a bartender at the Improv, so I never forgot my friends.
HIGGINS: Is he a bartender here today?
ALBRECHT: No, he’s not.
HIGGINS: So how did you go from waiter to manager? Was it just they could trust you with the keys and that made you manager?
ALBRECHT: I was never a waiter at the Improv, but because I had done so many things at this other place, the Little Hippodrome, and because Bud Freeman, who owned the Improv respected this guy Dick Skanga, who was a smart guy and up until he built this dinner theater a pretty good businessman, I think Bud thought that I was maybe somebody who could be trusted more than the noodle heads that normally hung out in the bar.
HIGGINS: You’ve never struck me particularly as a stand up comic. You don’t have a very zany demeanor. You actually kind of look more like one of the guys in The Sopranos.
ALBRECHT: Well, back then…
HIGGINS: That’s because the suits are good.
ALBRECHT: … I had a lot of hair and a mustache, and I was never particularly zany, but what Zmuda and I thought at the time was – actually it was Zmuda that brought me to the Improv and it was his idea that we put together an act – we were both pursuing acting careers and at that time stand up comedy was becoming an interesting entrée into acting. Freddy Prinze had just gotten a series coming out of the Improv, Jimmy Walker, Gabe Kaplan, so this was a new road to acting, fame and stardom and money. It was a good way to showcase ourselves and separate ourselves from the hundreds or thousands of other out of work actors that were trying to get auditions and get into showcases and getting agents and things like that. So, it was actually a means to an end. The end for me was never “I’m going to be on The Tonight Show,” although that would have been fun had it happened, but we were far away from that.
HIGGINS: So how did you graduate from the Improv? You were also… did you go to LA to run Catch?
ALBRECHT: No, I actually went to LA to run the Improv when Bud Freeman opened the club in Las Vegas in ’78. The club in LA wasn’t doing too great and he asked me to come out and run the club because he didn’t have anybody else to leave it to and the club in New York was running great by then. So I went out to LA in 1978 for about four months to run the club out there where I met a lot of the people who actually influenced my career, in particular a man named Jack Rollins and Charles Joffey. Actually, I met Jack in New York but Charles Joffey and Larry Bresner, Buddy Moore are guys who at that time were handling Billy Crystal and Robert Klein and Tony Bennett and Letterman.
HIGGINS: These guys are all managers, right?
ALBRECHT: Yeah, they’re all managers. And Robin, and Mork, I think, was just coming on the air about that time, Robin Williams. So, I met them out there and it really introduced me more to Hollywood and to the next road of my career. When I was the Improv in New York I also became a new talent consultant for ABC and met a lot of the executives certainly from the East Coast, but also the executives from the West Coast would come in and I would set up showcases for them of new talent either for development or for casting.
HIGGINS: So what did that mean? That you were picking comics that you thought that they should see and you would build a showcase for them?
ALBRECHT: Exactly, and I did that for probably about a year. That was in New York and then when I went out to LA and I came back to New York with this knowledge and taste for LA, Bud Freeman and his wife had gotten divorced, she moved back to New York to become my partner in the club, I figured it was time for me to move on. I actually wanted to join the Rollins Joffey firm, but they picked somebody who had more experience than I did and Joffey said to me, “You need to be an agent. You learn everything being an agent.” ICM, which was his agency, the agency that represented him and represented Woody Allen… they also represented Woody Allen, I should say, and they had just won the Academy Award for Annie Hall, they said, “You should go work at ICM and help find the next great slew of comedy talent for them.” So I met with ICM here in New York and then I met with ICM in LA because they said they job has to be in LA. They offered me a job and I sold out my share of the Improv and moved to LA in January 1980 to make $40,000 a year.
HIGGINS: Which wasn’t… I mean, I remember what I was making in 1980 and it wasn’t that good.
ALBRECHT: Well, I’m older than you, number one, and I was making more running the Improv, but that was the beginning of the change for me. That was when I really changed into the current stream, I guess, that I’m in, but the things that I learned at the Improv and a lot of the relationships that I made there, including a very important one which was the woman that ran ABC development here in New York was a woman named Bridget Potter and she’s the one that later actually brought me to HBO.
HIGGINS: So when you’re looking at a comic, what do you see in the good ones and the bad ones? How were you picking the ones that you thought were good?
ALBRECHT: Well, there were basically two different main areas. One was someone that had a real point of view in their comedy, and that person would be the person that would usually make me laugh more and might be a great writer, for instance; and then the person who was a great performer, and might not be such a great writer but they could sell their material.
HIGGINS: So, who were the great writers that you saw from that time?
ALBRECHT: Well, Larry David. Larry was a guy who we couldn’t put on in front of a big audience because he would drive people out of their seats, and my job as manger of the Improv was to keep people in their seats long enough to get as many comics on stage as possible, to sell as many drinks as possible and keep the club open ’til as close to 4:00 AM as possible because we were in business to…
HIGGINS: How did he drive people out of their seats?
ALBRECHT: His act just didn’t work and he lost patience with himself very quickly. Larry was famous for going up on stage and saying a couple of jokes, realize it wasn’t going anywhere, say something insulting to the audience, throwing his mike down, literally on the stage, and walking off. It’s pretty hard to follow that; it’s pretty hard to get the room back up from that.
HIGGINS: Larry David was the force behind Seinfeld and then Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO many years later.
ALBRECHT: Right. Yes.
HIGGINS: So did he just go then and be a writer and stay off stage?
ALBRECHT: Actually he didn’t. He went and he got a job on Friday’s, which was the ABC Saturday Night Live rip-off and I think one of the reasons he got that job was because the woman who ended up marrying one of the producers was an agent for William Morris here in New York and loved Larry and gave Larry the chance to be seen for that because he ordinarily wouldn’t have been seen for that, or if he would have been seen for it just type wise he wouldn’t have been probably considered. But he just… if you appreciated comedy, you appreciated Larry. On the other side of the coin, you had a guy, for instance let’s say Joe Piscopo, who was a terrific performer and wasn’t really much of a writer. His act was much simpler but he could sell anything.
HIGGINS: Lots of impressions.
ALBRECHT: And you’d put Joe on stage to be an emcee to keep the crowd up and to be able to get as many different acts on stage as possible because he was just so personable. But a lot of the people that I worked with at the Improv, in New York and in LA, became my clients when I became an agent at ICM.
HIGGINS: Did they not have agents and you went and grabbed them, or you got them to switch?
ALBRECHT: Some people had agents. I also started to manage a couple of people in New York at the Improv before I left.
HIGGINS: Who were those?
ALBRECHT: One was Joe Piscopo, another was a guy named John DeBellis, who became a writer. I don’t remember who else. I had a big client list at ICM when I started to sign comedians and those people included Jim Carrey and Dana Carvey, Billy Crystal, Paul Rodriguez, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Sandra Bernhardt, Jenny Jones, a talented kid named Paul Provenza, if I didn’t say Piscopo, Piscopo. I don’t know – there were a lot of people that ended up doing good.
HIGGINS: And these are people that you’re not trying to get them on the road, you’re not trying to book them on the road – that’s their manager’s job – you’re trying to get them into movies, get scripts they can produce…
ALBRECHT: Exactly. My job description was finding the next Robin Williams. So, that’s what I was trying to do. And also trying to represent writers who were… the great thing about a comedian is that they’re actually viable in many different areas; they’re writers, they’re performers, they can go on the road, they can create albums. There are lots of different revenue streams and if you get lucky and one becomes a star, the chances of them becoming a bigger star than someone who is solely an actor are pretty good because they can cross over.
HIGGINS: Now, how did you like being an agent?
ALBRECHT: You know, I didn’t like being an agent. I don’t like to argue about money, even though I end up having to do it a lot. I didn’t like being an agent primarily because it was so hard to deal with the disappointment. These were people who I really believe in, who I fought for, who I could identify with. Maybe I was a couple of years older than them, maybe I was the same age as them, and I’d known them for awhile and understood their struggles. Let’s say you have six people testing for pilots – well, if they didn’t get it they were of course extremely disappointed. If none of them got it I got disappointed six times, and it was hard for me to deal with their disappointment because they looked to me as a person who was going to make them feel better or certainly help them, and my own disappointment, and then I learned a tremendous amount at this agency, ICM. Being an agent at a large agency is, I think, one of the best… I know it’s the best place to learn how show business works. It was a great educational process but it’s also a very high pressure place where you’ve got to go to work and make something happen every day. It doesn’t matter who you talk to on the phone, it doesn’t matter who you had lunch with – if you didn’t make a deal, if you didn’t book something that was going to bring in revenue, or sign a client who someone else could book that was going to bring in revenue, then you had a bad day.
HIGGINS: There are no small successes or failures; there are only big successes and failures in that game, it seems like.
ALBRECHT: Well, you can add up a lot of small successes, but that’s a pretty hard way to make a living.
HIGGINS: So agents to me are either screamers or they’re smooth. Were you smooth, and did you walk in the door that smooth or did you have to work at it?
ALBRECHT: No, I think I wore my heart on my sleeve pretty much back then. I was pretty…
ALBRECHT: I was certainly earnest and I was very passionate about the things that I believed in, and so I might have been a good salesman. People say I’m a good sales… I guess I’m thought to be really good in a room trying to sell something. I don’t know if I was back then, but as I think back I realize I must have been pretty raw.
ALBRECHT: Maybe naïve in the sense that you’re a little bit more idealistic when you first start out then you are later, and an agency can beat the idealism out of you pretty easily because it’s not a…
HIGGINS: Well, one of the problems of being too passionate for your clients is your not necessarily realistic enough about the business prospects.
ALBRECHT: Yeah, I think you can not be realistic about the business prospects, but also you just put so much effort, it’s just draining because you put so much effort and energy into it, and there’s so much – like I said – disappointment or obstacles or whatever that it’s very hard to get beyond the disappointment, and also, for me, coming from the Improv where I got to sit and talk comedy a lot, you’re job ends at making the deal as an agent and that wasn’t a particularly satisfying thing for me because I was excluded from a lot of things that I had actually come to feel that I had a point of view on.
HIGGINS: So you’d broker the deal and have no involvement in the creative process of what the show or movie…Okay.
ALBRECHT: Yeah, it’s over, it’s on to the next deal, and you’d better hope that everybody else does their job well.
HIGGINS: What were your successes in that period? What do you think your successes were in terms of deals?
ALBRECHT: As an agent?
ALBRECHT: Oh, well, I think just the people that I signed – Jim Carrey and Dana – at that time it seemed like it was going to be a big deal. Jim Carrey had this big NBC… he had a 13 on the air commitment show that he did with Alan Burns called the Duck Factory, which most people won’t remember. I actually saw a movie two nights ago that Jim did with Lauren Hutton called One Bitten where he played a high school kid that was chased by this vampire. Paul Rodriguez – we made a deal with Normal Lear for Normal Lear’s return to television for him to create AK Pablo and it was a movie deal, a series deal, it was an album deal. I mean those were big deals at the time. AK Pablo went on the air and ended up going off the air in six or eight episodes, but those were pretty big things. Getting Piscopo and a girl named Gail Mathius on Saturday Night Live was a big thing. I was responsible, even though I didn’t represent Eddie Murphy on a day to day basis, because of his relationship with Piscopo I was able to put together the team that actually brought Eddie into the agency and Eddie became a big client, obviously, not just from Saturday Night Live, but once Hildy Gottlieb, who was then going out with Walter Hill who was about to direct a movie that was written for Pryor called 48 Hours that Pryor didn’t do and Hildy brought the tapes literally home to show Walter “this is the kid you’ve got to use,” so there were a lot of good things that happened but I didn’t have the hundred million dollar movie.
HIGGINS: That’s when you graduated to HBO?
ALBRECHT: Yes, sometime in maybe ’83 or ’84, Bridget Potter asked me if I would come back to New York to do the specials job at HBO. We would be selling a lot of things to HBO at the time. HBO was doing a lot of comedy specials back then so I was responsible for being involved in making those deals, and then in ’85 I realized that my days as being an agent were numbered. There had been a management change at ICM, I wasn’t really happy there and…
HIGGINS: Did you think you were not productive enough for them to keep you, or you just didn’t like it.
ALBRECHT: No, I think they would have kept me, I just knew it wasn’t for me. There was a chance to go off and work with Second City and start a management company and I was thinking about that and at the same time I had interviewed for the job for HBO but I knew I wasn’t their first choice.
HIGGINS: Who was?
ALBRECHT: I’m not really sure. Maybe Stu Bloomberg, who was at ABC at the time. And then I got a call when I was actually in Canada that they wanted me for the job and I got kind of their final offer, which was pretty much what I was making at ICM anyway, maybe a little bit more at the time. I’d graduated from $40,000.
HIGGINS: So it was more than $40,000?
ALBRECHT: It was more than $40,000; I’d graduated from $40,000 by that time. I’d been at ICM for 5 ½ years by then, and I just decided to take the HBO job. I remember Jim Weide, who is now the chairman of William Morris and was one of my associates back then saying to me, “This is not going to be a happy move for you. This is not going to be good.” And I said, “Well, you might be right, but I’m doing it.”
HIGGINS: Why did you do it?
ALBRECHT: I needed a change. What HBO wanted me to do at that time was because I had a lot of comedy contacts and they were doing a lot of comedy specials they wanted to reinvigorate that part of their business and Showtime was starting to really gain some traction on them. They had hired a guy named Stu Smiley who also used to work for Rollins Joffey out in LA, and if they didn’t have the Shandling Show on then they had Gallagher and Howie Mandel and they were a real competition for HBO in terms of who was the best comedy network. I think they looked to me as someone who could help them, certainly on the West Coast because HBO is a New York based company, and the programming offices of Showtime were in LA, so it was just to try to shore up that important part of HBO’s programming.
HIGGINS: So what was your view of what HBO was at that time?
ALBRECHT: HBO was this cable company that showed movies and did the occasional original programming. I didn’t know much more about what was on HBO, and there wasn’t much more on HBO then than the comedy specials, and so when I got here and started to get involved a little bit I realized that what Michael Fuchs, who was the chairman, what his vision for HBO was, was that HBO was an occasional use medium where you needed to have a couple of things on, a couple of movies, maybe a comedy special, maybe a music special, boxing, you know, a couple of things a month just so that the subscriber would think that there was enough to subscribe the next month. That was before… there really wasn’t much basic cable or anything and HBO had made these big movie deals and there was some financial pressure on HBO.
HIGGINS: You came in right after the big, giant almost flame-out financial crisis.
ALBRECHT: I came out right in the middle of the flame-out financial crisis. We were in what we used to refer to as ‘the tunnel’.
HIGGINS: Explain what ‘the tunnel’ was all about.
ALBRECHT: The tunnel was just we were in this tunnel where there was no money, there was crunch on the earnings, there were movie deals that were made that the way the formulas were made of how much license fee we had to pay based on certain box office things without caps and everything, I don’t remember exactly, but for instance Ghost Busters, I think, cost like 35 million dollars or whatever it was.
HIGGINS: And everybody was expecting it was going to cost ten.
ALBRECHT: Right, so it was one of those times when there was not a lot of money to invest in anything. Original programming was kind of an afterthought. We used to have programming meetings where people in programming – who were also the head of marketing, but they were also in programming, they’ll be unnamed – would make the argument that if you took, I don’t know, the 35 million dollars or 40 million dollars, whatever it was that we spent on original programming, 35 million dollars I think it was at the time, that if you took that 35 million dollars and you spent it on marketing that the company would actually make more money than if you spent it on programming. And the only reason that original programming existed was because Michael Fuchs believed that HBO had something to offer there; he believed that there were talented programmers at HBO; he enjoyed being involved in that, and it was really there just because he wanted it to be there. No one could point to any real business reason… okay, it distinguished us maybe a little bit from the other guys, but they had original programming too, and in certain cases they had original programming that was maybe better thought of than we had.
HIGGINS: Describe what kind of original programming was on at that time.
ALBRECHT: Well, it was comedy specials; it was an occasional music special.
HIGGINS: Like George Carlin stand up.
ALBRECHT: Carlin, Billy – I think we did a Billy special – Robin had been on, Klein, Joan Rivers…
HIGGINS: So it was once every month, once every two months there would be a stand up?
ALBRECHT: Yeah, once every two months; like a few a year – certainly not one a month.
HIGGINS: And they’re great because they’re cheap.
ALBRECHT: They were cheap, yes. We had done three episodes of a show called The Hitchhiker, which was a pretty good show and used a lot of directors and was, I think, a better show than – well, maybe the first three weren’t great, but we did a couple of seasons where we really used the…
HIGGINS: It was sort of Twilight Zone-ish.
ALBRECHT: Yes, more sexual certainly than the Twilight Zone of the ’50s was. Kind of the log line, for us internally, of The Hitchhiker was, “meet a Stranger, have sex with him and die.” That was pretty much… but it was interesting, it was…
HIGGINS: It was the ’80s, it was happening a lot.
ALBRECHT: So, then we had Not Necessarily the News on, which was this topical news show that used clips. It was a takeoff on a British show called Not the 9 o’clock New.
HIGGINS: Precursor of The Daily Show.
ALBRECHT: Exactly. And that was pretty much what we had on the air original programming-wise. My first big thing when I came here, because I came in June ’85, was the Comic Relief event, which was in March ’86.
HIGGINS: Whose idea was that?
ALBRECHT: Bob Zmuda’s. See? My old comedy partner came back to haunt me. Actually, Bob Zmuda came to me and said, “You know, the comics should do the same thing that Live Aid did. We should get together an event and we should raise money to send to the people who are suffering in Africa.” I said, “Well, that’s kind of interesting.” I went home and I talked to my wife who knew Zmuda and we had all kind of grown up together, and she said, “You know, I think people would be more receptive to an idea that was kind of close to home.” So we then looked for a charity, an idea that we could rally around, and the homeless problem was just building awareness then. In March ’86 we did the first Comic Relief event at the Universal Amphitheater. It was one of those magic nights where everything just turned out… we were amazed. We did this live show, the phones started ringing, people were actually donating money, HBO had never done anything like this before. We had opened up the signal and made it available to cable operators so that people who didn’t even have HBO could see it and we had had such struggles to try to put it on. I learned so much in that process; it was so volatile and we were reinventing the wheel.
HIGGINS: Where were you staging this?
ALBRECHT: Well, it was at the Universal Amphitheater, but we were just trying to pull it together for months and trying to figure out who the right hosts were, and originally we were shooting for maybe Eddie Murphy or Bill Cosby, and we ended up with Billy, Robin and Whoopi, who were friends of mine and old clients of mine and friends of HBO’s. They all had had specials on HBO. After we picked Whoopi she got nominated for the Academy Award for The Color Purple, so we got lucky in that there was a lot of attention on her, but I remember after the show was over sitting on the stage, exhausted, just thinking, oh my God, I can’t believe we pulled this off. Michael Fuchs came up to me, he looked at me and he shook my hand and he said, “Very well done.” And I got a rush that you don’t get from being an agent or that you don’t get from… I mean, live television, first of all, is pretty exciting, doing something like that was pretty exciting. So that was the first thing that I kind of championed on my own. We were doing First and Ten, which was this football show that O.J. Simpson ended up starring in that we had just done the pilot for that we were producing, so I was getting a chance to learn a lot about production, learn a lot about development, in a pretty protected environment because nobody was really paying attention.
HIGGINS: This is kind of a good segue. Producing stand up comic events is one thing, and fairly limited in television, so what did you learn from doing the stand up events, or shows, when later you were doing dramatic series? What did you learn from those days?
ALBRECHT: Well, first of all, there were two guys, there were actually a couple people that worked at HBO that worked for me because I came in as the head of original programming on the West Coast, but they had experience working at networks and working for production companies. So I actually learned a lot from them. I learned a lot, actually, from working on the little films of The Hitchhiker and watching rough cuts and things like that. I think what I got from the Comic Relief event for myself was some credibility as an executive. That this was the first thing that I had done that really attracted a lot of attention, it was something that only HBO could do, it was very special. So it gave me maybe a little bit more confidence and reignited my showman desires, but the actual learning about storytelling and that, for me, I learned a lot from those guys that I worked with about production, but in college I was a dramatic literature major, and basically my job in school was read all the great plays ever written. You do that and you learn a lot about story, a lot about story structure, a lot about the complexities of great story telling and how things work on a lot of different levels. You also realize there are basically only a few different stories that just get told the same way over and over again, just with different costumes and slightly different configurations, but ultimately there’s something very resonant to the human experience that’s within all of those great plays. That’s why they’ve sustained for such a long time. So it was a combination of that, then this knowledge that I gained, then I think just realizing, oh, hey, this network can actually do things. Comic Relief gave us a jolt of we can garner attention, we can break out of the box a little bit, no pun intended.
HIGGINS: So what followed Comic Relief for you?
ALBRECHT: What followed Comic Relief was Comic Relief II, but I think over the next year or so what we decided to do was… oh, actually, I guess what followed Comic Relief was we also had this other great little channel called Cinemax and we used to do the Cinemax Comedy Experiment, which was a lot of fun to work with young comedy talent. It didn’t really mean anything on Cinemax, but it was fun to do and we would give them $150,000 – I mean we didn’t pay them $150,000, that’s how much they had to do the show for – and developed out of that was an idea. John Landis brought us the rights to all these clips from these ’50s television shows that were somewhat obscure, all these anthology shows. The idea was to do a clip show that John Candy was going to host. But Bill Sanders who was working for me at the time and bringing in a lot of writers to pitch ideas of how to frame this came to me and said, “You know, the best idea isn’t a clip show, per se. There are these two young writers that came in and they have an idea of doing a situation comedy that uses the clips as images, as thoughts in the guy’s head.” So we developed three different ideas, that being one of them, and the one that stood out was the show that then might have been called Dream On, I’m not even sure it was called Dream On. The writers were Marta Kaufman and David Crane, and we had those other show on Cinemax called The History of White People in America, which Martin Mull did and there was a producer who worked on those shows named Kevin Bright and Kevin Bright had done a Harry Shearer special for us, I think a Paul Schaffer special for us, so we put Kevin into the John Landis – because John Landis had never done television and it was all at Universal – so Kevin Bright, John Landis, Marta and David did Dream On, made the pilot, we put it on the air, but again, it was a pretty haphazard thing. We put it on the air because we almost had nothing else to do, so there wasn’t really a lot of thought behind the strategy, but that was a show that not only did we all learn a lot about, but got a different kind of critical attention than things we had done before.
HIGGINS: Creatively it was a big signpost for the network.
ALBRECHT: It was the beginning of a signpost. Certainly the Larry Sanders Show became a big signpost for the network, but Dream On was the predecessor to that and also the first idea that we could do a comedy series that wasn’t a variety show that had regular characters. The thought was we can’t compete with broadcast networks because that’s their staple, so why even do that because you can get all that stuff on a broadcast network. Again, you can still make the argument that HBO shouldn’t have spent their money doing that, but by the grace of Michael Fuchs we actually put that show on the air.
HIGGINS: Well, and it was a pretty odd show. It wasn’t a three camera show…
ALBRECHT: Right, it was a pretty odd show, and it was more sexual and there was nudity and it took advantage of some of the lack of standards and practices that HBO has… broadcasting’s practices.
HIGGINS: So go on from there. Where did you go after that?
ALBRECHT: Well, after Dream On I don’t remember exactly, but the Larry Sanders Show, Michael was somewhere in Florida, I think, with Gary who had come off the Showtime show and we had actually made a bid for the Showtime show at one point and lost out to Showtime because we would have done a pilot and Showtime gave Gary a series, and Michael, I think, always regretted losing out to that because he really liked Gary. Gary pitched this idea to Michael and Michael came back and said, “We’re doing it.” We at that time were holding off doing everything. We were like we’re not really doing anything, maybe we’ll develop some things, we’ll do a pilot here, a pilot there…
HIGGINS: Why were you holding off?
ALBRECHT: Because we didn’t think Michael really wanted to do anything and we were very careful with the money and there wasn’t very much money and we wanted to make the right decision and here Michael came back and said, “We’re doing the Larry Sanders Show, 13 episodes, Gary Shandling,” and we were like, “Well, okay.” I was kind of skeptical and we had a meeting with Gary where he pitched out the whole thing and he seemed to know exactly what he wanted to do and Michael certainly turned out to be right because the show went on the air and became, for us, a real source of pride because many people considered it one of the best comedies on television, although in the Cable Ace awards it always lost out to Black Adder. The Larry Sanders Show never won a Cable Ace award for best comedy series.
HIGGINS: Never? Even the Black Adder went off the air?
ALBRECHT: Maybe when the Black Adder went off the air. We’ll have to check that because I know this is for posterity and I don’t want to put the wrong thing in the vault.
HIGGINS: So when you first got the pitch for Larry Sanders…
ALBRECHT: I never got the pitch for Larry Sanders. I listened to Gary’s take on it after Michael had already bought the show.
HIGGINS: Okay, so when you first heard what the idea was for the first time, which was…
ALBRECHT: Backstage at a talk show.
HIGGINS: Backstage at a talk show. Backstage of The Tonight Show, David Letterman, whatever. So what was your reaction?
ALBRECHT: My reaction was that Gary had a great take on it; it certainly wasn’t going to be, I didn’t think, a big audience show.
HIGGINS: Which it never really was.
ALBRECHT: Which it never really was, but I didn’t know Gary that well. Gary wasn’t one of the guys that I knew well from the clubs. He was an LA based guy and he actually made his career up as a writer first and then got into stand up. So I didn’t have a lot of working experience with Gary, but he was one of those guys that is really a consummate comedy artist in that he really had a point of view, he really knew what he wanted to do and he put good people around him, he had great support with his managers Brad Graham and Bernie Berlstein and they made sure that he had enough money, the made a good deal for them over at Sony because HBO’s license fee was very small at the time and they got a pretty good advance against the backend from Sony.
HIGGINS: What kind of license were you paying at that time?
ALBRECHT: A few hundred thousand dollars.
HIGGINS: An episode?
HIGGINS: And Gary’s every bit as neurotic as is his persona.
ALBRECHT: I wouldn’t say neurotic. I would say Gary is a worrier, he is a perfectionist, he’s never satisfied and he’s a half empty guy instead of a half full guy, so if that makes him neurotic, but many of us, certainly in show business, are half empty people because if you’re satisfied then I think you’re finished.
HIGGINS: So you’re not an optimist at heart?
ALBRECHT: No, probably not. Probably not an optimist at heart.
HIGGINS: Are you less of an optimist now that you’re in charge than you were?
ALBRECHT: The more successful I get the less optimist I get.
HIGGINS: Because of the more responsibility you have?
ALBRECHT: Yeah, and because there’s only one place to go.
HIGGINS: So, are you now the kind of executive that you hated when you were an agent?
ALBRECHT: I would never get in a room to talk to anybody like me when I was an agent.
HIGGINS: You wouldn’t get that far?
ALBRECHT: I wouldn’t get that far. Once in a while I would. That’s not true, I got in to see the heads of networks towards the end of my career.
HIGGINS: I asked this question of John Billock recently – now that he’s a cable operator does he do all the things that he hated cable operators doing when he was at HBO?
ALBRECHT: I actually think I’m not the kind of executive… hopefully as a programmer I’m not the kind of executive I would have resented as an agent. I’m not sure as a CEO. It’s very hard because there are so many people in show business that have dreams of wanting to do things and a lot of people I’ve known for a long time, people that either were successful and they’re having hard times or people that have never been successful and they look at you as someone who can help fulfill their dreams, and it’s hard to say no to somebody that has a dream, especially if you like the person and know what it’s like to have a dream. So instead of hearing no a lot, I actually have to say no a lot.
HIGGINS: Not as fun.
ALBRECHT: Just as bad.
HIGGINS: Now at this time, in the early ’90s, HBO was very much emphasizing movies, original movies.
ALBRECHT: Yes, what we called HBO Pictures at that time was again something that Michael Fuchs wanted to do. We were doing a few movies a year, six movies or so, and there was some real tension that was being brought to HBO from those movies and it changed, I think, what people thought… it reinvented the TV movie. It reinvented the movie for television, and it was, again, a big source of pride for Michael. It was somewhat his little playground, but it was great because Michael was one of these patrons for HBO. None of this stuff necessarily made any business sense. In Michael’s head it made business sense, you couldn’t point to anything on paper but because he just wanted HBO to be in this creative business there were these executives that got these opportunities to do things like Mandela and the Sanders Show and Comic Relief and things like that.
HIGGINS: But movies wasn’t your thing.
ALBRECHT: Movies was not my thing, and theatrical movies were still the big staple of HBO programming and when Showtime started to buy some studios exclusively it also made HBO have to buy studios exclusively, so it also for the first time it split.
HIGGINS: For most of the ’80s you all shared movie packages.
ALBRECHT: We shared movies, yes.
HIGGINS: Universal movies might be on both networks, Paramount movies…
ALBRECHT: Which was a great advantage to HBO because you only needed actually one network and you could get all the movies.
HIGGINS: And HBO being a larger network had…
ALBRECHT: Had more money to market, right.
HIGGINS: …had more money to market, could spread the cost over a greater subscriber base.
ALBRECHT: Right, and that’s one of the reasons why Showtime spent a little bit more time on their original programming because it differentiated themselves, but it’s hard to make original programming such an asset that it becomes worth paying for, and to this day, with as much original programming as we have now and with as much success as we’ve had, the staple of the network are still uncut, uninterrupted big Hollywood movies.
HIGGINS: Despite home video and DVD?
ALBRECHT: Despite Sopranos, despite home video and DVD, despite everything.
HIGGINS: When you’re doing a show – I’ll keep it shows instead of movies – when you’re doing a show for HBO, how are you looking at this differently than a broadcast network executive at NBC or ABC?
ALBRECHT: Well, originally it had to be something that couldn’t be seen on a network and then I decided that’s kind of narrow. What it really needed to be was something that wouldn’t be on a network.
HIGGINS: What do you mean by couldn’t.
ALBRECHT: Well, couldn’t would be it’s too violent, it’s too sexual, it’s too foul language, and that takes you in the wrong places. Something that wouldn’t be on a network because they wouldn’t do something, to me, is something that has a point of view because broadcast networks they try and please a very large audience all at the same time, and if you have a point of view which means you have an opinion about something, basically, you have a take on something, if you have a take on something it might differ from the take somebody else has on something and then you might upset certain people. I think the idea of broadcast television is to try to not upset anybody. So to me, the major factor of what’s different with an HBO series, or anything that’s on HBO – a movie even, because I think that certainly our films differ from broadcast network films in that way and to a great extent our films differ from the theatrical films that are being made today because they have a point of view, and that’s the thing that we try and start with, is working with a writer or director or whatever that’s got a point of view about something.
HIGGINS: Give me an example. What’s a point of view that would differ then? Let’s say, take something good, let’s not take the Kelly Ripa sitcom on ABC, but what’s the difference between the good product on broadcasting and a good product on HBO in terms of a point of view?
ALBRECHT: I think CSI is a really great well-made show, but it’s a procedural show that is examining and portraying kind of exactly what’s like to do a certain thing. Obviously it’s not exactly like that because it’s television, but you’re trying to get people to believe that it’s exactly like that and it’s a representation of a world. Sopranos, for instance, is to me a show about a man who’s searching for the meaning of his own life. He’s got kids; he’s inherited a business from his dad; he’s got a mom, he’s trying to figure out what that relationship is and get out from all the mom stuff that we all have, whether you’re a man or whether you’re a woman, but certainly most men have it; he’s got the pressures of his business; he’s got his two teenage kids; he’s suffering from a depression, kind of a “is this all there is” stuff; he’s got all that anxiety. Like I said, he’s searching for the meaning of his own life. The only difference between Tony Soprano and every guy that I know is that he’s the don of New Jersey. Now if he was a plumber you probably wouldn’t watch the show, but the human core of the show is something that’s really relatable, and that’s really what The Sopranos is about. Everything else is based around that. The analysis part of the show, the therapy part of the show is a way to explore that key issue. So you’ve started with that key issue and you’ve wrapped everything else around it, so to me you end up with a very rich, complex drama. CSI, you take this thing that you’re trying to portray and then you try and portray it as best and excitingly and as interestingly as possible. I think both excellent TV shows, just one the perfect show for CBS, one the perfect show for HBO.
HIGGINS: Did you take the pitch for The Sopranos?
ALBRECHT: Um hmm.
HIGGINS: So when he came to you for that show, what was your reaction? First of all, what was the two sentence pitch?
ALBRECHT: Well, it was a little bit more than a two sentence pitch because David actually developed that show at Fox and then had rewritten the script after it was passed on at Fox. So, he pitched us the show – I don’t remember exactly what the two second pitch was – but it was a little bit like what I laid out to you, which was he’s a guy, he’s this, he’s that, and I remember when David left he said, “Here’s the script. I think there may be a little bit too much of the therapy stuff.” So I went home and read the script and a couple of people that I worked with read the script, and I thought that the therapy stuff was brilliant and such an interesting way… a device that illuminated so much of what the show was really about that I said to David, “If anything I would do more therapy stuff. Keep the therapy stuff. Don’t do less.” And we decided to make the pilot and we were looking for a director and David wanted to direct it and I was against that idea, and then Brad Gray said, “Let him come in and tell you what his take is on it. Just listen to him.” And he came in and he saw the show so clearly that I knew we’d never find anybody that had that vision, and the rest is history.
HIGGINS: HBO likes to portray itself as a very creative friendly network, as a network that tries not to put as many obstacles in front of a producer and director as the broadcast networks do. But you put your fingers in a lot of stuff in the process of a show. I can’t remember if it was Six Feet Under where you sent them back for a lot of rewrites?
ALBRECHT: We didn’t send them back for a lot of rewrites, we asked them to rewrite the end, yeah.
HIGGINS: So how do you approach a creative type?
ALBRECHT: Well, to me, the most important meetings where you have the most give and take are the first meetings because that’s where you’re establishing what the show is really about, the point of view of the show, the vision, everything, and if you agree on that and everybody is setting out to accomplish the same thing then what you have is a really terrific guideline or standard by which to judge every decision that you have to make moving forward. So whether it’s a rewrite on a script, or a casting decision, or a director decision, or a set decision, or a location decision, or anything, about cuts in the episode, editing the episode, you can look and say does it best serve what we set out to do? What you – the creative person – told us and we all agreed you wanted to do, does it best serve that? Well, if it does then it’s probably a pretty good decision, if it doesn’t then let’s talk about it because either you’re changing this, we’re not seeing it the same way, or there’s something really not quite right there. As you move forward in the process, what I think we try to do is just keep everybody focused on what we’ve agreed to and provide them with the resources and the best support to get that done. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have opinions; it doesn’t mean that we don’t have disagreements. The fifth episode of The Sopranos, I was adamant that Tony Soprano couldn’t kill the guy that he ends up killing…
HIGGINS: Where he takes his daughter up to college?
ALBRECHT: Right. I said, “David, you’re wrong. The audience is just getting used to this guy. You’re going to kill the show; it’s too early; you haven’t earned it. The audience won’t go with you.” David said, “If he doesn’t kill this guy than the show is full of baloney and I don’t want to do a show that’s full of baloney. This guy in that situation would do that.” So we compromised a little bit where we made him a little bit of a worse… you saw him actually try to set Tony up also. You realized that he was still a skunk. It wasn’t like he was a guy who had tattled and now he was just some family friendly human being. He was still a pretty bad guy. And so we added that, we added that scene. David wrote that scene and shot it and we put it in and I felt better about it, but of course it went on to become the episode that won the Emmy that everybody talked about.
HIGGINS: And it’s also the episode that sparked another topic, or a topic that’s always been part of HBO, which is the different standards – lower standards, lack of standards?
ALBRECHT: Well, I wouldn’t say lower or lack of standards. I think that what we have is…
HIGGINS: This was an episode where you saw a close up shot of Tony Soprano garroting this guy from behind and you get to see both their faces as this guy gets strangled and drops dead. And this is the episode where Bob Wright sent out a hundred copies…
ALBRECHT: No, that’s not the episode actually. That episode was a couple of years later when Joe Pantoleone’s character beat the stripper to death. That was the episode where Bob Wright tried to screw us.
HIGGINS: So as you present more violent things on television and you decide to present them… for years HBO was able to say, “Well, it’s just the movies we buy from Hollywood. If they’re violent, hey, that’s what we’ve got to buy.” You’re presenting very graphic violence – or fairly graphic violence, not as graphic as Quentin Tarantino – what are doing to television? Is that good for television? Is it good for television viewers?
ALBRECHT: Well, we never would say to somebody make something more violent. If you’re doing a show about a mob boss in New Jersey in the year 2000, this is a violent character living in a violent world and part of the point of view about the show is we all have this stuff in us. I think instead of trying to tame down and make something seem okay… one of the interesting things about violence, and for all the talk about violence in The Sopranos, there’s not really that much violence in The Sopranos. That’s the episode everybody points to; we’re about to make the 65th episode of The Sopranos and they talk about that moment, so…
HIGGINS: Well, the big complaint of the 4th season was, oh boy, would they stop talking? Will they kill somebody already?
ALBRECHT: Right – will they kill somebody already, I know! Again, what we’re trying to do is do the thing that’s going to best illustrate what it is that we’re setting out to do, and that was an extremely powerful moment that left many people in the audience numb from that experience, which I think that emotional connection is something that’s an important part of television because it is not just entertainment – I mean it is entertainment – but at the same time, hopefully, there’s something else that’s going on and this was part of our saga. For us to say to David, “You know what, David? Don’t do that. She’s such a nice girl.” That would have been the same thing as me saying Tony shouldn’t kill the guy. But we’ve never said to anybody put more violence in, put more nudity in, put more foul language in. We look at it as a freedom… we’re not beholden to advertisers because of our business structure, and at the same time, I guess, we haven’t suffered some of the same pressures that broadcast networks have suffered from local stations in certain areas where they don’t want certain programs to be seen in their area. But the biggest difference between HBO and everything else is that the first thing is you have to make the choice to have cable television in your home, the second thing is you have to make the choice to have HBO in your home. We put up all sorts of advisories before the show and someone has to make the decision to turn the show on, put it in a place where somebody… if an adult’s watching it, we assume that the adult has the wherewithal to make that decision themselves, and we think that it’s the same choice that you make in any other form of entertainment that you can bring into your home now – a movie, a whatever – but for us it’s all about what’s the best execution of the idea.
HIGGINS: Okay, so you can say it’s justifiable, and I don’t necessarily disagree. Is it good? Is it a good thing for violence to be depicted so much in entertainment?
ALBRECHT: You know, I don’t myself go to movies that have a tremendous amount of violence that is about the good guys killing the bad guys or the bad guys killing the good guys and there are a lot of shoot ups and a lot of blood and body, body, body, body, body, body. I don’t look at the things that are on… I mean there was a lot more violence in Band of Brothers than there is in The Sopranos, but what we set out to do was to try to capture the true experience of the foot soldier in World War II. So to do that, the audience of 2003, or 2001 when we put the show on the air, is not the same audience as the audience in 1950. You’ve got to create the experience for the people that are going to be watching. I don’t have a judgment as to whether it’s good or bad that there’s violence. I don’t play violent videogames, my kids don’t play videogames, so I don’t have a lot of experience with it, but I think that good work, whether it’s in a book, in a real artistic work, has real value and we try and do good artistic work.
HIGGINS: What do you do with your kids’ TV viewing?
ALBRECHT: My kids didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up and they watch very little TV now. They watch mostly movies. I showed my 20 year old daughter the other night, we sat down and watched The Searchers with John Wayne, maybe the best western ever made, and that’s what they watch. My older daughters also watched all of the Sex and the City episodes and loved Six Feet Under.
HIGGINS: How old were they when Sex and the City went on?
ALBRECHT: Ummm, when Sex and the City first went on the air she was probably 16, probably 15.
HIGGINS: What kind of limits did you put on when they were 8, 9, 10.
ALBRECHT: I didn’t have to put on… they didn’t really watch television. They went to bed at 8:30.
HIGGINS: You’re raising bad HBO customers, is that what you’re telling me?
ALBRECHT: They went to bed at 8:30. I didn’t have too many restrictions.
HIGGINS: Sex and the City, was that developed elsewhere or was that pitched to you?
ALBRECHT: That was pitched to me.
HIGGINS: So, is Sex and the City about the sex? If The Sopranos isn’t about the mob, what is Sex and the City about?
ALBRECHT: I mean, to me what Sex and the City is about, and again, the point of view for that show was in the columns that Candace Bushnell wrote, but the point of view of that show is 40 years after the feminist movement, you know, the real volatile feminist movement of the ’60s, are women actually any better off and isn’t the emotional dilemma for women still pretty much the same, and what about the fact that there are all these terrific women who at one time would have been called old maids who now are just successful career girls and may not be married. Is that success or is that failure as a woman, and I think it was an issue that certainly resonated with so many women across the country because it is still a central issue, I think, of what do women really want in their lives and what’s really possible? I guess you can have it all, but can you have it all at the same time?
HIGGINS: Does that show have to be graphic to work? It’s been cut up to syndicate on broadcast.
ALBRECHT: It’s about to be, yeah.
HIGGINS: Would it work without being so explicit?
ALBRECHT: Yeah, the shows work great without being explicit, yeah.
HIGGINS: So what does HBO become? Right now you’ve produced a couple of series at a time that you’re airing one night a week. You also have a lot of not so high quality material that nobody ever seems to talk about running late at night.
ALBRECHT: One man’s opinion.
HIGGINS: Real Sex. What does HBO become? Does HBO become a more conventional network, originals several nights a week?
ALBRECHT: I think the real vision for HBO is to try to maintain the Sunday night strategy with really high quality original programming, stuff that’s distinctive, stuff that strengthens the HBO brand, stuff that makes us really worth paying for. So it’s the best movies, the best original programming, the best theatrical movies, the best boxing – it’s that combination because there are a variety of customers out there and different things matter to them. It’s probably a combination of all those elements – documentaries, some family, everything. We do some of the best documentaries on television and since the cable business is a mature business and the pay television business is one that is at the end of the price food chain – you’ve to spend an awful lot of money before you even get a chance to buy HBO – the real task, I think, for HBO is to continue to diversify as an entertainment and as a media company and find new sources of revenue. You mentioned syndication of Sex and the City, DVD and home video business, we have an international business, we have this small theatrical film business that we’ve started. We got really lucky with a film two years ago called My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but we need to find ways to not only grow our revenue and our profits, but take the HBO brand and expand it off of our main business which has been this pay television network and into other areas of the entertainment business, either in theaters, home entertainment, new technologies, whatever.
HIGGINS: So is the programming approach to give them just enough to keep them buying? Because one of the great things about HBO is that penetration wise about the same percentage of multi-channel video subscribers buy HBO as they did five years ago, ten years ago, and the churn rate hasn’t dropped in years. It’s still the same.
ALBRECHT: No, we’re hoping that HBO on demand, which is our SVOD service, is going to be something that will, as the cable operator hopes, slow down or reduce the churn rate because that would be a way for us to increase the penetration. We have to churn over so many subscribers…
HIGGINS: Sort of retain your existing subscribers.
ALBRECHT: Right, but the idea isn’t to give them just enough, the idea is that we want to be in business twelve months out of the year, we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the theatrical movies, we spend close to a billion dollars in a couple of years, that’ll be up to close to a billion dollars a year, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on our original programming, we spend a ton of money on marketing, so the idea is to try to maintain that quality, but at the same time we’re a division in a very big media company – the largest media company in the world – and we have to increase our profits. So the pay television business is growing at 5% a year and the profits of HBO are growing at 12% a year. So we have to find ways to make up that difference while continuing to make the same amount of money that we’re making in our base business because unlike when I was an agent, or just the head of programming, this is really about running a business.
HIGGINS: Great. We appreciate your time.
ALBRECHT: Thanks John.