The Glaring Missing Piece in Branded Shows, According to a Writer from Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Barry
Alec Berg’s heart was in this throat. His stomach and lower intestines seemed eager to find some new real estate too. He’d just handed a draft of his first script to the legend himself, Larry David. It was Alec’s first attempt at contributing to the impossibly successful Seinfeld.
Today, Alec’s innards wouldn’t budge given that same scenario. He’s now the executive producer of one of Larry David’s best-known projects, Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as an executive producer of Silicon Valley and the co-creator of HBO’s newest comedy hit, Barry, alongside the show’s star, SNL alum Bill Hader. Alec has quickly ascended into the modern pantheon of screenwriters and producers — which is why his first lesson from the mind of Larry David is one we all need to keep with us.
Across that fateful week, Alec worked and reworked and reworked his script with a writing partner. Late into the night, across hours that only exist to insomniacs and new parents, they revisited every beat, every moment of every subsection of that episode. Painstaking stuff. And one morning, it was time to hand over the draft to Larry David. Eagerly, the two young writers followed him around the set of Seinfeld to see his reaction.
He read the thing in two minutes.
“Fine,” he said.
Alec was horrified. Wouldn’t you be? But today, he realizes the truth: It wasn’t dismissive or rude or a sign of rejection. Larry David was simply reading it for structure.
Structure: The Missing Piece in So Many Brand-Built Original Series
Among professional writers and showrunners, structure is the crucial yet oft-overlooked aspect of the work that makes it all work. Without knowing the structure — of a story, of one episode, of a single scene — the show has no identity, lacks repeatability, and omits key details that causes audiences feel lost, bored, or apathetic. When writing a show, structure is everything.
Everyone writing a show knows the structure of a given episode. It helps teams of writers divvy up the work, crafting the A story, B story, and if needed, C story that comprise the episode. (You know the types: The main characters engaging in a serious arc about their romantic relationship, while we periodically cut to the comic relief characters engaging in something thematically related but far more frivolous. In the end, it all makes sense: The answers were inside us all along, d’awwwwww. STRING MUSIC PLAYS US OUT.)
The more Alec Berg looked, the more he saw structure appearing everywhere on the set of a major show production. It guided production schedules, writing teams, and directors and actors. It enabled creativity, quality, and efficiency, all at once. He saw how Cheers had three acts per episode, and that the first act contained four scenes, while the second usually had three. Seinfeld, however, had somewhere between 25 and 27 total scenes in the same runtime.
He watched as teams of writers discussed the structure in terms of blocks — larger swaths of time that carried one discrete purpose to advance the action of the episode. Then, they’d turn their attention to the beats — moments that fill out the blocks and serve its discrete purpose.
Alec realized what made Seinfeld so brilliant. Yes, they were funny and smart and innovative as a show in part due to what he could overtly see: the talent, the material. But those things were brought to life, and the show was made legendary, by what most people couldn’t see at all: the format.
Every show knows its episode “rundown,” the unique format that makes its episodes work. Every showrunner knows how to use this structure to create better work, not only repeating the same format, but playing with it and innovating with a purpose, in tiny ways, to keep the content fresh. The solution, it seems, that all marketers need to make increasingly better shows isn’t more budget. It isn’t even more time. It’s a better, more focused, more purposeful way to invest our budgets and our time.
Everything we do should flow through the episode structure.
In the next week, try an exercise. I call it an “extraction.” Grab a notebook and a pen, and go watch your favorite show — the one you want to model yours after. See if you can’t find the underlying structure of a given episode. Try to “extract” their format.
What are the blocks? What’s the runtime?
What are the beats? How do they fill out the blocks with a purpose, in a way that makes their episodes irresistible?
Our audiences only have two choices: play and stop. It’s our jobs to ensure they don’t hit stop. In other words, we need to get them to the end. But the real question for us showrunners is, do we even know where to start?
👉👉👉BONUS: You can find an example of an episode rundown right here, for free, no forms, no nuthin’ — just publicly available goodness. (If you like it, consider subscribing below or sharing with others. Thanks for reading!)
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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Fantastic article, Jay! Thanks for sharing ✌