“That’s a really good question,” Blumberg said in a recent interview. “I’m still not entirely sure. I’m piecing together how it happened.”
Zach Braff plays a fictionalized version of Blumberg in the series, which premieres Wednesday night. Just as Blumberg left his gigs as a “This American Life” producer and “Planet Money” co-founder behind, Alex Schuman quits his unspecified radio job in order to found his own company.
Creator Matt Tarses took some liberties in adapting the podcast — swapping out “Blumberg” for “Schuman” and tossing in a few supporting characters, to name a couple — but the core elements of “Alex, Inc.” mirror those of “StartUp.” Braff exudes the same earnest quality heard in Blumberg’s voice. His public-defender wife, Rooni (Tiya Sircar), appears about as often as Blumberg’s wife and Gimlet’s creative director, Nazanin Rafsanjani, did. Even billionaire Chris Sacca, an early investor in Twitter and Uber to whom Blumberg pitches his company in the first episode of “StartUp,” plays himself on the ABC series.
So, back to the question. Tarses and his team did worry about the esoteric nature of podcasts in writing the broadcast series. Watching a guy run around with a microphone is fun but arguably less engaging than, say, watching him save lives in a hospital — the subject of Braff and Tarses’s previous collaboration, “Scrubs.”
“There were moments where we were much more in the weeds of it, and we had to pull back,” Tarses said. “We wanted to tell a story about someone trying to pursue his version of the American Dream, someone doing something he felt he would be good at and that he could change the world a little bit by doing. I think that’s universal.”
To further this goal of fitting “the ABC brand,” as Tarses called it, the series depicts much of Alex’s personal life. Blumberg’s two children didn’t have much to do in “StartUp,” seeing as they were toddlers at the time, but older versions of them appear on-screen as the magic-obsessed Ben (Elisha Henig) and precocious Soraya (Audyssie James). “Alex, Inc.” paints its protagonist to be quite the family man, something Blumberg seems to be off-microphone. He began his Post interview by saying that his daughter had pinkeye, adding, “I think we both have pinkeye, frankly.”
Despite creating “Planet Money” and “StartUp,” Blumberg does not consider himself to be a “serial entrepreneur.” Running a company is stressful, he said, and “looking out at the world in general and being, like, ‘Ah, this is the thing that is coming'” is not his strong suit.
Blumberg did have the foresight to think up Gimlet, which has helped usher podcasts into the mainstream. The network, known for producing shows like “Reply All” and “Crimetown,” reports that its podcasts are downloaded more than 12 million times per month, and “StartUp” has “tens of millions” of downloads on its own. Still, Hollywood’s interest surprised him — “The subject of a network family comedy within three years of starting a company? No way” — and he was flattered when producer John Davis, a force behind films like “Joy” and the recent “Game Night,” reached out. At this point, Gimlet’s mantra was to “focus, focus, focus” on their fledgling company. Blumberg and Gimlet co-founder Matt Lieber remained relatively hands-off throughout development, while Davis went ahead and got the “Scrubs” duo involved. The show got a series order from ABC last spring.
“I related to the idea of a guy who is trained to do this one thing his whole life — be a radio journalist and tell these documentary-style audio stories — who suddenly decides that he can run a company and deal with managing people and budgets and coming up with cash,” Tarses said, adding that he made a similar jump from being a TV writer to running a show.
“Alex, Inc.” is Tarses’s fourth outing as a series creator, following a string of one-season sitcoms. It also marks Braff’s first TV project since “Scrubs,” which ended in 2010. The actor appeared in a few films afterward and, in 2013, decided to write and direct another one of his own called “Wish I Was Here.” (He previously directed “Garden State” and a TV movie called “Night Life.”) Like Blumberg, he looked to investors to fund the passion project. But Kickstarter proved to be a controversial choice for a man who, at $350,000 per “Scrubs” episode, had once been among the highest-paid TV actors.
“Alex, Inc.” is a safe return to network television for Braff, whose humorous narrator’s voice lends itself well to a show about podcasting. Tarses does not shy away from using voice-over narration to bookend episodes.
Blumberg, who watched “Scrubs” with his wife “back when we did that sort of thing, before we had kids,” recognizes some of the more subtle parallels between himself and Braff’s character in “Alex, Inc.” When Soraya tells her father in the pilot that “TV is better” than radio because she needs pictures, he launches into a goofy reenactment of a true-crime story to convince her otherwise. It is familiar territory for Blumberg.
“As somebody who has to explain what I do to people who don’t understand what I do, including my own kids, it’s the kind of thing that you have to give into,” he said, laughing. “In the show, he did it much better than I do normally.”