John Altschuler | The Backlot | New York Film Academy

Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the writer-producer of two of TV’s most legendary shows King of the hill and Silicon Valley John Altschuler.

I’m not a particularly angry person but I enjoy anger. I enjoy being pissed off and going, wait, what the.

Now I could do the entire episode only quoting those two shows seriously test me. I’ll do it but that would leave out some of his other great work such as Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory The good family Lopez and the countless other hours of television he’s helped create. And this is all coming from a UNC alum who succeeded despite a less than stellar film department. And got his first break with the help of a single dollar bill.

It was called the half-hour comedy hour and it was an interesting time because this is pretty cool what you’re doing because you’re in a program where you’re actually learning how to do things well. I majored in economics and anthropology. A I had an interest in them but B because the department at Carolina was so terrible in film so terrible. They literally had equipment that they wouldn’t let the students use because they may break it. So you couldn’t use it. So what happened is these guys who were the people that you really need on campus started a student television station. Then you have the people that you don’t really need me and Dave Krinsky and some friends who went well they went to the trouble. Let’s go take their cameras and make our silly show. And so it was flat out sketch comedy. You know we’d have things like Bonnie and Clyde and Ted and Alice. We had a sketch called plant boy about a boy that was raised by wild plants. You know and we had a segment I love students talk about things they don’t know or understand because you could go to any student on any campus and go what do you think about X and they’ll start talking they don’t know anything about it they’ll start talking. So it was a flat out sketch show and it did us a lot of good though because back then yes it was a VH not VHS three-quarter-inch tape and it was all you know back in the old days but it looked pretty good. So that we could actually show people things because back then there was a high barrier to entry. It was hard to get equipment. It was hard to make things. So we had something that looked semi-professional to show. I actually kind of miss the days of a high barrier because now every moron is putting whatever there’s such a low barrier which at first I thought is great because that makes it more democratic. But then you go Oh God you just wish there was a little bit of a barrier because they send it to me and I got to look at it you know. But what it did is it made me realize that well even though I was an economics major I don’t want to work in a bank. And I’ve always wanted to do comedy. So we’re trying to figure well. See I’m in North Carolina with my partner Dave Krinsky and I’m delivering pizzas. I’m not connected to anybody I have no connections. What what can I do. And I thought well what if we got published and this is actually one of the things I’m most proud of. So there was this magazine called National Lampoon and it was a humor magazine and it was kind of important back then meant a lot to me. And what I found out is that they didn’t accept unsolicited material. What do you do so what Dave and I did I said Well this is what we’ll do. We’ll put a packet together and we send it to the three editors who ran National Lampoon we sent it to each of them. And I said I know you don’t accept career letters blah blah blah but here’s a little something for your time. And I enclosed a dollar with each with each letter we had like three or four ideas. This was I mean back in the day. So I’m delivering pizzas. I get home from delivering pizzas. The phones ringing. I don’t even think we had an answering machine. I pick it up and this guy says Can I speak to John Altschuler. I go This is him. This is Chris Simmons National Lampoon. Money talks. What have you got. And I’m like money. He’s like Yeah I got your dollar right here. And so I was like Well we’ll have something. And he goes great. Get something together send it to us. We’ll look at it. And they published our first piece which was there was a famous actor called John Belushi. He was in animal house. He died of an overdose and they arrested the woman who sold him drugs and I kinda felt like she was being railroaded because they were blaming her. Now this is an out of control actor. And so basically the premise of our first piece was that she was going to get out of prison and all of Hollywood was terrified because they thought Oh my God. You know and you know Richard Pryor was scared of what she was going to do to him because she obviously has this this power so they publish that. And what that allowed us to do was to put these two concepts together published writers in a magazine people had heard of. And here’s some funny sketches for them to look at. And that opened the doors by being published and then having this it made it so we were seen as not complete schmucks. Just partial schmucks. So when we came out here and started banging on doors. We could say oh published in National Lampoon. Here’s one of our pieces. It was the only piece. But here’s one of our pieces. And if you want to see this you know so that’s that’s how we used it.

All right. Not to sound too much like an old man but when I was a kid. National Lampoon was the greatest humor magazine. It launched so many remarkable writers careers and produced movies like Animal House vacation Van Wilder. There’s actually a pretty good Netflix movie about it called a futile and stupid gesture. So National Lampoon came originally from a group of writers at the Harvard Lampoon. And Mr. Altschuler discovered that unfortunately not being a Harvard alum really slowed down his entry into the professional world of comedy writing.

There’s an interesting thing I didn’t go to Harvard. So that’s a recommendation to everybody to this day I’ve got a chip against. Even though some of my very good friends went to Harvard it was so crazy because you go meet with an agent and they’d ask you Did either of you go to Harvard. Did either of you go to Harvard. No we didn’t go to Harvard to the point that when we came on King of the hill one of the writers wife was asking me how did you get here. Well came out and I worked as a P.A. for like two or three years trying to write you know and she’s like a P.A. Well that’s a terrible job. Why would you do that. I’m like cause I don’t have any money you know. And I didn’t go to Harvard. Where you just waddle off a boat show you know flop down and they give you a job on The Simpsons. One of the funniest things in the show another period was that they had this joke about everybody from Harvard gets a job on The Simpsons. But I went to the University of North Carolina great school. It wasn’t a connection school and my family. My dad was a merchant seaman who became an anthropologist. My mom was fascinating but a homemaker we were we had no connections. I mean it took me I was out here six months before I had my break of getting a job as a P.A.. But what was great about that is that I was a P.A. for this guy Howard Gottfried and Howard Gottfried produced network altered states the hospital. He was Paddy Chayefsky’s producer and one thing I learned whatever job you get just do that. Well. All I did was I made sure that they had coffee in their. If they went like this. There was coffee there. I never talked about Hollywood. I never talked about writing. I never talked about anything. All I did was make sure if a canister needed to be there it was there. So they loved me. And what. And so what happened is Howard Gottfried comes up to me and goes look you don’t want to be a what do you what do you want to be. I want to be a writer. Well let me read what you’ve got. Gave him some stuff he read it he’s like. Well let’s talk. So then I’m walking through Beverly Hills talking writing with Howard Gottfried who produced the greatest you know screenwriter in history. So that is a very important thing that nobody cares if you’re here. Just don’t be crazy and make their lives easier and they will look out for you. They will want to help you because you made their day that much easier. I was a very good P.A. actually I think I was much better at being a P.A. than a writer. I mean writing that I’m a very good P.A..

All right. To his credit few writers out there would actually brag about being a great production assistant. But then again few writers are like John Altschuler. Even though he spent time originally in front of the camera. Mr. Altschuler realized that he was so much better suited to life behind the scenes.

The great tragedy is that I would love to be able to perform but I’m not good. I did a little on king of the hill I would slip in some voice over because I can do a myriad of rednecks. I can do like you know rednecks from eastern North Carolina through to the mountains I can do country I can I can do all the rednecks but I am not talented. I want to be talented. I love. Okay. So whenever we do table reads I always do. You know the directions. And if a parts oh we don’t have Oh Pam Adlon’s not here today. I’ll be Bobby Hill you know because I love it and I’m terrible. And the other thing is if you work with like Mike Judge is one of the best actors he’s gonna start doing more and more acting. And so that’s even more frustrating like when we worked with Mike on Beavis and Butthead to see somebody who’s just a. Genius like he would turn his back like you write the stuff he goes into the recording booth and he turns his back and you see this figure. A lot of times when people you’re recording for animation for example if they do multiple voices they do all one voice then all another voice so they can. And I’m watching this. It was it was almost freakish. He’s doing all the roles back and forth not stopping.

Pull My Finger.

Uh uh.

Pull My Finger dude.

No way.

Come on. Pull my finger.

Nothing.

SBD.

That was cool.

So he’s real talented and I’m not so I write.

Well it’s a good thing he actually doesn’t have more acting talent because if he did he might never have joined Mike Judge’s king of the hill.

I tell you what man you go blowed up them dynamite an old cannon like that. A boom.

Soccer was invented by European ladies to keep them busy while their husbands did the cooking.

That’s my purse. I don’t know you.

Man I loved king of the hill shows like a national treasure and as a writer it was more than just a job for John Altschuler. It was a chance to vent a lot.

One of my proudest moments is when Mike Judge told we were at some conference and he goes king of the hill we basically have 150 episodes about what pisses John off. So basically you know it’s like I go to the vet and they’re telling me it’s either an eleven dollar pill or a twelve hundred dollar procedure. And I’m like well why don’t you try the eleven dollar pill. I wouldn’t feel good doing that you know. So I realize these vets have you over an emotional barrel. So I do an episode about it like when when this kid was panhandling to me and I didn’t realize that his jacket cost way more than mine it pissed me. So you do an episode on it so I’m not a particularly angry person but I enjoy anger. I enjoy being pissed off and going wait what the. That’s where most of the ideas like I have a project about Bay Area terrorists from the 70s. Okay. And I grew up on college campuses then. I hate these people. Okay. These are the ones who like rolling pipe bombs under cop cars and then like it was based on this woman who I hated so much. Her name was Kathy Soliah. She was the soccer mom in Minnesota who they found out that she was in the Weather Underground. You know they killed two cops and then another bystander. And then she went away and her defense when they caught her was everybody was doing it and I was like well that’s that’s just great. So I developed a whole series about everybody was doing it because that’s like what became very clear to me. Is that OK. I started doing a little checking on you know the Symbionese Liberation Army who kidnapped Patty Hearst. I’m looking at this Web site. Their symbol was a nine headed Hydra. OK and I’m going wait a minute. That means at some point a bunch of wanna be revolutionaries were in a room going what’s our symbol. Well I don’t know how bout a tiger. No not a tiger how bout an elephant. No not an elephant. How about a Hydra. And then they got to nine heads OK. And I realized well that’s a scene that you never see. OK. So it all started from anger. Because this woman really pissed me off. And I hate these people but I love them. P.J. O’Rourke who was the editor of National Lampoon he goes you know the thing about you know being in the 60s and 70s he goes everything we did was wrong. Everything was terrible but it was fun. And it was like Oh my God that’s what you never see like when I grew up in Carbondale Illinois. I remember seeing mimeographs. That said Riot tomorrow three o’clock OK. And so I was like eight or nine. We’d go watch the riots. And I can tell you the riots that you saw in real life had nothing to do with a riot shot by Robert Redford. It’s like they were having fun. They burned down the oldest building on campus and they were it was a blast. And I was like Wait you don’t see that. And then the last piece came when I realized that when you read the Anarchist Cookbook which was this bomb making book and you realize that forming a terrorist group in the 70s was like forming a garage band in the 90s that literally instead of them needing a bass player could somebody make a bomb you know. So basically the things that piss me off usually create a spark and I go Oh wait why am I pissed off. What is it about this. You know privilege tends to piss me off. You know so I go Okay well wait what is this. And then I start twisting because my son told me something that I just loved is that a kid in his class went out on a limb and he said I think racism is bad. And I was like. That’s just great because there are people that think that other normal people think racism is good. You know like and so like on king of the hill. I ran king of the hill with Dave Krinsky for eight years. What I’d tell the writers is that everything’s gotta be turned on its head. We’re not going to do an episode about racism unless we’re saying racism is good. We’re not going to do an episode on book burning unless we’re saying. Book burning is good. And the closest we got with the racism one was Hank Hill having a racist dog and what it turned out is that the dog wasn’t racist it hated figures of authority and we never got the book burning one to work. But this is the problem with this. This is not a big thinking town is that somebody could actually go. Well you know what. On whatever you know on who’s got a maid we’re going to tackle illiteracy because illiteracy is bad. You know like or racism is bad. It’s the obvious. Where. Well let’s look at the humanity behind all of this and turn it on its head.

He’s right. Nothing is more deadly to comedy than over sentimentality. For instance the entire hill family. They love each other but episodes didn’t usually end with a simple hug and an aw from the audience. We love this characters specifically because they are so flawed and imperfect. That’s OK. So are we. And that attitude that approach to character has continued to serve John Altschuler incredibly well on HBO’s Silicon Valley.

I memorized the hexadecimal times tables when I was 14 writing machine code asked you a nine times F. It’s fleventy-five.

I have a question. That was horrible.

This guy f**ks am I right.

With all due love to the Big Bang Theory Silicon Valley feels so much more like we are truly immersed in the world of zeros and ones. And though Mr. Altschuler is surrounded by engineers in his family. It was Bill Gates who inspired the show but not in the way you’d expect.

My brother is an electrical engineer my brother in law is an electrical engineer and my niece is an electrical. I’m surrounded by electrical engineers. OK. And I’ve always been attracted to situations that have been described incorrectly. Like my brother my brother in law. None of these people are on the Big Bang Theory. You know what I mean like it didn’t quite make sense. And then I was reading the biography of Steve Jobs and there was a quote in there where Bill Gates was ridiculing Steve Jobs and he said the guy can’t even write code.

Jobs was a poser he didn’t even write code.

You just disappeared up your own a**hole.

And I thought the guy created the biggest brand in the world. And there’s somebody up in Silicon Valley sniping at him as like this is hilarious. And I didn’t know what it meant. So I called my brother and he explained to me what code was and so I got interested in it. And so then I was talking to Mike Judge because you know we were partners and he just thought that was the funniest thing. He studied physics and loved the idea. Just this idea that nobody once again it’s not that there aren’t classic geeks. Like on the big bang theory that’s the best example. But it wasn’t who we knew. Like the guys we know wore Greek fisherman hats and played in 1920s bands and they like. It just didn’t mesh. And so the fact is is that although it was all tangential. It was something that you kind of felt then. I said well let’s start researching this. And we went up to Silicon Valley and it was so funny because I studied anthropology and you started realizing this was a subculture.

These programmers there’s always a tall skinny white guy a short skinny Asian guy fat guy with a ponytail some guy with crazy facial hair and then an East Indian guy. It’s like the trade guys until they all have the right group.

Everybody was talking about their numbers you know you’d go meet someone Well I was number eight. At what company number eight. And so what it was is that you rank yourself by how low your number was because that meant that you were early on a company and then this was in the pilot and through the series is that everybody kept talking about how they’re making the world a better place. We’re going to make the world a better place. We got we’ve got an app that will like make your water go it’ll make the world a better place.

That’s why I started this place to do something big to make a difference.

We’re making the world a better place.

We could really make the world a better place.

Hooly is about innovative technology making the world. A better place. Through minimal message oriented transport layers.

I kind of thought that’s hilarious because I miss the days when somebody said we’re going to build a locomotive that goes through here. You know they can’t just do anything they’ve got to. So the sanctimony was so thick. That’s what this is something to make fun of. And then the more that you researched it the bigger the target seemed. And the fact is is that it’s more fun to take on the big guys and try to deflate them and these guys really need deflating because they’re they’re really you know it’s what is it Google they had a motto that was like do good. I’m like well you know Hitler thought he was doing good. You know Mao thought he was doing good. All these people think they’re doing good. I don’t need that guy to have all the power in the world to do good. So anyway so that was the inspiration the answer to your question is that a little bit of knowledge a fair amount of research and a lot a little anger. And I think it was helpful that we were outside and then it helped that Mike had his own axe to grind. He hated being an engineer so desperately you know office space was about you know he got a job you know basically low level engineering and he kept thinking of how he was going to kill himself. So it’s a love hate relationship with Silicon Valley.

This love hate relationship is embodied by Silicon Valley’s characters who are driven to succeed in an industry where they seem to despise pretty much everyone of their peers kind of like what Groucho Marx used to say I don’t want to be part of a club that would have me as a member.

Hey what do you guys think about this Jared. He’s s**t right.

Oh god. The marketing team is having another bike meeting. Douchebags.

Look at me. I travelled back to 2009.

F**k you guys you all think you’re John Lennon until someone waves a dollar in your face.

Over its run the show has been forced to evolve after losing two of its key cast members first with the untimely passing of Christopher Evan Welch who played Peter Gregory back in season one and then more recently T.J. Miller’s abrupt exit from his career defining role as Erlich Bachman.

You’ll see this on a multitude of shows going back to Cheers and probably father was it. We had this great actor Christopher Welch who was in out first season.

Welcome to the Peter Gregory Foundation’s fourth annual orgy of caring. The first three were. Fine.

He was a great great actor a great man. You just figure it out. I don’t like talking about this particularly because I’m very fond of T.J. But the fact is is that you just adapt and I have to say it’s much easier in this day and age. We did. Eight episodes 10 10 10 and then eight episodes. OK this is like I mean on king of the hill we did 24 episodes a season. Okay. You get a monkey wrench there with limited resources. The truth is. With HBO and doing eight episodes that season you just do what you need to do. It’s sort of it’s just the job. I know that sounds vague but basically things happen like oh we just lost our building and we’re doing Die Hard. Well what are you going to do you know you just. Adapt and figure out well what matters what doesn’t matter. What were the strengths of this situation and how how best to do it.

Like the rag tag team that makes up Pied Piper on Silicon Valley. Mr. Altschuler gets by a little help from his friends namely co-writer Dave Krinsky and the man who gave us office space. King of the Hill. And not to mention Beavis and Butthead Mike Judge unfortunately Like pied piper sometimes the logistics of working together can get a little complicated.

Dave and I are writing partners so there’s not really a division per say. It’s a little a weird thing is that like Dave and I are traditional partners but even within that I do some things by myself. Mike does some things by himself like he did this animated thing for Cinemax about touring bands. He just did that himself. And then we’ll come together and it’s an interesting thing is that it’s kind of sad to me in a way is that Dave and I have to be very careful when we work with Mike. Mike is one of my better friends and he’s immensely talented. But what happens is that when Dave and I do things with Mike. It’s all about Mike Judge. So this was actually quite a problem with Silicon Valley because you come up with a show you write and HBO made it very clear. This is Mike Judge and it’s not his fault. But it’s interesting because he was on Howard Stern and three times he tried to bring me up and how the show. Howard Stern didn’t want to hear it. He wanted to hear about Mike Judge. And so what we do is like I’ll write something or Dave and I will write something and like for example Mike Judge wants to direct city of Bell. And what we’ve found is that that’s the best way for us to operate because that way he can come in when it’s established at some level and it doesn’t just become I mean I still remember and you know it’s not a problem but we turn in the script for Silicon Valley and it comes back untitled Mike Judge project and you’re like what OK. But the fact is is that it’s not like he ain’t doing the job on the show and it’s not like he wasn’t you know immensely I mean he’s had to work more on Silicon Valley than Dave and I. So the dividing the you know we helped Mike with just about everything that he does he helps us. But we have to kind of keep some things separate like Dave and I did Blades of Glory. We did that separately because otherwise we’re just seen as an adjunct to Mike and it sucks because we all just love working together. But he understands that as well you know because it’s awkward for him because he’s a great guy. So he doesn’t like taking credit for things that you know or taking too much credit.

Mr. Altschuler’s ability to turn aggravation into art eventually brought him to a new project he’s currently developing based on the remarkably crooked politicians in the city of Bell California.

It comes to me you know it finds me you know it’s like I don’t have to go like There’s a project that we’re I think well. Have you ever heard of the city of Bell City of Bell is the most corrupt poorest city in California with a city manager who’s paying himself eight hundred thousand a year. I was so mad about the way that the local governments are in California with all these people four hundred thousand there. It’s another thing I hated this guy so but I loved him because if you check into the you know this guy Rizzo and all these people they didn’t have a chance. They are the truly disenfranchised. They were ugly they were dumb they had no connections and they figured it out. They cracked the code you know. And so basically I was like well that’s a series. So it started off with me just going god you know these people piss me off but usually not always the things that pissed me off. It just sort of wakes me up and I go whoa whoa what’s going going on here. And I have written things that don’t piss me off. There’s one project that you know it’s something that you guys probably should. I was gonna talk about a little bit is the business has changed so dramatically. Like I had a project which was a Napoleonic war comedy. And here’s the thing. And everybody told me not to write a Napoleonic war comedy sat down and wrote a Napoleonic war comedy and we had Johnny Depp everybody in the world wanted to be this character. Well we had the money we had Steve Carell wanted it. We had Jay Roach to direct it. And Steve Carell didn’t want to go to Europe. It was well within two years the world changed and the 53 million dollars went to 35 million went to 28 million. So now what I’ve done is I’ve redeveloped it as a it’s now the continuing adventures of Brigadier Gerard as a 10 episode series like Sherlock that Bay Area terrorist project started out as a movie. Can’t make movies anymore. So I’ve converted them into these sort of limited series which I like but I also I love movies. So it’s kind of like I want it to circle back because not every idea is worthy of dragging out for twelve hours.

So this might not be shocking news but TV has changed a lot over the last 10 years thanks in no small part to Netflix Hulu and Amazon Prime. And just like TV’s changed so it’s the process of selling television starting with the pitch.

It’s changed okay. It used to be that I would always have three ideas. And you’d sort of pitch and you knew they didn’t like one idea and then you sort of held back one. So we’d have three ideas that we would pitch. Now. I’m not sure how important pitching is anymore because now the executives. Want to see things. I mean it’s not that they don’t want you to pitch. I mean fortunately my agents and my manager like Dave and I and they like me is that I’m actually a good pitcher. You have if you said oh you know pitch me one of your stories. I can do it. I do it. Lively and engaging and I you know. But even though I’m good at it. I don’t like it I don’t like doing it because I’m not sure how it works anymore. So now I basically and this sounds vain but I say I don’t want to go in unless they’re already buying it now they don’t have to buy it but unless they’re buying it I’m kind of like well why do I go. So here’s the thing. You should always pitch when you’re starting out. Why do you pitch A. It helps you focus your stories because you start seeing when I hit a bump and I need to make these adjustments. Okay so it helps you tell the story which will help you write the story. You will also make connections with the people that you’re pitching to. And it may not sell then but they’ll move up the ladder. You will have known them. So it’s a good thing. So let’s just say that pitching does matter what I would say is you go in have your story and try to start off with a topic sentence or a personal story like I told you. This is how the city of Bell came to me. OK this is how Silicon Valley I’m reading this book. What the hell. OK. You try to grab them. Now here’s the thing. I do not like pitching. And then they and then they go here and it makes me want to die. OK. And you can see them kind of. OK. So what I like to do is to know everything but to try to make it a conversation like I sold the project to NBC called the deplorables. And this is the I’ll give you the quick pitch is that basically the whole show is about these people that are truly the most marginalized population in the country. Nobody likes them. Nobody wants them. And they’re deplorable but they are not Republicans. They’re not Democrats. They hate big government. They hate big business. They feel like they’re screwed by everybody. Okay. And then I started talking about well and I want to have a character who is from this area who moved to Atlanta his his parents moved away from this sort of feuding area to Atlanta. Because I want to do a reverse Green Acres. So I’m just having a conversation about what interests me and then they can say oh well what’d be a story of the show and the dad says he’s talking to the cousins. I’m worried about Byron that he’ll fit in. And they go well tell him to get his gun and we’ll take him hunting and everything’s going to be great. And Mike has to let him know he’s 11 years old. He doesn’t have a gun. Well is he a felon because that’s the only way that they can imagine a kid not having a gun. Well what ends up happening the kid blows his thumb off. But what they do and this is real is they take the toes from corpses and they put them on and they make. And so he becomes toe thumb and becomes cool in the new town. So I sort of start off with a big picture and then just kind of until it’s a personal story about a kid and his dad. Blowing his thumb off and replacing it with a toe.

John Altshuler is always finding his personal connection to material be it an animated propane and propane accessories salesmen or Silicon Valley’s ridiculous app not hot dog. But as a great man once said If you love something. Set it free.

It’s something that I was told and it is. Completely true is. Don’t hang on to anything. You just gotta let everything go because if it’s great it’ll get back in. Okay but you’ve just gotta be able to throw everything away knowing that you’ll be able to come up with something better and you learn that. Through years of hard knocks. I mean it’s hard I mean and I still do it. I mean there’s something that you love with City of Bell. There’s this aspect. That. I love and I’m going. You know what. It’s just getting in the way. I know better. You just just let it go. Throw it out. And if it’s great it will drift back in.

If being pissed off inspires him then let’s hope he is never happy. Fortunately we are incredibly happy and thankful that John Altschuler spent time with our students and of course thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see or other Q&As. Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden Our Creative Director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Tova Laiter Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

That boy ain’t right.

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