If you speak to television junkies, never mind comedy fans, what their favourite shows is, odds are Arrested Development will place pretty high in their top five or ten.
About a formerly wealthy family held together by Michael Bluth when his father, George, is imprisoned for ‘creative accounting’, the show only ran for three seasons before it was cancelled by Fox, but it’s since amassed a feverish cult following and kickstarted the careers of Michael Cera and Jason Bateman, and also played host to the likes of Will Arnett, Tony Hale and David Cross.
When the opportunity came up to sit down with creator Mitch Hurwitz and aforementioned star Will Arnett, it’s therefore fair to say we jumped at the chance, and one crisp morning in Soho, with four coffees downed just before stepping into a room with each of them, considered ourselves readily prepared, and pretty darned excited, for 30 minutes with two of the most influential men in television comedy.
Will was up first, and it was a baptism of fire despite leaving it a little while before discussing the real topic at hand…
FAN THE FIRE: Have you ever wanted to play someone more dramatic like the role you had in 2002 on The Soprano’s?
WILL ARNETT: What a terrible first question! I’m kidding. Up to that point I was taking whatever work I could get really, and I when I got out drama school I wanted to be taken more seriously. I guess I never really considered having a career in comedy, but then when I was 30 I had an audition for Arrested Development and I knew that it was right for me.
FTF: Would you ever like to get back into a more serious role again?
WA: I think that comedy is what interests me more, but I am very open to doing some more dramatic stuff. I had a small role in Jonah Hex that came out last year, and while the film wasn’t as successful as we wanted to be, it was nice to do something a little bit different from what I had been doing for the last 10 years.
FTF: Do you spend much time in Canada anymore, or are you a full American now?
WA: I guess I don’t spend much time in Canada anymore. I moved down when I was 20 because there was more for work and went to the Lee Strasburg Institute. That’s what I had to do if I wanted to be an actor. Now it’s been years since then and I have a family in tow, and we live in New York; that’s just the way it is. My mum and dad still love in Toronto though.
I was just up there though for Christmas; I hadn’t been back in years and it had changed quite a bit. It was nice though, and despite moving away I am still a really big hockey fan. It’s great being a Canadian in America as well because the world that we live in I can watch it at home in the States whenever I want, and I do watch every Toronto hockey game.
[As a fellow Canadian, at this point a part of me wanted to husk out the word “REPRESENT”, although that might have been a bit strange for Will, and I kept the veil of professionalism despite excitement growing inside]
FTF: Did you enjoy working with David Cross again on Running Wilde?
WA: We’ve actually been doing two shows simultaneously. There’s a show here called The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret and Mitch, Jim Valley and I wrote a show called Running Wilde, and David worked with us on that as well. That was great, although it seems like it is finished now because it never really found its audience. It took us a while to find what the show was, and because there wasn’t a huge ratings hit out of the box we just ran out of time.
FTF: It didn’t have the same kind of following Arrested Development found?
WA: No, certainly not the following AD had, but it was definitely starting to generate a something, and then we were told that it was ‘too little, too late’. Bummer.
FTF: I guess we should probably move onto the reason why we’re here, for your character Gob, did you make the chicken dance up?
WA: No, the chicken dance was actually a very specific bid by Mitch and Jim Valley, penned in the writer’s room, then they came down and pitched about what it could be. We were actually just talking about it today at lunch. I have a very distinct memory of Mitch and Jimmy coming onto the stage at Fox and saying; “this is what this bid is supposed to be,” and then Jimmy and Mitch did this kind of dance, and I kind of took that and ran with it, pretty much made it more aggressive but less ridiculous to look at than the two of them trying to do it. Then it sort of became an on-set joke and manifested into everyone having his or her own dance.
FTF: Another of Gob’s trademarks is the song Final Countdown song for his magic tricks, do you still react now when you hear it?
WA: I always look around to see if anyone is filming, trying to trick me into my Gob alter-ego. Once while I was home visiting family I went to a hockey game in Toronto and they started playing that song. I was with my dad and I looked up and there I was on the big screen. I was kind of embarrassed so I didn’t tell my dad because he would have gone crazy. That song just makes me so self-aware; I don’t own it in any form, so I never play it, or try to attract attention to myself!
FTF: I’d love it if you were driving, the song came on, and you tried to perform magic tricks from behind the wheel… do you like magic yourself?
WA: [laughs] I do like magic… although I can’t perform it!
FTF: Do you have experience with dysfunctionality in your family that you drew on for your character?
WA: Well, not really. I mean there is dysfunction in every family right? Dysfunction is the function!’ There are things though; there are things that my parents, and especially my siblings, do that I might have drawn from. Mainly the character of Gob was always based on Mitch Hurwitz, and who he is. Only joking; write that down though, he will be horrified!
FTF: When all the rifts started appearing with Fox and there was the looming threat of cancellation, did it affect you and the rest of the cast?
WA: Yeah, definitely. You know, there is that point when it’s kind of depressing that you are constantly living with the axe swinging over your head, just waiting for it to drop. It starts to fuel the work, and I know that it fuelled the writing; it was an interesting time, it just felt like there was a kind of screen of animosity between two sides. It was very strange and very sad.
FTF: Back to yourself, is your gravely voice natural or learned?
WA: I think I’ve always had this husky voice; I mean at least since puberty. I came by it pretty naturally as my dad has a pretty deep voice. I’m sure though that years of smoking and drinking didn’t help, despite since giving up.
FTF: Do your children recognise your voice in your animation work like Despicable Me and Monsters vs. Aliens?
WA: They’re too little still for those movies really but every once in a while they’ve seen stuff that my wife and I have been in. We actually happened to be watching TV the other night where my wife was presenting the Screen Actors Guild Award. I was watching with our son, and he was yelling at the screen, “Mama! Come here!”
We don’t watch ourselves very often so it was really funny. We don’t just plonk him in front of the television and say ‘”Look! There we are!’, it just happened to be on in the kitchen.
FTF: What is it like working with your wife?
WA: Great, we always have a great time. It’s not something we do all the time though. We have done a few times, and we enjoy it, but we try to plan not to do it too much, just because you don’t want it to be too incestuous. When it happened though, we get to spend a lot of time together, which is really nice, like on Blades of Glory when we had an amazing time.
Next up was Mitch, although it ended up being a double-play with his wife joining us, and what a lovely lady she was too.
FAN THE FIRE: Hi, I’m Natasha
MITCH HURWITZ: Hi, I’m Mitch, do you mind me asking who you write for?
FTF: I’m from FAN THE FIRE, we cover film, TV, design, art and fashion, that kind of stuff.
MH: Great! Can we talk about fashion…?
Me: We can, let’s talk about fashion
MH: I really want to focus this interview on fashion. God- no one ever takes me seriously!
Me: We do! What do you think about this years Prada collection?
MH: I think it’s so bold. I think that is exactly what the UK needs. Perfect!
FTF: This is a great start, this is actually only my second ever interview, Gob, sorry Will, was my first
MH: [Laughs] You know almost the entire time Arrested Development was running everyone called him Gob, Will’s called Gob, even on my speed dial. Please, though, carry on
FTF: You’ve worked on such a wide variety of TV shows, are there any that you particularly hold dear to your heart?
MITCH HURWITZ: Wait a minute… this is your second interview? Because that was a really good question
[oh man, I love him already]
MH: Perhaps obviously, but, Arrested Development is closest to my heart. It represented a period of creative risk taking and finally allowed me to be in a position to maintain a vision and grow a series from what a lot of the actors were going through. I feel like we all had a great, though a little challenging, experience. A lot of exec.’s would roll their eyes about it but I don’t think the actors would ever think anything but what a privilege it was to put it all together, even when we were getting low ratings and they took us off of the air. It might have sounded a little disingenuous when they cancelled the show and I talked about how grateful I was for the experience but I really really was. I did feel really great at the end of the day, and we had a lot of fun.
It’s a lot of money to make these things, and they did allow me, albeit sometimes reluctantly, to pursue a vision, and typically that’s the stuff that tends to end up working. You need a lot of other factors to click too, like timing and allowing an audience to find you; it’s just unfortunate that they didn’t find us at the time. College campuses and a lot of young people did, but they weren’t counted, so I always found myself saying anecdotally to the networks, “Young people are watching! They really really are. The actors are being stopped on the street and, as vain as this sounds, we have something great here!”
FTF: Fox didn’t think much of Arrested Development despite numerous awards, nominations and a big cult following, what did this do the atmosphere on-set?
MH: We always had to remind ourselves not to believe the press, because the press was saying it was a very ‘smart show’, and in a way, I think that was what really kept audiences away. I think they meant in the best sort of way – what they meant was that it was funny, and it makes you laugh – but it looked like hard work to an audience. So when we would get awards or were nominated for something we would have to say to ourselves, ‘just tune it out, and make an effort to keep doing what we were doing.’
Fox had a kind of funny identity at that time too, in that they really hadn’t been too successful with live-action comedy. You’d be hard-pressed to find real people in a comedy that worked, and though they had a series called That 70’s Show which was kind of successful, but didn’t really have an identity. Fox wasn’t really a destination for people who would like a show like Arrested Development, I think many people didn’t find it at the time because it wouldn’t have occurred to them to watch a show after some cartoons like The Simpsons or Family Guy. Even though they’re both amazing, the audiences are just a bit different.
At another time or on another network it might have been more successful, but you never really know. It does seem though that at that time NBC and others like them were taking risks by showing things like Seinfeld, and people who liked that sort of adult comedy were used to going to NBC.
FTF: Were you pitching it elsewhere or just to Fox?
MH: Well we pitched it everywhere really. We told the concept to all of the major networks in the States, ABC, NBC, CBS, and the newcomer, which was Fox. I was making it through Imagine Television, which was Ron Howard’s company, and they had a financial arrangement with Twentieth Century Fox, the production company. So in a way it was always predetermined that we’d go to Fox because the owner of the person making it was also the owner of the broadcasting network. When another broadcasting company wanted the show, Fox wanted it too, and we went with Fox. Nonetheless it could have been cancelled after an hour NBC, you never know, and we lasted 54 episodes on Fox, and they supported it. I think, though, if we did it again today, we would probably just say that we should take this to cable.
FTF: When you started writing Arrested Development did you already have the first season scripted or did it develop during casting and as the characters developed into their roles?
MH: No, it all came in casting. I had the character Tobias as Jeffrey Tambor for a while, and a friend said to me that it was very depressing. “If they are all in their 50s, it’s really depressing.“ I kinda just thought they’d all be in their 50s! I was a big fan of The Larry Sanders Show at the time, which is very adult and everyone is 40. I didn’t really have a cast in mind either, except for Micheal Cera. I had seen him in a pilot and thought he was incredible so he was the only character that I sort of wrote for a particular actor. He was so wonderfully awkward.
I remember pitching that character to Fox and thinking that he didn’t really feel like a Fox kid. At that time everything was still all about being cool. They wanted a sort of hip, heartthrob kind of character. Ironically now that kind of kid IS the heartthrob now. Now all of a sudden, there are people like Jonah Hill that are heart throbs! Geeks are cool! FOX said, “Well… he’s really not going to be very cool,” but I was thinking the whole time, ”Yeah I know! That’s the point!” They asked, “Well what’s funny about him?” and I just said, “Nothing,” but it was hard to explain why that is funny.
For the rest of the casting process we only had three weeks, which was never going to happen. I remember when Jason Bateman came in, and I really didn’t want him to come in; he was a sort of teen idol and I had this kind of pre-judgement; of course he was wonderful, and we wanted him on board immediately.
Gob was the character we couldn’t cast; we really couldn’t find anyone. We had his character already written, with a long back-story, and I was so surprised no-one heard Gob the way I heard him! Everyone kind of though of him as this New York cool guy with a swagger, like really street, but I just kept saying, “No, he’s a country club kinda guy. He is entitled.” Finally Will came in, actually after Fox threatened us with cancellation as we couldn’t find Lucia or Gob. Will came in and within a second I knew he was it. He saved the day.
FTF: How did you get the all of the actors to work so well together?
MH: We did one or two table reads beforehand and I had been through enough pilots already to articulate to them that we had to ‘fake it to make it’. I told them that they would get fired if it didn’t work, not by me of course, but we needed to show that we could do this. I told them to just jump ahead like it was their 100th rehearsal and really go for it. And they did. It was so successful.
I think though what helped most was the simple fact that they like each other.
[At this point I was told that I only had one question left, and Mitch says over the top of everyone, “Thin belts. I think thin belts are what will be big this season. I also think that people are going to start finally wearing jewellery on their penny loafers!”
I told him to look down and on my shoe was a gold cat with emerald eyes adorned with little diamonds. So he grabbed my foot to get a better look; I though forged on, and despite not getting the chance to ask who Mitch thought was the better actor, Will Arnett or his wife Amy Poehler, did sneak in something about the much talked of film adaptation.]
FTF: How will the Arrested Development differ given that you won’t have censoring?
MH: Well it’s funny, I mean I always liked the censoring. It was funnier in the absence of it bad language, almost like a silent beat in music, just funnier to fill it in.
There was a joke that we were playing with for a little while where the family has just promised to not use any bad language, so it would just be a really clean, which we thought would make for some pretty funny happenings.
I think it will be shot in the same way, but we have some pretty great ideas to make it fresh. Of course, we need money to make the film, and in the absence of Arrested Development we have all been doing other work to earn a living, but now we are all finally in a place to actually work on the project.
We were actually kind of faking it that Michael wasn’t interested because of his fame; we thought it would be funny to make sweet little Cera the bad guy. Then he immediately started getting death threats! So we had to retract that… it was still pretty funny though! It was particularly funny because he is such a good guy, I mean he so talented. He still looks like a teenager too, which is good; I am so happy he is a bit of a heartthrob now, as he is such a kind, sincere guy. He is Canadian too, which is a plus, they aren’t as self-centred and are so polite!
Arrested Development is currently re-running every Tuesday night at 9pm on FX