Peter Serafinowicz: Inside Running Wilde’s Too-Short Run
Peter Serafinowicz is not a household name here in the States, but he’s been a major part of Britain’s comedy scene for years. In addition to appearing in beloved shows such as Spaced, I’m Alan Partridge, Little Britain and The IT Crowd, he also created and starred in both Look Around You and The Peter Serafinowicz Show. But his first major introduction to American audiences was in Mitchell Hurwitiz’s short-lived followup to Arrested Development, Running Wilde.
Running Wilde was burdened from the start with unreasonable expectations. Coupled with a heavy hand from network executives, the show never really got a chance to find its footing and build a solid audience before getting jerked around in the Fox schedule and eventually getting pulled altogether.
I talked to Peter about how the show came together, their issues with the network, dealing with fading ratings while still shooting new episodes, and working with Will Arnett and Mitch Hurwitz. He also told me about what’s next for him: the two new shows he’s working on (one with Arnett) and the part in the Arrested Development movie Hurwitz is writing for him.
So how did you initially get involved with Running Wilde?
I’d been a friend of Will’s for a long time. I was introduced to him in 2006, by Edgar Wright. He was out in LA and was like, You’ve got to meet this guy Will Arnett — he’s the guy in Arrested Development. And I was like, What, the really, really funny one? And he’s like, Yeah.
I was a bit nervous about meeting him at first, but we got on really well. He and Mitch — Mitch Hurwitz — and Jim Vallely, the three creators of Running Wilde, when they were starting to write the script they had me in mind for this character Fa’ad. This was two years before we started production, and sort of miraculously I was still the guy playing it by the time they came around to do the show.
So did they create the character based on something they had seen you doing?
No, definitely not. They just invented this character. It’s really flattering to have that happen. And also it’s kind of a big responsibility because when you know somebody has written something for you, you’d better not fuck it up.
It was sort of just the best job, because I was working with the nicest and funniest people, and once we were actually doing the series we were filming it in New York, and it’s always been my ambition to work in New York, or do a TV show in New York. And that’s what I was doing. Where we shot the show in Long Island was just under an hour outside of Manhattan, and we’d get to this place and it was like we were filming in a castle.
Yeah, the house where you guys shot was crazy.
Yeah, and it was built by one of the Guggenheim family, for his wife. In fact, there were two castles. He built one and his wife said she didn’t like it, so he built another one, like a five minute’s walk away, on the top of a hill. So we had one castle that was our production office and our props department, etc., and then the other was our set and location.
Can’t do much better than that.
Yeah, and everyone just worked really, really hard. And we were up against it from — I was going to say day one, and then I was going to correct myself and say day naught, but it was actually probably like day minus 157. Because I think the project was in jeopardy from almost its inception.
Why was that?
Well there were lots of reasons, lots of just sort of corporate executive reasons that I don’t really understand, and decisions that you wonder, Are there any kind of basis for these decisions?
I mean, we got to a point where we were shooting and our show was on the air at the same time. So we would get up in the morning to start filming an episode and, say the first or the second show had been on the night before. We’d click onto the TV by the Numbers Twitter account and wait for the ratings to come in. And for the first two or three weeks, we teetered on the edge of acceptability, or just below it actually. And then we went downhill after that. And that was a really depressing thing.
Especially because we would watch the show go out and watch what people were saying about Running Wilde live on Twitter. And these people were just as regular people as you can get, on the Internet. They’re just people talking to their friends and watching TV and for the most part it was overwhelmingly positive, the feedback we were getting. And so it was sort of doubly disappointing when we’d get the ratings the next day, after seeing all the brilliant comments on Twitter, and they’d be down again. And then we’d start getting angry about the whole Nielsen system, and how only 20,000 households in the US have these boxes and that’s how they decide, and you just think, God, in 2010 that’s what people still are doing. When you can track what anybody’s doing at any one time. You know, people are telling you that they’re watching the show.
Yeah, it seems like a primitive way of tracking it.
Yeah, it does. But that’s the system they use and they have to sell their advertising, you know. So.
I can imagine it’s hard to shoot a show when you’re getting, in the middle of your work day, that sort of information back.
Yeah, it was. I realized this thing when I watched the first show go out on Fox — and I watch a ton of American TV and I’m used to watching it, downloading it from iTunes, watching it on DVD, or whatever — but I hadn’t realized how many advertising breaks there were going to be. I mean, I’ve watched TV before. I haven’t lived in the Earth’s core for all my life. I know that advertising exists. I just hadn’t realized to what extent it interrupts a program. So it’s a half hour show, but then it’s broken up into four five-minute acts. And in Britain, on commercial TV, you have BBC, which doesn’t have any advertising at all, and then you have the independent advertising-funded channels, where you’d have, for a typical half-hour show, one ad break. So you’d have two fourteen minute or twelve minute acts.
And then there’s no sort of delineation between the ad and the show. There’s no pause. There’s no “We’ll be right back after these messages.”
They don’t want to give DVR viewers a chance to fast forward. They want to trick them into not skipping the commercials.
Yeah, and the commercials all look like TV shows as well. They’re all shot the same, and they all look slick and like a TV comedy. So it’s weird. And I think that was one of the reasons why our show didn’t fare well on Fox. You really had to pay attention to it, the plots were always quite complex, and there were lots of different-layered jokes. And if you missed a bit, it would make the rest of the plot a bit hard to understand. Or you might miss three or four setups to jokes that would be paid off, and if you didn’t see those setups then you would think, Well what’s funny about that?
And it just made me, as a viewer, think, How does anybody watch TV? How do you do it? But I guess then there are shows that don’t require that amount of commitment for a half hour. I think maybe if the show had been a bit more straightforward then maybe that would have helped it.
But then there are other American comedies that, I would say, are relatively complex, like 30 Rock and Community. Like on 30 Rock especially, the writing is really dense.
Yeah, I guess — So you’re basically saying that’s not an excuse? [laughs] You know, I guess it just brought it home to me, watching it on actual TV, that the show is there to sell advertising space. It’s not there to be exhibited as this work of comedic art made available for the viewers of America. It’s there to fill up the spaces between ads. And if you’re not getting the numbers and the viewers that these advertisers paid for — that’s it. You’re fucked. There’s no point in you being there. That’s how the business works, and it’s a different model to the cable TV system.
So it seems like you didn’t have the best experience dealing with an American network. You alluded to some of the notes that they’d give and the changes they’d request. The pilot was really reworked, with two major characters recast and one’s gender changed. Was that their call or was that on the creative side?
You know, I didn’t see any of this. I saw a tiny bit of this network interference because I’m not part of the writing team or the production team; I’m just an actor. But they’d seem to arbitrarily not let us cast certain people. There were guest spots and we’d want to hire somebody really funny for them. And they’d hem and haw for days and weeks until the next day or the next couple of days we had to hire somebody. And then they’d say no. And then we’d have to get somebody that we didn’t particularly have in mind, that we didn’t particularly want. And you felt like it was a decision that was being made because some guy’s job depended on him making A Decision. And it puts a person in a kind of powerful position if they can say no.
As for the pilot, I think the broad concept didn’t really change, and it couldn’t. But there were a couple of cast members that were changed, and there was one character who they wanted to change from a woman to a man, but apart from that it was pretty much the same. I thought the reworked one was much better.
So did the impetus for those changes come from the network, or from the creative team on the show?
I think it was a bit of both. But the network maybe wanted to skew it more towards the romantic comedy kind of feel, and Mitch and Will and Jimmy wanted it to be more screwball. They wanted to concentrate more on the funny and Fox wanted to see more of the cutesy romance. That was the headline that we kept getting.
We were in a weird position because we were filming in New York, but the writing room was in LA, as were all the Fox execs. So every week Fox wanted us to do a read through on a web cam. So we’d go into this room in this castle that was next-door to another castle, which was our production castle, and we’d go up to this room and do a script read for the Fox execs and one for the writing room as well. So we’d see this TV with a really grainy picture of us, and a really grainy picture of this boardroom at Fox, and then a grainy picture of the writer’s room. And there was a two second delay as well, so you’d be trying to sell this script, really giving it everything, and the laugh would come two seconds afterwards, if one came at all. And that was such a pointless exercise, yet something that we had to do every single week.
When we first started, the Fox screen was full of about 25 people on screen. There’d be Kevin Reilly, the boss of Fox, and all these other really important people. And then week by week that got eroded, there would be less and less people. And then by the end of it there were maybe two or three people from Fox? And I suspect that they may have been extras that they hired to just sit there and nod and laugh at random intervals. [laughs] So that was a bit disheartening, as our ratings kind of continued to — they didn’t plummet, but they were consistently disappointing. That was a reminder of how well we were doing and how well we were being received at Fox.
Was there ever a sense of the creative team against the network? It seems like there was a bit of tension there, or a lack of support. Did you think that that affected how the show came together?
I don’t know, there’s always that. There’s always tension between the creative people and the executives. And it sometimes makes me wonder how anything is on TV at all, let alone anything good. But good stuff and smart stuff does get on. And that’s all part of it, and part of it is luck as well.
Yeah. So what sorts of things were you looking forward to doing on the show that you ended up not being able to do? Did you have stuff written out or lined up for future episodes that you guys didn’t end up getting to shoot, or anything like that?
Well, Fa’ad was ostensibly this rich Arab guy. And Mitch and I were talking about this thing where he wasn’t an Arab at all, and he was just a total impostor, to be revealed at some point. So that was something that I was looking forward to — finding out who he really was. And I got the chance to play different characters throughout the show, through Fa’ad’s different impersonations of people, and I miss doing that as well. We had some fun ideas lined up for that.
But there is still a glimmer of hope, perhaps, for Running Wilde. Because as far as we know, the remaining episodes and the episodes that have already been shown are going to be shown on FX in March or April of this year. So the whole run’s going to be seen on FX. And who knows, if it gets enough of a following people might sort of pick it up again. It’s not impossible.
Really, you think it could kind of be something like what happened with Futurama or Family Guy, where it gets popular on cable and they bring it back on FX maybe?
Yeah, yeah. That would be great. As long as it’s on somewhere.
And it almost seems like cable is a better venue for the type of comedy you guys are making, then network TV at this point. They’re willing to take many more risks on a channel like FX than on a channel like Fox.
Yeah, yeah, I would say that. Definitely.
Do you think it’s easier or harder for Mitch to work after Arrested Development? I feel like it almost seems like he’s got that show hanging over him, just expectations-wise people are like, We want Arrested Development 2. Do you think that makes it harder for him to create something complete new and separate from that?
Yeah, it does. It’s great to have had that and to be the creator of Arrested Development, one of the greatest shows ever. That’s amazing. I guess it’s a bit of a thorn when it comes to doing something new, but it’s a pretty good thorn. It’s kind of like a golden thorn. But as we went on, the show started to feel more Arrested-y. And the character of Steve’s father who appears in the last episode was played by Jeffrey Tambor.
Yeah, I read an interview with Mitch where he said that he eventually wanted to get the entire cast of Arrested Development to appear in Running Wilde in various ways.
Yeah, and another thing as well that Mitch told me is that he’s writing me into the Arrested Development movie, which I’m super excited about.
Oh yeah? What part would you be?
I don’t know, I was too nervous to ask him. That’s all I know.
Well that’s exciting.
[Laughs] Oh, come on! It’s super exciting.
So he’s actually writing the script now?
Oh, yeah yeah yeah. It’s all properly happening. I don’t know anything about it other than that he’s writing it and it’s happening and I’m going to be in it, apparently.
Well that’s awesome. Can’t argue with that.
Yeah man. So, yeah, that was a thing that was in every interview he did.
Well I was going to ask you what the chances are of you and Will working together again, but that kind of answers that. Because you two had such an amazing chemistry on the show, I think it was one of the best parts of Running Wilde, the scenes that you guys did together. So it’s exciting that you guys are going to be working together in that. Do you have any other projects that you two could potentially be working together on?
I don’t know, I’d love to. That was the best part of the whole thing for me, was doing stuff with Will. It was one of those things where you thought, wow, this is my job. One of those, “I’m getting paid for this” moments. I had all this brilliant dialogue and I’m shooting opposite Will Arnett, something I’ve wanted to do for years. I just felt incredibly lucky.
But Will and I have got an idea for a show that’s pretty funny. It’s quite a simple show — it would be a cable show. So we’re talking to people about that. And I’m writing another show at the moment with a couple of other people, one of whom is my brother James who produced my sketch show. We’re writing this thing, it’s called Dick because I realized in my career I’ve played a lot of dicks. Starting off with Spaced, the guy I played in that was a kind of a dick. I’ve played sort of variations of varying degrees of dicks over my career. So it’s this thing called Dick about a guy called Dick, who is a dick, and is also a detective.
[Laughs] Works on a lot of levels.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. If three is a lot then yeah, a lot of levels. So I’m having fun doing that, but that hasn’t got an actual home yet.
So that would be on British TV?
I don’t know, man. I’d like to do something that people can just watch. It could be made here, it could be made in America. I think it doesn’t really matter so much anymore. Lots of people watch American comedies over here, and I suppose maybe less so, but people watch British stuff in America, don’t they?
So, you know, that’s what I’m looking for. I’d just like it to be made and be on somewhere.
Yeah, it will get watched if it’s out there.
Yeah. I think one thing we might try and do is that we might see if we can get someone to give us the money to film a scene or some kind of bit from this show and stick it up online somewhere. Did you see Louis C.K., before he did his Louie series, he did this thing with Bobby Cannavale? It was this ten minute teaser trailer for his show. And it was really funny, it was about him going to see a sort of agent —
Oh yeah, yeah I remember seeing that. It was great.
Yeah. So, I’d like to do something like that, where maybe I go and see an agent who’s, like, for porn actors — No, I’m just kidding.
[Laughs] That’s a really original idea.
But just that thing of, that’s an example of doing something online where it doesn’t look all shitty and cheap. It just looked all sweet, and it’s just like when you film stuff online it should always look as good as stuff that you’d expect to see on TV. There’s no excuse for not doing that these days.