Talking to Mitch Hurwitz About ‘Arrested Development’ and Why It’s Okay If Comedy Is Confusing
It would be nearly impossible to overstate the influence of Arrested Development on today’s TV comedy landscape. While the original three seasons of the Fox show inspired hundreds of imitators full of quick cuts and layered running jokes, the show’s fourth season on Netflix completely altered the sitcom format by introducing a slow-building, novel-esque narrative arc culminating in a classic whodunit.
It’s all down to the genius of the show’s creator, Mitch Hurwitz. While in Montreal recently to collect his Just For Laughs Comedy Writer of the Year Award, he sat down with Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer for Netflix for a conversation about AD, Running Wilde, and the new model for making comedy. After the panel, I got a few minutes to talk with Hurwitz about hidden jokes, complex comedy, and the brilliance of Maria Bamford:
At Splitsider, we were somewhat obsessed with the show when it returned.
I know, that was awesome. And it really inspired me, because you would publish – even early on, not even just for the launch – the 53 hidden jokes you missed, and I would look at those and think, “I gotta do this again.” Like, I’d forgotten I did all that stuff. Some of them, I was amazed that you caught. Like the Annyong/Hello on the banana, that was something — I got to the set late, and I had scripted that in and I always wanted to do it, and you couldn’t see it. And we couldn’t reshoot. And it was like, “Well, that joke will be gone. Eh, maybe if someone pauses it, but why would they ever?” And you found it. There were a lot like that, that I wanted to make more of and just didn’t.
Since the fourth season, do you get the sense that other people have been inspired from the way you played with the format? The first three seasons were obviously so influential to so many people.
I have not been out there that much. I don’t think necessarily I’m aware of what inspires. I was certainly inspired by a lot of things in doing this, in doing the show this way. And I went so far with this conceit of – whatever you would call that, multiple points of view and re-visiting things – that it probably almost feels a little played out to people. But I’ll bet down the road, it pushes it a little further so that people can mess with narrative a little bit. I just betcha it opens up the idea of, in comedy, playing with the narrative. Usually, the whole thing with comedy, the note you would always get from executives was, “If it’s confusing, people aren’t gonna laugh. You can’t do confusing.” And as a result, a lot of network television became, “Make the subtext, text.” Right? If you think about, like, “Hey, I think I really hurt your feelings when I said that, and maybe in some ways, I was defending my…” You know, everything’s explained.
And then a show like Larry Sanders comes along, which was a big inspiration to me, and doesn’t. You have to do a little math in your head. The show ends, and you go, “Wait. Oh, Larry’s in hell, because it’s his own karma,” or whatever you come up with, you know? So, I think if I had tried to do this on network television, they would have said, “Well, this is confusing. We don’t know where we are in time. We don’t understand.” And I always felt like it’s okay if you don’t understand. I grew up watching Woody Allen movies and not understanding the August Strindberg references or anything else and I loved them. [In a Woody Allen voice] “I feel like I’m in an August Strindberg play.” That’s great. I don’t know what it means, but I get it. I get it. It’s something dark, probably Scandinavian, and it’s a really cool reference. And also, in dramas that are really compelling, you never know what’s going on. You watch The Sopranos and you’re just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. So this was a little bit audacious in trying to do not complete clarity, trying to go out of our way to make things not what they seem. And maybe that’ll find a way into the public discourse.
I think it will. You’re a big champion of Netflix now, and I wonder if you think it has the potential to really change things?
I think it definitely has. It’s like cable. You know, these three, four networks were going after the 250 million person audience, trying to get 30 million of them in the country. And TV really got better when mistakes were made, right? And Seinfeld just got renewed because they thought they might need him to replace Carson and then people found it, so it was like, accidentally that worked, so we’re sticking with it. All of those shows, M*A*S*H was like that. It’s always a mistake, it’s always outside the system. And then cable came along and said, “Well, we’re not trying to get 30 million.” And just by its very nature, you can have higher quality. You could have a nicer restaurant if you’re not trying to make it work in Disneyland. And I think Netflix, I do think there’ll be a new model that’ll emerge. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with their comedies, because comedies usually are episodic. But I’ll bet you people embrace it. What I tried to do, I was like, let’s not be the first Netflix comedy that just does a little move. Let’s not just do that little, “Oh, the show didn’t end.” Let’s just completely use the form. Let me think of everything that this form could let us do, and I think people are gonna find it that way. They’re gonna find that they can follow two different narratives at the same time. I think it’s gonna be interesting.
You talked a bit in the panel about how media outlets were posting every bit of information and spoilers that they could get before season four, which we did a lot. Was that annoying? Was that exciting?
It was worrisome. And I kept thinking, what does it matter? And then I got Netflix really paranoid. They showed me trailer and I took out everything from that trailer, so we had this really dull trailer. And then when that aired, I was like, “Ah, why did I take everything out? I took all the funny stuff out.” But for whatever reason, I just thought, I want this experience of watching it to be totally fun for the audience. I mean, arguably, what I was really trying to do almost made more sense not on Netflix, where you would have time between episodes to go, “Oh my God, GOB must be the other man. I figured it out.” And then find out you didn’t figure it out. So in a weird way, it was like I set up all these surprises and paid them off for many poeple in the same viewing. But for whatever reason, I really wanted to keep a tight lid on that stuff, and I kind of regret that. I’m kinda like, “Eh, you could have shown the Google car. That would have gotten people excited.”
There are so many comedians included on the show, like Maria Bamford and the Workaholics guys…
Well, I wrote it for Maria.
She’s the best.
I know. I know, and I just keep thinking like, “Wait, she’s not our most famous comedian yet?” And I remember saying to the casting director, “We can’t lose Maria.” And she goes, “You’re not gonna lose Maria.” And I was like, “But we might lose Maria. She’s gonna…” And I still think it’s very likely that we would have lost Maria, but it had to be her. The Workaholics guys was kind of like an inside joke to myself because I appeared on Workaholics on-camera, and it was very nice that I was included. I kind of thought I was gonna be the straight man telling the guys like, “I’m sorry, we can’t give you that bank loan.” And then it turns out I was the goofball, and they sat there and watched me, and so I kind of wanted to get even a little it. But anyway, they were great. And I also didn’t think anybody would know who were there but a lot of people know who they are. And it’s so funny the way that they emerge one after and another; it did make them seem sort of more famous. “What’s this? What’s going on? Let me get you a box cutter.”
In the gap between the third and fourth seasons, were you paying attention to what was happening in comedy…
…and do you think that influenced the way you approached the new season?
No. Well, it must have. It absolutely must have, without question. But not so consciously. In fact, many times I would be on the set, and go, “God dammit, I really should have watched some of these other shows.” Or in the room, I’d come up with something and somebody would say, “Oh, that was on Eastbound & Down.” I’d be like, “Oh, I never saw Eastbound & Down. Shit. But it would have been funny.”
Yeah, there were a lot of good things that I didn’t watch. Sometimes I didn’t watch because, you know, when you’re not working, it makes you jealous if it’s good. But now I love things that used to make me jealous. I love Veep. I loved Enlightened. Girls, I love. Some people hate Girls; I love it. That’s inspiring. That really is. Even though it has nothing to do with our show, it’s like, “God, she puts herself out there.”
Here are some of the best quotes from Hurwitz’s panel with Netflix boss Ted Sarandos:
On doing the new season of Arrested Development on Netflix:
I had a great time. It was a great, great experience and completely unlike the prior experience because the prior one was a battle every day. It was an external battle, and this was an internal battle, which is harder and more uncomfortable but more fun in a way […] It was an incredibly complex idea. We had this idea of let’s do these episodes. Originally it was gonna be nine episodes, and then, at the end, it was gonna say, “On the next Arrested Development…” and the whole family comes together, and then the 10th episode was gonna be the Bluth Family in 1982. So it was gonna be none of the actors, and it was an experiment. “Let’s just really disappoint the shit out them.” So it was a very ambitious idea.
On the structure of the season:
SARANDOS: When I talked to Mitch about the early construction of the show, we walked into a room that was wrapped around in color-coded cards with color-coded yarn that took every character through every episode and every joke through ever arc. It was about a two-hour walkthrough. It was performance art.
HURWITZ: We had two kinds of string. We had causal string – because you couldn’t line up all the cards and then have them match, like have the same evening be right there, so you had to have a string going from one thing to another and things that caused other things. And still, every day of shooting, there would be that moment where’d we all [go], “Wait!” [Long pause.] “He doesn’t have a mustache.”
I found a lot of time, I would just stop and – it’s a weird part of any creative endeavor, where you stop and you think, “What am I missing? ‘Cause I see everything else and I know what they’re missing. I know that they shouldn’t have named that movie Pacific Rim.” [Everyone laughs.] No one knows what Pacific Rim means. Call it Robot Fights.
So I would stop and just go, “What am I missing? What’s the thing I’m missing?” And you know, it’s funny, what I was missing, arguably, is what we went into it with – and I’ve thought about this a lot actually. Are people gonna be okay with the individualized storytelling, with the fact that we’re really trying to tell one big story, and that’s what was kind of radical about it? And I think that’s what is gonna be radical about what you guys [at Netflix] are doing. It’s gonna say to people, shows aren’t shows. They’re novels. And even if you hated the first two episodes of House of Cards, it’s meaningless if the whole experience is a great one for you. And I think that was the case with a lot of what we were doing. We were setting up a lot of stuff that was gonna pay off in the 15 episodes.
On doing more Arrested Development on Netflix:
HURWITZ: Yeah, I mean, definitely. But I keep thinking, why don’t we do the movie version of it and then do the series? Because we kind of did make this series into.. it peeks with the story, which we could kind of…so I kind of go back and forth on diving into another series. Here’s the most important thing: I think whatever we do, we want to get the cast all together or create the impression that the cast is all together and not do another anthology thing. And that’s why I keep thinking, if we kick it off with a special or a three-part show and then it goes into a series. Are you game for that?
SARANDOS: Absolutely, in any form.
HURWITZ: And can it be a parody of House of Cards?
On doing Running Wilde with “little brother” Will Arnett:
For whatever reason, I chose to try to teach Will the lesson that you don’t give up. Like I’m not gonna be the guy that says, “You know, fuck ’em. Fuck ’em. If they don’t like it, who do they think we are?” No, we’re gonna show humility and we’re gonna rise to the challenge. And then it was like, “Well what if it had a little girl in it?” “They want to add a little girl. Let’s do it. Because good things come to people who work hard.” And I just got into this whole thing. And then we were like on draft six, the show still hadn’t been picked up. Draft six? We’d missed all of fall and winter development season, and I’m just with less convication saying, “Well, you have to work hard in life, and…” [Everyone laughs.] I’m not buying it.
And they eventually end up making the thing, and I keep getting suckered in, because [then-Fox president of entertainment] Kevin Reilly is actually a great guy, and he kept saying, “Mitch, I want you to be rich.” Like, “Right, yes, so I do. That’s right.” And he’d say, “So I just want you to be successful, and I’m telling you, this isn’t gonna make it.” And then it got to the point where he literally said to me at one point, “Look, you’re gonna make fun of me for saying this, but if you think something is a good idea or you think it’s funny or it’s just a twist you haven’t seen before, just don’t do it.” [Everyone laughs.] And I said, “Kevin, come on.” And he goes, “I know, I know, I know,” because he’s a bright funny guy. He’s like, “I know that’s ridiculous, but I’m telling you, you’re your own worst enemy. Just don’t do it.”
And again, I was like taking the wrong lesson of like, “You’re right.” I literally go back into the writers room and we’re working on something and trying to figure out a way to get the guy to the party or whatever the plot was, and I do this. I say, “Oh! You know what would be funny? Nevermind.” [Everybody laughs.] So I tried that for a couple days. Like, not liking something, “Good, run it. Do it. Let’s put it in there.” It was the opposite. They were so freaked out about me at Fox because this whole legend of me being difficult had accrued. And I do think it was because [Arrested] went away and it stuck around, and it was probably the thing that people talked about at cocktail parties or whatever. And it just became like, “Well, you know Mitch.” It just kind of became this story, and maybe it’s a fair story. So when I was doing [Running Wilde], they were like, “Don’t do any of that Mitch stuff.” That being said, I mean it was a funny show. Just, it was crazy.
Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider who spent a lot of time reading about Arrested Development on the internet when she was in college. Like seriously, a lot.