‘Happiness Isn’t Everything’: Mitch Hurwitz’s Lost Post-‘Arrested Development’ Family Sitcom
“The Script Pile” is a new biweekly column on Splitsider that examines the screenplays for high-profile movie and TV comedies that never made it to the screen.
Since Arrested Development was canceled by Fox in 2006, Mitch Hurwitz has created four other shows: the short-lived Fox duo Sit Down Shut Up and Running Wilde, an American adaptation of the UK sitcom The Thick of It for ABC (which never made it to air), and the least-talked-about of the four, a rejected CBS pilot called Happiness Isn’t Everything.
Considering Hurwitz is best known for creating Arrested Development, the last thing you’d ever expect him to get involved with is a mainstream family sitcom on CBS, but that’s exactly what Happiness Isn’t Everything is. A hybrid multi-cam/single-cam show, Happiness was co-created by Hurwitz and his Arrested Development right-hand man James Vallelly, the only writer (besides Hurwitz) to work on all four seasons of that show and the only one who worked on all three seasons of its original Fox run too. CBS ordered a pilot and six scripts for Happiness Isn’t Everything, targeting the show for fall of 2009, but passed on the series after a pilot directed by sitcom legend James Burrows and starring Jason Biggs, Richard Dreyfuss, Mary Steenburgen, and Ben Schwartz was produced.
Judging by the pilot script, Happiness Isn’t Everything is the closest thing to Arrested Development that Hurwitz has made since, in terms of subject matter and tone but not quality. The show follows a Beverly Hills family of four who are struggling with the fact that they’re a little too close to each other. Jason Biggs stars as adult son Jason Hamburger, a writer for the cheesy Spike TV sci-fi show Starhole who’s described in the script as “an over-thinker. Calm on the outside, he might just be the craziest on the inside.” The rest of the family includes Richard Dreyfuss as pushy patriarch Jerry Hamburger, a brilliant plastic surgeon/untalented amateur singer; a pre-Parks and Rec Ben Schwartz as son Jacky, a resident physician who insists on bringing a life-sized wax dummy of O.J. Simpson everywhere; and Mary Steenburgen as Audrey Veill (get it?), Jerry’s ex-wife and the boys’ mother who’s very much a part of Jerry’s daily life.
The pilot follows Jason trying (but failing) to break up with his girlfriend Moon (played by Michelle Krusiec, Dirty Sexy Money) while fretting over his family being too close to one another. The script feels like a middle ground between Arrested Development and a run-of-the-mill CBS sitcom at times, with Hurwitz and Vallelly mixing some story complexity and fast-moving cutaways in with the script’s broad jokes and bad puns. Some of the jokes land hard, but a lot of the humor in the script falls flat on the page. A running gag involving Jason’s family life affecting his sci-fi show Starhole, complete with a series of cutaways to the TV set with star Luke Perry talking to a tennis ball on a stick against a green screen background, works particularly well.
Hurwitz’s willingness to make a more conventional show while compromising his artistic integrity a little bit also happened with his next show, Running Wilde. Here’s how he explained his mindset at this point in his career, which might shed some light on why the Happiness Isn’t Everything pilot feels a little pedestrian:
“[Fox exec] 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.’ And I said, ‘Kevin, come on.’ And he goes, ‘I know, I know, I know … I know that’s ridiculous, but I’m telling you, you’re your own worst enemy. Just don’t do it.'”
Hurwitz may not have been operating under similar advice for Happiness Isn’t Everything, but like Running Wilde, the pilot script does find him shifting his sensibilities in a more mainstream direction in the time between Arrested Development‘s original run and its Netflix revival.
One edgy thread Hurwitz surprisingly doesn’t drop when moving from AD to CBS is his love of incest humor. As mentioned earlier, Happiness Isn’t Everything is about a family that’s too close to each other — so close, in fact, that family members often kiss each other on the mouth. There’s a storyline in the pilot about protagonist Jason not wanting his dad to kiss him on the mouth anymore but not telling him for fear of hurting his feelings. All the family members kiss each other on the mouth (or try) at some point in the script. It’s pretty weird and doesn’t ring as true — or as funny — as AD‘s George Michael/Maeby stuff, but some great moments result from this odd running joke, which I suspect may have been a little too strange for CBS brass.
It’s unfair that everything Mitch Hurwitz ever writes will be compared to Arrested Development, but it’s an inevitability after someone creates a show as iconic and beloved as that one (which is part of the reason he’s returned to the AD well as of late, I suspect). I’ve drawn so many comparisons to it throughout this piece because the Happiness Isn’t Everything pilot itself, with its level-headed son at odds with his dysfunctional family, feels awfully similar to Hurwitz’s better-known show. Is the Happiness Isn’t Everything pilot as funny as Arrested Development? No, but the Arrested Development pilot isn’t as funny as the rest of Arrested Development; it was no indication of how amazing that series would become in subsequent episodes.
With a little time (and a series order from CBS), Happiness Isn’t Everything could have grown into a revered show as well. There’s enough promise in the pilot to warrant exploring in future episodes and with a solid ensemble backing the material up, Hurwitz might just have been able to stick the landing on his second family sitcom — he just would have needed to survive the onslaught of comparisons to Arrested Development by critics and internet commenters first.