Between the two of them, Will Arnett and Christina Applegate have three failed sitcoms (Applegate’s Jesse and Samantha Who?; Arnett’s Running Wilde), one abruptly eighty-sixed cult hit (Arnett’s Arrested Development), a controversial hit that ran for more than 250 episodes (Applegate’s Married With Children), and now NBC’s Up All Night, a sharply observed show about becoming a parent that premieres tonight. Applegate, Arnett, and their co-star Maya Rudolph are all parents of young children, which helped coax them onto this high-stakes playground once again. We spoke with a bantering Arnett and Applegate about the show, the higher points of each other's résumés, and how toddlers are like Stasi agents.
Did you guys know each other before this?
Arnett: No, we didn’t, not really. We’d met briefly on a trailer in Toronto. But when they said Christina was doing a show, I was immediately like, "Yes, of course I want to do this." Then we sort of felt each other out when we first met.
Applegate: That sounded weird.
Arnett: I know. I didn’t say "up," I said "out."
Applegate: That’s how we do it in Hollywood.
But you were familiar with each other’s work? Do you have a favorite?
Applegate: Yeah, for me, Go to Prison!
Arnett: [Laughs.] Well, Let’s Go to Prison.
Applegate: I just watched it yesterday, Will.
Arnett: No, you didn’t.
Applegate: It was on Comedy Central. I watched it. You were really funny in it.
Arnett: It’s crazy. Well, I love, obviously, Anchorman.
Applegate: And Arrested Development. And pretty much everything Will does is good. Great.
Arnett: Not true. Do not go to IMDb.
Applegate: Oh, I’m going to it.
Arnett: No, there are a lot of stinkers in there.
Applegate: As in mine, so enjoy.
Will, have you made sense of the Running Wilde experience yet?
Arnett: Ummm, no, not yet. We felt at the time that so much of what was on TV seemed so ... not depressing, but sort of mundane. And we thought that given the times we were in, we wanted to make a comedy Fantasy Island. We wanted to just make something that was bigger — big, broad, stupid, didn’t really make sense. We never really got to do exactly what we wanted. By the time we started making the show we wanted to, it was too late. It was off the air. We thought, How can this go wrong? But it just never really worked. And sometimes that happens. There’s nothing you can really do about it. There’s no point being bummed out about it; it is what it is. You can be mad at the world or mad at the network or mad at whatever, but, you know, a lot of things have to go right for a show to work. If you don’t have all of those things, and a nice big coating of luck poured all over it, it can be hard.
How much of Up All Night comes out of both of your actual baby-raising experiences? There’s a scene in the pilot where you curse over the baby and realize, while cursing, that you should probably stop.
Applegate: I think we did that until all of a sudden your baby goes, "Fuck!" And then you’re like, Awww, shit.
Arnett: Yeah, our eldest son is almost 3, and now they hear everything. It’s like living East Berlin in the seventies. So you have to be really, really careful. Christina and I talked about this, but there are things in the pilot that are really accurate. Since the pilot, we find ourselves in situations where it’s like, "Wow, not only is this real, but we actually did this in the pilot. This is so strange." Like arguing about who stayed up more the night before. If your baby is up, that’s such a real conversation about, "I was up for these hours."
Applegate: As have I. And then what’s even geekier about it is that both people stop and go, "Oh my God, this is so from the pilot. Are we doing the pilot right now? The pilot is happening right inside my house."
Arnett: It’s bizarrely kind of seamless now, from home to work.
Is that good?
Arnett: I don’t know.
Applegate: We don’t know yet!
Arnett: It’s too early to assess the data.
But you’re leaving the actual children at home.
Applegate: Leaving your babies is hard. The good thing is that we all like each other. Right, Will?
Arnett: Well, you have to go to work because you have a life, and you’re a grown, thinking, evolved person, and you’re trying to maximize your, for lack of a better word, talent on this planet, and also you have to provide for you family. So you have to go do it. But at the same time, you have that guilt. Now, it should be noted that it seems like it’s a fairly new phenomenon, because in prior generations — and through no fault of his own — my dad got up and left the house early to go to work every day and came home late, but that’s what he had to do. I don’t think he’d be at work and be like, "Goddammit, I’m really screwing my kids over." He was at work thinking, "Goddammit, I’m doing my kids a favor by being at work." So, you know, I think the way that jobs and work and the way we approach them have evolved, people are able to work from home, and also dads are taking a much more active role in the parenting of kids, and it’s changed our attitudes towards parenting and spending time with our kids. There’s that episode of Mad Men where at the very end, Jon Hamm’s bottle-feeding the baby, rocking the baby, and she comes in while he’s got the baby, and it’s like, "Wowww, he’s holding the baby!"
So you watch Mad Men. Do you watch other TV?
Applegate: I was a judge on So You Think You Can Dance.
Tell me about that!
Applegate: The best time of my life. Seriously. I watch it religiously. I actually approached them. I sit in my living room by myself watching that show, because no one in my household shares my passion for dance, and I can’t expect more time to share my passion for dance. So I sit there by myself and watch it and think, What better way to watch it then to be in there? And all the judging that goes on in my head, to actually say it to another human being? It was really seriously one of the most fun things I’ve done in a long time.
Arnett: I don’t know how it’s done on Deadliest Catch, but if they do prepare to go ...
Applegate: You should pitch it.
Arnett: I wouldn’t make it. I’d give up on the dock.
What else do you watch?
Arnett: I watch sports. That’s the bulk of my TV-watching. I do watch a lot of stuff on DVD. Like, I watched all of Mad Men on DVD. Which, by the way, is the thing that killed Arrested Development, because nobody watched it when it was on the air. Everyone watched it on DVD after, which is a great way to watch.
Do you actually think that about Arrested Development? Isn't it possible that if it weren't on DVD, still no one would have watched it on the air?
Arnett: It could be. Part of me thinks that if we had lasted another season, then we would’ve gone on for a few more. But yeah, it really does work well on DVD, because there was always a lot going on on that show, and sometimes I think it can be hard to connect with an audience. So many people watch TV quite passively; they just turn it on and start making dinner, or, you know, texting or doing whatever. And you can’t really watch that show like that. You have to sit down and, I think to really enjoy it, you have to pay attention. And I don’t mean that in any sort of haughty way, like, "You need to see this thing being written and done for you." I just mean that there’s a lot going on.
Applegate: I feel that way about Jesse. [Will starts laughing, hard.] I feel like people weren’t quite paying attention to the material. I’m putting a star next to that one, baby.