Arrested Development spent three seasons in a perpetual state of near-cancellation, and yet even four years after it was finally shut down, it remains spoken of in hushed tones by Comedy Geeks Who Know. So when Fox announced that one of its stars, Will Arnett, would be reuniting with AD creator Mitch Hurwitz for a new comedy, Running Wilde, fans swooned at their good fortune. However, matching up to a show that has achieved comedy sainthood is an impossible task, and the series debuted to poor reviews, (familiarly) low ratings, and a sense of disappointment among hard-core fans who complain that it doesn’t have more of AD’s signature absurdist style. It turns out that Hurwitz knows exactly how they feel. Before giving his keynote address at the New York Television Festival last week, the writer-producer told us about how he feels more like a hired gun on this series, and has had to accommodate Fox’s wishes for a more accessible show. Here, our virtually uncut probing discussion about Running Wilde and the impossibility of ever again reaching the bar he set with Arrested Development. (And yes, we ask the obligatory questions about the mythic AD movie.)
By now, you must have noticed that early reviews of Running Wilde have been negative. How are you taking the criticism?
When we were making Arrested Development, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. You know, nobody was watching. We weren’t getting feedback. The job wasn’t paying very well. But the one thing I did feel confident about was: No one will ever be able to do this again. Because no one would be stupid enough to try. I would do eight stories and try to intertwine them and give every character five dimensions and six backstories — and the show took twenty minutes. That meant in post I’d have to spend 40 hours a week. I mean, it was around the clock. And I would think, Say what you will, no one will ever be able to do this again. What I meant was, they’ll make fun of other writers for not measuring up.
But the joke’s on me, because they’re making fun of me for it. He can’t do it again! Well, I know I can’t do it again. You weren’t supposed to be able to do it — I was supposed to be celebrated for that. In a funny way it has been like, wait, I’m being held up to this standard? I was trying to create a standard that you guys couldn’t live up to, not one that I couldn’t live up to!
But you must have expected that this would get compared to Arrested Development.
Yes. In fact, early on, [Fox entertainment president] Kevin Reilly said to me, “You know, we’re going to get bad reviews for this. They’re going to want to compare it to Arrested. I went through this with The Office. The original’s too beloved.” But he said, “But that beloved crowd was not a big audience. So we’re going to do something slightly different here. We’re going to add more heart to the American version.” And he said, “We got that second wave of positive reviews. That’s what I think we need to be focused on here. We need to win these people over — even though you’d think, coming from Arrested Development, you would have already won them over.”
He has a point.
Yeah, but it doesn’t work like that, for some reason. And you know, I get it. I remember watching a Michael Palin comedy once and being like, “No! Be Monty Python! Be what I want!” I get it, because I’m a consumer too. And I guess your fan base is the most judgmental of all because they care so much about that other project.
Are you working as hard on this as you did on Arrested Development?
Well, it’s a different kind of hard work because I have more masters to please. On Arrested, what I was trying to work hard on was to get my vision completely out there. What I’m working hard on now is trying to accommodate other people’s visions.
Is that the direction you thought Running Wilde would go in when you got involved with it?
It’s funny. Like many things in this industry, you really have to take them one step at a time. Will Arnett had signed a deal with Fox — that’s where this started. As a friend, I was kind of doing what Dick Cheney did when he helped Bush choose a vice-president: “Let me put a list together for you because I want to make sure you’re protected.” Well, it didn’t quite work out with the writer, so I ended up saying, “Well, maybe I’ll step in.” I thought, “I’ll spend two weeks. Why wouldn’t I do two weeks and write a script for Will Arnett, and get a co-creator credit?” At the time, the Fox feeling was, “Yeah, whatever you guys want to do, we’re into it.”
As we got into the process, things changed at Fox. Peter Chernin stepped out; Peter Rice came in. He was kind of a fan, but still, he’s got a new job. This is a little bit my assumptions, but all of a sudden there was a little more “there’s money at stake,” and we started going through a rewrite process. They had us go through eight rewrites. Eight! I felt at the time that perhaps a more confident person, or a less needy person, would have walked away after the second rewrite. I mean, think of how many rewrites eight is — without a pickup, without being told the network was going to make this thing. They said, “We completely appreciate it if you guys want to move on and do other things, but this doesn’t work for us yet. Here is what we feel we need. Would you do another rewrite?” And really, if you just count to eight, you realize how onerous it is. Finally after eight rewrites, Kevin Reilly was very happy with it. But all of my assumptions were wrong. I thought it was going to be two weeks’ work.
Why did you decide to go through all the rewrites?
This job, to me, really was about “How do I let the world see what Will Arnett can do? How can I create a commercial hit for Fox? And how can I still bring myself to it?” I think in every draft of the pilot, for instance, I kept the two horses. I just wanted to keep one thing that’s sort of odd. So I embraced the creative challenge of that — which is very different than the creative challenge of, like, “If I could just do anything I wanted, and I was on cable, what would I do?”
Good question. What would you do?
If it were completely up to me, I think I would be trying to push myself into an even more avant-garde area. It ended up being a different kind of creative challenge: pushing myself toward a more commercial area. And it’s one that’s arguably more important because you reach more people. And you still use creativity — the more constraints you put on creativity, the more creative you have to be, almost. So it’s become an interesting challenge for me to try to keep some of the spirit of what I enjoy doing, and to keep surprising myself.
But also, as we got into this, there were a lot of people who were very worried at Fox. The lesson they took from Arrested Development, I think, was “Let’s not make another Arrested Development.” The good thing for me that they took from it was that they felt that I’m somebody worth working with. But it’s really within the confines of, “Let’s not repeat the stuff that we feel put an audience off to Arrested Development.”
Has it been difficult for you not to be able to do exactly what you want to?
It’s just part of it. It’s part of what’s difficult about it, yeah. I will see things in post and there’s nothing I can do about it. At least I don’t beat myself up over it — because it’s their show.
Do you feel that you need to become completely obsessed with a project in order for you to “own” it?
Unfortunately, I think that’s true. But the obsession can be in the moment now. It doesn’t have to keep you up at night. You know, even on Arrested, I would find that, even with no ratings, for an episode that no one was going to watch, I would stay up all night in post, wrestling with something, trying to make it work, trying to make it work the way I saw it. And then I wouldn’t really care about how it looked on TV or how the ratings were.
It’s weird. It’s a kind of focus, I think, when I’m crafting a joke. And it’s a problem when I’m doing rewrites because I’ll say to the writers, “Let’s move very quickly here, guys. I don’t want to get bogged down and stuff.” And I would just immediately bog us down with “Is this the funniest way to say this? She’s just going to say it? There’s no setup? No, let’s give it another try.” I can’t help but micro-focus. But I’m at the point now where it doesn’t keep me up at night. I can turn it off.
Is that something you’ve consciously had to change?
I think it’s just part of my wiring. If I was more concerned with success, I could have taken more of the notes when I did Arrested. I could have simplified the show a lot. So it wasn’t about success. And it wasn’t about Emmys. I didn’t know that was in store for us. It was just about the task. The impossible task. The self-imposed impossible task.
Are you taking more of the notes this time?
I’m almost only taking notes this time.
Is that easier, in a way?
That is where I get very uncomfortable, I have to say. The second episode, we were kind of instructed to do a very, very simple episode. And yet I put some big twists in it. Will was going to throw a party for rich people but dress them up like hobos and pretend they were homeless. At the same time, he had to have another party going, but now he was all out of rich people. So he hired all these homeless to dress in tuxedos — right? And I had this whole thing where he was helping but it was all twisted, and it kind of made great points about the flaws with both characters’ arguments.
I got, “You’re doing that Arrested stuff. Let’s just have a nice party. Let’s see these two and how they function at a party.” And on that one, I was aware of, “This is not turning out as interesting as I’d hoped.” The note kept being “Minimize the conflict,” because the feeling at that point based on testing was that [Keri Russell’s character] Emmy is striking people as shrill and shrewish. And we ended up with an episode that we’re pushing back because, as expected, it’s not that interesting.
Wait — so no hobo joke?
I know! Rich people as hobos — it’s a funny idea, isn’t it? But now I think we’re getting back to a place where, if we get numbers in the next couple of weeks, we’ll start getting more and more ambitious. We’ll see.
So, Fox has given you assurances that they’re going to give you some rope?
They’re certainly trying to. I think we’re all playing ball. I’m trying to give them a hit. They’re trying to promote it and keep it on the air. But, you know, if the numbers drop, the numbers drop. And then it’s just strategy. They’ll have to look at their stuff and say, “We think this is Everybody Loves Raymond,” like Les Moonves famously did when that show got bad ratings, and correctly.
Do you feel like you’ve earned a shot to build your audience and find your voice?
Not exactly. I have enough stature to get to co-create a show with Will Arnett. And that’s a huge thing. I really do feel like that is a real privilege. What comes with that privilege is Will’s a very expensive talent. Fox has spent a lot of money to get him. They’re not going to just let me do what I think is funny. They’re going to oversee it and protect their investment. And I went into that with my eyes open about that, and even with a little bit of humility saying, “Yes, I would love to be financially very successful. Help me do that. Show me what you believe will get us to a wide audience.” Because I certainly feel Will’s talents deserve that.
Does anything you learned on your stints on traditional sitcoms like The Golden Girls and The John Larroquette Show help you now?
I would say that’s where I started thinking, I want to make myself laugh. Or make the table laugh. You know? I don’t know how other people do it, but I tend to get very restless, and even like nauseous, if we weren’t laughing. If we weren’t really laughing hard and thinking, Can we do that? It’s so funny how much you have to do of that to actually get a laugh on the other side of the screen. Arrested was an example of that in success, where everything that was funny in that was hilarious to us at one point. It wasn’t quiet riffs, you know?
I think the only times I get unhappy doing this is when they take away the fun of the creativity of it. Which all sounds very self-serving, but I guess I just mean laughing. Like the hobo story. We’re falling down laughing at these specific jokes that we’re putting in there. And then when you hear, “Yeah, don’t do that,” that is hard. It’s not like I ever think I’m right about anything, but when I’ve heard those big laughs, or been the one laughing at someone else who has come up with that, I just go, Oh, guys, you don’t know how rare it is to find something that makes eight people just hold their sides. Please let us do it. That gets me a little antsy, you know?
It does seem like a pretty big compromise.
With that particular one, I do get what Kevin was getting at. He used to say to me all the time and he still does, “I know on Arrested you’d go from A to Z, and you’d do all these wild turns. I’m telling you, if you go from A to B, you will make it interesting. Don’t set yourself the goal of A to Z yet. Maybe the series develops into that, but go from A to B, or A to C. Tell a simple story. These two like each other. They decide to go on a date. They get in a fight on the date. And I’m telling you, Mitch, you’ll put in tiny horses. You’ll find something like that. But if you start with, ‘Okay, it’s a tiny horse race,’ I just don’t think you’re going to get an audience to care.” I mean, I appreciate that. I do appreciate that he’s trying to help me that way. But television — at least broadcast television — isn’t in the business of taking really big risks. It’s a really tricky thing. It’s very expensive and we’re not at a time in the economy where they can say, “Let’s make four of these Seinfeld episodes.”
Maybe you should transition to movies, like Judd Apatow?
I would, you know, if I could. I want to find a way. You know, listen — all of this is in success. You know? It’s like, if I had the luxury of choice, and didn’t have to worry about making a living, I would definitely want to get into whatever field it was that allowed me to push further and further comedically. Because that’s the joy of it. And the hardest thing is when you do something you believe in and you’re second-guessed for it because of other work you’ve done. That’s been a lot of this particular process. But we’re going to make the [Arrested Development] movie. And I mentioned to someone that I was thinking of calling it at one point, Arrested Development: The Huge Disappointment. Because it will be, initially. But then some people will come around to it. I mean, if it’s good. It might not be good!
Can you give me your prediction for how much money you think the Arrested Development movie will bring in?
No idea — because the people that are big fans might find a way to see it for free. They’re technically savvy. But you know what? With that one, it’s not about making money. In fact, what has kept me from making it is that I know what the budget of the film will be through Fox Searchlight. They pay a percentage of that for writing it, and the only thing that’s kept me from it is that I’ve had to try to earn enough money so that I can afford to spend a year making that salary. But it’s not about money on that one. It’s really about the joy of it. And you know, it’s really kind of gratifying and touching that people have taken to it. And young people, too. It’s like, really, what could be better than that? Young people are connecting to it and you know, that’s the reason to do it, to kind of give them that. Even though they’re going to hate it.
Does the movie keep you up at night?
No. I just have to get into it again. We finally got started on it and got rolling and I kind of got derailed a little bit by the show. But if we get the pickup for the back nine, I’m going to be in a position where I’ve got the staff in place to do Running Wilde and I can just dive back into writing the movie.
Is Ron Howard going to do the voice-over?
Oh, my God, yes. He’s going to be in it. Definitely. He is a major piece of this. His deep decency and humanity, I feel like, really pervade Arrested so that it can be as dark as it is but also, no, there’s something comic about it. It’s an odd thing. He’s the soul of it, I feel like.
Did you ask him to help you produce Running Wilde?
Well, unfortunately, when we started the thing I had a deal at Sony and so we had to do this with Sony Pictures. And then at the eleventh hour, Sony dropped out and we had to scramble for a studio. But I couldn’t at that point go to Imagine because Imagine had a deal with Universal, and it gets complicated at that point. But listen, it was a joy working with Ron. I would do it in a second again. For anything. Really. I would be, like, so happy if I could be a guy who hangs out at Imagine and throws in his two cents. That would be a great job for me. I’m going to pitch it.
Have you told anyone yet what the plot of the movie is about?
Is it about the search for Bigfoot?
I’m not saying that it’s not about the search for Bigfoot. Is that helpful? I will say they do find Bigfoot, but they’re not necessarily searching for him. It’s merely a plot point.