How to Create a TV Show, with Mitch Hurwitz and the Cast of Arrested Development

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Up until, oh, last October, if you wanted to dull the pain of Arrested Development being wrongfully cancelled by FOX, you were limited to your fan fiction and a few DVD bonus features. You could watch some deleted scenes, listen to the entertaining (though limited) commentaries, or, you could turn to the Season One DVD which features a few clips from a panel discussion with the full cast, creator Mitchell Hurwitz, and producer David Nevins, that was conducted at the Paley Center on March 11, 2004. But why stop there and watch five minutes from the thing when you could watch the full two hours in the Paley archives?

Conducted near the end of the show’s first season, the panel includes a few wonderful moments of comedy from the cast and creator that any AD nut will want to see. But for the aspiring writer out there, the panel is also a treasure trove of information on how an inspiring comedy classic came to be.

The night begins with a showing of the episodes “Pier Pressure,” (“Always leave a note.”) and a rough cut of “Alter Egos,” which featured the first appearance of frequent guest star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (Before you get too excited about the idea of a rough cut, you should know that the differences were pretty negligible. You can fast forward through it unless you’re crazy about alternate music cues.) Then the real fun starts as all of the Bluths, plus their creators, take the stage and slowly make their way to their seats as the show’s theme song plays on an infuriating loop.

Hurwitz’s answer to the first question, which asks how the show came to be, encapsulates the technical side of what made AD different. He tells us that Ron Howard believed that most single camera shows suffer because with their short production schedules, “there isn’t time to vet the comedy.” The hope was that with the faux-documentary nature of the show, they could lessen the technical process by using handheld cameras and spend more time crafting the writing.

We are given another bit of insight into the creation process when Hurwitz talks about the characters themselves. When asked where the family came from, he initially answers that they were a combination of his parents and his wife’s parents, and collections of people from his life. He then goes on to say how his experiences working on other shows he had created, such as the short-lived sitcom return of Ellen DeGeneres in The Ellen Show and the shorter-lived Jeffrey Tambor vehicle, Everything’s Relative, taught him about the types of characters that work. He said that every ensemble needs “a matriarch, a patriarch, a craftsman and a clown.”

The original pitch that was given to FOX involved Hurwitz walking them through a family tree with each of the character relationships mapped out. According to producer Nevins, everything was in the original pitch, including characters and plotlines that wouldn’t show up for several episodes beyond the pilot, like Liza Minnelli’s character Lucille II. Ron Howard’s character of the narrator was added in the scripting process with a dual purpose. First, it allowed the story to move quicker and allowed them to move past “the boring stuff” and just get to the jokes. But secondly, Hurwitz admits that there was some manipulation involved in the selection of Ron Howard. It was a good way to keep his boss involved in the show and invested in what they were doing.

The same could be said about the recurring bit that would happen at the end of each episode, in which fake scenes from the next episode were previewed. Initially, this was included to trick test audiences that would be shown the pilot as FOX did market research. According to Hurwitz, one of the questions asked at these sessions is always, “Would you watch another episode?” The hope was that if the audience was teased with an idea of what was going to happen next, they’d be interested in seeing how it would all play out and answer “Yes.”

From the sound of the process, though, it seems that creating an intricate storyline with multiple plotlines and interweaving character dynamics was the easy part of building a TV show: it was the casting that was tough. As the moderator speaks with each member of the Bluth family, we learn that four of them (David Cross, Will Arnett, Jessica Walters, and Tony Hale), almost half of the main cast, were living in New York and hired based on videotaped auditions. Nevins explains that it’s difficult to get hired off of a tape, but that those four were just perfect for their roles.

Since this panel occurred back in the early days of the show, there is a slight undercurrent of gloom hiding underneath all of the jokes and behind-the-curtains peeks. Hurwitz makes a reference to the show “fighting for its life,” and when the audience Q&A begins, one fan asks how much truth there is to this. (Answer from the future: Lots of truth.) Cross jumps in and states that while they’re clearly getting critical recognition, it’s always been a dream of his to be on show that “will hold Malcolm [in the Middle]’s numbers. If it doesn’t happen, you move on.”

So, yeah, there’s a lot of invaluable information in this panel on creating what is arguably the most loved comedy show of this generation. But what if I just like funny people saying funny things? What in this for me? Well, luckily for you, this cast was full of funny people, and when they are around each other, they say funny things. For example, an audience member asks if the show has to deal with much censorship on the show and Hurwitz says that there’s a lot more scrutiny in television since the Janet Jackson incident (this was in 2004, remember?). David Cross then chimes in, saying, “That was the worst tit ever.” And if you enjoyed that reference, you’ll love the quips about Liza Minnelli’s short-lived marriage to David Guest! (I don’t mean to sound sarcastic; they really are funny quips.)

Today, things are looking up for fans of the Bluth family. And, if we’re all lucky, perhaps some future shows will take up the mantle and learn from the careful construction that went into build Arrested Development.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

How to Create a TV Show, with Mitch Hurwitz and the […]