Living showbiz legend Henry Winkler finds himself in an enviable position in 2013: he’s playing supporting roles in three critically-acclaimed TV comedies. Early this summer, Winkler returned as incompetent Bluth family attorney Barry Zuckerkorn for the Netflix revival of Arrested Development, and Childrens Hospital, Rob Corddry’s bizarre, Emmy-winning Adult Swim comedy on which Winkler is a series regular, is back for a fifth season as of last week. On top of that, it was just announced that he’ll be playing the father of Ben Schwartz’s scene-stealing douchebag Jean-Ralphio on the upcoming season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation.
I recently had the chance to chat with Winkler about moving the new season of Childrens Hospital to Japan, his love for Marcel the Shell, what we can expect from Jean-Ralphio’s dad, and the future of Arrested Development.
When did you find out that the new season of Childrens Hospital takes place in Japan?
I was doing a Broadway play that opened in October, and [Childrens Hospital producers] Rob Corddry and Jon Stern were in New York and took me to lunch. We talked about – as we do every year over lunch – where [my character] Sy could go – in what direction. They said, “Look, the wonderful hospital that we’ve been shooting in is being torn down, so we’re moving from Brazil to Japan. Then, we wound up shooting at this old orphanage out in Altadena. It was a completely different set-up because a lot of scenes took place outside, which we never had.
Did that change the feel of the show for you?
No, you just have to get used to the space and remember where you’re going. Otherwise, it did not affect the sheer chaos of the comedy.
So, you guys go over your character every season? Do you pitch ideas to the writers as to what you want to do?
Yeah, yeah, they say, “What are you thinking? What would you like? This is what we’re thinking.” Because you know, comedy is really serious business, so every good show that works has a point of view. It’s not just, “We’re gonna write something that we think is funny – that we think the audience wants to see.” These guys have a vision, and the show has stayed inside that vision no matter how big the ensemble is and how talented they are. In the structure comes the freedom.
Do you have a favorite idea of yours that got onto the show?
One of the things, in the old hospital, my office and then of course my home was an abandoned bathroom. I think we had discussions about that.
You’ve said in the past that you sometimes don’t know exactly what’s happening on the show when they’re filming it…
[On the set], I can’t really talk about that because, to them, I’m just smiling and going, “Yes.” Inside, I’m going, ‘I don’t have the slightest idea what they just said to me.’
How often does that happen?
It can happen a lot, but it doesn’t matter because then they cut it together and all of the sudden, Sy seems like he knows what he’s doing. Remember, I did have a butterfly collection that if you pleasure the butterfly, it helps to cure cancer. That’s insane.
Is there anything the Childrens Hospital writers have ever pitched you that’s been too crazy or that you’ve refused to do? Or are you game for anything?
No. You’ve gotta be game. David Wain, Rob Corddry, Jon Stern – these guys are masters. Our job is not to question why. We just show up and have fun together. When you think about it, each member of the cast is a home run hitter. Lake Bell just directed a movie, won an award at South by Southwest, and it’s coming into the Landmark Theatres. Ken Marino directs the show, writes the show, and is unbelievably funny in the show. Malin Åkerman looks like a Barbie doll, talks like an entire fleet of sailors. Megan Mullally, I sometimes forget that I’m supposed to speak because she has done something so incredibly funny that I think to myself, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ And Rob Huebel and I have a chemistry that is like skiing on silk.
[Laughs] I think that’s everybody, right?
Oh, Erinn Hayes. [affectionately] Erinn. Then, of course, there is Zandy [Hartig, who] plays a nurse Dori, who makes complete sense out of nonsense.
Do you have a favorite scene you’ve ever done on Childrens Hospital?
We did an episode where we all of the sudden went back into revolutionary times. We did an episode where I take Megan Mullally on a date, and last year, I gave a fourth grader in a body cast lying in the bed a service animal. She said, “I hope it’s a dog.” I said, “Well, we don’t have the money,” and I presented her with a python that eventually devoured her. And we used the python as a piñata to get her back. Who thinks of this stuff?
Do you have a favorite character you’ve ever played?
You know what? I don’t because every time I do a character, I go, ‘This is it! This is my favorite.’ I love the Fonz. I love Night Shift. I loved The Waterboy, Here Comes the Boom, Arrested Development. Barry is outrageous. I love Sy. He bumbles his way through with these crazy people. I love the dad on Royal Pains.
You’re in the new season of Parks and Recreation, right?
Yes, that’s brand new.
Did you start filming that yet?
No, I start this Friday.
Are you going in as a fan of the show or were you unfamiliar with it before?
You know what? I did a lot research very quickly. Jenny Slate, who is my daughter on the show, is also the mastermind of Marcel the Shell. Do you know Marcel the Shell?
Oh yeah, of course.
Oh my God. I want Marcel’s autograph. And my son, Jean-Ralphio, is insane. So, I keep thinking, ‘Was I an absentee father and these children just went psychotic? Or is it in my genes?’
So, is your character as crazy as those two?
I don’t know. We’ll have to talk on Saturday after my first day of shooting on Friday. I’m as up in the air about that as you are.
Have you guys talked about doing multiple episodes with this character, or is it just one right now?
Well, no. The first one I’m doing is I’m doing two episodes right off the bat.
For the season premiere?
What was it like going back to Arrested Development after being away from the show for so long?
Like riding a horse. To see everybody, it was just amazing. Working with Jeff Tambor and Jessica. Michael. Ms. Shawkat, who I love and adore. Just great. I got to see Tony Hale and tell him how wonderful he is on Veep.
Yeah, he’s great on that.
Oh my God. The two of them [Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfus] together as a couple make heaven.
Was it difficult filming Arrested Development with such a drastically different structure this year?
No because remember, the mastermind [creator Mitch Hurwitz] was there, and he kept everything straight. And I go back to having a point of view. Mitch knows what he wants and how it should sound. If you have that, then you have the key to the kingdom.
What was it like not being around for the show for most of the third season on Fox? Did you feel like you were missing out on the show? [ed. Winkler was only able to appear in one episode during season three due to his commitment to the short-lived CBS sitcom Out of Practice.]
I always feel like I’m missing out. When they were shooting the show the first time, Jason, David Cross, Will, they were like brothers. They would throw the football around. They would beat each other to a pulp. They would laugh. You know, it was just a wonderful atmosphere. Then of course, the second time around, so many people had other commitments, so a lot of it was shot catch-as-catch-can. But it’s seamless. You would never know, and that’s Mitch.
How’d you first become involved with the show originally? Did you audition or did they approach you?
They asked me, and I went in. I’m sitting in the middle of the whole family. I’m the lawyer. Mitch let me improvise stealing one of the donuts, and then that action became one of the cornerstones of the character.
What was it like being thrown into that ensemble for the first time?
I remember fear riddling my body. Because these were all heavy-hitters. I had worked with Jeff Tambor before. Years and years ago, when my partner and I produced the show MacGyver, we also produced a show called Mr. Sunshine, which only ran for 13 episodes. Jeff Tambor was the star of that show. He played a blind English professor. So here he is again, and he is a consummate professional. He’s also a teacher. He’s a very well-known, respected drama teacher.
Are you interested in doing more Arrested Development?
In the same way that Arrested Development was brought back, do you have another project or character from your past that you’d like to return to like that?
You know, that’s a very good question. Not off the top of my head. I do know that … Arrested Development brought like 700,000 new subscribers to Netflix, and I think it was picked up for another year.
Oh, really? It was picked up already?
I believe so. Don’t make me the Gospel.
I just hadn’t heard if that was official yet. So, do you want to just tell audiences what they can expect from the new season of Childrens Hospital?
Did I mention already that I go out on a date with Megan Mullally and we sing opera? I think just those two things alone put a mental picture in people’s minds that like an opiate will bring them to Childrens Hospital.
New episodes of Childrens Hospital air Thursday nights at midnight on Adult Swim.