On Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Patrick Warburton stars as a titular Lemony Snicket, our guide through the tragic tale of the Baudelaire children. You also may know him as Puddy from Seinfeld or the star of short-lived but beloved 2001 Fox series, The Tick. Warburton joined the Vulture TV Podcast in studio to discuss playing a narrator with a physical presence, what a “Patrick Warburton character” is, and why The Tick was doomed before it even started. Listen to the conversation, and read an edited transcript below.
Gazelle Emami: To start off, can you tell us how you got involved with A Series of Unfortunate Events?
I was interested in the project even before I knew what the project was because I got a text from Barry Sonnenfeld: “Can you come up to Vancouver for five months and do my new Netflix series?” And when Barry Sonnenfeld summons, you respond. I love working with Barry. He always brings any project he works on to another level. It’s his comedic sensibilities, his artistic eye, the way he shoots. I worked with him on The Tick and Men in Black II. We did a film called Big Trouble years ago, which is a really fun comedy, big, great cast. People see it now and they wonder why they don’t remember it in theaters, and the story there is that it’s a comedy with a bomb on an airplane and it was set to come out September 20, 2001.
The idea of being a narrator is not that sexy, but as I talked to Barry, he said, “Lemony in this incarnation is on camera. And he interacts. Lemony is a Rod Serling but with empathy because Lemony loves these children and this family and he’s deeply moved by everything, almost a little too much so. And there’s a lot of history there.
Jackson McHenry: It’s an interesting character because he hasn’t been seen onscreen before. He’s been a presence in the books and he was narrating that first movie, but you have to come up with a physical presence for a narrator, which must be an interesting challenge. He’s moved by what happens around him, but he’s also kind of in charge.
It’s pretty simple with Barry. We didn’t gussy things up too much with Lemony. The writing is so good, so clever. The whole essence of this is that children are quite perceptive and brilliant and adults are all idiots and they create problems. Everything is pretty smartly conceived and written so it doesn’t need to be spelled out. And with Lemony, you certainly don’t have to spoon-feed things. You just tell a story, he speaks with non sequiturs, this and that, and you don’t need to put anything extra on it. People pick it up.
GE: How would you describe Lemony Snicket as a person?
Obsessive. Lemony, at one point, was a suspect in the Baudelaire fire so he had to clear his name. He’s on the run, he’s pursued, he’s investigating, he’s obsessed, he’s nervous. And he’s a decent dresser.
JM: He gets to arrive in great outfits and fit into the scene.
They did a lot of fun stuff with wardrobe. Streaming sites like Netflix, they’ll give you a budget to do things. And it really does become movies for TV, where the creators are given a lot more creative license and not meddled with a roomful of suits saying, “Well, we need this for a demographic and we need that.” Hollywood abhors something they can’t just categorize. A Series of Unfortunate Events is many different things. It is not a comedy, but it is comedic. It’s sad and moving; it’s satirical. On network TV, it’s hard to do that because, “Well, we need a nighttime drama for this slot. We’re going to make this our comedy hour with our two sitcoms.” Everything has to be real specific. And in this case, we have Barry Sonnenfeld and Bo Welch who did the sets, who’s done the sets for Tim Burton’s films and Barry’s films. Our wardrobe gentleman, Angus and his team, won the Academy Award for their work on Moulin Rouge! and other projects. So it’s shot like a movie. Each book is done in two episodes put together, so each book is its own movie.
JM: So much of it is shot on soundstages and in this created whole imaginary universe. How do you, as an actor, calibrate your performance amid all of these technical effects and camera moves?
It was simple for me because I’m interacting with the camera the entire time whether I’m in front of a green screen, walking through the set where other things are going on, or even if I’m coming up out of the floor or underneath a table. It’s all directly to the camera. So that’s where my focus is, you know? Communicating directly with the audience and breaking that fourth wall.
JM: Were you isolated from the other actors as they were doing their scenes?
To a degree, I’m with them all the time so, you know. I got to know the quirky group of henchpeople and the kids, you know. Melina, Louis, and Presley — she might be the youngest Emmy winner ever in this role.
GE: She’s such a great actress. I feel like she’s going to have a long career.
Maybe another hundred years, right? She’s so engaging. I was warned early on, when you’re working with kids on a show, they’ve got eight hours a day and then they turn into pumpkins so you’ve got to get them shot. The norm was that I would be in wardrobe and ready to go, sometimes for hours, and whenever they’d pull the kids, they’d bring me in. I would have to shoot all of my stuff in a short period of time. It would usually be the end of the day and everybody wants to split and so I can’t indulge in too many takes. What you always want to do is like, “Well, we’ve got to get this again.” But Barry’s like, “Nope, that was great. Moving on.” So, I found early on that I had to be in a place where I was very prepared to do what I had to do in a relatively short period of time, for everybody’s sake.
GE: You have such a great TV voice. Every actor gets typecast in some way, and I’m wondering, do you find that certain types of roles are presented to you because of this? Are there any particular roles that people come to you for?
It’s not necessarily the roles in and of themselves but it’s genres. What I get every year are sitcoms. “Will you do this sitcom? Will you do that sitcom?” The other things have been a little trickier for me because they put you in a box in the industry, and so the opportunities that you get are the ones where you’ve proven yourself or people like you in that genre. If it wasn’t for Barry and Daniel [Handler], who both requested to the network that I do this, I wouldn’t have done it. If it was an audition, I wouldn’t have gotten the job. I don’t audition well. I don’t really care for the process. I have mental crap with me in my head. But I’m a self-saboteur.
GE: Does that mean that the roles you do end up getting aren’t through auditions?
They’re usually offers. Fortunately work begets work. There are actors that are really fine actors but not good auditioners. There are really good auditioners that may not be great actors. There are great actors that are really good auditioners, too. I happen to be someone who’s not a great auditioner, but usually on a set can hold my own.
JM: I talked to Barry a little bit about the Series of Unfortunate Events and he mentioned, “Patrick Warburton is the guy where you’re always like, ‘I want to get Warburton in this project somehow.’” If someone tells you, “I have this role for you and I think you’d be great in it,” do you already have a sense of what that role might be like?
Well one, isn’t it a grand thing as an actor to have a friend in Barry Sonnenfeld. So, but the question is …
GE: Do you know what a “Patrick Warburton character” is? Does it make sense to you in that way?
It does, to a degree. If that’s the inspiration then I think what they’re looking for is a certain comedic take on it. Maybe some irony and absurdity. There’s just something about me and my persona that’s a little bit bigger than life and ridiculous at times. It’s easy for me to be ridiculous, and this is certainly a different situation, much more toned down, so I appreciate that.
GE: Have you watched the pilot for Amazon’s Tick remake?
Yes, I like it. Ben [Edlund] wanted to do a darker version. He wanted more creative control in this one. I’m a producer on it. He knows what he’s doing, and I think it’s great. It’s drier, straighter, more of an Adam West take. But, you know, it would’ve been fun to do it again. I actually would’ve liked to have done it, but Amazon had different ideas. They wanted to build it entirely new from the ground up, and so I’m 100 percent in support of that. Supermans get replaced. Batmans get replaced. Even the Tick.
GE: Your Tick character is so iconic, still. And, as you were saying, the TV landscape has changed so much, it seems like a genre show like that almost now has more of a place?
Yes. Over at Fox, they didn’t get what we were doing. They were even asking questions like, do these people need to wear costumes? They let us shoot nine episodes, and then held us for a year, and buried us. We were initially supposed to be on Sunday night, we had a great time slot. They put us on Thursday nights against year two of Survivor. So, they really fed us to the dogs. They did not want to support the show. They didn’t care that every critic seemed to like this show. It was too expensive, and they didn’t know what it was.