During the creative keynote discussion at the 2010 New York Television Festival, Mitch Hurwitz told the audience about a scenario he’d envisioned for his new Fox sitcom Running Wilde: Sheltered billionaire Will Arnett wants to impress do-gooder love interest/childhood crush Keri Russell, so he decides to throw her a fancy gala and invite all his rich friends. Later Russell says she prefers a help-the-homeless type thing, so Arnett tells the rich people it’s a costume party where they have to dress as homeless people. Russell then flip-flops in favor of an elegant party, and at the 11th hour and out of rich friends, Wilde recruits homeless people and puts them in tuxes. The beautiful clusterfuck sounds like something out of Hurwitz’s critical adored former show, Arrested Development, but in the case of Running Wilde, the scene was later reduced and simplified.
But that’s where Hurwitz is at now, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing: Although Arrested Development was universally praised for its complexity, it performed abysmally in the ratings. Running Wilde, which employs much of the creative team behind Arrested Development, is Hurwitz’s shot at a sustainable model both from a network and fan perspective. It’s more thoroughly conceived than Hurwitz’s last effort, the animated Sit Down, Shut Up, and boasts the brilliant David Cross and Peter Serafinowicz as cast members. There are some broad elements (like the romantic core), but also opportunities to let Hurwitz’s cartoonish, can-we-get-away-with-this humor shine through. No, it’s not Arrested Development, but it’s not trying to be—and that’s something of which Hurwitz is acutely aware. The A.V. Club sat down with Hurwitz after his NYTVF appearance to discuss inevitable Arrested Development comparisons, his embrace of TV tropes, and how the fate of the forthcoming Arrested Development movie is tied to the fate of Running Wilde.
The A.V. Club: Why continue to work with Fox after what happened with Arrested Development?
Mitch Hurwitz: First of all, I need to work. I made a joke at [the creative keynote] that if I’d done Cocoon, I’d be fine not working anymore. I don’t have the benefit of that, because Arrested Development was not financially successful. So I have to work. That being said, I really love Will Arnett and believe in his talent, and want to exploit it for financial gain. [Laughs.] He had a deal at Fox. Fox is now run by Kevin Reilly, who I think is a really brilliant guy, and by Peter Rice, who’s helping to make the Arrested Development movie. So I feel like I’m being supported there. I’m grateful they’re willing to work with me. They spent a lot of money on Arrested Development, and hopefully they’ve made it back with DVDs. It’s funny, it’s not personal. The only thing that is personal is, do I—well, it’s not personal, but do I want to work at a place where there are concerns other than creative? If you go to AMC, I’m sure creative is the lead concern. And if you go to one of the broadcast channels, they have to get eyes on the show or it goes away. It becomes that creative challenge. I would have thought at this point I would be doing something cool and funky for cable, but it is a great creative challenge—and an important one for me—to try and reach a bigger audience. And it’s an ongoing process. The great thing about TV is that you don’t just make one; you don’t just give them the pilot. You hopefully get to evolve something, and I think we have the ingredients to evolve something special.
AVC: How much of the original pitch for Running Wilde has made it onto the screen?
MH: Not too much. Basically, we started with a romantic comedy, but it had a lot of broad elements. Now, I knew that Will was capable of that broad stuff while keeping it real, but I don’t think it read that way… It was tough to find a tone they thought they could broadcast. It wasn’t tough for me. I was in the room writing it with Will and seeing him play both the heartbreak of it and the ridiculousness of it. The only thing that lasted of that whole thing was the miniature horse [from the pilot]. Everybody would see the miniature horse and say, “This is like Mel Brooks.” And I said, “No, we can make this reality plausible.”
AVC: Was it your decision to reshoot the pilot?
MH: No, it was the network’s. But I think it was a big improvement. It’s lightning in a bottle. We shot that thing really quickly. We had no prep on it because our directors were doing another show at the time. We had eight days to deliver the thing once we started shooting, which is really tight. So it was really imperfect in some ways.
AVC: How does Fox regard Arrested Development? When you speak to them about new shows, do they say, “We want something like Arrested Development, but….”
MH: No, it is almost just the opposite. It’s like, “We need some assurance you’re not going to do Arrested Development again here.”
AVC: What do they mean by that?
MH: I. Don’t. Know. That’s the interesting thing. I know it didn’t make them money while it was broadcast. I assume it refers to the complexity of the show, but obviously had it been a hit they wouldn’t be saying, “Don’t give us a complex show.” So I think they’re saying, “Don’t do something that’s too smart for TV.” I never tried to do something that was too smart for TV. I was always worried that David Cross would say to me, “You’ve got Tobias wearing a dress now? They did this on I Love Lucy.” I felt like no joke was beneath me. There were puns, there were physical jokes. After an early meeting on this project [Running Wilde], the Lionsgate people who were funding it said, “They really don’t like Arrested Development here, do they?” As we’re passing the Emmy for it. There might be a little feeling of, “We know we were given a lot of shit for cancelling that show. We go to cocktail parties too. We have friends with kids in college who ask why we cancelled it. Don’t put us in that position again. Do one of those that’s really successful.” That would be fine with me. I’d love to deal with a successful show. Apparently there are all sorts of perks associated with that. [Laughs.]
AVC: What are you referring to when you say “successful”? Financially successful?
MH: What I mean is, I want to do a show that stays on the air, gets an audience to care about its core concept, and gives me the canvas on which to take greater and greater risks. What I’m not trying to do is overwhelm people with the ways in which this is a show that’s foreign to them, that they won’t understand. I almost went out of my way on Arrested to hide things that audiences couldn’t understand until they got to the final episode. I’m not doing that now. [Pause.] Maybe I am, but I’m not admitting to it. It’s also not really my decision to make alone. The TV business this season has gotten very tough. It was very tough to get this picked up.
AVC: You mentioned Lone Star in your keynote conversation, another promising Fox project that’s failing to find an audience.
MH: And I promise you what’s going through their minds is, “Arrested Development—this is how Arrested Development cost us all that money.” Awards come in and they’re embarrassed to take it off the air. On this one, we had to do eight drafts of the thing before it was even picked up to be made as a pilot, not even as a series. It really isn’t like I come in and call the shots.
AVC: In another interview about Running Wilde, you mentioned that you are more afraid of success than you are of getting cancelled.
MH: [Laughs.] I know, even as I said that I was like, “Am I revealing too much?” It’s a really hard job, and I remember when Arrested got cancelled I felt like, “Oh Jesus thank God.” It’s hard, hard, hard work. It’s that double-edged sword. Someone said to me once that when you pitch a show to a network, there’s no chance you are not going to leave that meeting without saying, “Fuck.” Either they passed on it, or they’re going for it and you have to go write it. I have a lot of obstacles to writing, and I chose television because it forces those obstacles into my face every day. If I was writing screenplays I’d still be on my first one. It’s not a deep fear of success as much as it’s that I know how hard this job is.
AVC: Do you see your show concepts having a shelf life, then?
MH: When I did Arrested, I was at a point in my career where I really didn’t like repeating myself. And the audience got that right away; any time I did repeat myself in an episode, they’d know. Meanwhile, Everybody Loves Raymond goes on for eight years with the same “She doesn’t like the wife,” and it’s successful and that’s what makes great TV. So not wanting to repeat yourself isn’t a great recipe for TV. This show is more about trying to find something that’s repeatable so people can tune in. Television walks that line. There’s the kind of TV where people tune in because they know what’s going to happen, then there are shows like The Sopranos where you tune in because you have no idea what’s going to happen. You can’t wait to find out.
We got a lot of angry reviews about Running Wilde, which surprised me. We’re being compared to Arrested, which I always thought would be used against someone else and not me. But I haven’t seen other shows. The truth is that I’ve never seen How I Met Your Mother. I don’t mean that as an arrogant thing. I work a lot. I tend to be more interested in shows that deal in the unexpected.
AVC: Is it that you’re exercising a different muscle when working on Running Wilde because you’re trying to make it repeatable?
MH: It is, but it’s the muscle you’re using right now thinking how you’re going to turn this [discussion] into an article. It’s okay, you’re a smart guy. You’re a writer. Right now you have this task in front of you. You’re using a different skill than if you were writing your novel, and neither feels like a sell-out to you. And neither for me. [Running Wilde] is a heady responsibility. There’s 30 million dollars at stake, they’re trusting me to turn these shows out, I’m anxious enough about even delivering them on time—much less than worrying if I’m groundbreaking enough. Really what I’m trying to do is give Fox what they want and what they can promote, then within that find things I can be special and creative with, and almost more important than anything is creating a place for Will to shine. Not only is he they key to this, but he’s a close friend and unbelievably talented, and I want people to see that. I did Ellen [DeGeneres’] show—her second—and I remember thinking, “Boy she’s so talented, there’s got to be a way to get that out there,” and of course the answer is a talk show. Maybe the answer to this will turn out to be something else for Will. But right now this is the thing we’ve got.
AVC: You say you didn’t expect to be compared to Arrested Development, but the press kit for Sit Down, Shut Up was rife with Arrested Development comparisons. They couldn’t stop pushing the comparison.
MH: Yeah wasn’t that interesting? The funny thing about that one was that it was a single-camera script I had adapted from an existing Australian show. I had the script I wrote in 2000, I talked to Kevin Reilly and said, “If you’re looking for a cartoon, I’ve got this single-camera thing.” So we started that process, and they were like, “Arrested, Arrested, Arrested.” I didn’t stop them because I was thinking that even if it made half as much as The Simpsons, that’d be a billion dollars. Interestingly, it’s almost like children. They all have different qualities and you love them for those qualities. But you don’t say, “Why isn’t this one more like that one?” Or maybe some people do.
AVC: What do you make of the comparisons, then?
MH: I feel like I’m in a torn place. As Fox is saying, [Running Wilde] is still too much like Arrested Development. And the critics are saying, “It’s not enough like Arrested Development.” I’d want Kevin Reilly to read those critics, but for the fact that the rest of the criticism hasn’t been that kind. But I want to go [to the critics] and say, “Trust me, it’s not like Arrested Development—I’ve got it on good authority.”
AVC: That’s a strange dichotomy.
MH: And the joke is on me. Because I’m telling you: The one thing I was proud of was that no one would be able to do this ever again. Even before we had people who thought it was cool, I remember thinking, “Nobody’s going to be able to do eight stories tied together in 20 minutes. Nobody’s going to put the 40 hours I put into post[-production] alone each week and write every word with the writers.” It was a 22-hour-a-day job, and I was driven by the fact that this was my shot.
AVC: Was there a moment when you realized that?
MH: Yeah, it was when I was writing the pilot. As challenging as it was for me, I was like, “Wow they’re letting me do a guy who’s got panic attacks but is also dating a woman who looks like his mother.” My wife said to me at one point as I was killing myself in post, “Why don’t you just do a bad one?” I’m sure we did plenty of bad ones, but from my perspective, I didn’t stop early. I gave it everything I had. I just thought, “I’m this age, this is the opportunity I have.” As much as somebody who’s been more successful in television would be taking shots at Fox right now, it was a privilege. They’re the ones who gave it to me. CBS didn’t.
AVC: What is the one factor you think contributed the most to Arrested Development’s critical success?
MH: All that hard extra credit I did paid off in a world where rewatchability is everything. I remember saying to Fox early on, “I know you guys are upset with it—it’s rewatchable.” “But Mitch, this may not rerun.” “I know, but if it does rerun, it will be rewatchable because the sign in the background is funny, too.” And yes, I did reshoot things because I thought of a funnier sign in the background. That was inspired by The Simpsons. It was a chance to do a live-action Simpsons, and they were paying for it. I guess if something worked about it, it’s that at its heart it’s about family, which is a very relatable thing. Take those exact same characters and put them in a law office or something—even with the same scripts and jokes, it’s not as interesting to try to deal with your boss as it is to deal with your dad. It had a very fundamental, archetypal thing in it. And I think the specificity of the characters became general. You can find something in Buster, even though he’s so freakish, that is your brother, or yourself. It’s an interesting lesson about that specificity. TV does want to go more toward lack of specificity.
AVC: There’s the fear that specificity is alienation.
MH: Yeah. I remember pitching the Michael Cera character and being told, “It doesn’t sound like a Fox kid. Tell me about him—what makes him special?” I said, “Well, he’s unbelievably self-conscious,” and they were like, “[shuddering sound].” And that’s what I love. I’m self-conscious to this second, pitching this show. It’s the first thing people try to hide when they hit success, and yet the only thing we like about each other are the flaws. What I love about Will Arnett is what’s goofy about him or stupid about him—his blind spots. If you were to erase those and make the perfect guy, we wouldn’t know what to do with him. It took me a long time—I had this notion of myself as a writer, and it was just a matter of getting past that. It only really happened for me when I was running The John Larroquette Show. I wasn’t that much of a room pitcher, wasn’t much of a speaker. When you’re in those writers’ rooms, you’re aware of the fact that it’s an hour and a half in and you haven’t said a word. And when I finally ran that show, I was just scared. It was a whole different engine, a fear that I was gonna get fuckin’ fired. And I started pitching. Someone that year told me I was a pitching machine, and I was stunned by that. I had to get forced past self-consciousness with this other gun to my head. It’s not a happy way to live.
AVC: As someone who’s self-conscious, what do you get out of reading negative reviews of the show? Or anything about the Arrested Development movie and people’s unrealistic expectations.
MH: You know, I was gonna fuckin’ call it—even though I know they won’t let me—Arrested Development: The Disappointment. Because every time an episode aired, by the third season—by the second season—I’d go on the boards and they’d say, “This show has gone to hell ever since they brought on Annyong.” Then six months later they’d go, “Why aren’t they doing Annyong-type stories?” It’s a phenomenon I know from music, where you get the new album from an artist you love and you go, “Well, shit, it’s not good anymore.” But you know, the way it does help is that it forces you to see your worst scenario. If you write a novel, and people hate it, you go, “Oh.” And that’s it.
AVC: Both Arrested Development and Running Wilde lambast the rich and privileged. What do you get from those sorts of targets?
MH: One kind of grew out of the other. It wasn’t necessarily a motif of mine. I found entitlement funny, and it’s epidemic. It’s our country, and arguably why people don’t want to watch [Running Wilde]. But Will is so in the pocket of that, he’s so gifted at that particular joke that it becomes irresistible doing a show with Will Arnett to deal with those themes. I don’t know what it is about him. We tried, wondering what else he can play, but he just has a sort of obliviousness. People’s blind spots are what’s funny about them.
Why the rich? I don’t know. Arrested was strange, you didn’t know quite what you were rooting for. Are you rooting for this horrible family? And no one knows what makes TV shows successful yet. They’re working on computer programs—they truly are—that will parse this stuff. So everyone says things like “rootability” and that kind of thing. As a creative person, all you can do is emulate. Nothing is whole-cloth. I don’t think there would have been an Arrested without a Seinfeld or a Larry Sanders. They opened the door for, “likable actors, unlikable characters.” It’s easier to make funny, but funny isn’t necessarily the thing that makes a show successful.
AVC: For all you’ve said about TV, what keeps you coming back to the medium?
MH: I spent a few years just producing other writers, and those shows were not successful. I thought, “Will is special so let me try to do this,” but life is choice and choice is loss. Somebody very famous said that. So I chose to do another show here. If it works, then I’ll have at least a bit of a cushion where I can make the Arrested movie, those kinds of things. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to come up with another scenario.
AVC: The success of Running Wilde is related to the Arrested Development movie being made?
MH: Well, the movie does not pay much. I hate to make it about that, but I’ve needed to make an income—I’ve got kids in school and stuff. They pay me to do TV right now, which is fortunate. So I’m trying to continue to do that while I explore other fields. Unfortunately, TV is top-heavy in the sense that you have to do those first episodes and they take a lot of time. If I can get through the first 13, I think it’ll be much easier to run that business and go and do other things. I don’t know how J.J. Abrams does it, but he’s the guy to learn from, man.
AVC: So what is the status of the film? It’s the inescapable question.
MH: It is my absolute next priority. I’ve said we’re about halfway through it, but I’m including a lot of the stories as part of that half. It’s the next thing I do as soon as I get a breath from [Running Wilde]. If it gets picked up for a back nine, I’ll have people in place to do this and I can go finish that. It is my biggest creative priority. It’s very frustrating I haven’t had time to do it. I’ve been having to do other things, but it’s time and money. It’s part of, you know, the thing I’ve built for myself here. This house of cards. I have to say, people think I’m more successful than I am, and I appreciate that. I think. I don’t know if I care I, guess. But I’m a working guy. I’m not joking, though, if I had Cocoon, all bets would be off.