Mitchell Hurwitz began his career working on the final seasons of long-running sitcoms like The Golden Girls and Nurses. He also worked on The John Larroquette Show and was co-creator of Ellen DeGeneres’ short-lived comeback vehicle, The Ellen Show. But it was Arrested Development, the series he created in 2003, that really made his name, winning him Emmys, critical praise, and an increasingly large cult audience. The series’ joke-a-second format and nine-stories-per-episode structure proved hugely influential on American TV comedy, and since the series left the air, Hurwitz has been stumping for its resurrection as a movie, while also attempting to channel some of the show’s sensibility into comedies that might attract a larger audience. Now, the time is finally right for more Arrested Development, as a 15-episode miniseries/TV season hybrid on Netflix. Hurwitz talked to The A.V. Club on the eve of the show’s return, discussing the creative challenges of breaking the season’s story, the differences between this season and the previous seasons, and the show’s legacy.
The A.V. Club: In the years since you left Fox, had you thought, “Oh, that would make a great story for this character,” or was it something where you had stopped thinking about it, then started again?
Mitchell Hurwitz: I stayed very close to all these people, and it was a very formative experience for a lot of us on that show. It was just such a great chance to be creative, and we were all taking risks together, so it was a very tight-knit group. I worked with a lot of them on other projects, and I would say anybody in comedy tends to collect material from their life—or from anything—for comedy. In my case, it was for these characters. I think if you talk to anybody, particularly in television, they tend to compile information to be used at a later date. In fact, it can kind of separate you from actually experiencing anything. It’s like holding a camera in front of you and missing an event because you’re watching it through a camera lens. I think as a writer, you’re always kind of looking at things through how it can support some fictional world that you’re trying to build.
There were things that were just funnier because I imagined Will Arnett doing them, too. That was the other thing. These are the funniest actors, every one of them. It’s such a deep bench. So it was very hard not to think, “What would it be like if David Cross did this?” In fact there are still a lot of ideas I wasn’t able to get in the show that I still really want to see Tobias do, or Portia [De Rossi], or any of them.
I have a couple of ideas for Derek [a new series from Ricky Gervais], too, but I don’t know why Ricky would need them.
AVC: When you were sitting down to start writing this, did it just feel like getting into a warm bath? Was it very comfortable, or were there pieces of the show that were a little rusty, that you had to retrain yourself to write?
MH: It was much more like getting into a bathtub full of rusty, sharp things than warm water. Room temperature, don’t get me wrong, but sharp uncomfortable things.
No, I think what happened with this was, I was approaching it a different way, and sometimes that’s a great technique to get out of a creative funk or to look at something differently. And there [were such high expectations] on an Arrested Development movie, which we just hadn’t started and we were finally getting around to start, that I thought, “How can I defy expectation or find some new avenue into looking at these characters, so I’m not just chasing an audience reaction?” What came from that was this idea of, “What’s the honest thing that each of these characters would be doing right now?” Because it was morphing into this sort of anthology miniseries that would ultimately lead into a film, it was, by nature, more character-based than plot-based.
It really was a lot of effort to first figure out—I mean, it was fun effort—where these people would be, and then to try to find a way in which the stories could somehow relate to one another and have an effect on one another. The theme that kind of emerged is that this family has this invisible pull on each other, and they have a karma. There’s a cause and effect in the universe with this family. This is truly a comic conceit that I certainly didn’t invent, the idea that they’re their own worst enemies, that all of their misfortune is their own fault.
So it became like a puzzle, and like any puzzle, there are moments where it’s very uncomfortable, and you feel like, “If I’ve done these last five steps wrong, then I’m going in the wrong direction, and I’m getting further and further out on a limb.” At the same time, there are a lot of really happy accidents that happen in that process, where you realize, “Oh, wait a minute. If this is what the character is doing, that means it totally makes sense that the other character would react to it this way, and that would propel them on their own story.” Really, it was one of those things where the more I got away from worrying about audience expectation, dove into who these characters are, and just kept working on it and wrestling with it, the more connections started to emerge, and the more it became one cohesive story. Hopefully.
AVC: Michael Cera mentioned that when he went to the writers’ room, there were cards stretching all the way around the room with each character’s story track. Just mechanically, when you were outlining this, how did you even do that?
MH: It was really hard. And there were many times it felt like folly. And by the way, this will all be… I don’t think it’ll be that apparent. I don’t think this will look that complicated or feel that convoluted. It just happened to be that I needed to know a lot of information up top, that, through the course of a series, you get to discover along the way. You don’t usually start a season of television knowing every single scene of every character, and that leaves room for a lot of wonderful surprises.
In this instance, I kind of had to know what everybody’s story was, how they affected each other, because that meant who was going to be in each other’s scenes, and, beyond that, what each particular scene was, because I didn’t know when I would get the actors. As it turned out, that was a really important step, that I could suddenly find out that we were shooting Tony Hale at the doctor’s office, and also know that Jeffrey Tambor is going to be at that same doctor’s office, so let’s write that scene because we have them both tomorrow. We were constantly shooting out of sequence. Oftentimes, I would start an episode—and we’d start as a writers’ room on an episode that we’d already shot seven pages for, because I had the actors and I had to kind of quickly put something together for them. It became a system of painting myself into corners and then trying to get out of them. That works for comedy, and I think it works for creativity, too. It’s almost like the more constraints you put on something, the more likely you are to find a way to express yourself. As opposed to just having a blank slate.
AVC: What was that process like in the editing room? Did you fiddle with it quite a bit?
MH: Well, it was brutal. It was really brutal, because we had never finished an actual episode, unlike a regular show, where you’d shoot five days or seven days, and you’d at least have all the material for one episode. We’d shoot for five days, and we’d have five pages of episode eight and four pages of episode three and one page of episode nine that’s also going to be used in episode seven. It was just all of these ranging pieces. Because I was co-directing with Troy Miller, the two of us were just shooting together every single day, as opposed to having a different director for every episode. We didn’t have that luxury, because we were shooting so out of sequence.
So we weren’t available to do post until the end. I got into post in late December. We still had scenes we owed—a lot of scenes we owed, actually—but we thought we’d better start this post process. There were a lot of decisions to be made, up until four days ago when I finished post. I was still redoing stories and realizing, “You know what? We haven’t locked this one yet. Let’s take the scene out of that and put it in this, because that is more in keeping with George Michael’s story of growth than it is a Buster story, even though it plays as a joke in Buster’s show.” It was constantly reworking the story. Until the last minute.
And ultimately, my hope for this is that it will live as a whole and not really be looked at, eventually, as, “This is this person’s episode or that person’s episode.” I think one of the things I’m trying to do is give people all this material, and I imagine that there will be a time where we can find a different way to watch this material or to organize it or that maybe people will be able to build their own adventure out of it, you know? Instead of telling it one chapter, one character at a time, since it does happen over the same period of time, to kind of intertwine the stories. I just like the idea that the audience owns this material now.
AVC: You’re cool with fan remixes and stuff like that?
MH: I think that’s great. I even played with the idea for a while of… [Laughs.] I got a little bogged down, and [thought], “I wonder if the audience would like this better or that better in a Gob story,”—I’m purposefully being vague—and I remember thinking, “I wonder if I should just start a Google chat and just have everybody… Hey, let’s just weigh in right now! Let’s just all sign off on this.” [Laughs.] That kind of gave birth to this other idea, which I don’t think the technology is there for, but it would be fun. I was talking to Jim Vallely about it, who’s my producing partner—is there a way to make all these drives available to an audience at some point, so people could put it together their own way? They could have all the angles, they could have all the narration. It’s just something I thought, like, “Well, if we’re going to do the new media, let’s go for it.” Maybe there’s a season, maybe there’s some experiment where we do one episode, and it’s group-written by anyone that wants to weigh in. Just an open writers’ room. It’d be a really interesting experiment.
AVC: Were there places where your ambitions bumped up against the limits of current technology?
MH: Oh, all the time. [Laughs.] Constantly. In fact, one of the main ways—I mean, it does remind me of the old show, in that when I was doing that show, a lot of the fun I had was in the details, in the background jokes, in the webpages we’d show, it was on the backs of book covers. All those little hidden jokes, and really, there wasn’t a way at the time to just pause it and see it. I mean, there were some DVRs, but they didn’t have that kind of penetration. There was TiVo, you know? And we weren’t even guaranteed we’d be on DVD, so it was aggressive, to put this material out there that couldn’t be appreciated without the new technology.
I feel like this has a version of that. By the nature of the show, where the stories are happening simultaneously, there are moments where characters connect. If you and I each had episodes about us, this conversation right now would be in both of our episodes, except that you’d leave with me, and you’d take with me whatever transformative thing happened in this conversation, and then you’d leave with you in your episode. And it would be great if the audience had the ability to just jump over to your story in the middle of this conversation, and then follow you for the rest of the day. I don’t think that is there yet, but I’ll bet you within the next couple years Netflix will have a way to do that with this show. Because it really is built for that. It really is built to let people go where they want and follow this family however they want. Even though the first time through, they do have to watch it in order, so they won’t get to enjoy it as much. I’ll just kind of walk back that public statement somebody made about how they can be watched in any order.
ÓAVC: How do you structure for the idea that someday, perhaps people will be skipping from one episode to the other?
ÓMH:Ó Well, I’ve given it a lot of thought, actually, and it only works for people on a second viewing, or people that want to manipulate the media beyond the initial watching. It does remind me of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that, I don’t know if you’ve ever read one, but it just creates anxiety. “If you would like to see this character… have his legs blown off, jump to page eight.” [Laughs.] “What did I miss? Am I doing the right thing? Will I ever find out what that other path was not taken?” The dilemma of the human experience: “What am I missing by living the life I’m living?” It pushes that button in a bad way. However, I think as something you could re-watch, the fun of this, and the fun of comedy is, that if it’s dense enough, you forget all the jokes, and you get to experience them again when you re-watch it. And if you were watching a second time and wanted to jump over to another element and follow the different path, I think that could be really fun. But after all’s said and done, we do require a certain kind of storytelling. Our brain does need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Our dreams, even, end up kind of making sense to us based on random stuff , because we just need to have some kind of order.
AVC: Have you kept up with the state of current TV comedy, and do you see Arrested Development’s legacy when you look at shows today?
MH: There are times I think that could be because of Arrested, but as I say that, the same thing could be said for Arrested Development and everything that came before it. It is part of a continuum. I am really proud of our contribution to that and kind of amazed that we got to be part of that conversation. I will see things that at first blush in a 30 Rock episode, I’ll think, “Hey, that’s ours.” Then the next step I’ll have to realize, “Annnd, I took it from Seinfeld.” [Laughs.] But comedy’s always been that way. There’s all this standard comedy that broadcast television tends to have to traffic in, they’re going for such a big, broad audience. Then occasionally something will break through, like Larry David’s Seinfeld, that’s just unique and has its own voice, and it touches a lot of people like me, who love the idea of breaking the rules and trying something new. So I think that would be the best legacy of Arrested, that it makes other people take risks. Not necessarily that they would do a similar kind of joke-telling or storytelling, but that they’d go for taking risks, too.
AVC: Are there shows on right now that you really enjoy?
MH: You know, I have been underwater. I’ve been completely unavailable every day forever. So last night I got into bed, and I realized, “Hey, I can see House Of Cards! Next time I see Ted Sarandos [Netflix chief content officer], I can tell him, ‘I saw House Of Cards!’” And, as it turns out, I can tell him I loved it. I watched about five of them last night. So I’m really behind.
Louie is amazing. I’m a season behind on Louie, but so impressed and so inspired by it. I love Nick Kroll’s show. I just this morning was watching all this Amy Schumer stuff online and was really inspired by it, really impressed by it. What do you like?
AVC: Louie is great, and Girls has been really enjoyable…
MH: Girls I’m really impressed with. What impresses me about Girls is real artists reveal themselves and get a lot of detractors. And [Lena Dunham] is so honest, and she’s so revealing. I know she’s a bit of a lightning rod for people; they love her or hate her, but what’s undeniable is how courageous she is and how revealing she is. I think it’s amazing.
AVC: You mentioned audience expectations and also trying to challenge yourself. How do you give the audience what it wants while still pushing yourself to new creative horizons?
MH: It’s a challenging thing, because—and anybody in comedy who says that they don’t care about the audience is internally inconsistent—comedy is all about communication with an audience. It’s kind of the whole point of it, really. We don’t really even know what laughter is or how it happens or why it happens. There’s a lot we know about how there’s more laughter around other people than there is when people are alone, so that says, “Okay, it’s a communication.” It’s a way to express shared outrage or shared sensibility or shared observation, so it’s undeniable that if you’re making a comedy, you want to get a laugh. That means you care about your audience. There’s all these tricks you do as a creative person to kind of get yourself into a place where you do care and then when you don’t care. Where you use the anxiety to motivate you and then you try to dial back on the anxiety by saying, “Oh, the hell with it. I’m going to do what I think is funny.” The answer is somewhere in there. I definitely care about this audience and doing this for the audience, among other reasons of course, but the genesis of it was, “Let me give the audience something that they didn’t expect and is longer and more substantial than maybe the movie they wanted.” I also worry about them not liking it.
But I had to take a lot of risks in doing it that ultimately, I think, will pay dividends. I think people… It’s what I went through the first time, you know? People didn’t like a lot of the shows the night that they’d air. I just put everything I had into them and hoped that would connect with them at some point. And maybe those people still don’t like those episodes, but others have come along to appreciate them. So I don’t know. I just put everything I had into it. We’ll see. There were certain obstacles that I had to live with, and I had to work around. One of which is a really essential piece of the Arrested Development idea, which is there were eight or nine stories per episode, and they all kind of intertwined, and that’s what I couldn’t do on this show. So there’s a fundamental piece of the old Arrested Development experience that isn’t here. What there is that there wasn’t in the old show is a macro interconnection of stories. Maybe it doesn’t all happen in one episode, but it does happen in all 15 episodes. I think if people don’t just watch one, they’ll have this deeper experience of Arrested Development, but I don’t know.
I’m really proud of it. I love it. And after all is said and done, the characters are just fun to watch talking. I shouldn’t say the characters; I should say the actors. I mean, seeing Will Arnett and Jason Bateman in the kitchen talking about something stupid is just delightful, despite all the other crazy things that are going on. Just those two guys talking is great, so I’m hopeful.
AVC: This season is in the can. You’ve wanted to do a movie for a while. If you were able to do that, would there be anything, you think, after that?
MH: You mean after the movie?
AVC: Yeah. Or do you see the movie as the capstone of this whole story?
MH: I don’t, but I think television is so much more about characters than it is about story. It’s just an interesting thing that way. So as long as they’re around, I think there’ll be stories for them. There is a story that I’m leading up to with this show, and it could take the form of a movie, I’m hoping it does. But truthfully, I even have the last beat of the movie, and it definitely is, like, “Oh, so there’s more.” Without being too George Lucas about it, I would love to continue this. Jason Bateman used to always say, “We should do it like the Michael Apted films. We should do it like 7 Up and just keep revisiting them.” And there’s something that would be kind of amazing about that.