When showrunner Mitch Hurwitz calls Will Arnett “the funniest man on television” in an interview accompanying the press screener for Fox’s animated high-school TV series Sit Down, Shut Up, he presumably means it. After all, Hurwitz cast Arnett as amateur magician/puppeteer Gob Bluth in the beloved Arrested Development, the role that catapulted Arnett to comedy-superstar status. Arnett has a knack for stealing scenes (in a good way), playing the comic foil to Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock and twisted bit parts in the Will Ferrell vehicles Semi-Pro and Blades Of Glory. Sit Down, Shut Up is the newest addition to Fox’s Sunday-night lineup, and it reunites him with Hurwitz, plus former Arrested Development vets Jason Bateman and Henry Winkler. Arnett voices Ennis Hoftard, a physical fitness-obsessed English teacher—and as Arnett recently told The A.V. Club, it probably isn’t an accident that the character sounds a lot like Gob.
The A.V. Club: How were you introduced to Sit Down, Shut Up?
Will Arnett: I would say about a year and a half ago, Mitch Hurwitz sent me a script and said, “This is something I wrote that I’m thinking about doing, the script for an animated show, just have a read and tell me what you think.” And I read it and immediately called him back and said “Oh my God, this is hilarious. But I won’t do it. I don’t know, I just don’t feel like it.”
AVC: What was your thinking at the time?
WA: Well, thank you for assuming that I know how to think. So a few months went by, and it kind of came back my way, as I guess he got more serious about making the show, and Fox wanted to do it. And once it became real, when I reread it, he said, “Read this new draft and tell me if there’s anything that kind of speaks to you.” And I said “One of the characters that I really liked in the first draft is not in this draft.” So for a long time, for about a year, I thought he put that character back in because I wanted it back in. But he told me he’d planned all along to bring that character back, and it had nothing to do with me. He didn’t need to tell me that. I would have felt great if he just let me believe that he put it back on my request, on my behalf. But no.
AVC: Was it always in the cards to make the show a mini Arrested Development reunion?
WA: I don’t know. As my last little story there shows, I don’t know what Mitch is thinking. [Laughs.] So if I say yes, then the answer is probably no. But I do know that we had a great experience working on that show, so I’m sure that somewhere in his mind, he always wanted Jason Bateman to play a part, and he wanted me to do this thing, and I guess Henry [Winkler].
AVC: Arrested Development was such an ensemble-driven show. What’s it like to record voiceover for this show in isolation?
WA: Yeah, I record most of my stuff from New York, and I’m usually by myself. But the only time that I really work with the other guys and gals is when we do table reads. They still do table reads every week, and most of the time, I call in. You know, conference in. Which is some of my best work, through a conference speakerphone.
AVC: Of course. All the awkward pauses, the misunderstandings.
WA: Yeah, waiting, super-long pauses where you’re just like, “Oh, okay.” But you know, to tell you the truth, one of the great things we do have—because I’ve worked with Mitch for a while, and Jason and everybody, there’s kind of a shorthand when it comes to the actual recording. Sometimes I have the luxury of being out here in L.A. and actually having Mitch in the room directing me. So that’s good too. It’s always super-fun working with all these guys. Always.
AVC: You’ve said in other interviews that prior to Arrested Development, you were frustrated you weren’t getting much recognition.
WA: That’s kind of the nature of the profession I’m in. It’s frustrating. Things don’t go your way, and I was no exception, in that I spent many years struggling to get work, and there are a lot of people more talented than myself who got jobs before me. [Laughs.] And I finally, after years and years and years, got lucky. They were looking for the part of Gob—they had cast most of the show, and I happened to go in and read in New York. So I read the sides on the subway on the way uptown to [the casting agency], we laid it on tape, and [the agent] said “Sounds pretty good.” Then I didn’t really think about it, to be honest, and then the next day, I got a few calls, like, “Hey, they might want to test your tape, take your tape to the studio.” It’s a whole process, TV. I was like, “Oh, all right.” And then, a couple of hours later, “Hey, um, so they want you to come out to California tomorrow morning.” “Oh, all right.” And so, like, from the time I read to the time I got the show was just a matter of 48 or 72 hours, and my life totally changed.
AVC: When you say you didn’t really think about the audition, do you mean that? Actors seem to say that all the time.
WA: Right, right. Well, at that point, I was in rehearsal for a play in New York, and I was in a really bummed-out place. I had done a pilot the year before, and when the pilot went to series, my character was dropped. So in effect, I was fired. While the people involved with that show were nice, the people I was mad at, I was like, “Man, you fired me from your show? F you!” So I was embarrassed on top of everything else, and you think, “Oh my God, everybody knows, everybody in the world. It’s all they’re talking about.” No, nobody knows, nobody cares, nobody pays attention.
So now, cut to months later: I made a decent living as a voiceover guy, and I was really considering “I could just kind of do theater in New York, and that will be my career, and I’ll be very happy in that.” By the time Arrested Development came around, I’d said to my manager, “Look, I don’t want to read for any TV pilots. That was such a tough knock to take last year. I don’t want to put myself through that again.” And he kept calling me and saying, “The woman who cast that show you got fired from sent you a really nice letter, saying she thought it was bullshit that you got fired.” That meant a lot. Anyway, she was now calling, saying “You’ve got to read for this part. They can’t find this guy, and I think you’d be really good at it.” It was, that year, the only pilot I actually read for. But I had been burned so much that I didn’t think about it. Even though it was the only one, I just let it go.
And I remember the next day, I was with my friend at a bar, not drinking, but hanging out and playing video golf—Golden Tee. They told me they wanted to take my tape to the network, but before that, I had to sign a contract, because if they like it… And I was like, “Okay. I’ll be home in a little while.” I was just hanging out, playing Golden Tee with my buddy. And then they called again and they’re like, “No, no, no, they want you to go home and sign the thing.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know, I’m leaving in like 20 minutes. Give me a break.” I continue to play Golden Tee, and they called again. So I finally went home, like, “All right,” and signed it. And then the second the fax went through, they called and go, “Okay, so you were approved by the studio.” [Laughs.] It was pretty transparent.
AVC: So in order to succeed in this business, you have to tear yourself down to the point where you don’t care and you’re nonchalant?
WA: I think there’s some truth to that. [Laughs.] In a lot of ways, you have to keep your eyes off the prize.
AVC: You went after dramatic roles in your early years. When did you make the shift to comedic ones?
WA: I think that when I was in my 20s, I wanted to go after dramatic roles, and I didn’t have a tremendous amount of success with that. I kind of backed my way into comedic parts. When you’re young, you kind of take yourself seriously, and you think, like, “People need to see what I can do.” And it’s so laughable, especially with actors. You just start naming your dog Brando.
AVC: When I told my co-workers I was doing this interview, everyone quoted Gob lines back to me and told me to ask you to put Franklin on the phone and talk about performing illusions. It all seems like an indicator that Gob really means something to people. What do you think resonates about him?
WA: I don’t know. When I first read the part—God, I don’t want to sound too actor-y, but I think Mitch really had a good understanding of all the characters on Arrested Development. He wasn’t just like, “Oh, and then we should also have a best friend to keep tripping into the room, and to live with a parakeet.” These were all characters he really understood, and they were fully formed, so I had the benefit of stepping into something he had a really clear understanding of. I think that character… Maybe it came at a right time in my life where—you know, I was just talking to you about feeling insecure or just kind of beat down. And I think that Gob, at least, was kind of beat down too, for different reasons. He’s not getting the love he needs from his family. And that’s what always drove me, was this frustration, where on the one hand he has a mother who he doesn’t really pay a lot of heed, so she kind of drives him crazy, and on the other side, he has a father who is totally withholding and manipulative, and doesn’t give him the recognition he wants. He’s the oldest in the family, yet he’s treated like an absolute imbecile. That always motivated me for all the jokes, for everything that was going on. I guess people can relate to that. By the way, that was not my experience growing up. [Laughs.]
AVC: A lot of your other parts have seemed Gob-like—an extremely cocky guy oblivious to the fact that he’s an imbecile. As a comedic actor, how important is it to carve out a niche character you can play really well?
WA: I don’t know what it is. It’s tough for me to try to guess what people want me to do. I can only respond to it in the way I respond to it. And I’m sure there are a lot of things I do where people go, “Well, that’s just Gob.” Of course, that’s the first thing people know me from. When you make 53 episodes of something, and people watch the whole series and/or rewatch them, they become very familiar. So even when I go meet somebody in the street, or somebody sees me on a talk show, they go, “Oh, that’s Gob.” And I’m like, “No, no, no.” There’s a lot of me in the character, sure, because I’m doing it. It’s not like I wear a wig and a clown nose, and I was in disguise. But I do get that. The way I sleep at night is that I convince myself that I have maybe a certain style. [Laughs.] So what people refer to as me just doing the same thing, I kind of refer to as my—I don’t know. Fuck. My brand? However stupid that sounds.
AVC: Now that you’re a new father, and would like to remain close to home, how has your career changed?
WA: Well, it has become much more of a scheduling thing than anything else. Whereas before, I could kind of do this, and Amy [Poehler, his wife] could do that, now it’s like, “Hey, okay, if you do that, then I can’t…” You know, because we have this whole other human being we have to think about other than ourselves. We had the luxury before of being totally self-centered. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you and Amy do for fun?
WA: The thing we enjoy the most to do together is watch Law & Order. That’s our, like, end-of-the-day, going-to-bed, chilling-out thing. We love, love Law & Order. There’s something about, just from the opening: [Lowers voice.] “In the criminal justice system, there are two distinct but equally important groups. These are their stories. Bom bomm.” I find something incredibly soothing in that.