'Arrested' No More: Hurwitz On Why The Bluths Are Back
The Bluth family of the cult show Arrested Development can be oblivious, mean — to each other and anyone who enters their orbit — and eccentric. But that, says show creator Mitch Hurwitz, is in some ways the point.
"The goal with the show has always been that the Bluths are wrong," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[They're] self-centered. They haven't had to develop. [Their] money allowed them to stop developing."
As its tagline says, Arrested Development follows "a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together." It aired on Fox, where it garnered critical acclaim and lackluster ratings; it was canceled in 2006, after three seasons. In the years since, the satire the Bluths embody has earned the show a rabid cult following.
"We were aware that there were some ardent fans," Hurwitz says. "We didn't know what their numbers were. ... The show had become available in so many formats that it was hard to know who was watching where."
The numbers were clearly significant enough for business departments to take seriously, though, and so Hurwitz and Arrested Development are back now with a fourth season. All 15 of the new episodes were released at once for streaming on Netflix, to considerable fanfare.
This time around, says Hurwitz, if the show doesn't bring in an audience, he can't blame the network.
"We finally got the time slot I wanted," he says, "which is, always available, all the time, on every single device in the universe. That's all I ever wanted, was complete, continuous streaming of my work to the universe. It's really a small thing to ask for, I think."
On the concept of the Bluth family
"It really was about how money enables a lot of eccentricity. The original idea, the original pitch, was ... 'What if a family loses their money and they go kicking and screaming into a better life? What if a husband and wife who have never even shared a bedroom — Tobias and Lindsay — are now forced to share a bedroom, and a child who lives in a fake home finally now finds himself living in a real home?' And that was such a subterranean idea that I think everybody looked at the show and saw it as being very cynical. But there [was] always to me this idea of hopefulness behind it. They do need each other, and they are more effective when they're together."
On the deeper truths of the show
"What is honest in the show is there are family dynamics. The family speaks in code; family has its own mythology. In many ways, your family wants you to be what they think you are. My father said to me recently, 'Hey, I didn't know you could write longhand.' Or, 'I didn't know you knew how to write in handwriting.' [And I said] 'Of course I do. I'm a grown man.' 'Oh, I didn't know you knew how.' 'I think you're thinking of when I was 8.' 'You definitely couldn't [then]. I'll show you cards. ... ' And there's something fun about how your family won't let you change, in a way, and the push and pull of like, 'No, I'm a different person!' And, of course, they're kind of right."
On how the pressure of a writers' room can lead to great jokes
"I remember Jim Vallely, one of the executive producers of Arrested, I remember being in a room with him [on Golden Girls] and there was a scene where Blanche was opening up birthday presents, and Jimmy yelled out, 'It's a blouse!' And everybody looked at Jimmy, and he took a second [and said], 'You said you wanted something crotchless!' I remember saying to him, 'Did you know you were going to say the crotchless thing?' And he said, 'No, I had no idea, I just painted myself into a corner.' And I love that. I think that's such an important part of comedy. We do it all the time on Arrested -- just paint ourselves into corners and try to get out. It's all about constraints."
On casting Ron Howard as the show's narrator
"If I had one brilliant idea on the show, it was casting Ron Howard as the narrator, because at the time I think he wanted to shepherd the show [to launch] and move on with his life, and I wanted to keep him around. He's such a brilliant guy. He fights for things he believes in. He was the star, in a way, going in.
"I wasn't doing a show with a big known quantity, like Michael J. Fox, for instance. I was doing a show where the producer was the star, so I wanted to keep him around. I suddenly realized that this is the most American, trustworthy voice that I could possibly think of. This voice, these rhythms have been in our heads for 40 years. He speaks in this Midwestern, trustworthy [voice]. ... You suddenly believe what the narrator says.
"He kept saying, 'I'll do it for the pilot but you'll find somebody else.' And I kept saying, 'I don't understand why you're not the voice of Honda, or something else that wants credibility.' "
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT")
RON HOWARD: (as Narrator) Now the story of a family whose future was abruptly canceled.
GROSS: The Bluth family appeared to have no future seven years ago when the Fox TV network canceled the comedy series "Arrested Development." Enthusiasm for the show was high, but the ratings weren't. My guest is the creator of "Arrested Development," Mitch Hurwitz. After a seven-year absence, the Bluths are back in a new season of "Arrested Development," but this season isn't on TV. It's streaming on Netflix.
The Bluth family is perhaps even more dysfunctional, delusional, materialistic and self-centered than ever. Here's how the series began back in 2003. George, the patriarch of the family and the founder of the family business, had just been arrested for business fraud. His middle son, Michael, the most reasonable character in the family, played by Jason Bateman, was giving the latest news to the rest of the family.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT")
JASON BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) OK, guys, they are going to keep Dad in prison at least until this gets all sorted out. Also the attorney said that they're going to have put a halt on the company's expense account.
(as Michael) Interesting. I would have expected that after they're keeping Dad in jail.
PORTIA DE ROSSI: (as Lindsay Bluth Funke) You know, Michael, Dad did name Mom as his successor.
JESSICA WALTER: (as Lucille Bluth) And I'm putting Buster in charge.
WILL ARNETT: (as Gob Bluth) He's a good choice.
BATEMAN: (as Michael) Buster? The guy who thought that the blue on the map was land?
WALTER: (as Lucille) He's had business classes.
TONY HALE: (as Buster Bluth) Wait, wait - 18th-century agrarian business, but I guess it's all the same principles. Let me ask you: Are you at all concerned about an uprising?
BATEMAN: (as Michael) That's it. I'm done. I'm sick and tired of the greed and the selfishness and all the taking. Forget it. I've got a son to think about.
GROSS: But 10 years and four seasons later, Michael still isn't through with the family, and Mitch Hurwitz isn't through with Michael and the rest of the Bluths. Neither are the show's fans, many of whom discovered the series only after it was canceled, through DVDs or streaming, and have been waiting years for another season or a movie version.
The show has become something of a phenomenon, famous among other things for its convoluted plots, pop culture references, running gags and in-jokes. But really you don't need to know anything about "Arrested Development" to enjoy what Mitch Hurwtiz has to say. Mitch Hurwtiz, welcome to FRESH AIR, congratulations on Season 4 on Netflix, and...
MITCH HURWITZ: Thank you very much, it's very confusing to be here.
GROSS: So you've had a premiere unlike other premieres. I think you're the first, like, recurring TV series to have a whole season on Netflix before being anyplace else.
HURWITZ: I think that's accurate, yes, and for original programming, yeah, it's quite a privilege.
GROSS: So, and you've had plenty of season premieres of "Arrested Development" and other shows. So how does a Netflix premiere of all the episodes at one time but not on TV compare to starting a new season or a new show on TV? How does it compare for you now, now that it's out, and people are watching it?
HURWITZ: Well, in some ways it's a different experience to have things released on Netflix all at once. It required a different kind of storytelling, or at least it allowed for a different kind of storytelling. What did seem similar about it is the first couple of seasons of the show we really made in a vacuum in the sense that it was the actors and myself and our crew and our writing staff and everybody else, and we were just making the show.
You know, nobody was watching it. There weren't too many known names at the time in the show, obviously Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter and Portia de Rossi and Jason Bateman to an extent, but not as the kind of comedic voice that we know him to be now. So we made this show for each other, and we made each other laugh. And this iteration had a similar feeling to it.
We were aware that there were some ardent fans. We didn't know what their numbers were. Those numbers are kept pretty quiet by the DVD departments. And also the show had become available in so many different formats that it was hard to know who was watching where. And once again we were making a show that wasn't airing on a weekly basis.
So we were just in it with ourselves, and I think in many ways the show reflects that. It's very self-referential, it's very internal, it's very internally consistent, and it kind of follows its own drummer in a way.
GROSS: One thing you can't do now...
HURWITZ: I happen to be the drummer, but...
GROSS: One thing you can't do now is say the network gave us a crummy time slot, we don't have a good lead-in.
HURWITZ: No, we finally got the time slot I wanted, which is always available all the time on every single device in the universe. That's all I've really ever wanted was just complete, continuous streaming of my work to the universe. That's all - really, it's a small things to ask for, I think.
GROSS: So if I made you the offer right now that you get to do Season 5 on a digital-only Netflix kind of situation or on TV, which would you choose?
HURWITZ: Well, let's talk numbers. What are you willing to spend?
GROSS: Oh, so the ball's back in my court, OK.
HURWITZ: I've turned it around on you.
HURWITZ: See, you didn't - this is why you don't run a studio.
GROSS: It's the only reason.
HURWITZ: Your negotiating skills are horrible.
GROSS: OK, so I'm going to come up with a magic number, a lot. Take money out of the equation.
HURWITZ: I, listen...
GROSS: Sky's the limit.
HURWITZ: This has been designed to lead to more story, and as those of you who have gotten all the way through the end of this know, there's a lot of story ahead of us, and that story is kind of mapped out already. So there's definitely a future to this family. Whether it's a movie or another season or my new idea, which is a series of needlepoint patterns...
HURWITZ: ...which I think really would allow people to really focus on it, you know what I mean? Because I think it needs a lot of focus.
GROSS: So let's talk about how this all started. Ron Howard asked you to do a series about a wealthy family. Was that all the information he gave you when he asked you to do a series?
HURWITZ: Yes. Ron Howard - David Nevins, who ran Imagine Television and is an old friend of mine, had just started as president of Imagine Television, and Ron had just done "A Beautiful Mind" and he wanted to try something different. And so he was - he had this idea of, like, let me do some kind of verite television show. And at the time, this kind of HD video and handheld look was really novel on TV, and it was really something that emerged from reality television but not the reality television we see today.
It was more shows like "Blind Date" and kind of these cheap shows, but there was so much of it that he felt, I think people are OK with this look. And he wanted to do a show that used the technology of HD video, which almost all shows are on now, to create an efficiency that we could use in making the scripts sharper.
I mean actually, I mean everything kind of develops and changes, but the original idea was that he had done both single-camera and audience sitcoms, and his feeling was the single-camera world, those shows were not as funny because they didn't go through the same vetting process that sitcoms did. And with a sitcom, you know, the writers rewrite every single day at every single run-through.
It's done like a play, and then on Friday or whatever the end of the week is, it's done in front of an audience, and then jokes are still tweaked even more. So his thinking was: What if we went through a week of rehearsal, and we shot the whole thing in a day and a half on these cheap cameras that allow for less lighting and less setups and things like that?
I felt like, wow, this an opportunity, you know, the door is opened to really be creative here. And I wanted to use the savings of time to do a whole lot of scenes, to tell, you know, all the different facets of a family story. So the show really was an outgrowth of, I think, the technology and the look. It was one of those cases where - let's see, how would that go - function followed form.
GROSS: So this is a family that they all really, like, hate each other, with good reason, but they're stuck with each other, which is part of the definition, I guess...
HURWITZ: With good reason. I think with good reason is the important qualifier there.
GROSS: Yeah, and so no matter how much they want to or how hard they try, they can't really get away from each other. Have you ever felt in that situation yourself?
HURWITZ: No, I'm very close to my family. I really am. It's - you know, it really was about how money, you know, money enables a lot of eccentricity. And the original idea, the original pitch, which I also think we didn't do, was what if, you know, a family loses their money and they go kicking and screaming into a better life.
What if a husband and wife who have never, you know, even shared a bedroom, Tobias and Lindsay, are now forced to share a bedroom, and a child that lives in a fake home finally has - finds himself in a real home? And that was such a subterranean idea that I think everybody looked at the show and saw it as being very cynical.
But there always was to me this idea of this hopefulness behind it, that they do need each other and they are more effective when they're together. And early on the criticism was - I mean not the - it was actually positive criticism. People would say oh, there are no hugs, and there's no - nobody learns a lesson, which they were importing that idea from "Seinfeld" and kind of projecting it onto our show.
And I always thought, no, there's a lot of hugs. They're learning all over the place. I come from "The Golden Girls," you know? This is - they're constantly hugging. So I don't know, it's just - I just, I think it was the style and the tone of the show that was so unsentimental. But hopefully, you know, I always wanted there still to be emotion in it, but I think it was the unsentimental tone that made people feel like these are such scoundrels. I guess they are.
GROSS: You've said this was...
HURWITZ: They're self-centered, you know. They haven't had to develop. That money allowed them to stop developing.
GROSS: I read that you've said this was initially supposed to be based on your wife's WASP family, and then as you proceeded to write, the family got more Jewish, like your family.
GROSS: So what did you consider - what did you consider to be different about your wife's family than your family?
HURWITZ: Well, it wasn't really about my wife's family. I mean I have to clarify that as well, at least while they're still alive.
HURWITZ: Let's - a lot of these people are alive. No, it really - I think creative people use any inspiration they can get. There was some of my father's family and my father's relationship to his father in it, but all filtered through my imagination. And my wife's family is actually a Catholic family, and they're a big family, so that was inspiring to me.
But really other than that, it very quickly got into the world of fiction. You know, sometimes you just need a little kick start. When people say write about your life, I think they really mean just start with something real and see where it goes.
GROSS: I think they mean write about your life but pretend like it's fiction because people are still alive.
HURWITZ: Or yes, wait until they die and then just say it was about your family.
GROSS: So how many siblings do you have who the show is not about?
HURWITZ: I have an older brother. The show is not about my older brother Michael, who is a surgeon in Newport Beach, and it's also not about - well, it's a tiny, tiny bit about my younger half-brother, who is much younger than me and lives in Washington, D.C.
So there's a little bit of - you know, I mean what is honest in the show is there are family dynamics, family speaks in code, family has its own mythology. You know, in many ways your family wants you to be what they think you are. My father said to me recently: Hey, I didn't know you could write longhand. Or you know, something like, I didn't know you knew how to write in handwriting.
I said yeah, no, of course I do. I'm a grown man. I didn't think you knew how. I said, I think you're thinking of when I was eight. Well, you definitely couldn't when - I'll show you cards. And there's something fun about, you know, how your family won't let you change, in a way, and the push and pull of, like, no, I'm a different person, and of course they're kind of right, they're kind of right. We don't really change.
GROSS: Oh, but that push and pull is so important and so difficult when you were going through your teens and your late teens and your early 20s, and I think that's one of the reasons so many people try to go to out-of-town college or at least when college was affordable they used to.
HURWITZ: Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: Did you do that?
HURWITZ: I did. I actually - it took me a lot longer to go through my pushing away period, but I did go to school in D.C., even though I was raised in Orange County. So that was a big culture, you know, shock. But I think about the new series very much like that experience. You know, George Michael, who's always been kind of the soul of the show, that's Michael Cera's character, has - he's the one whose life has really changed. He went - he grew up, he went off to college in our show, and part of the show is about how he changes and how the family kind of adapts to - almost like when he went off to school the center of the family fell away, even though Michael always felt of himself as the center, and all the pieces went off in various directions.
And that's a really important part of life, but also so is coming back to your family.
GROSS: So you know, you said your older brother, I think, is named Michael, and I was thinking if I was writing a TV series and I wanted my family to know that the family in the series was not them, and I had a brother Michael, I would definitely name my character Michael like you did, just as a sign like this isn't at all about you.
HURWITZ: Just hide in plain sight.
GROSS: Yeah, why in the world would you...
HURWITZ: If it was about you, Michael, would I call him Michael? I mean think about it.
GROSS: Was that your thinking?
HURWITZ: No, not at all, not at all. Actually, it was a...
GROSS: Why did you name him Michael?
HURWITZ: I think it was a little plagiarism of "The Godfather."
HURWITZ: I started there, and I liked how prosaic that name was. And then I liked the idea of - I liked the idea of everyone having the same name, which is kind of a Faulkner trick, you know, just to make it really complicated, force people to pay attention. There's a Michael, there's a George, there's a George Michael, there's an Oscar George. There's a George Oscar. There are two Lucilles. You know, there's - it just, it's something about that enmeshment of the family that really appealed to me.
But it's really not about my brother Michael.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mitch Hurwitz, the creator of "Arrested Development," and its fourth season is now on Netflix. It's a straight Netflix production, and people have been binge-watching it all over.
HURWITZ: And purge-watching it.
GROSS: And purge-watching it.
GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mitch Hurwitz. He's the creator of "Arrested Development," and Season 4 is the Netflix season. It went right to Netflix, all the episodes at one time, and it's available for streaming.
HURWITZ: Well said.
GROSS: Oh, thank you. Yes, we don't have the language yet for this. I don't, anyway.
HURWITZ: We don't have - I mean, yeah, and all the episodes have been dumped on you all at once. No, that doesn't sound very good.
GROSS: So in the first season, two of the main characters live in a model home, where, like, you know, the turkey on the table is a fake, like, porcelain turkey that they keep, like, a box of cereal underneath, which is what they're really going to eat. What kind of home did you grow up in?
HURWITZ: You know, I only - this is like a therapy session. I only recently realized, when someone asked me about the home I grew up in, I said well, it was a model home...
GROSS: No really?
HURWITZ: I realized, hey. Yeah, I didn't realize that.
HURWITZ: But it wasn't like a model home in the middle of the desert. It was in a middle-class housing development, and so our garage was tiled. That was really the difference between our home and the other homes. And, you know, it was - my parents got divorced when I was very young. So I kind of went back and forth between the two homes, and they never loved me.
HURWITZ: Wait, no, can we delete that? Oh God, what have I said? No, it was a very tight family. It was actually a very tight family, a Jewish family, and I think maybe that's what's been so interesting to me about the Bluths, that they weren't - did not have the warmth that my family did, which I think is probably more realistic.
GROSS: Did religion play much of a role in your family's life when you were growing up?
HURWITZ: No, not at all, no really not at all.
GROSS: Very secular Jewish?
HURWITZ: Yes, yeah, I'm Jew-ish. In the way to say that.
GROSS: OK, so at age 12, you started a chocolate chip cookie business called the Chip Yard?
HURWITZ: Yes, you've done your research, kudos. So, what the hell's going on with that?
GROSS: So clearly this must be connected to the frozen banana stand that your characters create in "Arrested Development"? But tell me about the chocolate chip...
HURWITZ: Do you know I never realized that?
GROSS: Never thought of that? I know.
HURWITZ: Just the second breakthrough.
GROSS: Just now.
HURWITZ: No, I don't mean to be so smartass. No, no, no, that is absolutely true, that my brother and I in 1976 started this cookie business that was really going to be just like selling cookies in front of our house, but it was during my father's part of the custody - you know, custody half of the summer.
And he suggested - we lived in a somewhat affluent area when we were with him in Newport Beach, and he thought, you know, I don't want these kids to grow up around money. I want them to know how tough it is to make a buck. I want them to have a work ethic. So he really encouraged us to rent this little, what used to be a taco place.
And since we were selling cookies in front of the house, he said: Why don't you just sell cookies there? So we started selling cookies and burning our little arms and working very, very hard, and about three weeks into being opened, a reporter for the L.A. Times came down and said, oh, this is interesting, I've never seen a place that just sells homemade chocolate chip cookies. And he said can I speak to the owner, and I said I am the owner.
HURWITZ: And he ended up doing a...
GROSS: You're 12, yeah.
HURWITZ: Yes, and he ended up doing a story about it, which ended up running. And we'd sold at that point 30 cookies a day or 60 cookies a day, and then this article ran on the front page of The View section on a Sunday L.A. Times, and the next day we sold 6,000 cookies.
GROSS: Oh, no.
HURWITZ: And we had to shut down and get bigger mixers and bigger ovens, and suddenly, you know, I was the cookie boy. And I spent the rest of my summers in this hot little shack, standing there like George Michael saying 10 cents gets you nuts.
HURWITZ: So that's the saga of The Chip Yard. It's still around. There's a Chip Yard - my father then - well, the second, the punch line to it is the lesson about how tough it is to make a buck, suddenly we've got this cash business, and, you know, we didn't have a cash register, you know, just throw the money in a bag.
And suddenly we've got all this money coming in, we're, you know, pumping the pinball machines full of our hard-earned money. And my father realizes, you know, to quote a trope itself: I've made a huge mistake.
HURWITZ: The boys are buying prostitutes. I mean, really it was out of control. So he immediately came up with this idea, which was, hey, you boys are going to pay for your own college education, we're putting this money into a bank, and you're going to have the satisfaction of knowing it's your money you're wasting on college, not mine.
Not really, I'm exaggerating, but we did - but it did end up, you know, paying for our college, and Michael went on to medical school. So he really owes me. He's got to pay me back one of these days.
GROSS: Mitch Hurwitz will be back in the second half of the show. He created the sitcom "Arrested Development". The long-awaited new fourth season is on Netflix. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINAL COUNTDOWN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Mitch Hurwitz is the creator of the sitcom "Arrested Development." It was cancelled on TV in 2006, but now it has returned with season four on Netflix. It follows the convoluted stories of the Bluths, a wealthy family that lost their money but remained materialistic and selfish.
Here's a scene from the first episode of the new season, featuring the two most reasonable characters in the series, Michael, played by Jason Bateman and his son George Michael, played by Michael Cera. George Michael is now living in his college dorm and his father, who is now homeless - too complicated to explain here - has moved in with him. George Michael is trying to separate himself from his father.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT")
MICHAEL CERA: (as George Michael) See, that's the other thing is that I kind of wanted to use this time to almost kind of, you know, wean off of the name George Michael.
BATEMAN: (as Michael) What?
CERA: (as George Michael) I don't know, you know, you get older, you do a something search of your own name.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In George Michael's name, you find this.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It was in this men's room - and get this - Beverly Hills, that singer George Michael was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover cop.
BATEMAN: (as Michael) well, it was your mother's idea to call you George Michael, you know, and I think it was just so that we didn't confuse you with your Uncle, George or your grandfather, George.
CERA: (as George Michael) Right.
BATEMAN: (as Michael) I got it. Let's call you Boy George.
BEATRIX EMILY SNEED: Singer Boy George, in the news again today, this time, for sexual assault in a men's public bathroom. Beatrix Emily Sneed, WE, BBC Two.
CERA: (as George Michael) You know, I think I'll just, I'll stick with George Michael. At least it was consensual.
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with the creator of "Arrested Development," Mitch Hurwitz.
You've worked in TV a long time, and before "Arrested Development." One of the shows you worked on, in fact, the show you got your start on was "Golden Girls." And I'm wondering what it was like for you as a young man, first job in television, to be working on a show about - was it three or four older women living together in Florida?
HURWITZ: You know, it was great. Really, the secret to that show by the time I was on it was, you know, and always - I'm sure - these women are so wonderful, Bea Author and, you know, Betty White and Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty. I mean they were so talented and you really could write jokes and they would say them and make them feel like characters that break your heart. But I did, you know, I really did - like I subscribe to AARP, The Magazine, you know...
HURWITZ: AARP, and I would, you know, and there were all these jokes - in my episode there was always reference to Estrotab or something that I had picked up in AARP.
HURWITZ: So I was really trying to connect with my audience and it was an amazing learning experience. And it was, I met Jim Vallely there, who I've continued to write with for many, many years. And I really learned about joke writing more than anything. I mean character writing is I think sort of an individual, I mean it just comes from some other place may be, but that was a great lesson in how to craft a joke and get a laugh.
GROSS: Tell me something you learned about crafting a joke.
HURWITZ: Well, in many ways all the things I learned are the things that I try not to do now. For instance, you have to put the punch line after the setup.
GROSS: Not seven episodes later.
HURWITZ: Not - you're not supposed to do it seven episodes later, that's one thing. I learned about throwing yourself off a cliff when you're, you know, I learned about getting over self-consciousness of pitching a joke. That's really - when you start that process, you're in a writer's room for the first time, I was just immensely self-conscious. You know, these grizzled pros are barking out jokes and I hadn't even learned how to speak in a room yet. In fact, it really wasn't until I was running my own show and I got my ego out of the way and suddenly it was just desperation and we had to finish the script that I really started pitching a lot in rooms.
But that was - I remember Jim Vallely, who's, you know, as I said, he's one of the executive producers of "Arrested," and I remember being in an early room with him, and there was a scene where Blanche was opening up birthday presents and Jimmy yelled out, it's a blouse. And everybody looked at Jimmy. I guess Rose had given Blanche a present and Jimmy yelled out, it's a blouse. And everybody looked at Jimmy and he took a second, then he said, you said you wanted something crotchless.
HURWITZ: I remember, and I said to him after, I said, did you know you were going to save the crotchless thing? He said, no, no, I had no idea.
HURWITZ: Just painted myself into the corner. I love that. I think that's such an important part of comedy. You know, we do it all the time on "Arrested," just paint ourselves into corners, you know...
GROSS: Oh that's so funny.
HURWITZ: ...and then try to get out. Yeah. It's all about constraints, you know, I think.
GROSS: So that was a pretty, you know, regular kind of sitcom. You have a real taste for like a very absurdist humor on "Arrested Development." I mean things like, you know, ostriches being a running gag and appearing out of nowhere. And, so what kind of developed that absurdist streak in your sensibility, because I don't think it was "Golden Girls."
HURWITZ: Well, I think it was always there. I mean I was raised with "Mighty Python" and Woody Allen, and I mean I don't know. It's hard to describe what one's own style is because it doesn't seem like the style. And I wouldn't have thought of absurdist, although yeah, I guess so. I guess that's a big part of it. I remember early on, like maybe the first year that I was on the "Golden Girls," there was this six-page to Xeroxed magazine - so to speak - called "Army Man." Have you heard about this?
HURWITZ: And it was this collection, it was this Xeroxed thing and it was, it turned out to be George Meyer and Jack Handy and John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti, and all the guys that - Jim Brooks ended up finding this and hiring all those guys to do "The Simpsons," and it was completely absurdist. And I brought that in so proudly to "Golden Girls," and I said this is going to change everybody's life. You've got to read this. And I remember the show runner saying, I think you got the wrong show here, buddy. OK. Sorry. Give the - and I said, everybody doesn't think this is hilarious? And so, you know, you're right, in many ways that was a very conservative show. In other ways, it was "Sex and the City." I mean it was also a very racy show.
HURWITZ: And I would also say in many ways - Ron Howard said to me once during the first season, he said, you know, I do want to make you self-conscious, but you're doing something I like a lot and I'd love you to keep doing it. You have these kinds of things in the final act when everybody comes together and there's and things become kind of unhinged. And I said yeah, the block comedy scene. It's Act II, scene three of every sitcom you've ever seen and every sitcom that Ron has ever been. I said, you know, this is the scene where it says, you know, welcome Shriners and everybody is in the scene at the big party at the end of "Happy Days." I mean these are all old, you know, many ways I felt like the basics that underlined all the writing and in "Arrested Development" it was just taken from, you know, every scene Michael went into with an attitude and came out with a slightly different attitude. Every act break was oh no, what are we going to do now? I mean a lot of the things are very conventional underlying "Arrested Development."
GROSS: So the scenes have maybe slowed down a little bit in the new season, but if you compare the number of scenes and the length of scenes in "Arrested Development" to "Golden Girls," "Arrested Development,"...
HURWITZ: Yeah. We...
GROSS: ...there's a lot more scenes, a lot shorter scenes.
HURWITZ: Yes. We had probably eight scenes in the average "Golden Girls." There would be four scenes per act. It was a two act show. Act II, scene two was what we called the Cheesecake Scene - which was kind of a stall and but also, and kind of just a flight of fancy. So you would have a circumstance that it presented itself, someone was dating somebody they shouldn't of been and Act II, scene two is just them discussing it. Just, you know, every character telling a story that was similar to that and they'd eat cheesecake, and that's why it was called the Cheesecake Scene. And then it usually ended the same way - which is well, I think you ought to go talk to him, Rose. Yeah, go talk to them. You need to talk to him. Really, that's all we could, that was all the wisdom we could muster.
HURWITZ: And, so and then "Arrested Development," you know, was because of these cameras and because of I think in many ways because of "The Simpsons." I really loved the idea of telling stories that unfolded and were ambitious. And I think the most ambitious thing about "Arrested Development" was that in every episode I tried to have a story for every character, and that's really unusual. I mean that means it's a 21 minute show and that was eight full stories per show, so they really had to be tight. It really had to be boiled down. In the new series, I think we still had 50 or 60 scenes per show - believe it or not - and all sorts of cutaways and, I mean I think when people re-watch them, they'll see that there's a density there that's a different kind of density. But from the outset, the idea was to do, to take a more novelistic approach and to explore each character, get to know them a little more.
You know, in the old "Arrested Development," I mean you'd never, no phone rang for more than half a ring. Nobody ever walked across a room to answer the door. There was just no room for any of that stuff.
HURWITZ: Knock. Hello, you know.
GROSS: Well, you have a narrator too. You have Ron Howard as a narrator.
GROSS: So you don't - people don't have to walk in and out of rooms.
GROSS: The narrator can do that for them.
HURWITZ: Exactly. And all that savings just went into tightening the comedy.
HURWITZ: This time around, the extra length for episodes is twofold. One, it's to kind of get to know the characters more and to understand them as being more than just joke characters, right, as many had to be in the course of the average 20 minute episode. But also, it was to use that time to build a bigger story. I mean I think one of the hardest things in act one in a regular show is always much harder to write than act two; you're setting everything up. And if you want to be funny, you're really just telling jokes, you know, or maybe finding some character comedy, but you're really not into the story yet. That's why if you look at the old "I Love Lucys," you know, the first act doesn't start with her shoving chocolate in her mouth. You know, it's really it starts with, you know, hi Lucy. How's Ricky? Oh good. How Fred? Oh, you know, he's mad. Oh, don't pay any attention to him. Hey, did you see this sale they're having? You know, it was just all this stuff so that you could get to they need a job, so you can get to, they get the candy job, and then they shoved all the candy in their mouths. And in many ways, this whole series was like that. I'm setting up things in those first few episodes that pay off in the final episodes, because I really wanted to look at it as one story. Because of the nature of how we had to shoot it, which is that we didn't have all the actors together at the same time at our disposal, it necessitated a style that allowed me to tell these separate chapters about each character, and in order to intertwine them all, it just required a little more planting story through all their episodes.
GROSS: My guest is Mitch Hurwitz, the creator of "Arrested Development." Seven years after being canceled on TV, it's returned with season four on Netflix.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is the creator of "Arrested Development," Mitch Hurwitz. When we left off, we were talking about the structure of sitcoms. "Arrested Development" uses a narrator to help move the action along quickly.
At what point did you realize you needed a narrator to make this work and to, you know, fit as much in and have the pace that you wanted?
HURWITZ: I - that's, I think pretty early on. I think pretty early on, just because there were so many characters I wanted to service. It was definitely in the pilot. And, you know, the whole thing was kind of a hustle because, you know, a pilot, you got to get a pilot made, and then you have to get a pilot to go from being made to being a series and these are all hurdles you have to keep jumping over. And I knew we wanted a narrator and I really, I mean if I had one brilliant idea on the show, it was casting Ron Howard as the narrator, you know, because at the time, you know, I think he wanted to, sort of, shepherd the show and then move on with his life, and I wanted to keep him around. You know, he's such a brilliant, creative guy and he fights for things he believes in and, you know, he was the star in a way going in.
I wasn't doing a show with a big known quantity with Michael J. Fox, for instance. I was doing a show where the producer was the star. So I wanted to keep him around and I suddenly realized that this is the most American trustworthy voice that I could possibly think of. You know, this voice, these rhythms have been in our heads for 40 years. I mean when was "Andy Griffith" on? It's been a while. And he...
GROSS: Probably more than 40 years ago. Yeah.
HURWITZ: And he speaks in the sort of Midwestern, trustworthy, you suddenly believe what the narrator says. So, and he kept saying well, you'll find somebody else. But I'll do it for the pilot, but I'm sure you'll find somebody else. And I kept saying, I don't understand why you're not doing, you're not the voice of Honda or something else that wants...
HURWITZ: ...credibility. And I think that made him attached to the show. It made him feel vested in the show and he stuck around and continued to render his services as a producer. And I think it also made the network take the whole show more seriously. The other thing...
HURWITZ: ...I did like that was the on the next in the pilot.
HURWITZ: We always did these things at the end of the show that said, on the next "Arrested Development," we show scenes from an upcoming episode and it was, it's just a very audacious idea to do that in the pilot when, of course, there were no upcoming episodes. I mean no one had agreed to make more of these things.
HURWITZ: And I knew that the last question that is asked when they test shows is would you like to see more. And I think we got really high numbers on would you like to see more because we titillated everyone by saying, hey, here's what happens on the next one.
GROSS: And I'm going to play a - we have a clip ready of a version of that except this is a teaser at the top of the show.
GROSS: And I think this was in season three and I think, you know, the show - you knew the show was in trouble and in jeopardy of, you know, at risk of being cancelled. So here is the opener, the teaser opener of the episode in season three. Episode nine.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tonight. An "Arrested Development" you can't miss. A cavalcade of stars. The shocking final moments will be presented by...and one of these people will die.
GROSS: That was a clip from season three of "Arrested Development." Mitch Hurwitz, how did you come up with that idea?
HURWITZ: We'd just been cancelled.
GROSS: Oh, you'd already been cancelled.
HURWITZ: And it was...
HURWITZ: We had just been cancelled the night before. I had gotten a call from then-president Peter Liguori who said, listen. You know, we're - he stammered and I said let me make this easy to you. We didn't get the ratings. And he said yes, yes. You know, we're done. We're done making the show. And, you know, the only thing that was slightly ironic about it was that they really were excited about having the Pamela Anderson show coming up next.
It was like, you know, the Pamela Anderson show is going to be on and, you know, it's over. By the way, I don't know that they've done - I could be wrong about this. I don't know that they've done numbers like we did in that timeslot since then. It's just that, you know, that doesn't mean that our show was so special, numbers-wise, but it just means that there's been a general decline since that era.
And the numbers just keep getting smaller. And of course the network executives keep canceling shows because they don't like the numbers and then they get another show that does slightly less. It's a really interesting phenomenon.
GROSS: Yes. With all due respect to Pamela Anderson, that show was not a big hit.
HURWITZ: It was not a big hit. It was - it - yeah. It wasn't. I mean, I'm sure she's great. I don't mean to take a shot at her. But it just - it just happened to be that - I'm not sure she's great.
HURWITZ: I don't know why I said that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mitch Hurwitz and he is the creator of "Arrested Development." And season four, instead of happening on television it is on Netflix. All of it.
GROSS: All 15 episodes.
HURWITZ: It's being vomited onto Netflix.
HURWITZ: We don't know how to say this.
GROSS: So let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mitch Hurwitz and he's the creator of "Arrested Development" and season four of "Arrested Development" instead of television is right on Netflix, all 15 episodes. So there's lots of gay jokes in "Arrested Development" and one of the characters, Tobias, who's the brother-in-law, he seems to clearly to be gay though he doesn't have a clue about that.
And so, like, the jokes are like he'll say, like, why do people think I'm gay? And then he'll just, like, break into a show tune. Or, like, he and his wife are both packing for trips and she takes out this, like, you know, cute little piece of round luggage. And then he takes out the identical piece.
So do you have gay writers on the staff and do you feel like gay jokes like that should be, like, vetted with gay people to see, like, funny or offensive?
HURWITZ: No, no. Quite the contrary. I'm very scared of gays.
HURWITZ: It's almost like a phobia. You know what I mean?
GROSS: You mean like a homophobia?
HURWITZ: I wouldn't - I guess, yeah. It's like - no. I think, you know, my goal with the show has always been that the Bluths are wrong. Right?
HURWITZ: So it really isn't the point of view of the producers that Mexicans are inferior or black people or poor people or gay people. We've even taken a couple of shots at Jewish people but it gets complicated because we can't quite decide if the Bluths are Jewish or not. And there's nothing funny about Jewish people. I mean, let's face it. They're beloved.
HURWITZ: Why isn't there a Hebe-phobia(ph)? You know, you would think that would just take off. Like, oh, he's a Hebe-phobic. Well, I guess it's called anti-Semitic. Never mind. I retract the comment. So, no. I think the idea of that joke or that character trait is just somebody who doesn't appear to have any insight into themselves.
It's more about being oblivious than about being gay. And in fact, we find out in the new season that he's not gay. And there is a character who might be. And it's not, you know, it's really not - I don't know. I don't really have a philosophy about it.
It just seems sort of funny to me that a guy would not understand what he says or, you know, in many ways we think, like, there might be a reason that he seems gay when in fact it's just that he's with the wrong woman. He's just forcing him into something - how do I say this? This would be a really good time for me to say I'm gay.
HURWITZ: But I'm not, damn it. Yeah, I guess I'm gay. No, no, no. I - we - it really is just about he's as oblivious about who he is as Lucille is about who she is. You know, in the pilot she says I love all my children equally and we very quickly see she doesn't. Or she might not even care about her children at all. We don't know. She probably does.
GROSS: So you are seven years older now than when "Arrested Development" premiered in 2003. Do you see life in general and "Arrested Development" in particular more from the perspective of father than son now than you did when it started?
HURWITZ: How interesting. I think so. I mean, I think I really did see it from George Michael's perspective a lot. And I still do. I mean, I try to see it from all their perspectives, but I definitely have more appreciation of it. I mean, that's not exactly what you asked but I really - I mean, the amazing thing about getting the second chance to be with these people after all this time is that I felt just deeply appreciative.
You know, you don't get second chances often in life. And beyond that, you don't get creative opportunities like this. You know, this was a giant expenditure on Netflix's part and they just let me go. And because of the nature of the way we shot it, nobody could really see scripts ahead of time because on any given week we'd be shooting something from, you know, eight different shows.
Because the actors weren't always available. So on the first day of shooting I think we shot things for six different shows. And as a result, we had to constantly be ready from a production standpoint to shoot anything in this whole saga. And the result of that was that nobody could really be ahead of what I was doing. They really had to trust me.
And I took that responsibility very seriously, you know. But it was enormous creative freedom. There was no testing of the product because there was no time to do it. And it really just felt like such a rare opportunity. So I think in the old days where I would - I was just constantly anxious. Because there was so much work to do. I remember even the night we got the Emmy and as I was standing on stage thinking, yeah, but we don't have next week's episode.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
HURWITZ: I've got to get back over there.
HURWITZ: I've got to - you know, we don't have the act break. It doesn't make any sense. I don't know why Gob's doing that. And this time I still had all those, you know, creative doubts and feelings and anxieties, but I definitely had more perspective on what a privilege it was.
GROSS: So this is your chance to confess something.
GROSS: OK. So when...
HURWITZ: I broke your mixing board. Oh, no.
HURWITZ: It's a specific thing? OK. I just - my hands were...
GROSS: No, it's a specific thing.
HURWITZ: ...and I chipped off the little button. Yeah.
GROSS: You got a job on "Golden Girls" when you were young.
GROSS: Hard to break into show business. Did you lie on your resume or exaggerate in such a way as to embellish something?
HURWITZ: Well, I...
GROSS: Yes, go ahead.
HURWITZ: Here's the very embarrassing fact about my resume. I remember meeting - because I was trying to get a runner job, which I'd still recommend. I mean, you don't, you know, you just go for a support job. I mean, support is so important in general as a human cause and it really does lead to great things. Not that I was that intellectual about it, but I wanted to get a runner job.
And I remember the woman who was hiring saying, you know, first of all it's very impressive that you were student body president. And I just hung my head like, god, why did I put that on there? But I had nothing else. You know, this was when I was in high school. I was student body president. And then the chip yard was in there.
HURWITZ: And so I didn't make up any actual, you know, like show business accomplishments but I did so overstate my college and high school accomplishments that the woman at one point said to me, you know, I don't know if somebody who runs their own business and, you know, has political aspirations is really going to be the ideal runner.
HURWITZ: I was like, no, no, no. What do you want me to say? I just got out of college. But so much of - I would say so many people get hired just by being aggressive and it's hard to do. You know, it feels very arrogant to do but to just keep going back and saying anything for me? Anything for me? So many people got hired on "Arrested Development" because they just showed up, even when I wasn't available to interview assistants.
And they - well, we'll come and we'll wait. You know? And I just think that kind of tenacity is so much more important than what's on your resume.
GROSS: Well, Mitch Hurwitz, thank you so much. It's been so much fun to talk with you. Congratulations on the...
HURWITZ: So great to talk to you.
GROSS: ...new "Arrested Development" and thank you.
HURWITZ: Thank you, Terry. What a treat. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Mitch Hurwitz is the creator of "Arrested Development." All 15 episodes of the new season are on Netflix. We've got an extra from our interview for you on our Tumblr. It's Mitch Hurwitz talking about the perhaps incestuous relationship between George Michael and his cousin Maeby. So that's at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. And you can download Podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.