The New Face of Comedy: An Evening with Mitch Hurwitz (C'85), Creator and Executive Producer of Arrested Development

August 5th, 2004
By Steve Schneider (SFS’95)                                                      

Arrested Development  Wins 5 Emmys!
  Outstanding Comedy Series      Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series
  Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series      Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series
  Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series

It would be easy to forgive Mitch Hurwitz, C' 85, if he were a little stressed out. After all, a quick read of the August 1, 2004 New York Times illustrates the sorts of pressure that trade journalists and critics have piled onto his head. On that fateful Sunday, the NYT's Arts & Leisure section asked a simple but loaded question headlining its feature article on Hurwitz: "Can This Man Save the Sitcom?" In addition to running a prime-time, Emmy nominated show and finding innovative ways to grow his faithful audience for its second season, The New York Times charges Hurwitz with "reinventing the rules of half hour comedy," beating back the hordes of reality television programming and the staggering responsibility of making the world safe for TV writers again.

With these loads on him, Hurwitz could be reasonably expected to show up a trembling wreck on the following Thursday, August 5th, when greeted the gang of friends and fans at the GEMA Summer Speaker Series Event. But if Hurwitz felt the weight of these expectations, the industry veteran bore them very lightly, without the slightest hint of tremble or tantrum. Even the microphone glitches that plagued the beginning of his presentation could not stir the slightest scorn. Instead, the full house of GEMA members and guests that showed up at Fox Studios were treated to an evening with a supremely confident, likable, funny guy on top of his game. Pressure or no pressure, reinventing the televised comedy would have to wait for a night. On August 5th, Mitch Hurwitz just wanted to let his fellow Hoyas in on the cool show he's made.

And for those of you that haven't caught it yet, Arrested Development is a very cool show indeed. The sitcom focuses on the travails of Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), the normal member of a very eccentric and dysfunctional Orange County family. After George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested at his retirement party for Enronesque financial shenanigans at the family business, Michael must restore the business while coping with his ice queen mother (Jessica Walter), limosine liberal sister (Portia de Rossi), brittle macho-man older brother GOB (Will Arnett) and mama's boy younger brother Buster (Tony Hale).

'A Filigree of Cynicism'
As Hurwitz acknowledges, this dysfunctional family scenario is not that different from your standard sitcom setup. "My background is the hacky sitcom world, where you have a joke every six seconds," the former Golden Girls and John Larroquette Show writer admits. "So I come from a conventional storytelling place. I don't try to throw that out. In fact if you chart the show, it's really not that groundbreaking. Some of the things you will see would be corny if they were on 'Full House.'"

This may be true, but the genius of the show --- and the reason for its multiple critical nods --- is the novel execution of these sitcom conventions.

First, despite Hurwitz's respect for tradition, this show doesn't look like any other sitcom going. Hurwitz has skipped the traditional multi-camera, stage set approach and gone for a style more reminiscent of a documentary. "We use a hand-held-digital, single-camera, natural light, on-location set-up," Hurwitz says. "That gives us the look that informs reality TV shows."

Second, the jokes are presented differently, in a way that has simultaneously earned the adjectives "deadpan" and "loopy." "Comedy timing has to change when people start getting ahead of the joke," Hurwitz says. "There's no winking to the audience so they're in on the joke. It's presented with a filigree of cynicism, which makes it seem fresher."

Third, instead of the one-dimensional cutouts inhabiting most sitcom worlds, Arrested Development's supporting characters are strange, irrepressibly selfish, unredeemable human beings. Furthermore, each has his or her own deeply layered personal history revealed by flashbacks or bizarre plot twists. So we get Tobias Funke played by HBO's cult Mr. Show fave David Cross, a sexually ambiguous psychiatrist who lost his medical license for performing CPR on someone that wasn't dying, so has turned to acting.

Unconventional Choices
For all the kudos these unconventional choices have earned, Hurwitz acknowledges that there are some challenges and trade-offs. The use of locations and the single camera format, in particular, demands a new production rhythm, Hurwitz says. "Most sitcoms are multicamera and shot in four days in front of an audience. With a single camera, we're shooting all day every day. This mostly means that we lose time to vet the comedy writing beforehand."

This lack of pre-production time is partially offset by the time savings of using a digital camera, Hurwitz says. "By using the digital camera we can get 20 or 21 takes, or have more rehearsals and continue developing the show during the shoot," But the pace can still be gruelling, Hurwitz says. "The most challenging part of being a showrunner is keeping up. There are between 22 and 24 shows to make a year. Knowing that there's another one due next week is what keeps me working on weekends. That and my own neurosis."

Coming Next Fall
Hurwitz also gave GEMA members some hints of what viewers of Arrested Development can expect this season. For starters, Hurwitz and his writers , this fall the show will move to Fox's most coveted spot, right behind The Simpsons. "Fox has been incredibly supportive and generous in terms of both creativity and support. I've been begging for this spot for a year, and I think they were holding back for my own protection. sort of like saving that for last."

So You Want to Write Comedy.
Lastly, Hurwitz offered would-be television writers the benefit of his 16 years of immersion in the business. After picking up an "accidental" double major in English and Theology --- "it sounds like I was thoughtful, but I wasn't" --- Hurwitz moved to Boston and took a stab at writing short stories and screenplays for a while.

"I failed," he reports. "I couldn't write in a room alone. I fell into television to be with funny people and be forced to write whether I wanted to or not."

His big break came from Allen Burns, a friend of his mothers and co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Burns landed him a runner's job with Witt/Thomas, the production company responsible for the hit 80's show Golden Girls. "After my first day, I called him up," Hurwitz remembers. "I said 'there's been a terrible mistake.' They sent me to get coffee. I'm supposed to be in show business."

Eventually, Hurwitz's runner job turned into a brief stint in development, then the writer's position that he had wanted all along. After Golden Girls, Hurwitz was the executive producer on The John Larroquette Show and The Ellen Show, which he also co-created. Before Arrested Development, Hurwitz created and ran the series Everything's Relative, where he first worked with Jeffrey Tambor.

He counsels aspiring television writers is to take a similar path into the world of television. "The advice I got was 'be around the business,'" he explains. "You can be intimidated by the number of people that are trying to break in. I certainly was when I saw the stacks of spec scripts waiting to be read. I thought the answer was to make my script better, but it wasn't." Instead, Hurwitz explains, he got a job on a set. "People got to know me, and that's how I got the job."

Second, Hurwitz advises, "Don't write down to something. If a writer approaches a spec script thinking that he's going to write a 'stupid sitcom that's no worse than what's already out there' that's not going to do anyone any good."

Hurwitz's last piece of advice is even more simple: "Persist." Despite the large number of people that are trying to break in, only a few will continue trying over time, Hurwitz explains. "When I was working as a runner, I wore my dad's sport coat to work every day. My idea was to put out the vibe to the people there that I was going to be around a while --- so they had better get used to me."

Arrested Development Emmy Nominations
  Outstanding Art Direction For A Multi-Camera Series
  Outstanding Casting For A Comedy Series
  Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series
  Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Comedy Series
   Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series - Jeffrey Tambor
  Outstanding Comedy Series
  Outstanding Writing For A Comedy Series

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Steve Schneider (F'95) has worked as a writer and editor in New York City, London, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and Tulsa, Oklahoma. He currently lives and writes in Los Angeles.

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