As you may have heard recently, Netflix debuted new episodes of Arrested Development on May 26. It’s a fitting forum for the show, too, since the bulk of the series was designed to be pored over with Sherlock Holmesian intensity.
Series creator Mitch Hurwitz actively anticipated a DVD and DVR audience by making careful and repeated viewings worth their while. The exposition on-screen at any given moment is often laced with a fine tapestry of hidden jokes and callbacks that one might only pick up on by pausing. The comedy blog Splitsider has thoroughly chronicled these buried gems, but for the uninitiated, here’s an example. Moments before the character Buster goes for the swim that gets his hand bitten off by a loose seal, he is shown sitting on a bench by the ocean. The bench reads Army Surplus Official Supply, but Buster’s body blocks all of the letters except for "Arm" and "off."
"There was an audacity to that, I think," Hurwitz says. "I look back and think, I really thought people would freeze-frame this show they weren’t even watching? I wasn’t really asking anyone to take it in, though. I just wanted there to be these little portents and omens, and a funnier joke on the cover of every book or whatever that we flashed onscreen."
As Arrested Development's next detail-rich opus sees its long-awaited premiere, the show’s creator reveals the tricks to hiding subtly hilarious mise-en-scène (like money inside a banana stand.)
For the pilot, the Russos (directing team Anthony and Joe Russo) shot with three cameras rolling the whole time. For that 20-minute show, we had 72 hours of footage because we just ran and ran. We’d just keep shooting as we were setting up shots, and I would find stuff to use from that. Even if it was just reaction shots from somebody, or a certain outfit.
I think The Simpsons is what inspired me. In the early years of The Simpsons, the family would go to an event, and then something would go wrong, and then the kids were late to school, and then the teacher was about to leave the job, and the rest of the show would be about the teacher. I loved the ability to make the show about more than just eight scenes, particularly in the form that I’d come from, situation comedy, where you’d have to use every new set twice because they were expensive. So suddenly there was this great opportunity to do what they’d done in animation—let’s go to a coffee shop, let’s go to the beach, let’s go to the back of a car—and let’s open this story up and see what it provides comedically. And I just got into that—the idea that, hey, we could put a funny thing on the side of that bus.
Everything is a choice. It’s like that with animation, and it’s probably like that with Avatar—because nothing exists. We’re gonna build a bar. We’re gonna need a sign on it. You could draw a sign that says Moe’s and it should be neon. Everything is up to the animator. And I liked bringing that idea to live action. There’s a lot of that with this new series. Think about what the restaurants are in this world we’re in. We have a scene where two people talk at the restaurant? Well, we get to invent the restaurant, too. What tells the story of the time these people are living in, and the karma they’re living out, about the restaurant they’ve chosen?
I loved adding jokes that weren’t just funny but could somehow relate to the story we were telling. I remember starting that second season, when I decided to take off Buster’s hand. I thought, Oh, let’s put on the news that there’s a seal on the loose. Let’s get that out there. And the idea of calling things forward—anticipating comedy, instead of callbacks. The giant red hand-chair was one I felt like I didn’t take advantage of enough. Because I knew he was going to lose his hand, and I couldn’t think of any really great ways to really set it up—except like the backrubs. I thought, Let’s have him give those a lot this season and work up his muscle memory.
Some things are right in front of your eyes and you can’t see them. In the new episodes, we did one of our biggest physical gags in the background of a shot, but the thing in the foreground was so bizarre that nobody—when we were at the sound mix, even I forgot it was there. "Oh, look in the background. There’s that thing!"
The characters pass restaurants that we made; they pass billboards that we made and movie posters. It goes so deep. It got to the point where I’d hate these kinds of questions. Someone would come up to me and say, "We can see that computer screen at John Krasinski’s desk—what would you like on it?" A screensaver? No, not a screensaver. Something better. I didn’t want to miss that opportunity, but it did get tiring.
I had a few really trusted colleagues and there was a lot that we did in post, with the editing, to cram in extra jokes. There’s a gag in the new season that takes place in Ron Howard’s office. We did something with the doors to both Ron’s office and Brian Grazer’s office. I had sort of sketched it out beforehand, but on the day, my collaborators made it more multidimensional. By the way, there is a very funny thing Jim Bowery eventually came up with to put on Krasinski’s computer screen.
On that first episode, Tobias gets on the wrong boat, the one his family isn’t on. I wanted Tobias to miss the boat. It’s kind of obvious, but sometimes those obvious things are good. It’s like Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman, Willy Low Man? There’s some value to going right at it.
I wanted Tobias missing the boat and getting involved with these gay protesters. I wanted him dressed like a pirate so they would misunderstand it as a garish outfit meant to shock the upper class. I think [costume designer] Katie Sparks just put a lot of fruit on one guy’s head. So then the joke, much later on in the series, we were doing a gay club scene, and suddenly it was, "Let’s see if we can track down that background guy and put the fruit back on his head." So that had no inherent meaning, but there was something fun about telling the audience this world is real and this man exists, and if you go to a gay club, he might be there. I like the idea of connectivity between these shows. You can leave the blue handprints up and not just reset at every show. It’s creating the illusion of a world.