Against All Logic and Reason, I Have A Huge Amount of Respect for Will Arnett As A Non-Acting Showbiz Personality
It’s an often unfortunate fact that celebrities are omnipresent now in ways that previous generations didn’t have to deal with. With social media making even the lowliest of us aware of our personal branding, stars have to work even harder to cling to their stardom. Some, on the Tom Cruise level, can get by with “just” their artistic output (although even an A-lister like Julia Roberts is not above appearing in a beauty campaign). But below Cruise is a huge pool of famous people who suddenly have a bunch of jobs: They headline game shows, host podcasts, write cookbooks, flog subscription box services on their Instagrams, and manufacture relatability on their TikToks.
Familiarity should breed contempt, and often it does. (Dax Shepard, I am begging you to step back from public life, maybe forever.) But this week I’ve been forced to admit something possibly controversial: Playing “himself” may be Will Arnett’s most charming work of all.
Arnett has appeared in projects across all genres and media, but the reason you know his name is Arrested Development. Though it was, in its day, not a ratings hit, it attracted a cult following of comedy nerds and became a breakout vehicle not just for Arnett, but for most of the people in it. In the two decades since the show’s premiere, Arnett has never stopped working — guesting on hugely popular sitcoms like Will & Grace; starring opposite comedy superstars like Will Ferrell, as in Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro; and lending his voice in animation, both aimed at kids (Lego Batman) and very much not (BoJack Horseman). As of this writing, his three most recent credits are: the Emmy-winning drama The Morning Show; the Oscar-buzzed feature film Next Goal Wins; and Twisted Metal, a video-game adaptation in which he voices a psychotic killer clown named Sweet Tooth.
Are they all good? Definitely not. But you’ve got to respect the range.
Last night saw the Season Four premiere of Lego Masters, which Arnett has hosted since its premiere in 2020. The show features two-person teams of Lego enthusiasts, challenged to create themed builds — for example, in the premiere, they have to create Lego party boats that can actually be piloted, via remote control, around a small “lake” on the set. How a celebrity is going to come across while interacting with non-famous people is generally a crap shoot; you’d think a game show or competition would purposely cast stars who have a natural talent for making normies feel at ease, but Joel McHale’s entire career proves otherwise. In the case of Lego Masters, the contestants aren’t just regular people: they’re regular people who are so into building Lego projects that they’ve gone on a TV show about it, meaning… they’re nerds. So Arnett’s job here is especially tough. To make an entertaining show, he has to joke around to make the process seem fun, but the people he’s interacting with are, largely, sensitive introverts who may not be on board for even very gentle teasing.
Arnett wasn’t always great at this; in the first season, what I mostly felt from him was a sense of superiority over the dorky Lego builders. But he’s really settled in, seeming to have gained an appreciation over the many seasons of the real artistry and ingenuity the contestants bring to the show. It may just be that Arnett’s also settled into his dad era, but most of his joking is at his own expense. For instance, in the premiere he says, of a cheese wedge character on one of the party boats, “DJ Cheddar is extra sharp.” When the joke gets the moderate chuckles it deserves, Arnett visibly shakes off the corniness as soon as he’s uttered it, because he also has to play “himself” — a cool, funny Hollywood insider — in a way that seems natural, not calculated. Considering all the performance elements involved in something that’s not supposed to look like a performance at all, Arnett is very impressive — so much that when he can’t help laughing at a boat that almost immediately tips over, you forgive him for being a tiny bit mean, just for a second.
Arnett is even more himself in this year’s Max miniseries, SmartLess: On the Road. Like a lot of celebrities did during lockdown, Arnett started a podcast in 2020: SmartLess, which he co-hosts with his former Arrested co-star Jason Bateman, and his one-time Will & Grace co-star Sean Hayes. Though it is mostly the kind of celebrity-on-celebrity interview podcast you’ve heard countless times, this one does have a bit of a twist: In each episode, only one of the three co-hosts knows who the guest is ahead of time. The podcast became a gigantic hit, and in 2022, they went on a sold-out live tour, which On the Road documents.
Though the three are, of course, seasoned performers, their chemistry does seem real as we watch them behind the scenes. In particular, Arnett and Bateman seem more brotherly than the brothers they played in Arrested Development, with Bateman providing a steady stream of material for Arnett to roast, from Bateman’s anhedonic diet to his peculiar bathroom habits. (It’s apparently news to Bateman that some healthy people move their bowels at different times during the day, sometimes more than once.) On the private jet to D.C. in the first episode, for example, Bateman goes on at some length about his paranoia that he’ll gain weight on the tour, and hits up the website of the steak house where they’ll be eating later to preview lighter menu options. “Well let’s talk more about it, for sure,” says Arnett. “Let’s keep it, first and foremost, at all times, (on) food and weight loss. It’s really interesting.”
Bateman, ignoring him, asks, “Did I—” “Talk about it nonstop? Yeah,” Arnett interrupts. If Arnett thought aggressive passive-aggression would get Bateman to keep his food neuroses to himself for the rest of the trip, he thought wrong.
Amid the jokes, however, the three do have real conversations. Bateman describes the pressure he felt on every audition during his years as a child actor, knowing his family’s livelihood was dependent on his success. Hayes discusses his father, who left his five children when Hayes was very young, and whose attempts to connect with his son later in life have been inadequate. When Bateman asks Arnett what his idea of a perfect career is, Arnett says, “I just want to do stuff that’s fun, and I want to be able to have more time with my family. My goal is to be happy, that’s it.”
“After Arrested Development, I did a bunch of stuff that didn’t pan out the way I wanted to, and I was disappointed,” he elaborates. “It took a moment, but I totally rejiggered what success means to me. And when I stopped tying my self-worth to what I do for a living, it changed everything.”
Maybe that’s exactly what I’m responding to when I see Arnett now: he does seem like he’s having fun. The smarmy persona we came to know in the late aughts, during his first explosion of fame, was appropriate for the moment, but you can’t be that guy forever; your audience can see it curdle. Like all celebrities whose movies haven’t grossed multiple billions, Will Arnett is around, because that’s just how things work now.
Fortunately — and against all odds — he’s grown into the kind of celebrity I’m happy to see being either “himself” or himself.