‘Arrested Development’ Was the Anti-‘Golden Girls’

‘Arrested’ writers warped ‘Golden Girls’ structures to create sitcom jazz
‘Arrested Development’ Was the Anti-‘Golden Girls’

To improvise in any art form, says Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, you need to learn the basics. “It’s like knowing how to play traditional jazz before you learn how to play bop,” he explained in And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft. “There are a lot of painters who break the rules, but they have to learn how to paint figuratively before they learn the abstract approach.”

Extend that metaphor to sitcom writing. Hurwitz is arguing that the weird complexities of Arrested Development wouldn’t have been possible without his training on less ambitious TV comedies. “Many of the writers for Arrested Development — not just me — come from a very solid, traditional sitcom background. So we’d all been through that gauntlet. And we learned.”

Watch the Jason Bateman sitcom and you likely wouldn’t connect the dots back to the first sitcom Hurwitz wrote for: The Golden Girls. But that’s where he learned to play traditional jazz, as it were. “The producers, Paul Witt and Tony Thomas, were brilliant teachers with creative minds that pushed us all to not only learn the fundamentals of comedy writing but to become better writers,” Hurwitz explained. “A writer for The Golden Girls learned all of the sitcom basics.”  

A thorough understanding of those basics was what Hurwitz needed to create a nontraditional show that broke so many of the rules one reads in screenwriting how-to books. “Just the fact that we had a narrator who explained the nuances of the story goes against all the recommendations,” he said. “It’s always considered ‘too easy,’ almost like a crutch. But sometimes you need a crutch.”

Hurwitz likely needed the crutch because he was intertwining so many different plots into a single episode. A sitcom like Golden Girls would have an A Story (Dorothy fights with her kid sister over where Sophia should live) and a secondary B Story (Blanche and Rose audition for a play). 

Many of the writers on the Arrested Development staff “got tired of that particular structure,” Hurwitz admitted. “It just became somewhat predictable. It was like driving a slow car when the only thing we wanted was to speed.” 

So Arrested Development might try to cram stories for eight characters into a single episode, perhaps out of chronological order. Extremely difficult to pull off — and damn near impossible without the ability to “understand what exists and then try to go further with it.”

Hurwitz’s show was a critical darling, winning two Emmys for its inventive writing, but it never dominated the ratings like Golden Girls. Hurwitz very much understood why, too. “Maybe the writers for Arrested were trying too hard to make ourselves laugh,” he conceded. “We were all trying to be as funny as we could be, and perhaps we were working on a level that was too far removed from what viewers wanted.”


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