Once in a blue moon a television show will come along that features a cast with no weak links. Through some twist of fate, luck, and skill, the casting director will have made all the right choices. "Arrested Development" is this generation's example of that show. From the top down, "Arrested Development" features some of the best comedic actors working today. Alia Shawkat, who plays Mae "Maeby" Fünke, is one of the brightest lights on a show populated solely by bright lights. Her performance as the machiavellian daughter of a layabout mother and analrapist (the world's first analyst/therapist) father will be one remembered for a long time. This interview was conducted in November 2005 shortly after FOX announced their plans to air an abbreviated third season of the show, and possibly cancel it altogether.
Hi, it's Brian, I was calling about the interview.
Oh yeah, hey, how are ya?
I'm pretty good, how are you?
I'm good, thank you.
Well, let's just start out with how you feel about FOX right now.
I guess not too good. I've never felt too good about FOX to tell you the truth. They're always keeping us on the edge. We never really know about anything. I never get too nervous because it's nothing too definite. I'm definitely not a big fan of them at the moment. They all say one thing to our face and then they're like, "Oh, by the way, you're not really on the fall schedule."
How did they explain the episode cutback?
Well they didn't actually say it to us. I just heard from a bunch of people. Then my agent called and said the show was cancelled and I was like, "Oh, ok." And then they said, "Oh no, you're not cancelled, just the back 9 [episodes] got cancelled." So right now supposedly only the back 9 are cancelled and that's all they told us.
Do you hold FOX accountable for what's going on?
I do, definitely. In my opinion FOX is known for being a network that just advertises, and that's pretty much how they get their viewers. Like with "The OC" and shows like that, there's billboards every 5 feet you go in LA. And with our show, the actual excuse for not publicizing us was, "We don't think it's going to help that kind of show." I don't see how getting the name out there is going to hurt our show with the ratings. A lot of people don't know about it, and if they do, they only see 1 episode, so they get confused. FOX needs to be showing marathons and re-runs so that people who haven't seen it can watch the whole first season and the second season. But they refuse. They think that we just have to do it on our own, and supposedly get 20 million people in one viewing, and no one's even heard of the show. So I don't really think that FOX is the best network for the show. But I think that's what made the show so different though; that there's a show like this on FOX. Obviously my dream would have been HBO or something like that. Maybe it was meant to be FOX, because even if we do get cancelled, it's like we struggled through it and even got our name out there somewhat.
Yeah, like with "Prison Break" they put so much money into advertising that and not helping out any of the other shows.
You know, that's just what they do every day. With shows like "Prison Break" and all the other FOX shows, no matter how much money they bring in, that's just more money that's pulled away from us. We've never had 1 billboard, I never see advertisements on the FOX network. They refuse to put money into it because they think it's not the kind of show that publicity will help. And we don't know what to do. Even outside of the FOX lot they have billboards, which don't cost them any money to do, and we had to beg them to put a billboard of our show up there. They finally did. They put it out there for like two days and then took it down. All the other billboards go up for months at a time. I think they just do it to kind of placate us, like "Oh, we'll give them a billboard for a couple days and then take it down when 'Prison Break' season 10 is ready." Everyone is fed up with FOX, but they're our bosses, so we just have to go with it.
I was trying to figure out the reason it doesn't have as many viewers, aside from the fact that FOX didn't advertise it, and I think it's that it's a smart show. Do you think you need a decent amount of intelligence to understand a lot of jokes on the show?
I hate to be the kind of person that's like, "It's only for smart people." But you do have to concentrate somewhat. It goes by so quickly. I mean, I read the scripts and I shoot the show, and yet I miss so many jokes. For me that's one of the most enjoyable things about the show. It moves so quickly and you have to pay attention to every little joke. But I do understand for Middle America how they're used to watching shows like "Will and Grace" where they can tune in to any second of the show and catch on, and get a few laughs out of it. Our show is filled up with so many inside jokes and elaborate storylines where you have to know it from the beginning to truly enjoy it. But I wish I could tell people like, "If you did watch it from the beginning you would be obsessed with it and love it." I wish people would take the time to do that, but most of Middle America just wants more reality shows and more "Prison Break." You can't really force-feed it to them.
It's kind of ironic. For me all the inside jokes are what makes the show so enjoyable. If you do pay attention you can get so much out of it.
Yeah, exactly. The inside jokes are all the more funny.
Though it seems to me there is enough physical humor on the show, especially with Will Arnett, that even if you don't know exactly what's going onó
That you'd still enjoy it. And with David Cross and Tony Hale's comedic humor also. I mean, I'm not going to tell you this is what you should enjoy on the show. Everyone's going to have their own thing to enjoy. If people would give it a chance, I think they'd love it. We were hoping that it would be going in the direction of a "Seinfeld," where it took 3 seasons to catch on and people would start to love it. But we don't have a laugh track, which helped "Seinfeld" a lot, and did kind of tell people when to laugh. It just made it a lot easier. Our show doesn't have that, so it's really hard for Middle America to catch on. They're like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is this I'm watching?" and then they just get bored and change the channel.
Well, with how fast the jokes come on "Arrested Development" there's no way there could be a laugh track.
Oh, of course not. A laugh track would ruin the show. I would never, ever want it to be like that. But for Middle America they want the jokes where it's like "ba-da-ba," and then the punchline, so they can take time to soak it in and still eat at the same time.
Also with "Seinfeld" a lot of the humor came from relationship type stuff. With "Arrested Development" there's so many different things going on. Mike [Cera] and I were talking about just how dirty is, but they never come right out and say it.
But they get right up to the point. When I get a new script my mom will read them and just be aghast. I think it's hysterical. I've never read a script where I haven't laughed out loud or been crying out of laughter. They're all so brilliant. But I think that's the best part of it, they'll never just say it right out loud, they'll subtly hint at it. They definitely have gotten more to it over the seasons. Like "Notapusy" was one of the greatest episodes.
I loved in that episode how they were able to say it ["pussy"] and then not say it depending on the context. It made the bleeping totally ludicrous.
Exactly. Yeah and then with the "analrapist" he had to pronounce it differently. Mostly with FOX we have to leave our hand in front of our mouth if we're going to cuss. Maeby's cussed several times, but I think there was one time where I didn't have anything over my face. It was back in season 1 or 2, and I'm shaking George Michael, and I'm like, "Don't be a pussy." And they bleeped it, but you could still kind of hear it. I was happy about that because I thought they were going to do a quick cut. I think the bleeping is part of the humor. I think it's funny when they bleep it out.
What'd you think when you first read the script for the pilot episode?
Well actually I got this cover sheet that came with the side that said, "This is a different kind of show, it's shot with a handheld camera, it's a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of show, and if you're not ready for it, don't open this script." But I was a huge fan of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" at the time (I was just falling in love with it), and I still am a huge fan, so I was like, "This sounds awesome, I hope it's similar." So I just went to the audition. For Maeby it was kind of like "angsty teen," but it was so different. To this day I'll never open another script or side and it won't ever relate to opening an "Arrested Development" script. They just flow so differently and it's so much easier to read. It's like a different level. I'm spoiled to be able to read these scripts every day. I was so excited to audition for something like this. It all happened so quickly too. We only had a couple auditions and then we got it. When we first started shooting the pilot, everything moved so much quicker. We didn't have to do that much lighting and everything was much more simple. Also the reading of the actual script was much more real, it wasn't the Disney style of over the top, it was kind of like reality, or just above it. The best thing about it is the words are ludicrous at times, but you add the reality to it and that gives it the balance that it has. I loved that. I was so excited to be a part of it.
What did you think of Maeby when you were reading the script?
One thing I find interesting about Maeby is that she seems to have varying degrees of intelligence. In some ways she's so far past both of her parentsó
I liked her, and again I thought she was kind of an angsty teen at first. I just thought, "Ok, this is what I always play." But I liked her because she was so smart. She wasn't like, "You suck Dad," and then just runs away. She was funny because she had so many older references and was so much smarter than both of her parents. I love the humor between her and Tobias, and the chemistry between her and George Michael is great. Michael Cera's awkwardness works off her really well. All the chemistry between every character is wonderful.
And is just so stupid in others.
Right, I think there was one part where she's drinking a virgin margarita and thought that it was alcoholic so she kept drinking more of it.
Yeah, that's what I love. In a way she's street-smart. She's smart enough to convince people that she's an executive, but then she's so stupid that she doesn't know that 3 twenties is 60. Like there was one time where she said, "Let me take this 100, and George Michael said, 'That's only 3 twenties' and Maeby says, 'Yeah, I know'." She's so stupid when it comes to academic things, but then when it comes to getting people to do things she wants, she's brilliant.
I've heard you're the least like your character in real life. Is that true?
Well, I hope I'm not mean. My parents and I get along much better than Maeby and her parents. I think Tony [Hale] is the most different from his character, because he's just this calm, cool, nicest guy ever. He has a beautiful wife and they're about to have a baby. And they're just so perfect. If the show was a drama, his character would be the most depressing character you could ever meet. He's attached to his mother in this emotional and sexual way, which is really sad, but as a comedy it's the funniest thing you'll ever see. So I'd say he's the most different.
One of the many things about the show that blows my mind is how they've been able to use the same sorts of jokes for Buster, and Tobias with all the innuendoes, over 3 seasons and yet it never gets old.
It never does. They just keep coming up with new ones, and they're so fresh and so funny. They've gone on little tangents where you think they're going to start a storyline and they'll pull it back. I remember they were going to do one about Tobias actually being a rare black person, where he would have this rare disease and was actually black. It's these hysterical, crazy ideas that they could have continued on.
As a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fan, what was it like being able to work with Jeff Garlin?
Oh, it was amazing. He's the nicest guy too. He hadn't seen the show when he came on, but then he watched all the DVDs and now he loves it. It was amazing. Michael [Cera] and I were stunned, because he's a god in our eyes. We praise Curb all the time. And he tells us what's happening next season. So it's awesome. Coming from Michael and mine's point of view, as the youngest people in the cast, meeting all these people is amazing. First of all, meeting David Cross is a dream of mine. But then all the guest stars that have been able to come on, is just amazing. I was happy just so long as the show was able to keep going. And then to get to hang out with these people is a dream. I mean, Jeffrey Tambor is a comedic genius. It's always a privilege that we're able to meet these kinds of people.
As far as the guest stars, who have been your favorites?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus was hysterical, though I never got work with her. I met her a couple times, and she's brilliant anyway. I have to say Henry Winkler. He's the nicest man you'll ever meet. He plays this perverted lawyer with this seedy underlying quality to him that I just love. I have to say him. It's so sad that he's not going to be coming back, because he has his own show now. And now we have Scott Baiao and he's hysterical too, just in a different, awkward way. He's really funny in person too, but very weird.
What's it like having people like David Cross and Portia Di Rossi playing your parents?
It's awesome. Everyone is so nice. I hate that that's all I can say. Everyone, all the crew, it's a very comfortable set to go to. Portia and David, and everyone, works together so well. It's kind of funny, because in a way how everyone relates to the characters is how we relate in real life. Like Jessica [Walter] is kind of the diva and everyone talks about her behind her back, but we still respect her to her face. Portia in some ways is like a diva, but doesn't know it. And then David, Will [Arnett], and Jason [Bateman] are all the jokers. And then Jeffrey Tambor has the driest sense of humor. He'll cut you down, but he's just kidding, though sometimes it's like, "Wait, is he kidding? I don't really know." Because he's Jeffrey Tambor you just have to laugh and smile at everything he says. And Tony is an angel. He'd save a cat on the road. And then Michael and I just sit there and watch it all. We're the observers who smile and laugh at everything.
What's a normal day like on the set for you?
I go into work and get my hair and makeup done, go into wardrobe. I have to do 3 hours of school a day, so I do that in between. And then they call us on set and we go do the scenes. It's always hard though because everyone's hanging out on set and we'll have to go back and do school. I work about 10 and half hours every day, that's as much as I can work, and then I just go home.
Do you have any plans as to what you're going to do after the show's over?
Well, it seems like we're always waiting to see what happens with it. Last week I thought it was cancelled, but now we still don't know. I'm always open for movies and I have auditioned for a couple things, but nothing definite.
I was wondering if you guys feel like you're making this incredible show, and in a way, it's you versus FOX?
I get that feeling always when we get to times like this. When it's like, "Are we cancelled or not?" Otherwise you don't even realize it. We're just working and then all of a sudden it's like, "Whoa, wait, we really are in a battle to stay on the air. And the reason we're in a battle is because we're so different from everything else that's on the air." That's when it starts to come out. The other day Mitch [Hurwitz] came on the set and I was doing a scene with David, and Mitch was talking about how some of the people at the network were angry at him for not making the show dumber. An actual quote from one of the network executives to Mitch was, "You are trying too hard. Just stop trying so hard. We want it to be simpler." She was like, "Have you ever even tried to make it simpler?" They were angry at him for making the show too good. They were like, "You gotta dumb it down, slower pace. Have you ever tried to take out some of the storylines like we asked you to?" He was just sitting there dumbfounded, like, "What the fuck do you want me to do?" And he is the hardest working man you'll ever meet. He really is. The thing that's going to hurt me the most when the show is cancelled, is that the man won 7 Emmys, but he'll never be recognized as one of the hardest working men in Hollywood. He works all the time. He never has any breaks. The writers from season 2 quit because they had to work such crazy hours. And now we just got a fresh batch of young writers who work some god awful hours. But he actually said that the network execs were angry at him for making it too smart. I mean, we obviously know that it's different, but I'm not like, "We're above every show." It's just that we're the ones that have to fight to stay on the air, and fight to make another episode. We definitely appreciate what they give us, but we definitely have a love/hate relationship with FOX. I feel bad because I always make fun of FOX, how it's all made up of reality shows and "Prison Break," but I don't know. I don't know how we fit into their groove. But in my opinion they should be happy to have us. They should appreciate what they have, but of course to them it's all money, and right now we're not making them that much money.
I heard an interview with Jason Bateman on The Treatment where he was talking about how FOX should realize that it's not going to get the greatest ratings, but at the same time if they keep it on the air, it will show that FOX is committed to putting out quality television shows, and they could use that to lure other people to their network.
Exactly. We are happy with just making the show as it is. We never expected, and we never wanted to be an "OC" or "Prison Break," where it's so big that it's a phenomenon. We never wanted to be like that. We just wanted to stay where we are and have a good, quality audience who are huge fans and enough money to keep making the show. We'd be happy. But FOX is so used to having the breakout TV shows that make 20 million at the premiere, and then a couple years later they don't even remember the name and move on to the next one. But if they slowly start building up, we'll be the first ones to make FOX a really good network, a solid, good network with great shows on it. It could be on HBO if they really wanted to, but they just go more on the minute than the long run. We'd like to be the first, but only if they'll let us.
It seems like they've taken the same approach to the show as they do to their movies; that it has to be a blockbuster right out of the gate or else it's not worth it to them. The thing that blows my mind is that they would actually tell Mitch to dumb it down, as if he's expecting too much from the FOX viewers.
Yeah. I mean, he won an Emmy for best writing and they're actually going to say, "You have to simplify it a little more."
Yeah, most recently you were nominated for 3 of the 5 Emmys. I've noticed when you do win there will be a few ads, but only for a couple weeks.
Yeah. They had a billboard for "House" that replaced ours at the studio. It's been out there for the past 3 months now and it says, "5 Emmy nominations." And I'm like, "Uh, ok, if we're going to start counting Emmy nominations, we've had 11. We won the Emmy last year for best comedy if you didn't know, FOX." But when we won last year I felt, in a way, that it was like, "Damn, now we can't cancel them. We'll look like idiots." Sometimes I feel they're just keeping us on because they don't want to look bad to the critics. To our face the smaller executives will say, "Oh we love the show. We love it. Of course we're going to keep you guys on forever. We love the show." And then the next day I'm hearing from my friends, "Oh, sorry the show got cancelled." And I'm like, "Whoa, it did? I didn't know."
I remember when you got the third season there was talk that they were going to sign you up for 2 seasons and really support the show, and then they didn't. I talked with Mike about this, how they took a show that was on the verge of being cancelled twice, and moved it to a new night, and paired it up with a new show that no one else had ever seen. And they didn't even really advertise much to let people know that it had moved.
Never. I didn't even know that it had moved to Mondays. I was talking to Mae [Whitman] who plays Anne, and she didn't know it had moved. We didn't even know. Fans of the show would come up to me and would be like, "When do you guys premiere again?" I remember on the Saturday before the show premiered, people didn't know when it was coming on. I mean, are you kidding? People who are fans of "The OC" know when it's premiering two years in advance, and people didn't even know that Saturday. I'm actually willing to make copies and paste them on walls and go to malls and hand out flyers. I just can't understand why they can't even try the publicity aspect.
Do you think it's possible that the show is too smart for FOX, and as a result they don't know how to advertise it?
Definitely. They don't want to embarrass themselves because they don't think they know how to advertise it. But I'm sorry, we're not going to dumb down for them. They have to move up. They're the network and we're the show. Hell will freeze over the day that Mitch dumbs down his show for the public. This episode that we're shooting right now there's a lot innuendoes and shots at FOX and Middle America for not watching. If anything he just made it even more complicated, and so much more funny and smart, that I don't think even Peter Liguori [FOX president of programming] will be able to understand it. I mean, you can't tell a genius to slow down. And this is his baby. Every episode he's putting blood, sweat and tears into it. You can't just tell him, "Hey, take a break, just make it stupid."
Yeah, that episode where Michael got sick and was in the hospital, I was wondering if you saw that as how Mitch felt about the show, how the doctor was telling him he should let them make more of the decisions?
Definitely. Looking back on that, it probably was. He definitely talks back throughout his scripts. That was a subtle reference. The one we're shooting now is called "SOBs," and this one is definitely talking about it. This was right when we found out the back 9 were cancelled and there was rumor about the show getting cancelled indefinitely. So the whole script is Mitch talking back to the network. It's hysterical and definitely has some strong references in it. Everything we've shot we've been able to keep in. I don't know how FOX hasn't made us edit it.
What'd you think about how at the end of the blooper reel on the season 2 DVDs that thing with David Cross talking about the show made it in?
David's a genius. He talks about that all the time. That's just one of the conversations he's had with us. I was glad it was on there. I was there the day they were filming, and was like, "Just keep filming it." It's a great bit on the DVD and it helps all the new viewers of the show see what we're up against.
Do you have a favorite episode?
I have a lot of favorites as a whole, but one of my favorites to shoot was "Notapusy" where we did the beauty pageant and I got to wear the prosthetic nose. I acted like a different person. Mae's my best friend and we got to hang out with Michael too. It was a lot of fun. I remember "Top Banana," which is way back, one of the first episodes, was one of the best episodes I've ever read. I still go back and watch first season episodes and get little jokes. I love doing that still. I think "Top Banana" is a classic.
Do you think George Michael and Maeby are really related?
I think if this is our last season they'll probably wrap that up within these last few episodes. But if we get picked up for a fourth season I think that it will be never-ending tension, for as long as the show goes. But you never know with FOX. If these are the last episodes I think they'll wrap it up that we aren't related, or we are related and it'll be something really crazy.
How would you like to see it resolved?
Well Michael and I are really good friends, so every time it comes to that, it was awkward for me. I would hope that we would be related and could stay close friends. I don't know which one's funnier. They'll probably have some crazy thing where I've had a sex change or something.
Photo courtesy Alia Shawkat