Mitch Gurwitz; Maria Bamford in "Lady Dynamite" (AP/Matt Sayles/Netflix)

Mitch Hurwitz digs deep on "Lady Dynamite" — and gives "Arrested Development" details: "We're ready to go at a moment's notice"

Salon talks to Hurwitz about Maria Bamford's comic genius, Trump fans, "Making a Murderer" and the Bluths


Sonia Saraiya
May 20, 2016 2:59AM (UTC)

Mitch Hurwitz is the mind behind one of the most beloved comedies of the Internet era—or maybe ever?—the late, great “Arrested Development,” which served three near-perfect seasons on Fox starting in 2003. The show was such a cult hit that it became Netflix’s flagship program when it launched its original series; and though the fourth season met with mixed reviews, it began a trend of alternative, prestige comedy on that network that has made a home for “BoJack Horseman,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Love.”

Now Hurwitz returns with a new series, starring cult comedian Maria Bamford as mostly herself, in a Hollywood landscape that feels only tangentially related to reality. The first season of "Lady Dynamite" drops late tonight on Netflix, and has the distinct feel of “Arrested Development”’s meta-brilliance and surreal humor. Bamford is nothing like the Bluths, and Hurwitz isn’t showrunning—that’s the job of “South Park” and “The Loop” veteran Pam Brady, who co-created the show with him. But in the feeling of chaos turned alchemically into lighthearted frenzy, it is unmistakably a Hurwitz production. One of the reasons the show is so fascinating is because it’s formally experimental; Maria, and her story, switch through three different timelines without much warning, and essential plot points are felt more than communicated. It makes for quite a journey—which makes perfect sense, because one of Bamford’s hallmarks is her comfort discussing her own mental illness, including and especially her diagnosis with bipolar disorder.

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I wanted to know where this fascinating little show came from, and how Hurwitz, Brady and Bamford went about shaping the show’s idiosyncratic tone and structure. Along the way, I couldn’t resist asking if “Arrested Development” season five was in the works.

Tell me about how “Lady Dynamite” came to be.

Its very essence, at the very start, was that Maria's really a genius. It's evolved—and Pam Brady got involved, and that really raised it up a level. But her act—I mean, it's unbelievable. I remember, two years ago, making Michael Cera look into it and he called me saying, “I don't understand how she could do it more than once!" It's like the show—she's doing too many things. Her act is so personal, and so explosively funny at the same time.

She's exploring a part of the human psyche that I've never heard anyone explore. And she's funnier—the timing and her voices and her punctuation of things is funnier than any comedian I've ever heard. I liken it to John Lennon, who had so much to say and was such an artist. And he just coincidently could write great melody. That's how I feel about her; she just coincidently has some genius timing. In the first moment I ever saw her act it was just startling; she's so available to her feelings and so fearless about exposing the worst parts of herself. I mean that's really part of the genius of it. People don't like to talk about stuff like what she was going through.

So the spirit of the thing became: How do we tell this story? And the problem that immediately emerged was, it's all about odyssey, it's all about what she's really going through. It's all about the specificity of that—that's what her act is. It’s unbelievably specific, but the audience completely gets it. An audience that presumably has not been hospitalized for bipolar anything. And so one of the problems was like, I think she's gotta be a stand-up comic. There's just no way to get around that. Which we didn't want to do for the obvious reasons—that's a known trope. But in the service of a real story, a true story, a story from her heart? It makes sense. It's not “Seinfeld,” it's not somebody trying to get their next act together. In the first episode she says, "I would like to not work" to her manager. [Laughs.] That's true! Like, she really did not want to have a career trajectory when I met her. And she articulated that.

Interesting.

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I know! Everything about her is interesting! She would come back with every weekend—what did you do this weekend? Oh, I went to this learn-your-love-language thing with my boyfriend and it was for married couples, and we thought it would be interesting to go. And they gave everyone like a little piece of floor and you'd learn to talk only when you had the floor. And we'd look in each other's eyes and we'd express all this stuff and then we came home and we had the biggest fight of our life, we couldn't remember what to do with the floor, the floor was thrown at one point.

She’s trying so hard to improve herself. It’s beautiful. She was going through a phase when we started this, where her whole agenda was to be without an agenda. So there was none. She was trying to rid herself of agenda. So we would have these really productive sessions and talk about what the joke would be and what would we could do with it and how we could play with time and things like that, and she would be like: [Maria Bamford voice] Oh, that's so exciting. Well, even if nothing ever happens on this project, that was a great trade of experience, I'm so grateful for it, that's just really special. [Laughs.] It wasn't even like, okay let's get to the next step.

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She has a philosophy about everything. Like she's explored everything. If you mention debt, she'll say, Oh yeah, no, I’m in Debtors Anonymous. I was encouraged, I would do these things where I would write letters of apology and send them out, like I would send out a bill, these conscientious efforts. One of the things, when I met her, that she was really working on in herself, and struggling with, was her ability to have the capacity to love another. And the ability to be able to be loved.

Wow.

Yeah. She had been questioning—like, having gone through experiences where she was with somebody who looked right and seemed right but there were all sorts of cultural biases that went into that, things like growing up in the Midwest, being the daughter of a dermatologist and all these things. And then once I started working with Pam, this amazing thing happened where [Maria] had been dating this guy who she really did not think of as somebody who would be right for her. And she had to realign the thinking, and at the end of that she was getting engaged and we were so happy for her.

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But I will admit, the first thing that I said to Pam was, "Okay, now we have a series. We know where this is going.” It was amazing—and you’ll see, we put her actual husband in a lot of the shots. He shows up all over the place, he's dragging trash cans out behind the motorcycle and side car… it's like he's this haunting presence.

So while Bamford is the star and one of the executive producers, she’s not in the writers’ room—that’s headed up by you and Pam Brady, the show’s co-creators. How do you tackle writing for such a personality that is so specific and unique?

I have said some time before my dear friend Pam was involved—when I first met Maria, her genius reminded me of Pam's genius. Very different voices, Pam is such a unique one-of-a-kind person, and so I thought of her when I met this other one-of-a-kind woman. I got to work with Pam early in both our careers. I kind of thought there's no way she would do it, so I spent a lot of time developing the project with Maria.

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But I really did feel that it kinda should be a woman [showrunner]—not to go so far in that direction that that becomes sexist, but just because an important part of [Maria’s] struggle is being a woman in Los Angeles, in a business that cares about appearances. She ends up on a medication that she describes as giving her a slight tremor—you know, I can't see the tremor but she'll joke about things like this—she'll talk about how [Maria voice] now I've grown a thin layer of whiskers. I slick them back like Wolverine. And she would say things like, “What a great late-in-life opportunity!" She's really honest about being [as she says in the pilot] a “sun-damaged” 45-year-old woman.

So it just felt like there were issues that the right woman would be able to really amplify, and bring her own story, too. We kind of worked out this idea of “Annie Hall”— let's show a collage of this woman's life, with the central idea being what looks like a less successful part of her life is the happier, more successful part of her life. The earlier aspirations to success, and the growth of career, and all those things that working people tend to focus on in their 30s. That can often be a misleading path that leads to unhappiness. So you've got this bright colored past where things are going well but it's really kind of a sadder tale. And then a more honest, bleaker present that's a much happier tale, because it's about growth internally. And in the middle of it this mystery that you want to kind of play a little bit, which is, what happened to her, exactly? It's not that important, but it is a question that you're sort of trying to suss out, as you listen to her acts. "Wait a minute, you're skipping something, what happened?" And the show kind of does that, is that it eventually explains what happened.

It’s interesting, because this sounds very serious, and Bamford herself is so grounded in self-help and what she went through in Hollywood. But the show is very surreal and funny and meta-textual, with this experimental structure and very irreverent tone. How does a show about this topic become funny while still remaining thoughtful and unique?

Well, we're talking about three people who have a lot to pitch comedically. I'm always pitching, Pam is always pitching, and Maria is always pitching. And at the heart of this was being open to making mistakes.

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Part of it was manipulative. In Maria's act, some of the funniest things that happen is her doing other voices. So she'll be talking to a woman at the HMO who's got to approve the medication she's on, and she's saying [Maria’s voice doing another voice] "So, you're crazy?" There's this black woman who's saying, "You know, you ought to go to a comedy show." And then you're listening to this and it's hilarious, the punctuations are hilarious, but we run the risk of having Maria just be doleful, and everybody else doing these things. That, we talked about a lot.

If you look at the difference between Louis C.K.’s act—which is so high energy, and full of outrage, and full of octaves going up and down. [Louis C.K. voice] “I’m in an airplane!” The way he depicts it on his show, he's sort of at a loss sitting in an airplane. And he’s a genius reactor, but it was kind of like how do we not have Maria just be the straight man in this world? And one of the answers that emerged was, like her stand-up, it's punctuated with her voices and her screams. [Maria scream] "It's awesome!!"

That just became the personality of the show, that we should interrupt and have a close-up of her saying "far out!" or whatever it was. And then it became more story-based, and then there's definitely a departure from story-based. For the most part, it was kind of an essence of trying to capture the kaleidoscope that is her act.

That reminds me of the role the narration plays in “Arrested Development,” except that Maria sounds like she’s narrating herself.

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And also like the narrator in “Arrested,” the chief function of that, which—none of that stuff is that intentional when you're doing it, but as I've looked back on it now, I realize—the chief function of it was allowing stories to intertwine without having to spend five pages of exposition on it. You're able to move the story along, and so you're able to do stories people haven't done before

And that was one of the conceits of “Lady Dynamite”—if we had three time periods, you know in that second episode you get all the fun of her mania, her family band, and then her breakdown. There is a version of that exact story that took 30 minutes—and I'm so glad we didn't make people sit through that! [Laughs.] We would have come to the same conclusion, we would've had to wait through a couple of rehearsals, mom would've dropped out of the band and be pleaded with to come back in, and then Maria would have a breakdown. It is kind of nice to be able to get to new storytelling by finding a device to help you get past a lot of the shoe leather. There really is authorial intention in every episode, as haphazard as it seems.

The third episode, “White Trash,” is an issue episode about racial representation in comedy that ends up coming at the topic in a really interesting way, where Maria is trying to be a better white person and fails and succeeds in surprising (and hilarious) ways. What was behind that episode? What made you come at it from that angle?

There is a really interesting story there. Another one of those amazing—you know, you say something and Maria Bamford has an experience of it. We were talking about race and her take on race, and she said, "Oh, you know, I went to…" I can't remember what it was called now, but it had a funny name, like White Help L.A. And it was basically for white people who did not know how to help racial equality or civil rights' issues. And what they concluded was, it's none of our business. We should stay out of it. And what they sort of comedically, accidentally were doing was… they created a segregated group of whites only. Don't help, stay out of it. It was pretty much exactly what a racist group would do, except it was from a completely different perspective. It was like, don't presume, this isn't about you. I mean, it was admirable for its humility.

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And so Pam, like, lit up over this and she was like: "We've got to do an episode about that!" But Maria was like, "No, it's not my place to do an episode about that. I don't want to do an episode about that. I don't deserve to do an episode about that."

That became what the episode was about. Because okay, that's what's interesting. It's one person's specific experience of it. There was a little bit of push and pull on some of these ideas, because the very idea of—well, first of all, that she doesn't want to be ambitious makes it difficult to do a show. And then it is hilarious that she feels she has no right to open her mouth about her experience of racial issues, because there’s the a priori problem of… you just did. So that's really what we wanted to play with, and as we were shooting, the Rachel Dolezal thing happened. Oh yeah. All you could really do was say, look, if you're honest about your experience—right or wrong, it's probably worth sharing.

So, I have to ask. Is “Arrested Development” season five still happening? Where does that stand right now?

I feel like we're really getting close. I'm very hesitant to talk about it because I'm in this ironic position of like—I've got to withhold from the blessing of these devoted fans, I've got to withhold information, because I don't want to try their patience, and because I don't have control over it. I'm tempted to say hey, we're getting close, and then it just becomes teasing the very people that I want to reward.

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I will say, the actors want to do it, I want to do it, the studio wants to do it, Netflix wants to do it. So something’s gonna happen. I just don't have a timeline yet. I did start working with writers last year and developed the storyline a little bit so that we're ready to go at a moment's notice. And it's a total priority; it's great fun and we have this big story to tell that is now right in the zeitgeist—about the wall and a murder mystery that's like O.J. or the Durst thing or “Making A Murderer”—we have so many things in this story that are current, I'm actually worried we'll miss the window. I already know that a lot of the election stuff we were going to do will be fatiguing if this comes out next year, after the election. Like, we're not going to want anymore Trump jokes, you know? But we were doing it before Trump was running for office! We even had a thing where the characters so didn't want to win that they started saying horribly inflammatory things—and of course, that only endeared them to the public. And it's all happened.

Given the rise of Donald Trump feels like an “Arrested Development” plot anyway, how are you feeling about it happening in real life?

I feel like it's a great con. I don't have anything to add to the conversation about it, except it's just shocking. I have to constantly remind myself like, don't make this about teams, don't make this about “I want my team to win.” People are obviously in pain somehow, and unfortunately, a divisive message—it's very effective to say us versus them. It's just that it's going to lead to more unhappiness.

I do feel, sometimes, like saying to Trump supporters: “You know he hates you, right?" If you're a lower-income person, you're a loser to him. He targeted [Senator John] McCain for being shot down. I get why you would think, "Oh, this guy's great. He'll defend me." But wait till you get hurt on the job—he'll say, "Well, you shouldn't have gotten hurt." He'll wait till you can't get work, and he'll say, "Well, it's not my fault you didn't get an education, you're a loser." And some Hispanics, especially in L.A, that support him because they feel like, we're here legally and we don't want other people coming in. And it's like, yeah no: He hates you! That's my take on it. It would be great if he were great, but I don't think he is, so it's a little scary. And it's such a crazy reaction, too. Like, hey let's just not try and do anything for eight years until the black guy is gone. And then this crazy reaction of this. When people get more extreme instead of more willing to compromise—and even praise themselves on not willing to compromise, it's a disaster. Myself included. I don't want to be like, "Go to hell, Trump people." That’s just as bad.


Sonia Saraiya

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