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The best – and worst – running gags in Arrested Development

April 23, 2010

After ignoring the show for the better part of a decade, I finally took a dive into the fiery banana-stand of Arrested Development. While I caught a few episodes during its original run, I was far too loyal to Andy Richter Controls the Universe, The Norm Show, and whatever HBO or Showtime threw at us (The Chris Isaak Show amongst them) to give Arrested Development the true cultural space it richly deserved.

Following the devotion of two days devouring an Arthur Digby Sellers-esque bulk of the series, I finally understood why numerous TV critics placed this show at the top of their decades-in-reviews. Its rapid-fire dialogue set the table for current standouts Community and 30 Rock, and the level of “meta” present in Ron Howard’s narration eclipsed anything that would result from the combination of Mitch Hedberg, a crate of forks and the necessary two-tined hydraulic-based lifting vehicle.

Most notable to me was the multitude of running gags. Like the comical ad campaign for M.U.S.C.L.E. figurines, there was just so damn many of them. Allow me to take a look at some of these, and rank them from funniest to most annoying:

(Warning – Serious spoilers ahead. It takes a show at the level of Arrested Development to inspire me to forego my usual Brian Posehn / Doug Benson “Then she dies at the end…oh wait….sorry….spoiler alert!”)

1. Pete Rose sliding into second base. Hell, we late-period Gen Xers have already made peace with the repackaging and reselling of the other 99% of our childhoods. So why should Mitchell Hurwitz and Co gamble on an unproven hustler when seeking a symbol of the twisted results of George Michael’s infatuation with his cousin (or so we thought) Maeby? Rose’s trademark headfirst dive makes a return in the finale, but (for this time only) I won’t ruin the surprise.

2. “…On the next episode…”. This never fails to make me laugh. Like a member of the audience viewing a GOB “illusion”, I’ll admit that I was initially fooled by the show’s sneaky brilliance. But eventually, I figured out that an entire episode would not be built around a Tobias freak-out from a bad review in the high school newspaper. I wish other programs could employ this technique without being called copycats – maybe Conan’s new TBS project could sneak it past us.

3. Lucille Bluth’s alcoholic functionality. The family matriarch’s textbook of awful parenting would not be complete without the ever-present vodka-based cocktail.

Of all the exaggerated lifestyle decisions on display, why does the most realistic one of all appear to be the the least unhealthy? Sloshed, housed, knackered or pickeled, Lucille rarely loses control of herself or her family. A dangerous example for aspiring drunkards everywhere? Perhaps, but more importantly – the perfect foil for Father Jack Hackett, if George Bluth is forced to return to the Big House (especially for being found to have money “resting in an account.”)

4. The model home – all alone. The 1990s (and the middle-part of the 00s) were characterized by the constant cycle of razing (the landscape) and raising (the roof), as millions of houses were poofed into existence. James Howard Kunstler, the only person who could ever star in the James Howard Kunstler Podcast, often claims that most of our world has degenerated into a cartoon-version of reality, particularly the oversized homes. His look at the past and future of urban America, The City In Mind, examines Atlanta at the turn of the 21st century, which parallels the Bluth family dream in Orange County:

Atlanta was becoming a collection of fabulous Edge Cities, which, the cognoscenti would tell you, was what the future would be all about — brilliant sparkling satellite pods of corporate high-rise dynamism embedded in a wonderful matrix of leafy, tranquil dormitory suburbs, all tied together by a marvelously efficient personal transportation system that. . . wait a minute.  This sounded suspiciously like that old bullshit from Le Corbusier, the Franco-Swiss avant-garde guru-fraud from the 1920s: the Plan Voison, Le Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City, the proposal to demolish a big hunk of Paris and replace it with Towers in a Park connected by freeways.

I saw all economic folly of the Sunbelt summarized in three TV commercials broadcast on CNN Headline News in my Holiday Inn room off the remorseless Peachtree Street strip up in Buckhead.  The first ad was for a financial “product” called the “DiTech 125 percent dream loan.”  The DiTech finance company would lend you 125 percent of the mortgage money necessary to buy a house, up to half a million dollars.  Borrowers could use the 25 percent slopover to pay their closing costs, or buy furniture (or buy a boat, or go to Vegas).  I had heard many rumors while I was in Atlanta that people knew people who were buying enormous new houses in the outer limits of the suburbs and living in them without furniture, due to the fantastic and relentless other costs of living, such as the payments on the his-and-her SUVs that were indispensable for commuting to work, in order to pay the humungous mortgage on a 4,500 square foot vinyl McMansion.  The next TV commercial, a few minutes later, was for a debt consolidation service, aimed at folks whose finances had gotten a little bit out of hand, who were invited to roll all those depressing bills into one easy monthly payment.  Of course, this was, psychologically speaking, just another version of the old blanket trick — cutting twelve inches off the top of your blanket and sewing it onto the bottom to make it longer.  The third commercial was for a San Diego bankruptcy lawyer.  And there you had it.

There was a subtle hilarity in the sitcom-style establishing shots that indicated a change of venue to the Bluth model home. While we were being told that the next scene was likely to feature the principals crowded around the fake turkey, or burning themselves on the Cornballer, we were being reminded that the Bluth family’s many attempts to expand past the first shoddily-constructed model home – in Orange County or Iraq – were (and always would be) complete failures.

5. The monstrous amount of wasted money. I am surprised a superfan hasn’t catalogued the sizable chunk of cash that was blown on illusions, clothing, banana stand arson, dead doves, investments, hotel accommodations, charity auctions, “conslutants”, gold protein bars, etc. Ahh, idle wealth.

6. Bob Loblaw. I’d throw around the Borscht-Belt Approved (TM) “Has there ever been a more appropriate name for an attorney?” one-liner, but I – and you – understand the value of quality counsel. But yeah – Bob Loblaw – Chachi is definitely In Charge…

7. George Michael – the name. After finding it comedic that a character as shy as Cera’s would be christened with such an ironic applique, eventually I forgot the connection to the author of the underrated single “Father Figure”. It wasn’t until Season Three when George Michael himself acknowledged the joke, responding to a request for his presence with “He might not be looking for me, maybe they mean the singer-songwriter.” Very subtle and clever – plus, we get the brief image of a haggard WHAM! performing acoustic, all bearded and blunted by Cali weed.

8. “Caged Wisdom”. After his brilliant amalgamation of smooooth-pitchman and profanely-jealous sidekick (The Larry Sanders Show‘s Hank Kingsley), it’s fitting that we’d see a [relatively!] reasoned, dare-I-say wizened character (George Senior) from the legendary Jeffrey Tambor. Interestingly, even more together was his twin brother Oscar. Well, if you count his far-from-occasional extracurricular rendezvous with his brother’s semi-devoted wife. George, understanding the great change that prison has brought him, had no choice but to share this gift with the world. In case you’ve yet to get the idea, among the Bluths, “sharing” and “$19.95 for each additional volume” are synonymous.

Well, they can’t all be winners. Several gags eventually grew tiresome. Others were unfunny or just plain boring. Here they are:

1.  “Her?” Michael was easily the best parent on the show. However, claiming that crown among the Bluths is like winning (insert cliché here) at a (one more – I know you have it in you) contest. But even Michael couldn’t remember that George Michael had a girlfriend. The only thing I found funny about this gag was the remote chance of it ever happening in real life. I’ve know many only-children of single parents, and every one of them complained that their mom/dad/dad’s mistress was constantly in their business regarding their romantic affairs.

2. Tobias Funke’s secret. David Cross as Tobias was pretty damn funny, as was his former sparring-partner Bob Odenkirk’s appearance as a rival analyst-therapist in Season One. At first, it was comedic and sad to watch Tobias deal with his inability to shed all of his clothing. Eventually, it became too predictable. Thankfully, they moved past the gag in the later episodes (or used it more sparingly).

3. Buster’s twisted relationship with the mom / George Michael and Maeby. Perhaps it’s my Kentucky upbringing, and the requisite jokes from foolish Californians and Minnesotans about “marryin’ yer cuzzins” that makes such gags unwelcome. While we eventually learn that Lindsay is adopted, and – far more frustrating to her – older than “twin” brother Michael, taking (at least one level of) the weirdness away from the Maeby / GM incidents, the Buster/Mother quagmire had me saying “Come on, dude, you just got to get the hell out of there!” on far too many occasions.

4. “Annyoung” / “Onyung” / etc. I am not aware of the intentions behind this boring gag (Upper-crust Americans and their tendency to exoticise anything from south or east Asia? Lazy writers thinking that an easy laugh can be drawn from ‘those funny names'”), but it got tired really fast.

I’ll close on a few features of the show that are not technically “gags”

GOB’s obsession with magic and puppets, to the point where he is completely oblivious of everything else. This led to some of the best moments on the show. Franklin’s awesome t-shirt, or the “will it or won’t it?” fireball-from-the-sleeve? Dead freaking on! Whether the illusions were successful or not, GOB sold them like they did work – a metaphor for the show itself.

The ridiculous plot twists at the finale, in a tradition that completely destroys sitcom conventions. Ah yes – in Arrested Development, there is hugging – but NO learning. The final episode had enough twists for an M. Night Shyamalan film featuring the cast of the Newhart finale and a soundtrack by Chubby Checker. With little to no warning, Ron Howard’s narration began to take on its own agenda, calling out the “bad” narration of a Maeby-prduced film. Speaking of the cinema, the attempt to bring back the entire cast for a major motion picture hit a snag with one character displaying a reticence to reunite the Bluths for one last hurrah. The fact that it was Michael Cera –  that has to be the biggest twist of them all.

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2 Comments
  1. April 23, 2010 4:34 pm

    My favorite running gag, outside of “Look at banner Michael,” is the following:

  2. Anonymous permalink
    April 29, 2013 8:49 am

    CAR TROUBLE!

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