TV writer builds on failures

“Arrested Development” may have been only a cult favorite while it was on the air, but fans of the show, which followed a dysfunctional, riches-to-rags family, filled the room at a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Monday afternoon.

In front of more than 75 audience members, John Levenstein ’81 — writer and co-executive producer of the show — offered an autobiographical examination of his time with the series, which aired on Fox for three seasons from 2003 to 2006, though it received perennially low ratings. Warning the audience that he planned to “focus on the low points” of his professional career rather than boasting his accomplishments, Levenstein described the trials and tribulations that helped create the critically acclaimed comedy show.

Screenwriter John Levenstein ’81 describes what goes on behind the scenes of “Arrested Development.”
Snigdha Sur
Screenwriter John Levenstein ’81 describes what goes on behind the scenes of “Arrested Development.”

During his freshman year at Yale, Levenstein joined the crew team as a coxswain — which he called “the only time in my life I’ve ever been food-obsessed” — and aspired to become a Rhodes Scholar. Though Levenstein majored in economics, he eventually found his calling by creating a college comedy troupe.

“We had pretty much a clear playing field,” Levenstein said. Yale’s improvisational comedy scene had yet to develop during his time as an undergraduate, he explained.

While pursuing his aspirations of writing in Hollywood, Levenstein found time to attend graduate school in psychotherapy and hold an administrative office job. Most of his early ventures into the entertainment business, such as the sketch comedy show “Television Parts” and the 1988 comedic action film “Illegally Yours,” were flops, he said.

Levenstein found success with “Arrested Development,” for which he received an Emmy Award in 2004. Despite the show’s critical acclaim, Levenstein said he disliked some of its humor, including the wordplay favored by series creator Mitchell Hurwitz.

“I kind of feel like the third season was a little too self-referential,” he said. “It was still hilarious, but a bit desperate at the same time.”

The talk drew a number of questions from attendees about the behind-the-scenes aspects of the series’ production, including its guest stars and sources for the show’s clever ideas.

Much of the inspiration for the jokes and characters, Levenstein said, came from the personal experiences of Hurwitz and himself. For example, his relationships with his stepdaughter and his ornithologist brother — who once led an expedition through Arkansas to search for the elusive and endangered ivory-billed woodpecker — influenced his treatment of characters Maeby Fünke and Buster Bluth, respectively.

One audience member asked Levenstein about the rumored “Arrested Development” film.

“My friends who I’ve talked to say it’s happening,” Levenstein said.

But he added actor Michael Cera — who played awkward teenager George Michael Bluth in the show and starred in Judd Apatow’s blockbuster “Superbad” —demanded to see a script before committing to the project and Hurwitz will not write it unless Cera signs on. It is essentially a stalemate, he said.

Levenstein also offered advice to potential writers in the form of his personal credo.

“Be yourself, don’t worry about what other people are doing,” he said. “I feel like my biggest failures as a writer were always when I tried to imitate others — with less success.”

Lukas Colberg ’12 said he enjoyed Levenstein’s use of humor during the talk.

“I thought it was hilarious,” he said. “I can see why the show is so popular among fans.”

Diana Ofosu ’12, on the other hand, said she appreciated Levenstein’s descriptions of the perils of life as a struggling writer.

“I was highly amused when he began his talk by describing his failures,” Ofosu said. “I thought it was a really humble and interesting way to hold a master’s tea.”

Levenstein is currently working on the HBO animated comedy series “The Life & Times of Tim,” on which he plays the voice of former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

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