March is a month for brackets, so this week on The Ringer, we’re hosting The Best TV Characters of the Century—an expansive, obsessive, and unexpectedly fraught competition to determine the best fictional TV personality of the past 20 years. To help the public make informed voting decisions, The Ringer has contacted some of the people who know these characters best: the actors who played them. Check back throughout the week for more interviews, and be sure to vote for The Best TV Characters of the Century here.
When told that he was the only actor with more than one of his characters in the bracket, Will Arnett got delightfully indignant. “I should be grateful, but I should have three on the list,” he deadpanned. “Am I surprised that I’m the only one with two? No. Who the fuck is in charge of the fucking seeding?”
Arnett was joking, of course. But the reality is that there are few people this century who have had such a varied, memorable television career. Consider: He had small parts on The Sopranos and Law and Order: SVU; his nine-episode arc as Jack Donaghy’s nemesis Devon Banks on 30 Rock led to an Emmy nomination; and he’s most famously portrayed two bleakly comedic icons, one a cartoonish buffoon, the other an equine cartoon.
On Arrested Development, Arnett pumped an ocean’s worth of comedic self-delusion into George Oscar “Gob” Bluth II, a Segway-driving, bully of a failson who couldn’t hack it as a professional magician—or really anything else. On the recently concluded BoJack Horseman, he ratcheted up the self-loathing to voice an anthropomorphic former sitcom star with substance use issues and the desire, but not the ability, to become a better person.
On Monday night—just before both of his characters advanced to the second round—Arnett shared his thoughts on playing Gob and BoJack. If you don’t read them, you’ll be making a huge mistake.
The tones of Gob and BoJack are quite different, but do you see similarities in the characters?
There are so many people who say, “Do you love playing the asshole?” Of course for me, I don’t look at them as being assholes. The first character that anybody really watched me do was Gob. And Gob is not an asshole. He’s just detached from reality. I’ve never actually said this, but if anything, you could say that he’s got a mental illness. He’s at the very least a sociopath. And he operates from a place of pure ego.
Conversely, BoJack is an alcoholic and a drug addict. He’s depressive; clinically depressed. But at least he does have, ultimately, the ability [to be self-aware]. With Gob, if you were to say, “Hey Gob, time to get real,” he’d be like, [breaks into Gob’s voice] “How could I be more real than I already am?” You know? “Is this not real enough for you?” And he’d jump out a window or something.
Did you find one harder to play than the other?
I remember once someone saying, “Never use the words ‘my’ and ‘career’ in the same sentence.” Maybe that’s the Canadian in me. I try not to think too much about that kind of stuff. I’m pretty lucky that I get to go and do the things I do. [BoJack creator] Raphael Bob-Waksberg created this incredible character that I got to play over the course of six years. And my job was really just being sensitive to what story he was trying to tell. And if I could interpret that in a way that made sense then I was happy. Gob, the same thing with Mitch Hurwitz. I was the beneficiary of somebody else’s great idea. That I could come in and collaborate a little bit on it—that felt pretty fucking good.
Speaking of that, what personal touches did you add to both of those characters?
With Gob, I tried to bring in this hurt that he’s not in touch with. That’s at the center of it. And also I had these moments when, as Mitch Hurwitz would say, I would bring volume and voice in cubic feet. It would come at you en masse. I tried to bring energy that’s sort of playful, so that he could go from being quite serious to incredibly childlike. Because he never was given the tools to really develop as a human being.
I guess this is where the similarity is—these are two characters who are struggling to connect with who they are. Who they are is very different, but the common thread is that they’re both having a tough time connecting the dots. BoJack is much more in search of it. It’s a great progression for me in my life that I was at a place where I could understand that. Here’s a guy who’s trying desperately. It’s almost like he can see through the glass of where he wants to go. He just can’t get there.
Do you remember the origin of Gob’s “I’ve made a huge mistake” line? It’s a meme that’s still everywhere. It shows up in New York Times headlines.
Arrested Development in general was one of the first really heavily memed shows. I felt like we were really on the vanguard there. Gob also had “Hello darkness, my old friend …” which a lot of people these days probably don’t even know the origins of. About a year ago, my kids were singing “The Final Countdown.” Because they’d heard it somewhere. And also one of my son’s dances in Fortnite was the chicken dance. And I was like, “Do you know where that came from?” And he was like, “Um, no.” And I go, “I invented that, dude.” My son, who’s 9—at the time he was 8—had resorted to, in a pretty hilariously annoying way, saying “OK, boomer” to me a lot. When I told him the chicken dance was from something I had done, he was like, “Yeah, OK, boomer.”
But then I do remember the first one was “I made a huge mistake.” If I’m not mistaken, it came from the fourth episode of Arrested Season 1, which was where Gob breaks into the prison. And I remember us setting up for saying, “I made a huge mistake.” It was a very sort of deliberate delivery. And a very deliberate setup with its own sort of closeup. But I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is gonna get memed out.” And now 16 years later …
For both characters, do you have favorite episodes or moments?
On Arrested I had a lot of favorite moments. There was so much laughter, especially the first few years. I think “Pier Pressure”, when all the Hot Cops come to the pier and I say, “It’s the cops! And a construction worker.” That moment of absurdity, it really made me laugh. The hardest I’ve ever laughed in my life was where we were shooting a scene that was a flashback to when we had tried to do an intervention with Lucille and it ended up in a big, boozy party in Lucille’s penthouse. So we were all there and we were dancing, and I was sitting on the table and Tony Hale was hammering the piano with his hook, and David Cross, he didn’t tell anybody, went and put on his jean shorts and came back and was dancing. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t recover. They yelled cut and all of us were laughing. We were done, and it was a Friday night. I remember going out to the trailers, we were saying goodbye, and I was there with Mitch, and [producer] Chuck Martin, and Jason [Bateman], and Tony [Hale], and David, and Portia [de Rossi], and we were laughing and laughing. And then I got in my car, and like an hour later, I was at home and I was still laughing. And I thought, I’m still fucking laughing at this thing.
BoJack was different, but so many great moments of being blown away by how great the scripts are. A moment I really remember, because I’d never read anything like it, was in Season 5 culminating with “Free Churro.” I remember reading that script and it was so different. My sister was in town and I said, “I gotta go do a BoJack table read, but I don’t know what it’s going to be like.” And she was like, “Can I come?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” And I just read for 25 minutes. It was so out of body.
Which of those two characters do you miss playing more?
We live in a day and age now where everything’s so accessible all the time. That stuff still exists, it’s still there so much because of the internet that I don’t really miss it. BoJack we just finished, and I still talk to those guys a lot. We’ve talked about doing other stuff together recently and sort of having BoJack go on in a different state. Whatever that means. Just to create more mystery, if I could. And of course Arrested is still very present in my life, too, because I’m still very close to Jason and Mitch and all those guys and we’ve done a couple seasons more.
When BoJack did Horsin’ Around it was kind of over and then it went away. And it was a big part of his life. And I was able to sort of tap into that. I understood that that’s a thing that was big and everybody paid him a lot of attention. And now it’s gone. And how strange that is. And you can’t really blame the guy. It’s weird. In these strange times that we’re living in now, my observation is that because everybody’s at home and has to be at home, it seems there are a lot of people who are really feeling that void, that absence of attention that they normally get. And you can see them fighting out against it. That’s what I think BoJack suffered from.