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Interview: Katie O’Connell
JOB: Senior Vice President of Comedy Development and Current
Programming, Imagine Television
Ms. O’Connell has worked on King of Queens, Becker, and Yes, Dear while at CBS; and Imagine has produced 24,
Miss/Match, The PJ’s, Arrested Development, The Big House and Quintuplets during her tenure.
The O.P. spoke with Katie O’Connell, Senior Vice President of Comedy Development and Current Programming at Imagine Television, about Arrested Development.
Katie, can you give us a little background about how Imagine develops shows?
We are a boutique production company
so we try and target writers
or actors we want to work with and develop concepts and characters with
them. Other times a great pitch from a great writer will walk in the door
and we will develop that as well.
Is that what happened with Arrested Development?
In the summer of 2002, Ron Howard had the
idea of doing a comedy that had
the disciplines of multi-camera comedy (big funny, lots of rewriting and
rehearsing) with the style of single-camera and reality shows. David
Nevins (President of Imagine Television), Ron and I met with only two writers.
Mitch Hurwitz had such a great take on a “riches to rags” type family. It
was so squarely in the zeitgeist with the fall of Enron and other corporate
When David Nevins was at NBC, he
had worked with Mitch on a show called Everything’s Relative; and when I
was at CBS, I had developed a show with Mitch.
Plus, Mitch connected immediately with Ron, so it was a no-brainer to
sign Mitch on to write the show.
How did the show go from idea to script?
We pitched and sold the show in the fall of 2002. Mitch turned in the
pilot script in January 2003.
What was your first reaction upon reading the script for Arrested Development?
It was pure genius. Truly. I’d read so many pilot scripts over the years
and nothing compared to this.
Mitch is such a genius when it comes to creating characters and
his approach to story-telling is amazing.
So Mitch basically came up with all of the main characters on the show?
Yes, Mitch definitely came up with all of the characters.
How difficult was it to assemble a cast to match Mitch’s vision? Was there anyone particularly difficult to cast?
Casting was daunting at first. There are lots of characters that had to be believable as a family. Alia Shawkat (Maeby) was the first person cast; not by design, it just worked out that way. We cast Michael Cera (George Michael) off a tape and flew him down from Canada to audition for the network. Michael had done a FOX show the year before that never aired so everyone was familiar with him. Jason Bateman (Michael) and Portia de Rossi (Lindsay) both read and auditioned for us and the network; they were both perfect. We cast Tony Hale (Buster) and Jessica Walter (Lucille) off of tapes. They both were in New York so we flew them out to audition for FOX. The character of G.O.B. was challenging to find—we were probably looking for the wrong thing. Then Will Arnett auditioned—and he nailed the role in a way we hadn’t really pictured it. Thank God! (Will was also a New York hire.) David Cross wasn’t originally a series regular (the role of Tobias was only going to recur) but he fit so nicely in the mix that we wanted him to become a series regular once we were picked up to series. Jeffrey Tambor (George, Sr.) was just going to be a guest star in the pilot, but again, he scored so well with everyone that we ended up making him a series regular.
Jeffrey and Mitch knew each other—Jeffrey was in Everything’s Relative, a show that Mitch had created for NBC—
and Mitch asked Jeffrey to do the pilot almost as a favor. It worked out great for all of us.
After casting was complete, how did Arrested Development make it to air?
We shot the pilot in March 2003. We
turned in the pilot in late April and we found out we were on the fall
schedule in May.
Did you expect all of the critical acclaim and passionate fan support?
I’m not really sure what I expected but, it has been so gratifying to have
all of the support and accolades for the show.
Yet with all of this critical praise and fan support, the ratings
haven’t been spectacular. Does that mean the show is not a success?
It depends on how you define success. It has been a creative success,
and time will determine if it becomes a commercial success.
What do you think the chances of renewal are?
I’m hopeful. FOX announces its schedule on May 20th so we’ll
definitely know by then.
Is there anything fans can do to help ensure the show gets renewed?
I’m not really
sure, except to continue to make a lot of noise about the show. You
guys have been great about that so far!
Fans are often critical of FOX bumping Arrested Development during sweeps; bumping it for
another Imagine show, 24; and not broadcasting the true finale. How
would you characterize FOX’s support of the show?
Without a doubt, FOX has been incredibly supportive of the show. They
will be airing the real finale on June 6th. President Bush’s speech
required the network to switch around its shows and Arrested Development
was a casualty of that. In that case, it was a last minute
Imagine has been associated with some fairly groundbreaking television
shows, some of which aren’t always the highest rated. Sports Night was
another critically-acclaimed comedy with fervent fan support, but low
ratings. Are the ratings ultimately frustrating, and does that change
the type of shows Imagine plans to produce in the future?
Our goal is to produce a show that is both critically acclaimed and
commercially successful—I think that if FOX picks up Arrested Development,
the audience will continue to grow. We will continue to
develop shows that we enjoy producing and watching.
What can you tell us about Quintuplets, which premieres Wednesday, June 16th on FOX, and would you expect the same
sort of audience as Arrested Development?
I would love the support of the ardent Arrested Development fans! It’s a
more traditional sitcom shot on a stage—more in the vein of That ’70s
Show. Andy Richter stars as a father to 15 year old quintuplets. I truly
believe the multi-camera sitcom is not dead and hopefully we’ll be able to
produce one that sticks. Ryan Pinkston from Punk’d plays one of the
Can you comment on when we’ll see a DVD release of Arrested Development?
Hopefully, late summer.
I have this idea for a cartoon about a banana that grabs other bananas.
Would Imagine consider producing it?
That’s not a bad idea!
Thanks, Katie. I appreciate your time!