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  • 05.26.17

He Didn’t: An “Arrested Development” Writer On Twitter’s Most-Used Political Meme

Emmy Award winner John Levenstein says a meme might be the best way to kill a good joke.

He Didn’t: An “Arrested Development” Writer On Twitter’s Most-Used Political Meme
Behind the scenes, Arrested Development, season four [Photo: Mike Yarish, courtesy of Netflix]

Lately, Twitter has come to resemble the final scene of Spartacus; with untold legions of opinion-havers claiming to be the same person. Rather than the Thracian gladiator, however, these folks are posing as Ron Howard’s narrator from the recently revived Arrested Development.

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What was once a trope of the shockingly joke-dense sitcom, has now become perhaps the signature political meme of these uncertain times. Ron Howard, a producer on the show who also lent his distinctive pipes to its narration, would occasionally step in and contradict whatever a character had just said. Kind of like this:

Michael: Okay, that would be disgusting if you’d actually slept with her, but I don’t think you did.

GOB.: I did. And it was disgusting.

Narrator: They didn’t, but it would have been.

Since Donald Trump became president, though–plunging the country into a post-truth era of alternative facts and outright lies–Twitter users and CNN chyron writers have taken to calling out falsehoods in this familiar fashion.

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The meme has hit critical mass partly on the strength of a strong reaction to hearing blatant lies all the time, and partly because of the extent to which comedy lovers cherish all things Arrested Development. It’s also probably become popular at least somewhat because of its all-purpose utility. This last point is why one of the writers on the show recently suggested Twitter should maybe let this gag rest its case.

Comedy nerds might recognize journeyman writer John Levenstein from one of the many shows he’s cameoed on in recent years, often as a judge. The Emmy Award winner (for Arrested Development) has lately held writer/producer gigs on hits like Portlandia, Silicon Valley, and Kroll Show, when he’s not crafting awesomely droll jokes on Twitter. He comes by his mild distaste for the “No, he didn’t” meme honestly, though, having lived through the joke’s inception from the inside of the illustrious AD writers’ room.

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Behind the scenes, Arrested Development, season four [Photo: Mike Yarish, courtesy of Netflix]
“I don’t have a specific early memory of the narrator contradicting characters,” Levenstein says. “There was a moment in season one when the publicist character called George Michael ‘Opie.’ I pitched something like, [Ron Howard, who long ago played Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, saying,] ‘Jessie had gone too far and had best watch her mouth.’ It was funny in the moment and it went in the show. But it was also more self-referential than what we’d been doing up until that point.”

Whether or not this joke directly paved the way for the eventual recurring contradiction, once “He didn’t” first cropped up, it quickly became a popular gag. Levenstein soon noticed the writers wanted Ron Howard to flex his omniscience more thoroughly and often.

“As a writer I never really leaned on the narrator contradicting characters, but it did start to creep into the show,” he says. “I’ve always argued in favor of holding self-referential moments to a higher standard and using them sparingly. Personally I feel like the device of the narrator contradicting characters has become almost impossible to use in the show–[a fifth season is in the works]–now that it’s a meme.”

Even before the inauguration–in fact, even before the election–the joke galvanized online in the form of “Trump-rested Development.” It was a nifty bit of editing that combined footage from the 2016 presidential debates with a cascading chorus of Ron Howard corrections, backed by the Arrested Development score.

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This video might have been the moment an occasional Twitter form crystallized into a full-blown political meme. And as the Trumpian untruths have piled up month after month, the momentum has showed no signs of slowing down.

So perhaps the next time you spot an obvious Trump lie and want to call it out on Twitter, take another second to try a different tack. There are millions of methods for doing so–if mocking Trump were a stock, it would be splitting right now–and many of them don’t rely on a beloved formula that has been driven into or around the ground. According to Levenstein, though, it’s not only this meme that should be put out to pasture, but all of them.

“I don’t tend to enjoy memes on Twitter or joke templates on TV,” he says. “I don’t understand why people find security in them. When you recognize the format, it’s time to move on.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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