The role of the straight man has traditionally been considered hard to play. Besides being the butt of the funny guy’s jokes, the straight man has to get an audience response without resorting to broad physical comedic displays or in-your-face gags.
In Fox’s critically acclaimed “Arrested Development,” which won last year’s best comedy Emmy, Jason Bateman plays the straight man as Michael Bluth, the good son who somehow holds his maniacal family together despite his father’s arrest for fraud and their descent into poverty.
Mr. Bateman, who won a Golden Globe earlier this year for his “Arrested” role, holds the emotional center of the single-camera, documentary-style comedy without coming off as humorless, said David Nevins, one of the show’s executive producers and the president of Imagine Television, which produces “Arrested.”
“He can actually drive comedy and drive the story forward without having to push too hard,” Mr. Nevins said of Mr. Bateman. “His sort of wants and needs and frustrations are always right on the surface.”
Mr. Bateman, who began his career on “Little House on the Prairie” and got his first big break at the age of 12 on the NBC comedy “Silver Spoons,” credits the success of his character to the show’s creator, Mitch Hurwitz.
“It’s just all set up to be this breeding ground of reactionary comedy,” he said. “You need the black and the white with the comedy. If there isn’t an Everyman, or someone to keep it relatable or tangible, you lose a lot of the funny.”
Thankfully for Mr. Bateman, that tone of comedy is something he enjoys personally: “It’s fortunate for me I happen to fit a character on a show that is exactly what makes me laugh.”
Mr. Nevins said that when Mr. Hurwitz was casting the part there was “great anxiety” over who would play Michael Bluth. “We had no sense of what we were looking for,” he said.
Mr. Nevins was on a plane to Hawaii when he got Mr. Hurwitz’ message that he had found their Michael. He got on the next plane back to Los Angeles to see Mr. Bateman audition. “It was very different acting, a very different style than what Jason had done [before],” Mr. Nevins said. “He’s been a total revelation.”
Mr. Bateman credits his work in the never-aired, seven-episode NBC series “The Jake Effect” for his ability to alter his performance from a traditional multicamera sitcom style of comedy, where actors work with an audience and go for the obvious laugh, to a more subtle, reactionary approach. “Jake,” a single-camera comedy that completed production right before Mr. Bateman signed on to “Arrested,” gave him “a chance to switch gears,” he said.
“That was really helpful,” he added.
Mr. Nevins said Mr. Bateman’s work on “Arrested” has dispelled the notion that his best acting days were behind him.
“There was a certain prejudice that people brought to him in the audition process as just being the guy who does pilots every year,” he said. “But that’s well behind him now.”
Others to Consider
2004 Comedy Actor Contenders
Winner: Kelsey Grammer, Frasier (NBC)
Other nominees: Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO); John Ritter, 8 Simple Rules (ABC); Matt LeBlanc, Friends (NBC); Tony Shalhoub, Monk (USA)