Will Arnett is known for two things: 1) playing arrogant but dimwitted characters (see Arrested Development, Running Wilde and 30 Rock, where his brand of aggressive wrongheadedness made for some great comedy), and 2) his raspy deep-throated voice.
He is, of course, the titular voice in BoJack Horseman, the excellent Netflix cartoon that just wrapped up after six seasons. He's a goofy, pampered, death-metal-loving Batman in most of the Lego movies. And for many years, he has been the voice of GMC in numerous truck commercials. How ubiquitous is Will Arnett's voice in animation? When Big Mouth began on Netflix, everyone just assumed the gravel-voiced hormone monster Maurice was voiced by Arnett. Given the fact that the real voice of Maurice, Nick Kroll, was dating Arnett’s ex-wife Amy Poehler at the time, Kroll’s denial that he was aping Arnett’s voice for the character felt super-extra-awkward.
Arnett is perhaps our most recognizable animation voice actor, and it’s increasingly becoming the part of his career for which he’s most famous.
But what the world of animation has gained, the world of live-action comedy has lost. In his on-screen roles, he's stood out not just for of his voice, but also for his all-in physicality. Watch the first few seconds of this Season One compilation from Arrested Development and try not to let your eyes widen at Arnett’s incredible "Final Countdown" routine.
Or skip ahead to 7:13 in the same video and watch the lean, rubber-bodied actor do comedy atop a moving Segway. It’s one thing to make your body an instrument for comedy, it’s another to make a balky two-wheeled device an extension of that body.
Arnett’s time on 30 Rock gave him plenty of opportunities to unleash that same physicality. In the video below, watch for two great moments: a choking scene at 9:00 in which Devon Banks needs help from Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, and a moment at 1:23 when Devon has befriended Malia Obama. Look at the legs crossed, the hands on the chin just so, as he exclaims, "Oh my God, Malia, he did not just say that, let’s text him now!"
Watch how Arnett hugs a polar bear rug on the ground in Blades of Glory, or how graceful he is on ice in the skating scenes from the same film. (He’s Canadian, but they can’t all be great skaters, can they?)
This is all to say that no one can begrudge Arnett his success in voice-over work or the projects that have spun off from that success, including his brand new FOX reality competition series Lego Masters. But in the previews for the show, the host and executive producer looks strangely inert and, if we’re being honest, more dad-bodied than we’ve ever seen him.
Maybe this is all intentional. Arnett’s last series, Flaked, didn’t go past two seasons, and it was widely reported that the actor briefly relapsed while playing Chip, the show’s semi-autobiographical main character. It was an attempt on his part to do more dramatic work, but its two seasons were not beloved by critics. Has Arnett decided to take a break from broadly comedic roles in favor of more family friendly movies and shows? The father of two boys with Poehler, Arnett has previously stated he's done work specifically for them, such as the Lego films and Teen Titans GO! To the Movies.
We miss Arnett being funny and rubber-limbed on screen. Why isn’t he doing movies with Paul Feig or Adam Mckay, or leading an HBO half-hour comedy -- something mean and smart like Veep? Now that BoJack has wrapped, can Arnett spend just a little less time in the voiceover booth and more time in front of cameras?
Will Arnett hosts LEGO Masters, premiering Wednesday February 5 at 9:00 PM ET on Fox
Omar L. Gallaga is a longtime technology and culture writer with bylines in The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Tech Considered blog, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, CNN and the beloved TV websites Television Without Pity and Previously.tv. He's a former newspaper journalist who now lives in New Braunfels, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @OmarG.