Robert Wuhl Explains the Dark Comic Influence of Arli$$ and Its Connection to Trump
By Robert Silva
The creator and star of the pioneering sports series reflects back 22 years later.
For seven seasons, L.A. sports agent Arliss Michaels conned and cajoled for his roster of athletes. Robert Wuhl, the creator, star and showrunner of Arli$$ (1996-2002), tackled a dizzying array of professional sports — ranging from football to figure skating to, yes, chess — with an insider’s satiric eye. On the occasion of the series’ streaming premiere, we caught up with the star to discuss the show’s origins, and how Arliss would handle the sports world today, kneeling controversies and all.
HBO: It’s been said the president was an inspiration for Arli$$. Is that true?
Robert Wuhl: Well, the inspiration came in 1995, after The Art of the Deal. I read Trump’s book and I thought, 90 percent of it is bull****, and I used that as a template for the series. Arliss narrates things one way, and then the viewer sees what actually went on as a counterpoint. The stories themselves were satire on the world of sports as it existed from 1996 to 2002. And as the series developed, the characters got richer and the stories got, along with being funny, a bit darker.
HBO: The show took on material you wouldn’t see in conventional sports coverage.
Robert Wuhl: We got to deal with Alzheimer’s. Drug abuse. Steroid abuse. Domestic abuse. Gay athletes. Transgender athletes. Alcoholism. Unwanted pregnancies with athletes. Any issue or topic that I thought was interested and worth exploring, we got to do. We had free range to tell whatever stories we wanted to tell, in the way we wanted to tell it.
HBO: Is that something you went after from the start?
Robert Wuhl: The turning point was the last episode of Season 1 (“The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of”). And then it became a little more serious and more dramatic. With that episode I really realized the possibilities of what we could do.
HBO: Did you consider how that’d shake people’s expectations of a TV comedy?
Robert Wuhl: I was just at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the filmmaker Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Tully) came up to me and talked about Arli$$; how it was the first experience he’d had seeing satire that could be darker. That you could tell a story, still have humor in it, but it would be darker. And that was a big influence on him.
— Robert Wuhl Picks His Favorite Episodes —
Arliss meets his childhood baseball hero, who has fallen on hard times. (Reminder: Don’t meet your heroes.)
A White House invite leaves Arliss elated, until a controversial client makes headlines.
A slugger’s Hall of Fame induction is threatened by domestic violence allegations.
An Alzheimer-stricken baseball announcer (Ed Asner) finds his career in jeopardy.
A tennis star wants to get pregnant. Which is good news when it comes to selling naming rights.
James Coburn gives his final performance as a cantankerous baseball legend and latest thorn in Arliss’ side.
Is a politically active tennis player secretly backing terrorists?
Dating a bodybuilder comes with its risks.
HBO: Looking back at the show 22 years later, what’s jumps out at you most?
Robert Wuhl: All the athletes. I mean, it’s a time capsule. It’s a look at a generation.
HBO: The cameos are pretty insane: Tonya Harding, Johnnie Cochran, and even a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant in “What About the Fans?” Did you know he spoke Italian?
Robert Wuhl: I knew Kobe grew up in Italy, so I figured he probably spoke Italian. So I said great, let’s use that. What I remember is, while we’re about to shoot, I noticed a woman standing off to the side, a middle-aged woman. I go, “Who’s that?” They say, “A social worker. Because Kobe is underage.” He had just signed a $44 million contract so I found that kind of funny.
HBO: Speaking of rising stars, Sandra Oh had her first major role as Arliss’s assistant, Rita. How did you cast her?
Robert Wuhl: She’s a perfect actress. She auditioned for the show and I liked her. It was down to her and another actress. The other actress went on to great fame, and a terrific career herself. But with Sandra I didn’t know what I was going to get. And that appealed to me.
HBO: What topics in the sports would you explore today?
Robert Wuhl: Of course, the political aspects of athletes. We did an episode (“What You See Is What You Get”) about an activist athlete who was secretly backing a terrorist organization. I liked that a lot. Well, the kneeling would be a big subject to take on.
HBO: How would the show handle a heated topic like that?
Robert Wuhl: Usually we would find a story and change the sport. We didn’t want to make it on-the-nose. If you knew the story, you knew what we were doing. It worked on a couple different levels.
HBO: What was an episode you’re particularly proud of?
Robert Wuhl: A lesbian tennis star wants Arliss to be the sperm donor for her baby (“Setting Precedents”). But Arliss also figures out a way to sell the naming rights to the baby to a tobacco company. He figures they can’t advertise on TV, so this is a great. So he winds up selling the naming rights to a tennis star’s baby. To a tobacco company.
HBO: Given that sort of behavior, one might wonder if Arliss is a good guy or a bad guy.
Robert Wuhl: All the characters — everybody — is duplicitous. Everybody has to have a motive. Everybody has to have a reason. And most of the time they’re selfish. Arliss was basically a guy working for the best possible result for his clients. He was a guy running a business, but his business had a very unique clientele. Also, they were very young, and they had a very short career expectancy.
HBO: Sounds a bit like Game of Thrones.
Robert Wuhl: Arliss would want to rep some of those big guys.
Eternally optimistic and endlessly resourceful, Arliss Michaels is a high-powered Los Angeles sports agent whose Achilles’ heel is his inability to say “no” to clients and employees.