“You’re the selfish one,” Lucille Bluth says to her son Michael after learning he’s been charging his brother Gob for a Bluth Frozen Banana. “I mean it’s one banana, Michael, what could it cost, 10 dollars?”
This beloved line from “Charity Drive,” the fifth episode of Arrested Development’s first season, has long been used to mock the wealthy for living on another planet. But it’s experiencing a particular renaissance at the moment, in the form of memes blasting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for believing Americans can survive on $600 or $1,200 a month, aptly deriding how out-of-touch she and Congress are to the cost of basic goods. (It doesn’t hurt either that the two women look very much alike.)
Ever since the Emmy-winning sitcom first aired on Fox in 2003 — and especially after its cancellation in 2006 — Arrested Development fans have been obsessed with how prescient the show was. For example, in “Borderline Personalities,” the second episode of Season Four (from the Netflix era), George Sr. builds a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border — a couple years before Trump decided to run for office. “Trump was able to shoehorn his way into our narrative,” Will Arnett explained in 2018. “It’s like a f—ing gift from the heavens.” Co-star David Cross agreed, adding, “The Bluths are horrible, awful people, so make the connection as you will.”
From the beginning, though, the show most accurately illustrated the maladaptive life paths of people who grow up in wealthy families, explains sociologist and economic justice activist Betsy Leondar-Wright. “I’d argue that the Arrested Development characters’ quirks, while obviously exaggerated, fall much closer to the actual pitfalls of owning-class life than those of Paris Hilton or the Kardashians.”
To wit: George Sr. has the elitist delusion that rules don’t apply to him and therefore generates cash however he sees fit; Buster Bluth is a permanent child, flitting from one course of study to the next while remaining his mother’s closest companion; and Gob lives in constant need for validation of his personal worth, wondering if he’ll ever measure up.
As for the $10 banana line, it aired well in advance of the economic uncertainty to follow, and was a brilliant foreshadowing of what would later become a central theme in American life — inequality. “Rich people being out-of-touch was central to Arrested Development from the start,” says co-executive producer John Levenstein, who tells me many of the show’s early story lines stemmed from the corporate wrongdoing of the early aughts. For example, Tyco International’s 2002 scandal, in which former CEO Dennis Kozlowski was later convicted of stealing $150 million from the company and spending $2 million on a week-long birthday party for his wife (aka “The Tyco Roman Orgy”), directly inspired Arrested Development’s pilot, where the Bluth Company pension fund is being used as a personal piggy bank.
The line is motivated by Michael not letting Gob have a free Bluth Frozen Banana in a feeble attempt to rein in wasteful spending, an idea Levenstein came into the writers’ room with because it helped him think of self-absorbed Gob being deeply wounded and able to lament, “My own brother, a Bluth banana!”
Mitchell Hurwitz, Arrested Development’s creator and executive producer, was particularly tuned into the sadistic side of Michael, Levenstein says, and tweaked the scene to have George Michael, Michael’s son and the Bluth actually manning the banana stand at the time, throw the banana he’s just prepared into the trash.
GOB: Gimme a “Gob.”
GEORGE MICHAEL: Gob!!!
GOB: I didn’t mean to say my name. I meant a double-dip banana with everything on it.
GEORGE MICHAEL: Here you go, Uncle Gob. I had to use an extra stick to support all of the chocolate and nuts!
MICHAEL: Whoa, whoa, whoa — two sticks and extra chocolate?!?! Is it Mardi Gras? What are you charging for that?
GEORGE MICHAEL: He doesn’t like to discuss—
GOB: I don’t like to discuss money.
MICHAEL: What does that mean, you don’t pay for it?
GOB: A Bluth banana?! No, I hadn’t planned on it…
Each of the Bluths had distinct character qualities, Levenstein explains: Gob’s bitterness, George Michael’s innocence, Michael’s self-righteousness, etc. But there were also things that they all had in common, too (e.g., the chicken dance). “They’re all irresponsible with money and out-of-touch about what it means to work. We gave the $10 banana joke to Lucille because it made the most sense for her. But I could hear any of them saying it. Like a group scene where they all know Lucille is wrong about the cost of a banana and start guessing equally clueless prices in different directions.”
“Lucille had the air of, This is how the world works, and Jessica Walter’s delivery was so incredible, so dependable,” adds supervising producer Barbie Adler, who wrote “Charity Drive.” Lindsay had that as well, Adler says, but it typically catered to her personal needs.
The origins of the joke, Adler recalls, involves a story that had been going around TV writers’ rooms for years about a rich TV executive producer thinking a loaf of bread cost 20 bucks. “We distilled that attitude into a tiny moment featuring completely unaware characters. As for the joke itself, I think it was Jimmy’s.”
“Man, I hope it was,” co-executive producer Jim Vallely says. “Not only does Lucille not know what a banana costs, her family is in the banana-selling business!!! They’re careless, like the Great Gatsby. It could’ve just as easily been Trump saying something like this. It reminds me of when George Bush Sr. was so amazed at scanners in the supermarket.”
Or when Rudy Giuliani, during the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, estimated the cost of a gallon of milk to be $1.50 and a loaf of bread to be $1.25. (At the time, a supermarket on Manhattan’s Upper East Side showed a gallon of milk priced at $4.19 and a loaf of white bread at $3.39.) Or when, on the The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2018, Bill Gates thought a box of Rice-a-Roni cost $5 (it was $1), and a tub of Tide Pods cost $4 (in reality, they’re $19.97).
“When I first started working on Golden Girls in 1988,” Vallely continues, “the executives were so wealthy. Coming from a middle-class world, I’d never met people like this. Mitch [Hurwitz, who also wrote for Golden Girls] and I would joke about how out-of-touch they were about what real things cost. One of them came in on a Monday morning, amazed at how cheap the Home Depot was. He said, ‘I saw the price of everything, and thought, I’m fucking rich! I could’ve bought the whole store!!!’”
The executive was also working on another show, Empty Nest, in which one of the characters was in $5,000 of credit card debt. “The exec said, ‘Is that gonna be enough? Will anybody even care about $5,000 of credit card debt?’” Vallely remembers. “So it’s always been a recurrent theme. In Arrested, we just took it up to the next level.”
The stimulus check memes employing the $10 banana joke spawned from us spending much of the last year watching the uber rich take advantage of the pandemic, be it the Kardashians renting out a private island to host a birthday party or America’s billionaires growing their net worth by a collective $931 billion.
A good data point for how out-of-touch the ruling class has become is the defined poverty line, says sociologist Lisa A. Keister, author of Wealth in America: Trends in Wealth Inequality. “For a household under age 65 with two people, we assume they can live on $17,000 a year,” she says. “If they have kids, it goes up to around $20,000, or around 1,600 bucks a month. I think about that when I order something from Amazon on a whim. You can’t do that if you’re living on $1,600 a month, because what happens if you have a doctor bill?”
“Inequality is killing us,” argues Sam Pizzigati, an associate at the Institute for Policy Studies, who says not knowing how much a banana costs cuts to deeper issues in our democracy. When the pandemic hit, for instance, he notes that many wealthy New Yorkers fled to the Hamptons to weather the storm in summer homes, clearing out supermarkets and pharmacies to hoard supplies. Meanwhile, service workers and working-class residents of the Hamptons went without.
“The basic idea of democracy is that everybody gets together and discusses common problems and comes to solutions to those common problems,” Pizzigati says. “But when we have a deeply unequal country like we do today, people don’t share common facts, including the cost of basic fruit. The rich have their set of problems and challenges, like how to find a boat slip for their yachts in South Florida. And average people have their own problems, which are often a matter of life and death.”
“Again,” he reiterates, “inequality is killing us.”
So whether it’s giving her adopted Korean child $20 to “go see a Star War,” warning her maid to not to get anything on her coat because it “costs more than your house!” or pricing a banana at 10 bucks, Lucille’s blind spots are still a perfect encapsulation of the ever-growing chasm between the One Percent and the rest of us — or at least those of us for whom there isn’t always money in the banana stand.