For ‘SmartLess’ stars Bateman, Hayes and Arnett, insults are a ‘love language’

Max series goes backstage as the three funny friends take their hit podcast on the road.

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Jason Bateman (from left), Sean Hayes and Will Arnett share a laugh in a scene from the docuseries “SmartLess: On the Road.”

Max

When Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes get together, they can instantly tell if something’s wrong: If insults don’t immediately fly, there’s a problem.

“I think it is our love language,” says Arnett, the “Arrested Development” star and voice of Batman in the “Lego Movie” franchise. “I’m kind of joking, but there’s a little truth to that. If we’re not making fun of you, we don’t love you.”

Fans of the trio’s banter will get much more this week after a documentary film team captured them on tour taking their popular podcast “SmartLess” to stages in Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and more.

The six-part docuseries “SmartLess: On the Road” offers a very intimate look at the three friends as they travel, hang out and prepare for the live shows. It premieres Tuesday on Max, which will become the new name of HBO Max.

“It was really just about living with one another,” says Bateman, star of “Arrested Development” and “Ozark.” “And it’s a fairly cringey assumption for us to make that it would make for entertainment.”

While their guests include Conan O’Brien, Will Ferrell, Matt Damon, Jimmy Kimmel, Kevin Hart, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and David Letterman, the bulk of the series is a look at how Arnett, Bateman and Hayes manage to dunk on each other and yet maintain a sibling love.

“The three of us are incredibly close. I would dare say we are best friends. And with that comes a deep knowledge of where the rails are. I think we all know if we ever really wanted to hurt each other, we know where to go. But that’s not really in our makeup,” says Bateman.

Cameras capture the trio exercising together, visiting the Lincoln Memorial, exploring the connection between pooping and showering, whipping apple cores at each other and talking with their guests. Before they go onstage, they pop Tylenol, Gas-X and candy.

Directed by Sam Jones, the series is presented in black and white, with a upbeat piano soundtrack. The original idea was to have the live shows in color and the behind-the-scenes footage in black and white, but that was too jarring. The final result is, as Hayes puts it: “Classy for the classless clowns in it.”

In the hotel gym in Boston, as Bateman steadily runs on a treadmill, Arnett uses his husky voice to offer narration: “No one knows his secret, that underneath the artificial flesh and bone, he is machine. Nothing but machine.” Later, Bateman jokes on Arnett’s use of the sauna: “I’d like to sweat, but I don’t want to exert to cause it. Let me just sit in a hot room.”

On the podcast “SmartLess,” which premiered in July 2020, one of the hosts reveals the mystery guest to the other two and the guys kept that same format on tour. The podcast consistently ranks in the Top 5 Comedy Shows and Top 10 on overall shows on iTunes.

The episodes show the trio wondering how much they should acknowledge the audience or what they need to do to make it visually exciting. A rocky second show in Boston with a physicist as the guest teaches them that fans really want A-list celebs.

“I love the figuring it out in real time. I love the thrill of that, the fear of that,” says Hayes, the Chicago native and “Will & Grace” star who just earned his second Tony Award nomination. “Each one of us all had a strong opinion at some point, and we’re all adult enough to listen to that. That was fun for me.”

Final approval on their podcast goes to the special guest, but with the documentary, they reserved the right for final cut. They said that made it more liberating since they didn’t have to pre-censor anything they did.

“We knew that everything was safe to say because ultimately we’d be able to see it assembled,” says Bateman. “So we were able to just be really free and see what would float to the top.”

Getting used to the cameras — even though they’re all show business veterans — took some time. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to accept them in the room, and I did. They kind of just went away,” says Hayes.

Fans will get very intimate with the men, including learning that Bateman wears a size 12 shoe and that they have a habit of making reservations under the false name, Mr. D Umguy. But a conversation on the way to Chicago is quite revealing as they explore the roots of their insecurities and upbringings.

Frequently, the friends spend time on food — ordering room service, talking about meals, worried about bloating and ripping on each others’ orders. After making one extensive room service order, Bateman asks the kitchen: “You don’t have any chest paddles down there, do you?”

“The jabbing is the love,” says Hayes. “Till the day I die, I’ll consider Jason and Will my brothers. And if there’s even a word that means closer than that, that’s what I feel they are.”

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