[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Who Killed Santa? A Murderville Murder Mystery. Do not read until after watching!]
“We wanted the whole thing to feel like a surprise party, where just one thing after another happens,” showrunner Krister Johnson says about the newly released Who Killed Santa? A Murderville Murder Mystery, a special episode of the Netflix improv comedy series where the chaos of Season 1, released last February, gets amplified to a whole new level.
In the special, hard-nosed and mustachioed Detective Terry Seattle (Will Arnett) is joined by not one, not two, but three clueless celebrities as he attempts to solve a murder; there are additional guest stars sprinkled throughout the double-length episode, along with plenty of other surprises.
“The show was really well received when it came out, and I feel like people appreciated it for the same reasons that I did,” Johnson says. “Obviously funny stuff happens, but the world has a very kind of unpredictable kind of chaotic feeling to it, where ideally you feel like you’re on a train that is barely staying on the tracks and occasionally hops right off. Which I enjoy. I like it feeling like you really aren’t sure what’s going to happen. And I think it’s one of the reasons I’m so, so pleased with how the special came out, because it was more than anything we did in Season 1.”
The idea for the special, Johnson tells Consequence, came about earlier this year. “We’re still trying to figure out if we’re doing a second season, but Netflix wanted to do more,” he says. “And so the idea was suggested to us, by them, to maybe do a special. I think we started talking about it at the beginning of the summer and we quickly focused on a Christmas special, just because it felt right for the show.”
Once Johnson and Arnett came up with “sort of the general idea, we pitched that to Netflix and, and they said, yeah, that’s great. And from that point on, it was kind of stomping on the gas pedal because by that point it was mid-summer.” Shooting the special happened at a breakneck pace, Johnson says, because after getting the greenlight in late June 2022, they immediately had to leap into writing, production, and casting — then, after the two-and-a-half day shoot in September, it became a scramble to finish up a cut by early November.
“The timeline was very compressed in order to get it ready for the holidays, and so it was a blur,” Johnson says. “Luckily, I did have a good sense of sort of story-wise how I imagined the special going. And also conceptually, we were all in agreement that wanted to up the stakes a little as far as the chaos, and that it would be fun to have more than one celebrity guest being thrown into the case.”
Enter Jason Bateman, whose connection to Arnett goes back to Arrested Development, as the first “trainee” brought into the investigation. “Jason had been someone that we almost had on Season 1, I think, and then schedules didn’t align basically. But obviously he and Will are really good friends and they have a great rapport, and so it always felt like a good fit to to have them paired up together.”
The second guest, Maya Rudolph, enters about halfway through the episode, to both her and Bateman’s surprise. “Maya had been on our list of, ‘Oh my God, could we possibly get her?’ from the start of the show. She’s just incredible. She’s naturally funny and a wonderful improviser. Both of them bring, I think, the best approach to the show, which is, ‘I’m going to jump into the whole thing.’ When it comes to stepping up and just going for it in whatever ridiculous situation they’re in, they don’t hesitate.”
Part of that, Johnson says, was the fact that not only did they have no idea what was going to happen, but that they didn’t know other celebrities would be showing up. “It was always a surprise to them when someone walked on set, which was very important to us. We had all these protocols to keep them sequestered in their trailers, which I’m sure annoyed them on the day, but hopefully they appreciate what it brought to the show.”
The choice to spotlight just comedians in the special wasn’t a deliberate one, Johnson says. “We have a bunch of different lists — obviously actors and comedians make up the majority of it, but we have a list with athletes, and with musicians and I would love to have the backgrounds be more diverse if we have a chance to do more. We were honestly going for ‘Who are people going to want to see in this sort of more event thing?’ And so we really wanted names that people would go, ‘Oh, I want to see that. I definitely want to see that.’ But again, a lot of it is, you know, are we lucky enough to get this person on this particular Wednesday in September? Because they’re all very busy.”
After deciding to escalate things with multiple guest stars, Johnson says that the order in which they were introduced came about organically. “As we started to lock it in and knew we had Jason, that gelled, for us, some of the stuff we wanted to do with him. And mostly, I just feel like having Maya Rudolph unexpectedly walk onto the set in the middle of a murder case was a fun way to go. I love Jason’s reaction because he truly had no idea and he was so excited. I don’t think they’d ever met before, so you even get this moment where they’re sort of like, ‘Hey, oh wow. Big fan.'”
According to their filmographies, Bateman and Rudolph have only crossed paths a few times over the years on screen, most notably in an episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Bateman. “There’s a fun little moment that didn’t make the cut where Maya, in that introductory scene, tells Jason that she loved him on Silver Spoons and he thanks her for that,” Johnson says. “But then Will is fully in his Terry character, so he’s not understanding what the cultural reference is, and then they’re commenting on the fact that he’s in a different universe. But it was really fun.”
Johnson and the writers do tailor the comedy bits to the individuals involved — as one example, the Christmas special features a sequence in which a character happens to be nude. “If we had ended up with a woman or someone who we felt might have been uncomfortable, we never would’ve done a scene where a sportscaster basically strips down naked in front of them, obviously,” Johnson says. “I think we were going on Will’s knowledge of Jason and what he could roll with.”
Johnson does admit that “as far as the actual gameplay of the mystery, none of it was really fair to Maya. You know, she shows up not knowing anything about the case, let alone being there for the murder, like Jason was. She doesn’t even know who the first suspect is, let alone get to interview him. But we felt like for the purposes of entertainment and fun it was just the best way to go. And she fully enjoyed that.”
One of the special’s first big surprises is a cameo from Season 1 guest star Marshawn Lynch, whose return seems to have come about pretty naturally. “He had so much fun on the show and he and Will are now involved in various projects together — they’ve been like commentating on the World Cup [for Art19],” Johnson says. “And we heard that Marshawn had heard that we were doing this and it was like, ‘Hey, he’d love to be involved if there’s any way he can do it.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, sure, but it’s not gonna be a big thing,’ but he was like, ‘I don’t care.’ And he jumped on a plane and just showed up.'”
Perhaps the funniest moment of Lynch’s cameo is when he recognizes Bateman as “the Ozark guy,” which Johnson says “was a hundred percent him. And you never quite know with Marshawn, but I’m pretty sure that was a sincere reaction, that he had not recognized who this person was until two-thirds of the way through his time in the scene.”
It echoed another story from shooting Season 1: “Rob Huebel played all three suspects in Marshawn’s episode, as triplets, and Marshawn went up to him on the second day of shooting and basically said, ‘Hey man, it’s really an honor. I loved you in The Naked Gun,'” Johnson laughed. “And it became clear that he thought he’d been working with Leslie Nielsen for a day and a half, who’s been dead over 10 years.”
Adds Johnson, “Marshawn kinda lives in his own universe, and so I’m pretty sure that his reaction to Jason was entirely honest. He has a natural ability to entertain whenever he opens his mouth. Like, he’s just naturally funny, and he also just has incredible improv instincts. He’s completely in the moment with whatever’s happening.”
Lynch’s appearance is a good deal shorter than that of Pete Davidson, who arrives towards the end of the episode as an additional trainee to escalate the chaos even higher. “He’s a big fan of Will’s and so he was excited to be involved,” Johnson says. “He just didn’t know exactly what his involvement was. I think he was in town for the Emmys, and we happened to shoot the week right after the Emmys, which helped us to some degree with people who might be around. I knew he would be perfect for the cameo — but then you just hope that it actually works out.”
Also, Johnson says, “He was just perfect for it because he truly had no idea whatsoever what was happening — and he’s very good at that persona of ‘I don’t know what’s up.'”
Episodes of Season 1 were shot entirely in two days, but the Christmas special, despite being twice as long as those episodes, was shot… in almost that same amount of time. “I think it was 52 pages of script in basically a little over two days,” Johnson says. “The one advantage of the way this show is done is we often don’t do more than one take unless we need it to get some extra shots, or there’s a piece of the story that wasn’t communicated correctly to the guest. The actual shooting part of it goes pretty quickly.”
In fact, as Johnson points out, “From when Pete walks into the party room until Terry leaves to go save the day at the orphanage was all one take. The cameras never stopped rolling. It was like a 30-minute take, and we only did it once.”
Experiencing the episode’s climax in real time, in which all three “trainees” pick incorrect suspects as the murderer, was a special moment from the filming. “It was funny, I felt myself experiencing it simultaneously in two different ways,” Johnson says. “When Jason decides it was suicide and that yes, Sean Hayes’s character had killed himself, you can hear all the Netflix execs at Video Village laughing on the take. You can put in crowd noise and murmuring to kind of even out the feeling in a room, but in the edit, I said specifically, pull it all away. There’s just something so funny about that moment and how it’s sort of knocked down the scenery of this goofy world we’re creating — and you can hear all of us 40 feet away, just cackling and groaning.”
On the other hand, he adds, “The other side of me, I think, had my head in my hands. It reminded me of in The Godfather, after Sonny Corleone gets shot up at the toll booth and Don Corleone goes to see his body and he says, ‘Look what they’ve done to my boy.’ That’s kind of how I feel — we work so hard to give them the clues and the red herrings and it was all there, and those guys just said, we’re having fun. But that’s what I think makes it great. Honestly, I was so thrilled with it.”
The future of Murderville is still unclear, as Johnson says. “We don’t know if we have a Season 2 yet. It’s one of those things where everyone hopes we can find a way to make it work. We’ll see what happens. I hope that people will really enjoy [the Christmas special] on its own, and hopefully it’ll also introduce people who didn’t know about Season 1 to go and find it.”
While waiting on news about Season 2, Johnson is working on other projects he can’t discuss, but are quite different from Murderville in concept. “It’s an incredible thing to be involved with and I’m incredibly grateful,” he says. “But it is nerve-wracking. It’s like that dream that people have, ‘I am about to go on stage and I never learned my lines.’ Obviously that’s what happens for the guests, but that’s kind of what it feels like for everyone because it comes together fast and it’s shot fast and we’re all hurtling towards it.
“It’s not a show that’s supposed to be super polished. It should feel ideally like you went to go see some live comedy. But it takes a lot outta me. I’m kind of a perfectionist by nature, and this is a show where it’s impossible to be perfect. You have to kind of accept whatever it is that happened, and try and turn that into the best version of it can be.”
Who Killed Santa? A Murderville Murder Mystery is streaming now on Netflix.