George Clooney says he first read Catch-22 in high school, joking it was required reading back then when he was young “15 years ago.” His initial response when asked about making Hulu’s six-episode series? “No,” he said, surprising TV critics at TCA on Monday.

“It seemed ridiculous. I didn’t want to get into the middle of all that.”

After reading the first three scripts, however, he asked where to sign up. Now it’s a high-profile limited series from Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov, Paramount Television and Anonymous Content, and slated for a spring premiere.

Asked to compare and contrast Hulu’s project to the Mike Nichols’ 1970 movie, Clooney said he and Nichols were “good friends,” acknowledged “we stole a couple things from him along the way,” but noted that the time constraints of a movie do not allow for getting to know the characters as they are rolled out in the novel.

The inevitable film-versus-TV questions Clooney shot down, saying simply, “I don’t care about the medium, I care about the quality of work, and television is doing some amazing things. We have an eight-part piece on Watergate we’re doing now,” he said, adding he and producing partner Grant Heslov “just want to work.”

Executive/co-writer Luke Davies described Catch-22 as “a beautiful and hilarious novel about the relationship between war and insanity and capitalism and bureaucracy.”

In other words, extremely timely.

“We all wake up every morning these days in shared global anxiety condition and this novel is a great distillation of that,” he said.

He too copped to having loved the book since he was a teen. “I love the film, don’t get me wrong. But the film re-creates the kaleidoscope chaos of the novel,” whereas the series unfolds the characters’ journeys.

The biggest challenge of pulling it off, Clooney said, is getting your audience to like and trust lead character Yossarian, “who does some pretty despicable things along the way.”

“It came down to casting,” Clooney said, joking, “We put out a lot of offers and [Christopher Abbott] was much cheaper…and kind of likeable.”

Clooney’s character, Scheisskopf, is “aggressively crazy” one TV critic marveled, likening it to John Cleese in Monty Python.

Clooney let it slide, responding, “You have to take a swing and hope you hit the ball. Three is no way you can do this half-assed.

“If you read the script… you can’t subtly yell at people…and can’t subtly kill these people,” he said.

Catch-22
Philipe Antonello / Hulu

Asked if he was concerned people will react negatively to the depiction of the military, Clooney explained the book was Joseph Heller’s response to the Korean War, set in World War II, and taken up by “the Vietnam generation” embracing it as an “anti-war book.”

Every time he puts on a military costume for a role, Clooney assured, he feels a sense of responsibility.

“As an actor in general, with the exception of the Batsuit, any time you put on a costume it helps you get into character,” he joked self-effacingly, further endearing himself to the already smitten TV critics — one of whom asked a colleague after the scrum that followed the Q&A “What did he smell like?”

Heller’s novel follows World War II U.S. Air Force bombardier Yossarian, who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. But his real problem is the Air Force which keeps increasing the number of missions men must fly to complete their service.

If Yossarian makes any attempt to avoid his military assignments, he’ll be in violation of Catch-22, a bureaucratic rule which specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of real and immediate danger is the thought process of a rational mind, making him ineligible to be relieved from duty, because he would only be considered insane if he willingly continues to fly the dangerous combat missions.

The screenplay adaptation is written by Davies and David Michôd.