[19 April 2009]
Some teachers—caring and engaged—inspire their students. Other teachers—burned out, broken down, and self-involved—inspired Sit Down, Shut Up.
The series focuses on an out-of-touch faculty at a Florida high school. Science teacher Miracle Grohe (Kristin Chenoweth) believes in a mish-mash of creationism and spiritual hokum. Poor Willard Deutschebog (Henry Winkler) has a catchphrase: “If I believed in reincarnation, I’d kill myself tonight.” PE instructor Larry Littlejunk (Jason Bateman) wishes he was anything but, and English teacher Ennis Hofftard (Will Arnett) would be better off teaching PE. The cast is rounded out with a similarly maladjusted bunch of administrators and support staff. The students barely make it into the background.
Like Kath & Kim, Sit Down, Shut Up is based on an Australian series. And like that series, it features protagonists too self-absorbed and clueless to be believable as real people. And so co-creator Mitch Hurwitz—perhaps best known as executive producer for Arrested Development—came up with a solution: He animated them. This allows Hurwitz and company—including co-executive-producers Eric and Kim Tannenbaum (Two and a Half Men) and Josh Weinstein (The Simpsons)—to bring the series more in line with the rest of Fox’s celebrated animated series, taking aim at cultural norms and disappointments. At the same time, it avoids the ugly edge of Seth McFarlane’s frat-boy cartoons. Instead, it uses its innovative visual style, a mix of animated characters and live-action photographic backgrounds, to create a sense of detail and groundedness. It’s a neat trick.
Hurwitz says one of his inspirations is Mo Willem’s excellent children’s book Knuffle Bunny, which also blends illustrations with photos. In fact, the producers were so enamored Willems’ work they asked him to draw their characters. Rather than the bulging, blow-up-doll characters of Family Guy and American Dad, Willems’ designs are charming and playful, and sometimes clever jokes in and of themselves (such as the counter-to-her-personality smiley-face pin worn by Principal Sue Sezno, voiced by Kenan Thompson).
What goes on inside this cool visual world is as broad as the other adult-oriented cartoons on Fox or Adult Swim. Some jokes border on perverse, many are downright juvenile, including the double entendres in the character’s names. (Actually, forget double entendres: there’s only one way to interpret the name “Larry Littlejunk.”) The first two episodes feature gags about porno mags, man-boobs, chesticles, and a new horror invented for the show called the “pejina.” (It’s best not to think about it.) The characters are boorish and egomaniacal. The comedy is crude.
Yet the talented cast members are usually able to sell jokes that might have been weak on the page. One of the premiere episode’s meta elements has each character introduced by name and catchphrase. Assistant Principal Stuart Proszakian (Will Forte) likes to say, “I need a catchphrase.” This should be dumb, but Forte instills the line with such silly, upbeat obliviousness that it’s funny not just once, but repeatedly. Similarly, Thompson plays a female character without resorting to an obvious falsetto. The slight modulation of his clearly male voice is witty unto itself. Each actor finds humor in a different way—Winkler’s voice is more defeated than goofy, while Chenoweth sounds as flighty as ever.
For the new series, Hurwtiz has tapped three Arrested Development alumni (Bateman, Arnett, and Winkler). But while the blueprint looks the same—self-interested characters go about their daily dramas while Bateman plays the straight man who thinks he’s above it all—the shows operate on very different levels. The first offered sophisticated wordplay and superb timing. Sit Down, Shut Up makes jokes about nut-sacks (of the legume variety). Still, it does one thing very right, and very like the beloved Arrested Development, with talented comedians delivering gags at an exhilarating, rapid-fire pace.