EXCLUSIVE: Henry Winkler Talks Sit Down, Shut Up

Editor’s Note: We covered the upcoming Fox animated series Sit Down, Shut Up in our most recent issue (on sale now!), but had so much good stuff left over we’ve decided to run the extended interviews here on the site leading up to the debut of the show on April 19.

The highly talented Henry Winkler, whose recent credits include everything from Clifford’s Puppy Days to Numb3rs, steps out of the recording booth to tell us about FOX’s new comedy toon Sit Down, Shut Up and the neurotic German teacher he plays.

How did you get involved in the project?

I did a wonderful show called Arrested Development, and Mitch [Hurwitz] is one of the three geniuses that I’ve worked with in my career. But I use that word advisedly, this guy is out there in an orbit all his own. I mean, just when he comes and gives notes, you say something to him and it doesn’t matter what it is, the space between your question and his unbelievably funny answer is negligable. The speed with which his mind works is shocking. What I did was I went in for one episode on Arrested Development and I stayed for two and a half years. And now I sign DVD covers all over the world’I mean, it’s just like this cult.

So, then he did an animated show, and I went in and auditioned. And I sat in those metal chairs in that green room like everyone else. And I went in and I read for Willard Deutschebog. Believe me whatever you’re thinking [the name] might be, it is. Let me just say that this particular animation domination dominates the edge. When it comes to standing on the precipice of comedy, this animated show stands by itself.

How do you think SDSU compares to other ‘adult’ animated comedy series?

It’s similar only in that it has an adult feel to it. It certainly is not Saturday morning fare. It’s funny, it’s irreverent, it’s clever, it has wit, incredible performances. And in the beginning before everybody went off to do what they do, we all sat around a big table and Jason [Bateman] was there and Kenan Thompson, and Will Forte was there and Cheri Oteri, and Tom Kenny who does the voice of SpongeBob. Now, inside Tom Kenny I think he’s inhabited by at least 1,000 voices, because every time there is a guest cast and they don’t show up, Tom plays them all. It’s shocking. And Will Arnett was there I think once, and then he had to be in New York because his wife was having a baby, so he came through a speaker in the middle of the table. The table is surrounded by all of the writers and the executives from FOX and the executives from Sony. No pressure. But what happens is that it’s a wonderful audience because it is truly so funny that if we did our jobs correctly that group of people in that room would laugh.

Did you get to see any character art before developing the voice?

Before we even started I saw’and I took a picture of it’I saw Willard. You know, Willard has to take medicine. He has to take a pill to keep his intestines on the inside. He takes a pill so that his toenails do not fuse into a hoof. So he’s really the poster child for pharmaceuticals. I’m telling you, he’s just’he’s a lonely man. He’s a lonely man who’d rather have a good piece of meat, as opposed to a very voluptuous woman. Food is very important to this guy.

He’s got to protect his stomach lining from all those pills.

That is so true. You know what, I’m stealing that line. I am.

How do you get these aspects to come through in your performance?

He’s a sad little man. I am a visceral actor, so I start with my stomach, and I find myself actually getting smaller in the chair around the table. One time the producers asked if I was there in the room because I had shrunk so into the mesh of the chair.

Do you find yourself using on-camera techniques while doing voice work?

I think I have to. But you have to be filled with the ability to just step out and fly, because you have no idea what it’s going to look like. I always sit next to Cheri Oteri and when she gets going, you cannot keep a straight face. And Will Arnett. And then what happens is that sometimes when you do a take, when now we’re recording it, we’ve now left the room around the table where we had a sandwich and a salad and maybe some pasta while we’re reading, and now we’re in the room with the microphones and three or four of us are there at a time. And Mitch or Josh [Weinstein] are there to direct the recording’and they have like perfect pitch like Toscanini had or like Zubin Mehta has with a symphony, these guys have with comedy. This is not even hyperbole. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to experience this because it’s unbelievable. Of course, you cannot forget [consulting producer] Jim Vallely, who is a very good writing partner friend of Mitch. He was on Arrested Development, also.

So is there a lot of ‘Do it again, but different’ in the studio?

It’s do it again, and then they tell you, they give you attitudes. They’re very specific in their direction, they’re very specific. And then Mitch gets out of his chair, walks around the microphones and goes over ‘ you see him thinking, I mean literally it is a physical process for him, and then he turns around and says, ‘Say it this way: You’ve got chow mein down your pants.’ OK, I have no idea how it got there, but I wanted a snack for later. It became a line!

Did you have any influences for Willard?

Well, he teaches German, a class no one ever goes to. And my parents were very, very, very short German Jews. My father and an Excedrin bottle were about the same height. Both characters like their beef. They allowed me to play Willard’s mother, and so I did. When I speak publicly around the country I imitate my mother. The way they wrote it, somehow they knew my mother. She sat in the backseat of my life and tried to drive my destiny. There was a character many, many years ago’the Lubeners on Saturday Night Live? And they had no spine? It’s truly a feat that Willard is able to stand. He does not have a stiff upper lip’let us just say that ‘ it is Jell-O.

Does Willard ever have his day in the sun?

There is an episode where he does taste what it’s like to be in control ‘ and I don’t think it works out very well for him.

How do the other teachers treat him?

They trample him like a runner that is on the back stairway of someone’s home. He admires Will Arnett’s character, Ennis, but Ennis ‘ I don’t know, thinks of him as a coffee table? Something to rest your bag on? I think secretly he loves Miracle [played by Kristin Chenoweth]. And if he didn’t think that Cheri Oteri’s character would beat him to a pulp, he would probably have his eye on her, too.

But instead he just goes home and has a steak?

Or bologna. He loves bologna. Sometimes without the bread. But you have to understand something: While he’s bologna-ing it up, he’s as happy as a clam. There is a great line that tells you everything you need to know about Willard and his food preparation: ‘You see outdated cough syrup, I see dessert.’

Where they come up with this, I don’t know, but I’m just so happy that I get to be part of this team.

What are some other characters you’ve enjoyed playing?

Let’s see, I did Handy Manny‘I’m going to rerecord that. I played the bird in Clifford’s Puppy Days‘kids come up to me, and they know the bird, and I won an Emmy for that and that made me so happy. Many, many children know me from the books that I write with my partner, Lynn Oliver. We’re writing the sixteenth novel of our children’s books now. Today! When I hang up! We’re right in the process. They’re called Hank Zipzer, The World’s Greatest Underacheiver, and they’re on the New York Times best seller list, and they’re the story of my life as a dyslexic in the fifth grade.

So, is Willard your favorite character on the show?

This is between you and me, and you cannot tell anyone else, but he is the sex symbol. Everybody else thinks they are so cool, and they think that they are so on top of it’but Willard comes in under the radar. I’m not kidding. I’m sure’it hasn’t happened yet’but I know that they’re going to put Willard in a Speedo. And I want to just say, when that happens, watch out America. Because the stimulus plan will be crackerjacks next to what Willard will cause. I’m telling you, he churns.

This might be a lame question, but do you have a favorite cartoon?

Lame attack! Yes, I watch cartoons. You know, I was on The Simpsons, I was on King of the Hill. I was on South Park, but there I was only the sound of a spider eating through a bus roof, and that was weird. And I was mentioned on Family Guy: The Church of Fonz. I was very proud. When I was younger, I loved Mighty Mouse.

Speaking of Fonz, he had his own cartoon back in the day. What was that like?

That was my first forray into animation, Fonzie and the Happy Days Gang. And part of the gang was a dog. It was a good experience’you know, Helen Hunt’s dad, Gordon Hunt, directed them mostly. And it was fun, ’cause I really enjoyed playing that character in the first place. He and Willard would be very good friends. He would take care of Willard.

Is there any chance that the Fonz will guest star on the show?!

I don’t think so.

What do you hope SDSU will bring to the TV landscape?

This is what I’m really hoping: After everything is said and done, I hope we make people laugh. My dream is that a lot of people in this moment in time, when this country is going through an amazingly painful period, that we will make them laugh. And that they will enjoy the language because it’s very, very clever. The writing is really smart’and listen, I’m saying that and in some episodes, I have one line, so it’s not like I’m saying that because I’m promoting Willard’although his day will come’I'm just sitting around that table and listening to everybody else and those writers are fantastic.

Mitch is a gift. That just is it. That’s just the mantra. Oh! The mantra! Know what [Willard's] mantra is? ‘If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I would kill myself tonight.’

Do you ever find yourself thinking like Willard?

I try not to carry Willard with me, but I do have him on my cell phone. What I do is I have chats with him. I bring his image up on the phone and sometimes if there’s no one sitting next to me on the plane I just put the cell phone in that seat and I chat with him all the way home. Sometimes I show them Willard. I say he’s travelling with me. But no one has asked for his autograph yet, I think I’ll have to wait until he gets on the air.

How much of a role do the actual students play in SDSU?

Willard uses the student driver car. He does ask them to drive. He does use them as his chauffeurs. Students are in and out, but mostly it is trying to get the teachers on track as teachers. In the books that I write, my teacher was Ms. Adolf, and I think that she was related. In the fourth grade I raised my hand, I asked her to go to bathroom ‘ I’m still waiting for her to call on me. I did so much schooling. When I talk to children, I always tell them that school was very difficult. That’s what Hank Zipzer was all about, my trials and tribulations of trying to navigate school. It takes you a while [to recover]. Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Ah! I forgot my homework!’?

FOX premieres Sit Down, Shut Up as part of its Animation Domination block on Sunday, April 19 at 8:30 p.m. For more info check out our story in the April issue of Animation Magazine or www.fox.com/sitdownshutup.