Q&A with Will Arnett of 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.

Will Arnett, the macho-voiced comedic actor best known for his roles on TV’s Arrested Development and films like Blades of Glory, is no stranger to voice work (Horton Hears A Who!, Monsters vs. Aliens). This spring he brings his talents to FOX’s Sit Down, Shut Up to play a self-obsessed, body-building, lady-chasing English teacher named Ennis Hofftard.

Could you describe your character for us?

[Ennis] is like a super genius in disguise as a really dumb guy. I would say that he is a high school teacher who is less concerned with the welfare of his students and more concerned with the state of his own body, and how he’s progressing with the ladies. Ladies in general. Really, he doesn’t discriminate.

What makes SDSU stand out?

The show is really well written. For me, I can kind of show up and the scripts are always so super-tight and specific and I get very well directed by the guys ‘ as long as I connect the dots for them, it comes across, and I just try not to embarrass them with my performance.

How do you get into character for Ennis?

Any time you do anything, there are always pieces of you that are, as I like to say, right there on your desktop. You’re kind of one click away from certain traits ‘ by the way, I like to say that ‘ wait, when do I like to say that? What am I talking about? I guess there are parts of me that are less favorable in people’s eyes and sometimes these are the things that you reveal in characters that kind of need that. So when people go, ‘Hey man, that guy is a real jerk,’ you’re like, ‘Agh, I guess there’s part of me that’s a real jerk, maybe?’

Did you have any apathetic teachers growing up?

I don’t know if I had teachers that didn’t care, but I’ve had teachers that were ‘ that uh ‘ I should say I’ve had a lot of great teachers, but I have had teachers who maybe just looked at you as another body in front of them for that year. They’re just kind of going through the motions, but again it should be noted that I have had some great teachers. By great teachers I mean they were patient with my idiocy. Let’s not pull them into this mess.

Did the character design influence Ennis’ voice for you?

I got to see some sort of preliminary stuff of what they had in mind for the character physically, and that definitely helped a lot. And I wanted to kind of stress that I didn’t look like that, and they assured me that that’s not how they saw me. I talked about [the voice] with Mitch Hurwitz and he kind of lead me before we started ‘ once I read the pilot I kind of had an idea. He writes so specifically that I kind of had an idea of what he was going for, and then when we talked about it he informed me more of how he saw this guy and how he wanted to differentiate everybody ‘ we did some recording, we did a table read and then we did some recording for the pilot and just, you know, finessed it a little bit ‘ by ‘finesse’ I mean Mitch saying, ‘No that’s not right, do it like this.’ ‘How about that, but better?’

Did Mitch have you picked out for Ennis from the beginning?

I think that he did have me in mind for [Ennis], and I’m sure he had other people that he was thinking about as well, I may have become the default for that ‘ I don’t know who else passed on it, but I can tell you that in the first pilot that I read my character was in it, and then he rewrote it and Ennis was not in that draft, and he sent me that draft and said ‘Are there any voices in this that you think you’d like to do or that you have any ideas on?’ and I said, ‘Well, I really kind of miss that character Ennis, actually. I feel like I could get my brain around that.’

And he said, ‘You don’t have a brain,’ and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot.’ And of course I forgot, because I don’t have any brain.

But then he re-included Ennis in the story, and so that’s how that kind of came about. He did me a solid.

How does working on SDSU differ from some of the other work you’ve done?

Honestly, each experience [in voice acting] has been different from the next. Freakshow was different in that we generally recorded all those shows together as a cast at the same time, so we did a lot of the scenes with eight people in the booth, which I’d never done before. It was really fun and I thought it was a really funny, original show, and David Cross and Jon Benjamin did such an awesome job on that. And I would’ve liked to have done more of those.

And then Horton was a different experience ‘ it was a story that I am very familiar with and a lot of people are very familiar with of course because of the book being around for a long time. But then when we got in there and started to get into it, these guys brought such an ‘ this is going to sound so dumb, and this is one of these things that if I read it I’d be like, ‘Oh God, this guy sounds like such a blowhard,’ but it was a very fresh take on the old story and I was very proud to be part of it when I saw the final result, and working on it was a real pleasure. Jimmy Hayward, who directed it, encouraged me to improvise and really take the character wherever I wanted, and that was fun and it was a cool experience.

On Monster vs. Aliens, that was a totally different experience, and working with Rob Letterman and everybody over at DreamWorks ‘ It was a totally original, interesting story and it’s such a ground breaking movie because of the 3-D of it all ‘ it’s just a big movie, and it was a really fun, fun experience.

So, each one has been ‘ I don’t know if that’s a good answer, it sounds like me just talking, looking like an a-hole.

What was it like working with Mitch Hurwitz in a different genre?

The great thing about working with Mitch is that often times when you’re improvising you think like ‘This is going to be the funniest take, this is the funnier way to go with this joke,’ or whatever, and almost 10 times out of 10 I would defer to Mitch on what’s a funnier take on something. He’s such a brilliant guy and he’ll be very honest with you ‘ you might do something that you think is funny or that gets an immediate gratification laugh and he’ll say: ‘That’s really funny, however’it doesn’t really work in the context of what we’re doing here, so we’re not going to include that.’ He’s just very true to the big picture, while the entire time being super, super funny and super clever. He really is a singularly brilliant guy.

Is voice work any more or less difficult than live-action acting?

I don’t know if I find [voice acting] necessarily more difficult, and I don’t want to use the term ‘easier’ because I don’t want to offend anybody, but it’s actually kind of ‘ a lot less cumbersome. As the actor’ ‘As actor,’ ‘ Ha ha, god, what an idiot ‘ but truly there are so many people doing so much ‘ writing the script and creating the characters ‘ and then I kind of step in as Jackass No. 6 and just talk in front of a microphone. So, in that sense it is much easier and you don’t have to go through all the process of being seen on camera, the hair and the makeup and the wardrobe and hitting your marks and stuff, it’s just talking. So it is kind of freeing in that way. But you don’t have the benefit of relying on physicality to get something across, you have to convey a lot in short little bursts.

Do you find yourself using physicality anyway?

If you ran a live feed on the [recording] booth when you’re doing some of the stuff, you’d be so embarrassed by the faces you’re making to try and do a certain thing. It would just be like a terrible, awful tape to look at, it’d be so damning. Like, look man, we thought you were an idiot before we saw this, and then we realized you’re a moron.

How does SDSU compare to other ‘adult’ animated series?

I don’t want to compare our show to those shows, they’re such great shows ‘ Simpsons, South Park, all of them really smart, funny show that have an incredible, impeccable track record of being really smart, funny shows. I think that visually we may look different, it’s something that people have never seen before. It’s the first animated show in history to have a locations manager, because it’s animated characters set against real backgrounds. So, just from a visual perspective it’s interesting to look at. And then I think that it’s another place for people to see how funny Mitch and [consulting producer] Jim Vallely and all those guys are. And I think they’re very original, and I think that there are people who liked a lot of the comedy of Arrested Development or liked that style ‘ they might be able to scratch a bit of that itch. Scratching itches.

Do you have a favorite cartoon?

It’s funny, I’m not really ‘ I shouldn’t say I’m not ‘ what I mean is that there are people who are much better versed in the appreciation of the animated arts than I, and of course The Simpsons set the bar for everybody on animated shows. What they did had never been done before and was so brilliant, and South Park I mentioned before is just super funny and very risky and very unconventional ‘ those guys Matt and Trey who created that show are just brilliant guys. So I like watching both those shows ‘ I like watching all of them, actually. I haven’t seen a lot of Family Guy but the ones I’ve seen have made me laugh super hard; I know that they’ve got a big following and well deserved. So I like it all. I used to think, ‘Aw man, these things are just cartoons,’ and then you watch them and you’re like, oh wait, there are really smart, funny people writing these awesome shows.

Don’t you have any childhood favorites?

I spent my childhood reading Proust and snorting snuff. I was always on safari, you know, doing charity work. Doing a ton of charity work.

So being a new dad isn’t exposing you to many cartoons yet?

My son is young enough that I haven’t exposed him yet to television. I think that at not quite four months it might be blowing some of his brain. He only recently discovered his feet, so anything beyond that might freak him out.

What about SDSU, do you have a favorite character?

I think that my favorite character on the show is Stuart, voiced by Will Forte. He’s sort of the vice principal, assistant principal, whatever. I’m such a fan of Will Forte, he’s such a funny, original guy and he just makes me laugh whatever he does and I just love him, I love his character so much.

Does Ennis pair up with any of the characters, Bart ‘n’ Milhouse style?

He probably interacts the most with Larry, who is played by entertainment superstar Jason Bateman. And that’s great for me because I love working with Jason, and we had such great times on Arrested Development, and we drew up kind of a short hand so we know how to work together and we understand each other a little bit on how each other works. He’s so great. And gorgeous, just gorgeous.

Since you’re going to WonderCon to promote the show, who do you think is scarier: Animation nerds or Arrested Development nerds?

I guess they’re both equally scary ‘ um, no, I don’t know! I’m just happy that people like Arrested Development so I’m happy that there are fans at all. I find that people who are really into animation are REALLY into it.

I also find that the people who really love animation the most are the Brits. All my British comedy buddies know everything about every comic book and cartoon and animated series and movie and show ‘ I don’t know what the hell they do over there, but they love it. They can’t get enough of it. It’s incredible. They’re serial culture vultures, they know virtually every reference pop culture-wise and also when it comes to animation and science fiction and all that stuff that is sort of linked in certain ways. They have a really facile, you know, dossier of reference ‘ wow, ‘facile’ and ‘dossier’ in the same sentence! And the Douchey goes to’

Do you have a good pitch line for the show?

Ummm’.

‘Like, ‘Watch Ennis, he’s great’?

Yeah, that’s good. Watch Ennis, he’s great. I’m going to write that down. Watch Ennis, he’s great, he’s on FOX starting in April ‘ what’s the start date? April 19 ‘my mother’s birthday! Watch Ennis on my mother’s birthday ‘ you know when that is, right? That’s what I’d say.

Watch Ennis, he’s great’ and so is the rest of the star-studded cast of Sit Down, Shut Up, which premieres Sunday, April 19 at 8:30 p.m. as part of FOX’s Animation Domination block.