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Shut Up Creator Hurwitz Sits Down and Talks
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.
Arrested Development‘s Mitch Hurwitz talks about his latest creation: an animated comedy series for FOX called Sit Down, Shut Up, which follows the lives and antics of some very dysfunctional high school teachers.
How did the concept for SDSU come about?
There was a show called Sit Down, Shut Up in Australia that they made in 1999, and I got the rights in 2000 to do an adaptation of it. It was a live-action show, it wasn’t an animation show. I wrote a live-action adaptation, and the company I was working for was bought. So, just two years ago I started a television company with [SDSU executive producers] Eric Tannenbaum and Kim Tannenbaum’they’re exec producers of Two and a Half Men‘and they used to run the company that I developed this with. And I kind of brought it out of the drawer, and it was always a hilarious pilot, because it was based on hilarious source material’it’s a show about these eight completely oblivious teachers, they all had a very similar sense of humor, and I think in many ways their sense of humor became the basis of Tobias in Arrested Development. I just love that out of touch kind of disconnected thing.
So I brought the script out and we thought, well, let’s try to set this up at a network. And the request that was made of me by Sony, which is the company that funds our company, was that I make it more grounded, and of course that takes all the fun out of it because it’s this absurd, ridiculous spinoff of an Australian comedy’in the pilot one of the male characters grows breasts!’it was crazy! And I really didn’t want to rewrite it and lose what was funny about it. So really to avoid work, which ended up being a huge irony because I landed myself more difficult work than I’ve ever experienced, I snuck it to Kevin Reilly who had just taken over [as entertainment president] at FOX and I said maybe this will work as an animated show, and I won’t have to rewrite it’a character can still grow breasts. And actually, the people that advise me in this kind of thing had said, ‘Well, you definitely don’t want to take it to FOX,’ but Kevin Reilly happened to have been in a meeting that day where they were saying, ‘Isn’t there somebody else that can write animation? Isn’t there some other voice other than the ones we always go to?”[voices] that are tremendous, but they were looking for some variation and at the same time trying to find a story to tell that would appeal to both younger people and adults that isn’t about a family.
It’s kind of been the belief in primetime animation that you have to make your show about a family. There are two reasons for it: First, it’s completely relatable to the young people and adults, and secondly it allows a shorthand that animation really trafficks in. you can have Homer strangle his son because you understand that it’s a father and a son and obviously he loves his son and he’s frustrated by his son but he would always put his son first and there’s just a lot of things that are implied in the relationship that they don’t have to spend time servicing before they go to the extreme of doing the strangling joke’if you were to do two people at work at a rental car office and one strangled the other, it might not be as appealing or funny.
So they’d been looking for something that fit those criteria; that it appealed to a wide audience and there was something archetypal about it. And so this kind of came along at the right time and the people that advised me in these kind of things said, ‘Boy you really don’t want to take this to FOX as an animated show because there’s really only one timeslot they can program it in.’ So it really was a big risk to kind of take this out of the running at other networks that might have had interest in it and take it to Kevin Reilly at FOX, but he was great. He really got what was special about the Australian show and about my adaptation. And then we started rewriting it and in a funny way it wasn’t broad enough to be an animated show. That’s the other thing I discovered: It’s a lot more work, because once I was in the field of animation, I wanted to go much further than I had. I didn’t want to have six page scenes of characters having long conversations with each other, even if it was a funny conversation’I wanted to jump around and go further with kind of a multimedia style than I had on even Arrested, which was pretty varied. So I’ve done a lot of work on it, and I’m actually in editing. I was in there yesterday putting In music cues and I realized I’m still working on this pilot. It’s crazy how long animation takes! I remember being on a ski trip in the year 2000 and not getting to ski because I was inside writing the script that I’m still working on nine years later. My skiing has gone to hell.
And this is your first ever time working in animation?
It is my first animated project, with the exception of The Golden Girls‘the last two years of that Bea Arthur was really CG. Pixar built the character, they did a great job. That was before that technology was really great. You can tell like, when she walks, she kinda jumps a little bit, but other than that I think it’s pretty solid.
How does working on an animated series compare to live action?
One of the things I loved about Arrested was the freedom I had because of the new technology, which was basically the HD cameras. I had this freedom to shoot a lot of different things’to go to a coffee stand for one shot and leave, things that used to take a day to set up I could do in the morning, so I was able to get a lot more content into [the show]. And I think animation is kind of great for the same reason, you can go even further, and I have to say the main difference between this and live action is you really spend a lot less time on plausibility.
And we’re even trying to keep our show in the real world where animals don’t talk and that kind of thing, but on a show like Arrested Development or even The Golden Girls for that matter, the whole first half of the show is about bolstering your characters in such a way that they can make plausible decisions to do ridiculous thing. We spent the longest amount of time establishing the MacGuffin: There’s a business problem that Michael Bluth has to deal with, and then you establish what the obstacles are to that, and then you try to get your character to a place where he is desperate and has to concede to someone else’s ridiculous scheme, there’s no way out of this dilemma, and then you get to go to the funny thing, which is they have to convince a group of Japanese investors that the houses that they see out their window is actually a landscape of houses and they’re not made of shoe boxes.
So the whole show gets up to that point. In animation, you can get to that in the second line of the script: ‘Hey, we’ve got to show these houses, let’s get a bunch of shoe boxes and make them look like houses.’ We’re off and running! Really you do remove a lot of logic. People expect it. I think in a way that’s why animation writers have had trouble crossing over to live action in many cases, and live-action writers have had trouble crossing over into animation: They’re two different ways of thinking. So I’ve kind of loved that challenge, and loved that departure from the way I’ve learned to do things.
Has your production process changed a lot in this new genre?
There are more steps in a way, and Josh Weinstein has managed a lot of the day-to-day. I was a lot more involved in the first six than in the second six, especially the pilot. I hired the animator and helped design the characters with him, and cast it, and wrote it and sold it to the network and directed the recordings and all those things. And I kind of did a lot of those tasks on the first six. And now I’ve stepped away a little bit and I’m finding that what I tend to do is instead of coming in at the first half I come in at the last half, which I kind of love. We’ve put in the jokes that have already been approved and no one can say ‘I’m confused”I’d say 90 percent of doing Arrested Development was arguing about whether something made sense. There were so many people that were employed to question the process. So I love kind of sneaking in under the radar at the end on this one.
Who did the character design for the show?
Mo Willems designed the characters’he’s actually not credited because the show is much more adult than what he’s known for, not really appropriate for Knuffle Bunny fans. He’s such a brilliantly funny guy and such a gifted artist. He does these characters which are so expressive, and we were just on the phone and we did them very quickly. Some of them I had cast, like Will Forte’s character I already had in mind. He’d draw something for me, I’d make a suggestion or maybe draw on it and send it back. It was really a fun process. We had a lot of laughs.
Whose idea was it to put the characters on live-action backgrounds?
It was my idea, but it was my idea plagiarizing Mo Willems, who had done that in his books’he uses all these beautiful photographs of Brooklyn and has his drawings on top of them, and it’s so striking. I loved the look of it and it really works. There was a lot of advance blogging saying ‘You want less detail in the background, not more, how stupid are they?!”well, pretty stupid, first of all ‘ secondly, what I like about this style is that it sets the characters in the real world, and it sets them in a mundane world. It just kind of pops, and it changes the scale of the comedy. You just don’t expect in that scenario for a UFO to descend or a cow to start talking. In a way, it subtly points an audience’s attention where you want it. And a lot of the props are animated, a lot of the set dressing is animated’it’s just this odd mix.
Was it a challenge to get the look to come across?
It was a challenge, but Rough Draft Studios really embraced the challenge. Now that I’ve seen the color back from Korea, it just looks amazing. As great as I think it looks’and I really think it looks great, I really like it’I have a feeling that people will look back and say, ‘Man, remember what the early ones looked like?’ It’s unavoidable. There’s certain things, like we CG’d the teachers’ lounge because we spend a lot of time in there and that allows us to show every angle and spin the thing around and all that stuff, and you’re kind of caught on to it. You can tell that we’re in a slightly different reality than we are when we’re actually in the hallways.
It’s a little bit Uncanny Valley to you?
Listen, that feeling is why I broke up with that inflatable love doll. It was just like’ there was something off, you know what I mean? These aren’t a woman’s lips.
‘I’m sorry, strike this from the record.
What about SDSU makes it stand out from other grown-up cartoons?
First of all I don’t know that it does. I hope that it does. I know you’re supposed to like promote everything and say it’s great … There wasn’t an episode of Arrested that I’d feel comfortable saying ‘It’s great!’ so I’m just really a hard judge of these things and I tend to think that things can always be better. And it could be better, so I’m right!
I will say that having a cast of known actors is slightly different than what prime time animation has done. It makes it much more like an animated feature or a Pixar film where there is something about hearing Steven Carrell’s voice in Horton Hears A Who! that gives it a little extra bit of specialness. No one will ever top Dan Castellaneta as Homer, you can’t do it better, but this is just a slightly different thing. So I think that’s kind of special. And I think the concept of a large cast, an ensemble animated show is kind of interesting to me. We see a lot of families or small groups like on Futurama, but this is a big group of people, and maybe more like what Simpsons has evolved into. That feels different to me about it. My attention doesn’t wane. There’s tons of different relationships you get to explore, there’s a ton of variety. It does follow those animation rules of, if you don’t like that joke, don’t worry, there’s more coming. It gives you more places to jump around, more surprising voices. It’s not necessarily better’it’s different. It feels different that way.
Do you have a favorite character on the show?
I don’t know that I do have a favorite ‘ They are all growing and changing and they all surprise me in different ways. They’re not quite like my children, but they’re like drawings of my children. I guess I like the rounder ones? Even if I did have a favorite, there’s no way I’d say. Do I play any of them? I think that would be my favorite.
Do you play any of them?
I actually do every voice at some point in the show because there’s so many stages of post and we have so many actors to coordinate. I just do bad impressions of all of them so the animators have something to work on.
Did you have any bad school experiences that influence the show?
I think [the show] is a really scathing endictment of the Australian school system, but I don’t think it has much to do with teachers’the teachers are really the children, in a way. They’re more like archetypes of students’the jock, the sissy, the nerd, the freak. That’s one of the prevailing jokes of the show, is that they’re all disinterested in the students and completely self interested. The students in many way are the adults of the Peanuts cartoons, they’re just background elements, they’re things to walk around. Just annoyances that screw up your afternoon. The actual relaying of information and imparting of values plays a very, very small role.
SDSU came very close to shutting down due to conflicts with the Writers Guild, and some people attached to the project had to leave ‘ could you describe what was going on at the time?
It was a very complicated and upsetting process for all of us’and for Sony, actually. Sony is an IATSE lot and they believed as I believe that it shouldn’t be that difficlt to switch [affiliation], and it turns out it is. There’s international labor law that prevails: If one union could take another union’s members, it would be a huge abuse of labor. And we came up against that. It was very frustating for me as a 20 year member of the Writers Guild that the Writers Guild refused to engage in discussion with the studio. I respect that opinion, I respect their absolute right to do that, but it was very frustrating for me because I was looking out for the interests of my writers. And the Writers Guild’s advice was: Just don’t go to work. And we did do that for five weeks’I think it was three days that the Father of the Pride writers walked out’the show was about to be killed ‘ The Sony execs were really throwing everything they could at this, including giant extra Writers Guild deals for every writer, real WG deals that payed far in excess of what the show deal would have paid ‘ But without a dialogue it was like the end of the Bush years. Nothing of any value can be created in the absence of dialogue.
Unbelievably tragically, I have since found out that there was a way they could have worked this out. The Writers Guild did possess the information they needed to solve this problem, but wouldn’t do it. To them I think it was of greater benefit to kill the show and win the pure victory’and I appreciate how important it is that the Writers Guild is the only representative on prime time TV… But that wasn’t in the cards for this, what was in the cards was a lot of law suits, a lot of loss of jobs in a really difficult time. It was a very very sad thing, but after all is said and done I am satisfied that my writers got far in excess of what they would have under a Writers Guild contract. Sony offered the Writers Guild the right to audit and monitor the residuals’and I understand they don’t want to become an auditor for IA or for Sony, but it was offered. That’s how open Sony has tried to be in saying, ‘Our hands our tied, we desperately don’t want to lose this show, not only because we like the show but because it would be a huge embarrassment to us in the community if we couldn’t deliver a show which had been purchased and agreed upon.’ They just swallowed their pride and said ‘Here’s more money, here’s more money, what will it take? Can we give you guys the protections you need so we can make everybody happy?’ It’s an imperfect solution, but that’s by nature what compromises are.
As someone with a lot of varied projects in the works, how do you think the current economic crisis will pan out for the entertainment industry?
I have to say I’m an authority in nothing when it comes to that. I’m truly a creative person without a deep understanding of the economics of studios and networks, that kind of thing. I think it’s a very frightening time, though. I think creative people will have a lot of opportunities with cable, but it’s becoming really diffuse and therefor there won’t be as much money’it probably won’t be the best choice of a career. But that’s what’s happening everywhere. We’re getting rid of the middle class, and hopefully that will change but right now the middle class is under siege in Hollywood. Character actors don’t get paid what character actors used to get paid, writers that used to be able to write six WG scripts a year now find themselves lucky if they can write one because there are less shows on the air’you look at NBC and they’ve only got five or six hours of programming a week now because they’ve got all this reality stuff. You’ve got Jay Leno encroaching on the other end. It’s worrisome’that being said, you can’t force the market to buy what they don’t want to buy, and if people really do prefer reality shows that’s what we’re going to get. It’s a shame though, because in the long term there is a social benefit I think to programming and to scripted entertainment that there perhaps won’t be in just seeing a rerun of The Real Housewives of Orange County. But what can you say, it’s a different form of entertainment. There’s still some work, because people like to be told stories.
Do you hope that SDSU will remind the industry of the benefit of a well-written show?
I have no such delusions! At this point I just don’t want it to be cancelled. I am so far from ‘Perhaps this will have a positive effect on the future of television,’ ‘ I’m really like, ‘Are they going to show all 13? Please! Please show all 13!’ But we’ll see.
Sit Down, Shut Up, which is exec produced by Hurwitz, Eric Tannenbaum, Kim Tannenbaum and Josh Weinstein, premieres on FOX’s Animation Domination block Sunday, April 19 at 8:30 p.m. For more info, check out the April issue of Animation Magazine or www.fox.com/sitdownshutup.