Fox’s hilarious new primetime toon from Mitch Hurwitz and Josh Weinstein follows a group of teachers who’d rather do anything but teach.
Mitch Hurwitz, the quotable creator of dysfunctional TV hit Arrested Development, wasn’t quite sure what he was getting himself into when he decided to take an Australian sitcom, adapt it for the U.S., then switch it from live-action to animation’but whatever it was, he knew it’d be funny.
Sit Down, Shut Up, which is exec produced by Hurwitz, Josh Weinstein (Simpsons, Futurama, Mission Hill) and Eric and Kim Tannenbaum (Two and a Half Men), revolves around a group of ambivalent if not just plain crazy faculty at a small town Florida high school. The ranks of disillusioned school staff are played by a cast that would be enviable in any primetime slot: Jason Bateman, Kristin Chenoweth, Kenan Thompson, Will Forte, Will Arnett, Henry Winkler, Cheri Oteri, Nick Kroll and jack-of-all-voices Tom Kenny give life to characters that range from an embittered librarian to a vice principal who’s being secretly medicated by his staff.
The show was conceived when Hurwitz acquired the rights to a short-lived Aussie sitcom of the same name. After writing out a pilot, a series of corporate shufflings put the series on hold. Then, funding producer Sony asked that the show be more ‘grounded.’ Hurwitz wasn’t keen. ‘It’s this absurd take on an Australian comedy’in the pilot one of the male characters grows breasts! I really didn’t want to rewrite it and lose what was funny about it,’ he explains, ‘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 took it to [entertainment president] Kevin Reilly at Fox and said maybe this will work as an animated show, and I won’t have to rewrite it’a character can still grow breasts.’
The timing was perfect, as Reilly and his team had just had a brain-storming session about where the next animated hit would come from. ‘They were saying, ‘Isn’t there somebody else that can write animation? Isn’t there some other voice?” Hurwitz explains, citing the standard family formula that dominates animated comedies.
Reilly was enthusiastic about the show, but Hurwitz still ended up in rewrites. ‘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,’ he marvels, noting he’s only recently completed the 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 this script that I’m still working on nine years later. My skiing has gone to hell!’
Tooning Up the Teachers’ Lounge
SDSU is Hurwitz’s first foray into animation’well, with maybe one exception: ‘The last two years of [The Golden Girls], Bea Arthur was really CG. Pixar built the character,’ the sharp-witted producer jokes, ‘You can tell like, when she walks, she kind of jumps a little bit, but other than that I think it’s pretty solid.’ Newly inducted into the animation niche, he took the opportunity to make things interesting, if a bit complicated for the tireless artists.
To set the show apart, the 2D characters are placed on live-action backgrounds. ‘I think we may be the only animated show ever to have a location scout!’ says Weinstein, ‘That’s one really funny, weird aspect of the show’we’re using state of the art animation, but we still need to send our animators out in cars with cameras to get the backgrounds.’ Hurwitz takes credit for the idea, but notes he was inspired by the photographic backgrounds of Mo Willems’ children’s books (Willems designed the characters for SDSU). ‘This style sets the characters in the real world, and it sets them in a mundane world,’ he observes, ‘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.’
Weinstein credits the talented crew of Rough Draft Studios, who delivered the animation for Futurama, with making the challenging look a reality. ‘This was a show that called for a whole new look and approach to doing the animation,’ he says. ‘After a few seconds of watching it, it really appears to be one unique world you’re looking at.’
Of course, the process is not without its hurdles. One of the biggest challenges was photographing all of the locales, from every angle. ‘We’ll [eventually] have a library of all these locations and angles so we can go back to them, but in the beginning, it was a huge amount of work to get all this,’ Weinstein admits, ‘And, invariably, every new episode has at last one new location, so there’s always a new challenge.’
The team also did some tinkering in order to portray the characters in their vehicles (Winkler’s character takes the Driver’s Ed car’usually with a student behind the wheel). After toying with high-tech options, the best result came from simply shooting video from a moving car. Weinstein also hints that a future episode features a live-action character interacting with the toons!
Certain background props and set elements are animated, and an exception to the live-action rule was taken with the most important set: the teachers’ lounge, which serves as the hub for much of the scholastic drama. The room is constructed in realistic CG to be shoot-able from any angle.
Making the Grade
Despite the steep learning curve, Hurwitz says he enjoys the freedom animation provides, comparing the comedic shorthand of cartoons to advances in TV production like HD cameras which greatly expedite filming. ‘On a show like Arrested, 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,’ he explains, ‘In animation, you can get to that in the second line of the script.’ These leaps of logic can be inspiring or discouraging, however: ‘I think that’s why animation writers have had trouble crossing over to live action in many cases, and vice-versa: They’re two different ways of thinking.’
Without wanting to disparage the work of non-celeb voice actors (‘There will never be a better Homer than Dan Castellaneta,’ Hurwitz insists), he believes that SDSU‘s known voice cast brings something special to the TV toon landscape. He also cites the large ensemble cast of characters as a stand-apart feature. ‘There’s tons of different relationships you get to explore, there’s a ton of variety,’ he says, ‘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.’
As for hopes about SDSU‘s impending debut, the cast and crew are all over the board. Henry Winkler, who plays depressed German teacher Willard Deutschebog, hopes the show will give viewers an escape: ‘My dream is that, for 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.’
Hurwitz, however, is characteristically sardonic: ‘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!” We’re sure viewers will feel the same way!
Sit Down, Shut Up premieres April 19 at 8:30 p.m. as part of FOX’s Sunday night Animation Domination lineup.