The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Hey, did you know that there are some new episodes of Arrested Development that came out? I’m just kidding; I know you already watched them and have very strong opinions about them. Well, in the early history of this column, we looked at a panel from 2004 that was conducted with series creator Mitchell Hurwitz and the cast as it was still running. Today I thought it would be interesting to examine a discussion with Hurwitz about one of the shows he created between Arrested and Arrested.
Sit Down, Shut Up was an animated show that briefly aired on Fox in early 2009. Based on an Australian show of the same name, it followed the lives of nine teachers (voiced by many very funny people such as Arrested stalwarts Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Henry Winkler, SNL castmembers like Cheri Oteri, Will Forte, and Kenan Thompson, and just general funny people like Tom Kenny and Nick Kroll) as they do anything but teach. While the show shares some DNA with Arrested, it’s interesting to see just how different the program can be as well, as Hurwitz worked to push himself in new, exciting directions.
The evening of March 26, almost a month shy of the show’s premiere, began with the first-ever screening of the pilot, in its rough cut form. Though what they showed had some temporary music and was 30 seconds too long, it was fairly close to the show that would eventually air.
Let’s begin with what makes Sit Down, Shut Up different from Arrested Development. First of all, it’s animated. Because of that, it takes a very long time to produce each episode (nearly a year, according to producer and former Simpsons showrunner Josh Weinstein). Henry Winkler, who played the German teacher on the show, describes working on Arrested and improvising. The two cameras that were used to film the program were connected to monitors in the writer’s room and so whenever the comedy would stray away from where it should be, Hurwitz and Jim Vallely would suddenly appear on the set with notes to steer them back on course. Another major difference comes from just the fact that it’s a cartoon. Hurwitz describes working in live action in which you must spend the first eight scenes trying to make the character’s drive plausible before he can do something crazy in the last one. In animation, they can set that up with one scene. Nick Kroll, who plays teacher Andrew LeGustambos (a name that says a lot about his character if you speak Spanish) puts it another way: “I think people tune into animation to watch jokes. You don’t feel as connected to characters. You can get away with it.”
There is, on the other hand, a lot that Sit Down, Shut Up had in common with Arrested. The most obvious connection, besides Jason Bateman as a central character, is the enormous frequency of jokes. I hadn’t seen the pilot since it initially aired, but I was pleasantly surprised by the humor behind it. Maybe it’s because I have some new Arrested Development in my system, now I can view this as it’s own thing, rather than as a thing that’s not AD. But anyway, I digress from comparing this show to Arrested: one way that Hurwitz is able to pack in extra jokes is through those aforementioned character names. Says Mitch, “Those are mine. You get a little insight into your characters from each. It’s a little hacky, but I always start with the funny names.” As we are introduced to each of the characters in the ensemble, we are also informed about what subject that they teach and they’re own little catchphrase as a way of character building. For example, Winkler’s depressed German teacher, Willard Deutschebog (say it out loud), has the catchphrase of “If I believed in reincarnation I’d kill myself tonight.” From that alone you already know volumes about this person.
Like it’s predecessor, Sit Down, Shut Up is also apt to make any number of meta jokes that break the fourth wall. The characters realize that they’re in a cartoon, such as when Jason Bateman’s character Larry Littlejunk references the past then looks up to the heavens, expecting to see it in flashback form. It doesn’t happen. Or the perennially sunny-dispositioned assistant principal played by Will Forte announces his catchphrase as “I need a catchphrase,” and then proceeds to use it throughout the episode. Or when Cheri Oteri’s character, Helen Klench sympathizes with Nick Kroll’s character, saying, “It’s not easy being bisexual is it?” he responds, “I’m not going to test well.”
During the course of the interview, Hurwitz explains that he doesn’t like to repeat himself and is always looking for new ways of doing things. This show was initially written in 2000 as a live-action pilot, but then after Arrested ended, he went back to it and, after being told it was too broad for live-action, retooled it as an animated program (at which point he was told it wasn’t broad enough). One of the things that makes Sit Down, Shut Up different not just from Mitch’s previous TV shows, but other animated shows in general was the look, which blended 2D animated characters on top of live action backgrounds. The style, which was designed by children’s book author Mo Willems, is very aesthetically interesting, but on top of that, blends the worlds that the show exists in. It feels a bit like a transition between live-action and animation in terms of the style of the show itself, and its look reinforces that. It may be of note to some that despite the fact that this is a show that takes place in a school, none of the students have any lines. This was a deliberate choice. Mitch explains, “The kids are as important to this [show] as the paper supplies are in The Office. It’s what they do. It’s not about the kids. In general, they don’t really matter. They’re the victims.”
Well, as you already know, Sit Down, Shut Up did not last long, and was ultimately taken off the air before completing its full 13-episode season. Despite my constant comparisons, I don’t believe that the show ever matches the heights of any of the four seasons of Arrested Development (I loved the newest season and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. By the way, look for a little cameo appearance from Sit Down, Shut Up in the episode “It Gets Better.” If you want. It’s your call.) However, I think that it’s possible the show wasn’t given its fair shake when it originally aired. After listening to Hurwitz and the cast and crew describe their show before it aired, it’s clear that a lot of work went into these episodes, and that they had a lot of passion for them. I’m not saying that Netflix needs to bring it back for season 2, but maybe a movie?
No, that’s probably not a smart move.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.