By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009
"Sit Down, Shut Up," a new animated series about a group of cranky and self-pitying high school teachers, comes to us from the comedy mind of Mitchell Hurwitz -- and the sooner it goes back there, the better.
Fox is plopping the series into its Sunday-night animation pit starting this weekend, with executives presumably hoping the audience won't notice that it isn't any good and will numbly sit through it. Hurwitz, justly celebrated for "Arrested Development," his quirky-cultish live-action comedy series of a few years ago, drafted some of the performers from that show, plus past or present cast members from "Saturday Night Live," to do the voices: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Kenan Thompson, Cheri Oteri, Will Forte, and more.
Thompson voices the oh-so-cleverly named Sue Sezno, sizable acting principal of a forlorn high school in Knob Haven, Fla. The school's football team is called the Baiters, mainly so that Hurwitz can put a poster for something called "The Master" right next to the sign saying "Baiters" on the wall around the athletic field.
Yes, he tucks ribald references into nooks and crannies -- among them, in a future episode, a poster advertising " 'Bent' -- for Kids." The knowing will know that "Bent" is a grimly serious play about homosexuals thrown into concentration camps in Nazi Germany; thus does Hurwitz offer his version of "irreverent" humor. It may be irreverent, but it ain't humor. And besides, irreverence on television these days is about as rare and daring as opening a Starbucks on a busy corner. It's also one of the cheapest attention-getters around, especially in cruddy Fox cartoons (all of them riding the coattails of the genre's one true masterwork, "The Simpsons").
In the pilot, we are introduced to the scraggly, frazzled teachers of Knob Haven High -- among them an overgrown flower child and flaky science instructor named Miracle Grohe (get it?) who walks around with her baby strapped to her front (a baby almost eaten by vultures, ha ha, in a future episode); an English teacher named Ennis Hofftard, whose nipples protrude through his knit shirts; a seemingly gay drama coach named Andrew Legustambos (referred to by another character as "bisexual," for the record); and a mustachioed maniac named Muhannad Sabeeh "Happy" Fa'ach Nuabar.
A butt of many jokes is a German teacher named Willard Deutschebog who, as drawn, looks like the fellow who used to get up early to "make the doughnuts" in a popular commercial of a few years back. Deutschebog's affection or affliction for pornography gets a great deal of screen time. The humor is almost all verbal, even though this is a cartoon -- albeit one based on a now-extinct live-action Australian comedy.
It's painful to think that humor this lame isn't even based on an original concept.
Hurwitz's self-conscious irreverence extends to jokes about birth defects, genitalia, placentas, race, religion, sexual deviation and female hormone replacement drugs -- one of which causes a male teacher to grow breasts of which he becomes quite fond. For some strange reason, Salman Rushdie's name is dropped at one point. The teachers sometimes realize they are animated characters in a cartoon. An assistant principal looks up, as if at the creator of the show, and asks, "Can I get a flashback on this?" He is disappointed when none is forthcoming.
It's a lot like what Daffy Duck did in "Duck Amuck," the classic Warner Bros. cartoon featured recently on a TCM salute to animator-director Chuck Jones. Big difference: That darn duck was funny.
The show does have a somewhat arresting visual style: The animated characters perform on, and sometimes interact with, backgrounds that are still photographs of real things, like a row of lockers or the exterior of the school. Cute. A flashback to 1993, done in sepia tone, includes a politician declaring to a crowd, "We're in the middle of a huge recession." Surrrrre we were. Yeah. Uh-huh. You betcha.
That reference was the only time your critic laughed during the half-hour, except maybe for a couple of chuckles, thanks to Thompson as Ms. Sezno. About midway through the pilot, meanwhile, little Miracle Grohe, informed that she's merely a character in a TV show, asks incredulously "This is a show?" Answer: Well, no -- not really. Just a flimsy imitation.
Sit Down, Shut Up (30 minutes) premieres Sunday night at 8:30 on Channel 5.