There's an Orson Welles quote that I like to whip out in reviews maybe two or three times per year, both because I'm lazy and because it's always true.
"The enemy of art," Welles said, and I keep repeating, "is the absence of limitations."
Paraphrased, the easier something is to do, the less likely it is that you're going to bother to do it well.
This week's case-in-point, alas, is the new FOX animated comedy "Sit Down, Shut Up," which premieres on Sunday (April 19) at 8:30 p.m. ET.
[I explain and review after the break...]
"Sit Down, Shut Up" was translated from a basically unseen Australian sitcom by Mitch Hurwitz, making it Hurwitz's first show to make it on the air since "Arrested Development" ended its Emmy-winning run on FOX in 2006.
Much of the brilliance in "Arrested Development," and part of the reason the comedy was never a breakout hit, is that Hurwitz and company worked hard for their laughs and justifiably expected that audiences would work equally hard to get the jokes. Punchlines flew at a tremendous rate and with such variable styles that you'd get distracted by a ridiculous and cartoony sight gag and two puns and one double-entendre would sneak by. The show was also subversive in that writers and casts assumed that they were smarter than the FOX standards and practices department and various family watchdog groups and so they crafted raunchy and political and meta zingers that sometimes detonated minutes later and sometimes only became funny on repeat viewings. But this isn't a review of the greatness of "Arrested Development." If you don't already know, go Hulu it. And if you do already know, maybe you should Hulu your favorite episode at 8:30 on Sunday.
Conventional industry wisdom has always been that one of the great things about animation is that you can get away with more, that censors and viewers are more forgiving when things come in colorful, cartoony form. Sometimes, though, this pervasiveness can be taken to an extreme where everything comes too easily and the art is lost. If you ask me, this is the trap that "South Park" fell into years ago, that Trey Parker and Matt Stone pushed and pushed until they realized that there was no edge of the envelope, so they stopped feeling the need to veil their screeds in storytelling or to package their ideology in carefully constructed jokes. "South Park" is like a shouted lecture every week.
"Sit Down, Shut Up" isn't that bad, but Hurwitz does seem to be embracing his new medium in the wrong ways.
"Arrested Development" put its family comedy conventions in the foreground, built around characters and then used that well-developed situation and some very memorable characters as a delivery mechanism for everything else. You never forgot what the story was, who the Bluths were and what the stakes were for everybody involved.
"Sit Down, Shut Up" lacks a foundation, so instead it tries to build the humor around penis jokes, breast humor and wacky character names.
Yeah, Bob Loblaw and George Michael Bluth and Barry Zuckercorn were crazy names, but they weren't the funniest things about those "Arrested Development" characters. For the teachers at Knob Haven High School (Get it? Knob? Haven?), their names are as funny as it gets. There's insecure gym teacher Larry Littlejunk (Jason Bateman), German teacher Willard Deutschebog (Henry Winkler), Creationism-loving science teacher Miracle Grohe (Kristen Chenoweth), abnormally chipper assistant principal Stuart Proszackian (Will Forte), bi-sexual cheerleading coach Andrew LeGustambos (Nick Kroll) and rigid librarian Helen Klench (Cheri Oteri), plus Will Arnett's Ennis Hofftard, Tom Kenny's grumpy foreign janitor Happy and Kenan Thompson's disapproving Principal Sue Sezno.
Yes, the names are funny, but they're also rigorously self-defining and, in this case, constraining. This is a vocal cast that could do absolutely anything, but all they do is play the characters based off their names. The characters are all introduced in the pilot complete with the names, basic info and their catchphrases, as if their one-dimensionality is supposed to be part of the gag. And maybe it is part of the joke, but what's going to make viewers care about a full cast of people whose only virtue is their lack of depth?
The joke of "Sit Down, Shut Up" is supposed to be that it's about teachers who will do anything to avoid helping kids. Or something like that. There are so many character doing so many different things that individual episodes don't have any plot-based focus at all. I think the A-story of the pilot involves Larry trying to secure steroids for his football team to improve their performance and the A-story of the second episode involves a School Fair and Miracle's attempt to believe a prophesy from a Zoltar-style fortuneteller. But I'm not sure. "Sit Down, Shut Up" is so diffuse it very nearly makes me miss the single-mindedness of a "South Park" episode, where a joke is made in the first five minutes and then repeated and repeated and repeated until it's been beaten to an unfunny pulp, but at least you knew what the joke was.
With "Sit Down, Shut Up," the investment is all in the not-so-euphemistic euphemisms -- variations on "knob," "nutsack" and "package" abound -- and not in making sure that broad humor is driven by plot or character. It feels, going back again to how I started this review, that Hurwitz and company were so pleased with the ease of the low-brow humor that they never bothered to refine it in any way.
The show's very distinctive style ought to be an inspiration for its plot and theme, but instead it's just a quirk. The gimmick is that the characters are all animated against live-action backdrops. The look is unique, but almost incidental. The gag should involve how these characters are of the real world, but quite separate -- not in a "Cool World" or "Roger Rabbit" way, but in a way where the characters and their cartoonishness is juxtaposed with the real backgrounds, as opposed to just drawn on top of them in a Korean factory. If we were talking, I could explain this better, but the bottom line is, "If you're going to do this cool thing, make it mean something."
There's too much talent involved with "Sit Down, Shut Up" for there not to be some chuckles. Pay attention to the signs in the school hallways. Try making sense of Happy and the National Geographic narration that accompanies him. Enjoy the crazed look in Miracle's eyes and the contrasting expressions from her baby. Chuckle gamely at the po-mo whimsy of a character requesting a flashback from the unseen editor.
Yeah, you can do those things and get some enjoyment out of "Sit Down, Shut Up." Mostly, you'll disappointedly ponder why the scripted fusion of all of these hilarious people is so much less funny than watching Hurwitz, Bateman, Arnett, Chenowith, Kroll, Winker, Forte, Kenny and Oteri sitting on a stage without a script vamping for a half-hour.
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