Mitch Hurwitz’s follow-up to “Arrested Development,” the animated “Sit Down, Shut Up” — adapted from the short-lived Australian television show of the same name — is both awful and strangely hilarious. I watched “Sit Down, Shut Up,” three times. The first time, I couldn’t believe it’d even made it on the air. It felt like it was trying way too hard; some of the lines felt like they were pulled off a CollegeHumor comment thread; the animation/live-action mix was terrible; and the mostly excellent voice talent was distracting as hell, mostly serving as a reminder of the glory that was “Arrested Development” without living up to it.
But then I watched it again. And instead of focusing on the awkward animation, I tried my best to picture the actors behind the animated characters delivering the same lines and paid much closer attention to the actual writing. Suddenly, “Sit Down, Shut Up,” opened up for me. The fault of “Sit Down, Shut Up,” isn’t in Mitch Hurwitz’s writing, it’s in the context in which it’s being delivered. If this were a live-action show using the same actors delivering the same lines (save for Keenan Thompson’s fat, black lady teacher), “Sit Down, Shut Up,” would have the same off-the-wall, subversive , pitch-perfect satirical edge as “Arrested Development.” It’s just a shame that Hurwitz couldn’t sell “Sit Down, Shut Up,” as he’d originally pitched it: As a live action series. Unfortunately, the writing simply doesn’t sync well with what’s going on onscreen.
And indeed, some of the fault with “Sit Down, Shut Up,” resides in the first four minutes of the pilot, when Hurwitz is trying too hard by aiming too low. Set in a high school in Knob Haven, Florida (“As pretty as a picture. Except for the people.”), it’s in that first four minutes that he introduces the teachers, who have dirty-punny names like Larry Littlejunk (Jason Bateman), the weak, deadpan P.E. teacher who hates sports; Ennis Hofftard (Will Arnett), the English teacher who can best be described as animated, Aryan GOB; Willard Deutschebog (Henry Winkler), the whiny Woody-Allenish German teacher; and Miracle Grohe (Kristen Chenowith), the hippie peacenik, airhead blonde science teacher, who Larry Littlejunk is in love with. And, of course, each character has their own catchphrase, which sounds like a horrible idea, but for the fact that Hurwitz plays those catch phrases for a multitude of laughs later in the episode (Will Forte’s Ass(.) Principal’s catchphrase is “I need a catchphrase!” which is obnoxious the first 12 times he utters it, but it turns the corner into comically absurd around the 15th time). Sadly, the tone set with the introduction is: A really bad version of “Family Guy,” set in a high school.
But, if you can put aside your disdain for the opening, and instead of separating the actor voices from the characters, embrace them as if those actual actors were onscreen, “Sit Down, Shut Up,” works quite well, or at least the alternative version of it you have in your head where Jason Bateman deadpans to his football team, which is on a hunger strike, “Come on guys, don’t let the hunger get to you. We gotta win this thing, it’s the pilot!” It’s got the same meta humor that worked in “AD,” only here, the characters satirize animated-sitcom conventions by acknowledging them and subverting them subtly enough not to turn off “Family Guy” fans (who’ll get a kick out of the school team’s name, The Master Baiters), while still hitting a rapid-fire sweet spot the higher level of “AD” fans can appreciate, such as this line from Miracle Grohe: “I’m idealistic. I believe in doing things that are unrealistic or have no effect. That’s who I am!” or another, from the German teacher, “a homely little gripper” afraid of getting caught with his porn magazines Nothing but Fuzz and Squatting, “God, why didn’t I sign up for the Internet when I had the chance?”
Still, for every great gag in “Sit Down, Shut Up,” that works (the principal, for instance, mutilates himself in a school production of Edward Scissorhands” while doing an air quote) or every great line it delivers (Cheri Oteri’s librarian: “I’ve done a little research. Librarians are essential for that in case the Internet goes down. Forever.”), the premise and the animation just doesn’t provide the appropriate framework for delivering Hurwitz’s brand of comedy, not when selling so many of those lines relies heavily on the raised eyebrow of Bateman or the COME ON! face of Arnett. It’s just not the same in this animated world. But more than that, it takes two or three viewings to pick up on a lot of the more subtle humor hidden beneath the Seth MacFarlane jokes, and there are few who would bother to replay it to pick up those gems. But I’ll say: It’s worth it. I hated it on the first viewing, but by the third, I was convinced that “Sit Down, Shut Up,” is one of the funniest goddamn shows on TV.