Two minutes after Will Forte hangs up the phone, he calls back. “Freida Pinto!” he screams. When asked to name his celebrity crush, Forte had been utterly stumped. But now, he’s got her pegged. “I just hung up the phone immediately—it’s like when you go to the record store and you can’t remember. Well, this is confirmed. This is a confirmed celebrity crush.”
This is Will Forte, Saturday Night Live mainstay, who has portrayed everyone from redneck hero MacGruber, to more recently, Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner. He’s a wide-jawed, bushy-browed American guy, but in his new role as Ass. (that’s short for assistant) Principal Stuart Proszakian, all those good looks will go to waste. That’s because Sit Down, Shut Up (premiering tonight on Fox), the new comedy series from Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz, is animated, and Forte’s nothing more than a cartoon simpleton in a rumpled tie.
Of the highly anticipated Arrested Development movie, Hurwitz says, “It’ll just be our little funny movie—that people will be horribly disappointed by.”
Sit Down, Shut Up centers around one breed of human almost entirely devoid of comedy: high-school teachers and administrators. The characters are a diverse bunch, but they operate around one universal truth: that their students must always come second. “The kids were about as meaningful as the paper products in the office,” Hurwitz explains. The teachers range from the over-tanned, flat-topper Ennis Hofftard (Will Arnett), to the cross and overweight principal Sue Sezno (Kenan Thompson), to a sallow and suicidal German professor, Willard Deutchbebog (Henry Winkler).
The show, which is adapted from a live Australian comedy, feels like the odd child of Arrested Development and The Simpsons, which is logical, because Hurwitz co-wrote it with Simpsons creator Josh Weinstein. And, to the extent that the students are mere wallpaper in the teacher’s colorful lives, there’s a little bit of Peanuts in it, too. There’s an absurdist quality in its oblivious, mordant sense of humor. “It’s just fucked up,” Hurwitz says. “They’re all idiots.”
In one scene, Principal Sue Sezno (dressed in out-of-fashion-even-then ‘80s apparel in a way only administrators can master) discovers drugs in a student’s locker. Instead of punishing the student, the teachers decide the pills may be just what the football team needs to win this year’s championship. So, as any cautious and selfless caregiver would, Forte’s Proszakian decides to test the pills himself. In the next scene, he’s sprouted massive breasts, but no one seems to notice.
It may seem like a challenge to transition the kingpins of on-screen comedy—Winkler, Arnett, Jason Bateman—to animation, but the trial-and-error format was part of the fun. Proszakian, a simple character adapted directly from the Australian original, whose catchphrase is “I need a catchphrase,” seemed like a role meant for Forte. “I immediately thought of him and could not think of anybody else,” Hurwitz said. “I thought if Will Forte says no to this, I cannot think of another person. I didn’t know him, but he seemed to just have such a happy, upbeat, sweet quality to him. There’s no meanness in him. And that was kind of essential.”
Hurwitz and his cast are keeping busy with many other projects as well. For Hurwitz, there is, among other things, the highly anticipated and highly secretive Arrested Development movie. They’ve assembled most of the cast—a process that was a bit of a headache, and one Hurwitz says is not yet complete. It’s not even at the writing stage yet, but that doesn’t mean the scheming hasn’t begun.
So what’s Hurwitz’s big idea? Or does he even have one? “Let’s pretend for the purposes of this article that I do,” he says. “And let’s also add to that that it’s a really great idea. And now I just have to think of what that is.”
In the movie, the characters will still be up to their usual stranger-than-fiction, Blue Man Group absurdity, but there a few things that have changed. First of all, there’s the global economic downturn, which affects the Bluths, the oddball family that seems to get screwed by just about everything. “Some of the stuff that I thought would be interesting to portray seems a little dated now,” Hurwitz admits. “They’re in the housing business, too. So there are more opportunities, and better opportunities. There are bigger things to explore.” Any inspired titles? “Well, I could call it Arrested Development: Fired Up 2,” Hurwitz laughs. “I don’t know, maybe. It will just be our little thing, you know? It’ll just be our little funny movie—that people will be horribly disappointed by.”
AD2 may be firing up as soon as pilot season cools down, but until then, Hurwitz also has a handful of new shows in the works. He’s just finished shooting a remake of Absolutely Fabulous (that hare-brained, alcoholic ‘90s Britcom). And he’s also working on a hush-hush pilot which Hurwitz will co-write with Arnett and AD collaborator Jim Vallely. Sadly, he wouldn’t budge on the details. “I can’t quite reveal yet because we just pitched it to Fox and they’re weighing it and they gave us some notes.”
Of course, Forte has a lot of other stuff going on, too. He says that he’d always wanted to do a product-placement version of MacGruber, his MacGyver-like signature character, a mulleted tough guy who’s never quick enough to escape an explosion. So when Pepsi approached him for a slot on the Super Bowl, Forte and SNL creator Lorne Michaels were already well on their way. They flew in reinforcements: the original MacGyver, Richard Dean Anderson, and created the commercial on spec for Pepsi. When they aired on the Super Bowl, the skits, in which Forte changed his character’s name to “ Pepsuber,” became controversial for their confusing advertainment message.
Forte has also just shot Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, John Krasinki’s adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s story, which debuted at Sundance. But because of his hectic schedule at SNL, Forte filmed the movie on next to no sleep. “Just give me the benefit of the doubt,” he says.
Forte’s hopes and dreams may need to be sidelined—at least until he proves good on the $15,000 he owes former co-star Amy Poehler. A few years ago, Forte told Poehler that if she said his name on TV, he’d give her $100. But she understood it to mean every time she said his name—and a whole lot of “Will Fortes” later, he owed her a whopping $15,000. “I guess I didn’t clarify that enough, so I guess I had to live up to it, but I haven’t yet,” Forte says. “I forget what the deal was, but she did have a way that I could repay her, without actually paying money. It was not a sexual thing, by the way. I know her husband!”
But for now, it’s the weekend, just a few days before the premiere of Sit Down, Shut Up, and all Forte needs to do is relax. “I promise I won’t be calling back every 30 minutes with new celebrity crushes,” he says, his lips presumably curling into that trademark Cheshire grin. “Although I can’t promise that I won’t, either.”
Isabel Wilkinson is a Daily Beast intern who attends Columbia Journalism School. She has written for New York magazine and Women’s Wear Daily.