Andrew Orvedahl on Those Who Can't, the Grawlix pilot for Amazon
The Grawlix have been one of the brightest lights on the Denver comedy scene for a couple of years now, most successful comedy team not to come out of Denver -- but to live in Denver. Their crowning achievement thus far, though, has got to be this past weekend's premiere of the Those Who Can't sitcom pilot, a hope-to-be series bankrolled by Amazon's new Instant Video. The show revolves around three hopeless Denver high school teachers who entangle themselves in juvenile hijinks that often make their students look like the grown-ups. The Grawlix pilot debuted with several other comedy pilots, including The Onion Presents: The News and a John Goodman/Bill Murray vehicle, Alpha House.
In honor of the release, we recently sat down with a third of the Grawlix pie, wide-eyed innocent Andrew Orvedahl, to chat about the Three Stooges, how high school has changed, and why Adam Cayton-Holland is a manipulative dick.
Westword: Did any of you have any background in teaching when you first came up with Those Who Can't?
Adam was a substitute teacher for a while, but not me or Ben. We have a lot of friends who are teachers, and they're always saying, "Ah, it's Hell!" So what I hoped for with this show was that it would be a fantasy for all of my teacher friends who ever complained to me about their job and their school. You could never behave as these teachers do -- but you might want to.
The things our teachers do in this pilot are not only illegal, but would get you fired immediately in any school. But in this world, it's just sort of par for the course. I screened it for some teachers, and they laughed and thought it was great.
What did you do to prepare yourself for writing about the world of teachers?
None of us had been in a high school classroom in years, well over a decade. So we toured some high school classrooms, and they look pretty different. Now kids can take tests without paper, they have little electronic devices. There are so many little changes.
In the pilot, it's basically how we remember high school, but going forward we'd have to keep in mind what's still done today. Schools don't have overhead projectors anymore; they have these high-tech systems for displaying information. And all the kids have smartphones -- texting in class wasn't a thing for us, because that didn't exist. Kids are so savvy today.
That seems to fit within the dynamic of the show: These kids are always one step ahead of the teachers.
That was sort of the dynamic that I liked, that these teachers are always playing catch-up. They're also sort of juvenile delinquents, and at the same time they're the butt of the kids' jokes.
It seems like the three teachers are sort of extensions of the characters you've created in the Grawlix web series -- only a little more extreme and cartoonish.
Yeah, I could see that. With the Grawlix characters, we just sort of exaggerated the negative personality traits of ourselves. Ben is overly emotional, Adam is this manipulative dick, and I'm this innocent doof. And that carried over with these teacher characters: Ben is hot-headed and overly emotional, and I'm the same idiot that I am in the Grawlix.
Adam is a little less dickish in this show than he is in the web series. In Grawlix, we don't have to worry about a larger world, so it's light on story and big on hijinks. Whereas with this sitcom project we need the story to be solid. So Adam still has those dickish qualities, but he's a little bit more appealing. You kind of like him, even though he's a smartass. We were writing it like a Bill Murray character in an '80s comedy -- a smart alec, surrounded by even more broad, cartoony characters. Like Meatballs, Stripes and Police Academy.
He's a smart, cool-guy who's picking up girls, whereas I'm just dumb and Ben is just upset. Like in The Office, you wouldn't relate to Steve Carell's character, but you would to Jim, you want to see yourself in him.
While watching it, I felt like there was a kind of Three Stooges dynamic, with Adam as Moe, the leader, and you as Curly, the loveable idiot. Though Ben isn't much of a Shemp or Larry -- he'd be more like the hot-headed boss that the Stooges piss off.
Yeah, and that's similar with the Grawlix series. I'm easily manipulated by Adam, and Ben is less easily manipulated, but they have a tense, competitive relationship. I don't know, I'm not that up on my Three Stooges.
This is going to sound kind of cynical, but it seems like this show is targeted toward 25-to-35-year-old, middle-class, married professionals. Is that something you were conscious of when writing this?
I'm not a student of these things. In general, it's just what we find funny. And given that it's what three thirty-something dudes think is funny, I think the audience would more than likely be dudes our age. A lot of it is a mix of clever humor and dick-joke humor, similar to the Grawlix.
Well, for example, you've talked before about writing a series based in a coffee shop with baristas as characters. That's a type of lifestyle and class designation that would appeal to a younger, working-class audience. Whereas this seems more for an older, home-owner, car-driving demographic.
Well, with Those Who Can't, anyone who's been to high school should be able to relate to it. You remember your teachers, you remember the weird ones and the cool ones. The high school world -- even though there have been changes -- is pretty similar across the board. We all have strong memories of high school, because we were all becoming adults at that time. So I think that world appeals to quite a few people.
As far as the demographic for this, I think people who enjoy shows like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Workaholics would love this. I think it falls right in line with that.
I recognized one or two of the exterior locations you shot in -- down at the Sixth Avenue overpass, across from the Food Not Bombs house -- and I know you filmed this in a Denver school. Does the story itself take place in the city of Denver?
Yeah, it's set in Denver, made in Denver, most of the crew and actors are from Denver. We don't want to artificially shoe-horn anything in, but there are a lot of iconic areas of Denver that would be cool to profile. And since it's set in a high school, it lends itself to things like a ski-trip that could further showcase Colorado.
What was it like working with those younger actors? Were they all around fifteen- to eighteen-years-old?
Some were real high schoolers, others were adults who look like high schoolers. The ones who were playing teenagers were a little easier to work with because they came in expecting to act -- whereas some of the teenagers were thrown into it, like, "Hey, you want to be in a movie? Show up in an hour."
The boy playing Ben Roy's son was pretty intense -- how did you find him?
We had a casting call and all these kids showed up. It was by far the biggest turnout for casting. These child actors would show up with headshots, so professional. There were twice as many as showed up for the adult roles. There were a few great kids, but the one we chose was great. And he didn't have any problems with the racy language, while some of the other kids balked at the character, this sass-talking bad kid. But the parents were enthusiastic, telling their sons, "Yeah, you're a little snotty piece of shit -- go for it!"
Now that it's finally released, how do you feel about the pilot?
I'm so happy with the way the pilot turned out. Even if it doesn't get picked up, I'm proud of it. If it was shitty, whether it got picked up or not, I'd have regrets. But it was fun working with my friends, writing and filming a show. It's a success regardless.
Now that the pilot is done, we're looking forward to making a series out of it. A pilot is hard: You have to introduce the characters, establish the world and throw in a story, all within 22 minutes. Whereas if we got ten episodes to unspool ideas, I think it would be so funny and come so quickly. We've done eleven of the Grawlix episodes, and now they're getting so easy to do because we have it down so well. They come quickly and they're getting better and better. And I'd love the same to happen with this.
Click here to watch Those Who Can't on Amazon for free.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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