Henry Winkler hit it big when, in 1973, he landed the role of Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli on the Garry Marshall sitcom Happy Days. Working his way up to star status, Winkler turned the character into one of TV's most enduring icons. Winkler subsequently appeared in films like Ron Howard's Night Shift, Wes Craven's Scream, Holes, and, with Adam Sandler, The Waterboy and Click. He enjoyed other prominent TV roles, in series like The Practice and Out of Practice. Winkler won a loyal cult audience on Mitch Hurwitz's low-rated but critically acclaimed Arrested Development, in the role of atrocious lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn. Most recently, he reunited with Hurwitz on the animated sitcom Sit Down Shut Up, in the role of atrocious teacher Willard Deutschebog.
An executive producer on Sit Down Shut Up, Josh Weinstein is best known for fulfilling the same function as show runner on The Simpsons. He has also served as consulting producer on Futurama and created the series Mission Hill. During the 2009 WonderCon, at San Francisco's Moscone Center, Winkler and Weinstein graciously sat down with me for an exclusive interview to promote Sit Down Shut Up. To my delight, the gregarious Winkler immediately took control of the interview and never let up.
Henry Winkler: Josh has a pedigree that people dream about, in his professional—right?
Josh Weinstein: Yes.
HW: And I’ll tell you what it’s like: you don’t always know, when you’re an actor, and you’re standing in front of a microphone, and you’ve got a music stand with your script on it, you don’t always know if you’ve hit it or not. This man, who is my boss, who is our director and a great writer and executive producer: even if you’re not funny, he makes you feel like you’re one of the great comic brains working today.
JW: But you are hilarious, ’cause the thing is I’m not funny at all in person. So I just get to stand there and make these guys be funny.
HW: But he makes you feel great. It’s a pleasure to say that in public, so that somebody actually now has it on record.
Groucho: Kenan [Thompson] said the same thing.
JW: Thank you. I will say likewise: these actors, and Henry—it’s a pleasure. It’s like: sometimes you have actors who don’t quite get it, or require a lot of coaching, but these guys, and Henry—they just know, it’s in their blood, so it’s actually thrilling to stand there and see what comes out of your mouth.
HW: See, that’s so…
G: I’m feeling the thrill now.
HW: But it’s so interesting to hear Josh say that: when [I’m] in the room, I am—you know the English “have a stiff upper lip?” Mine is Jell-O. Because you don’t know. And you’re constantly looking, and trying to be, you know, polite and delicate about it, but you’re constantly looking to see, "Am I in the zone?" Josh makes you feel comfortable all the time.
JW: Thank you. But it’s also a challenge to lend a voice to a cartoon. It’s different than just being in front of a camera, because it’s all in your voice, it’s all in your...
HW: Yeah. And that’s hard – especially for actors. But I will say that one of the things that I do is I carry a picture of the character with me all the time—just not today.
G: (Laughs.) But for visualization.
HW: No, my wife has the phone, but I carry him and I show him and I look at him, so that—you know, there was a work done in Italy called Commedia dell'arte.
HW: And as an actor, you put on a mask in class, you stand in front of a mirror, and you say not one word. And then you allow your body to just change on its own, looking at your face in the mask. And it’s the same thing with voice work.
JW: And then the cool thing, too, is once—because in an animated show, the thing you begin with is the soundtrack; it’s just the actors’ voices. And then the animators take that and animate to it. So then, for example, Henry’s character, Willard: he starts to have Henry-style expressions because it's Henry's voice. So it works sort of both ways.
HW: Oh, I never knew that. That’s great.
G: Do you take any video reference when they’re recording?
JW: I think, when we first started, I think they did film video, just to get…
HW: I think, two or three sessions, we had a video camera in the room shooting while we were doing the voice[s], yeah.
JW: So even though Henry’s character looks radically different than him, we see there's Henry in him.
G: Yeah, yeah. I wanted to ask you guys: since the show is about teachers, do either of you have horror stories that are deeply embedded in your memories of teachers, or vice versa: a teacher you want to give—
HW: I write children’s books.
HW: Called Hank Zipzer, the World’s Greatest Underachiever. Last Friday, we finished the sixteenth novel. Henry’s teacher—Hank’s teacher—is Miss Adolph. I had Miss Adolph. I raised my hand in the fourth grade to be excused to go to the bathroom; I’m still waiting for her to call on me.
G: (Laughs.) Uh-huh. Yeah.
HW: I had the worst teacher ever to ever get a credential.
G: (Laughs.) And your character on the show: we haven’t really talked about who he is…
HW: No one goes to his class. [Adopting the Willard Deutschebog voice:] Did you know, he takes medicine? I take a pill to make sure that my intestines stay on the inside.
JW: He’s very sickly.
G: Because your intestines want to escape your person?
HW: [Still in character:] I take a pill in order that my toenails don’t fuse into a hoof.
G: (Laughs.) He’s neurotic, is what you’re telling me.
HW: Oh my God.
JW: He’s neurotic, and he has reason to be!
HW: That’s such a thing—so, who do you see Willard as? He’s neurotic, and he has a reason to be because? [In a German accent:] He has a German mozzer, he has a German mozzer—they're letting me be my mother, and they’re gonna spike my voice up.
JW: Yes, he plays—Henry does the voice of his own mother.
HW: I have a German mother—when I was growing up, I used to dream in class that my parents would move by the time I got home, and leave no forwarding address.
G: (Laughs.) I was gonna ask if, for both of you: Henry’s line is, so far, is the signature line of the show, I think—the line about what your yearbook quote is.
HW: Oh, right.
G: Do we think that might be the next “Don’t have a cow, man,” or are we gonna see that on T-shirts?
JW: (Laughs.) It’s the newest sad line of catchphrases.
HW: [In character:] “If I believed in reincarnation, I would kill myself tonight!”
G: (Laughs.) I’m laughing at death, yeah. That’s great. So what sort of experimentation, if any, went into finding and developing the character and your voice, or helping Henry to find that? Did it come out fully formed?
HW: I don’t know what happened to me, but when I first read this script, and I went in, I did it with a great calm. I just did him, and I spoke very quietly about—and he’s always on the verge of possibly crying, it seems like.
JW: Possibly crying and possibly dying.
G: (Laughs.) Expiring.
HW: That is true. I’m now going to say that: “I’m possibly going to cry, I’m possibly going to die—I don’t know which is coming first.”
JW: That’s the great thing about these actors and these characters, is that they evolve. Like Henry comes up with a voice; then we start writing to it. Then we come up with new areas of jokes. Then Henry says something in a particular way, and that lends itself to more. And so it’s like a delightful vicious circle that keeps going around and around, and then the characters become more and more evolved.
HW: See, that’s the process I don’t know, because I’m not in the room with these guys when they’re writing. But I will say—and honestly, honestly, I have been around a lot of shows on Monday morning, when you read around the table and then you go and you shoot it. This is laugh-out-loud funny every time. And Tom Kenny is here, right? You know him? Alright? Now, what a—I mean, he’s like a major star, right? My kids—I grew up with this man. And he plays—sometimes he fill in.
JW: He’s a great utility player.
HW: Right. But he has about a million human beings inside him that all sound different!
JW: He’s got, guys like him have a comedy radar, where he will come in on a Monday morning, possibly not having read the script, but the instant his brain sees the line, it locks on to “Okay, how do I make it funnier...?"
HW: Oh my God, it’s truly amazing! And I was there when they auditioned and auditioned and auditioned and tried so many different Susie Seznos. And Kenan, when you heard his voice, you knew it was just "Hello! We found it." You know? God, is he adorable!
G: Yeah, I guess you’re looking for that magic in a bottle, that iconic...marriage of the character as conceived and the ideal vocal embodiment.
JW: Yeah. And it’s also—a lot of times in animated shows, you sort of—you start—all of the Simpsons characters are stereotypes. And they’ve evolved. And even on this show, you start with these sort of stereotypes—the cranky bureaucratic principal, the sad old teacher—but then, they evolve.
G: Yeah, well, it’s a caricature on paper—once you put the human behind it, it gives it the soul.
HW: Right. It’s amazing, because when you’re doing it, you’re only thinking, "How am I sounding to everybody else? Am I answering that other person who’s talking to me now? Is it real in the strangeness, in the out-there of the comedy?" You must keep it so that it’s a human being. No matter what he’s saying, he means it. That’s the hardest thing for me.
JW: Yeah, 'cause that’s what keeps the show from spinning off into just Crazyland. It’s a real Crazyland!
HW: Yeah, right.
G: And you have to, of course, always as an actor, believe that you’re right.
HW: You believe, yes. You have to believe you’re right. And, you know, I sit next to Cheri Oteri. Oh… my God. She is—when she gets going—I just—you turn around and you just find the cutest—and what a body!
HW: I wish you could see her body on microphone!
G: Now, have you seen any of the original Australian show?
HW: No, that would, um...
G: It would get in the way.
HW: Yeah, it would get in the way. I could only do that in a little while. But to look at it, it would seep in, you know? I love Willard. I mean, I just saw him say to paramedics—two black paramedics—[in character:] “Is it my fault that they have no non-racist term for black people in German?!”
G: (Laughs.) I can tell that this character's gonna break out!
HW: I hope you're right.
G: Tell me about what it’s like working for this guy over here, Mitch [Hurwitz, executive producer].
HW: He’s one of the three geniuses I’ve worked with in my life. Garry Marshall, Adam Sandler and Mitch Hurwitz. And this is no joke – these guys are out there. These guys: you don’t question them. Do you know? There are other—one out of five directors that you work with will know what they’re doing. When it comes to someone like Mitch Hurwitz, you…don’t…question. When he says, “No, I think it’s this way,” and you go "Exactly, whatever he says, I’m gonna do."
G: I heard you talking earlier about your beloved character for Mitch's other show.
G: And what he’s doing now. Would you mind—?
HW: No! Barry now works in the Justice Department for the government. Uh, he’s in charge of reclaiming New Orleans. And they’re doing a great job, don’t you think?
G: Yeah, Barry’s just that kind of guy.
HW: I want to tell you something. You know, I think he prides himself on being the worst legal mind in the Western hemisphere.
G: (Laughs.) Well, it’s been great talking to you.
HW: Thank you! You, too.
G: A real pleasure.