It’s a difficult thing to fill a need when there is no need. For example, you probably do not feel like your life is currently lacking in television shows about teachers and/or bad teachers who are bad at their jobs. That’s because there’s too much TV as it is, and not enough of life itself. What you didn’t know you need was a show about teachers and/or bad teachers that makes sure that every minute of screentime is a reward. See, it’s something of a difficult pitch to convince someone that there’s a show doing innovative, cool stuff with a premise as old as time. That’s why you just need to watch Those Who Can’t.
Denver-born comedy collective The Grawlix—Adam Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl and Ben Roy—and actress Maria Thayer make up the four teachers that guide the students of Smoot High School into certain doom and occasional redemption. Think of the four teachers as heads of different Harry Potter houses, except at Shitty Hogwarts. For a sitcom, the show carries an unmistakable darkness, which sets it apart from most high school sitcoms. The voices of the three comedians at the center are boosted by top-notch assists from Kyle Kinane, Rory Scovel, The Sklar Brothers, Patton Oswalt, Oscar Nunez, and a host of other impressive comedic talents.
You may not have crossed paths with the show yet, as it was TruTV’s first scripted comedy. But the third season begins in just a few hours, and all of the previous episodes are free via the TruTV app or Hulu. If you get started now, you’ll be caught up just in time to slide into the new season tonight.
We talked to Cayton-Holland, Orvedahl and Roy ahead of tonight’s season premiere. Here’s what they taught us.
Paste: Adam and Andrew, you’re currently in Washington D.C. doing stand-up. What’s it like doing joke words in the midst of a government shutdown? Are spirits high?
Adam Cayton-Holland: It’s on everybody’s mind. You can’t not talk about it. Everyone is fixated on how fucked they are and they just want to forget about it for the evening. Unfortunately, me and Andrew come out and just talk about it non-stop.
Andrew Orvedahl: What does it feel like to not get a paycheck? I’m getting a paycheck just for talking right now. Ha. Ha.
Paste: What’s got you most excited for season three of the show? Other than, you know, having a season three?
Ben Roy: It airing. That’s pretty groundbreaking for me right now. There was some delay here regarding a merger with AT&T.
Orvedahl: There was something about how Turner merging with AT&T was going to bring something new to all this. Like, that’s what people were waiting to hear. “Oh they’re with AT&T? Well fuck. I can’t miss that show now.”
Roy: It was a complicated business thing. A lot of shows had to find way to deal with it.
Orvedahl: Confidentially, the real reason is that Adam’s beard had been improperly trimmed and we had to reshoot the entire season.
Roy: When he started looking like Gandalf it became a problem.
Cayton-Holland: My bad dude. That one was on me.
Paste: Was the merger supposed to bring you the kind of technology necessary to do a Black Mirror: Bandersnatch style episode of your show? Lots of branching paths and such?
Cayton-Holland: When the fans see the special effects and the dragons and the multiple on-location shoots across Europe, I think they’ll realize this was worth the wait.
Paste: How complicated is it to be a scripted comedy show on a network known for airing Practical Jokers for 90% of the day?
Roy: TruTV absolutely belongs to Practical Jokers. There are times that we wonder where we fit in on the priority list at the network. But the people that we work closely with love and believe in the show, so that’s great.
Orvedahl: There’s a lot of stuff on this show, like when Ben had his foreskin ripped off in the library, that we worry the network is gonna say “You can’t do that. Obviously.” But then we bring it to them and they usually say “We love it.” So it’s hard to tell what’s going to actually get shut down.
Roy: With us being their first scripted show, I think we’re learning as much from them as they learn from us, as we both work through this together. So we wind up being surprised when they’re stuck on some tiny detail and then we cave on the tiny detail and they let us do all this bigger, weirder stuff. I had sex with a 70 year old woman in a bathroom stall. They got hung up on some minutiae but they didn’t care about the bathroom sex. So. Yeah, I’d say we’ve all learned together. And we keep getting away with insane shit.
Paste: You’re at a place I envy where you’ve spent multiple seasons filling out this fictional location of Smoot High School, with all of its characters and histories and rules. What has been the biggest surprise to you about this place? What secret nooks and crannies exist in Smoot High that maybe only you know about or you’ve only kept as headcanon to this point?
Roy: The biggest surprise is that we care about this place. Our characters spend all of their time hating this place and hating being there, and Smoot High is awful, but it is our kind of awful. I keep that with my character. My character is authorized to tear the entire school down, but if someone comes from the outside and tries to do it, well, that’s not their right. I become defensive.
Cayton-Holland: It’s our disaster. And it keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s a great microcosm and this season we got to explore minor characters more. That was a lot of fun for us in the writers’ room.
Orvedahl: You’ll meet more students this year.
Paste: What is the delicate balance between giving enough time to your four main characters and their arcs versus having the time to explore minor characters? How do you find time to let the jokes and story breathe?
Roy: It can be tricky. We’re supposed to have three storylines per episode and sometimes it feels like we have six. Sometimes it’s just about having a character in the right place to make them pop. Kyle Kinane’s character isn’t in every episode of the show, but he’s a fan favorite. Any video we post of his character gets a lot of views.
Cayton-Holland: There’s an episode with an epidemic of fingering in the high school. So the doctors are using popsicle sticks as splints for the kids. And there’s one shot of Kyle and he’s just wolfing down popsicle sticks, so the doctor can use them. That’s the only shot of Kyle in the episode. Deep-throating two popsicles at a time.
Orvedahl: We learned that if there’s an actor in a scene, they need a line. There’s nothing worse than just standing there and realizing “Oh, I don’t even have a line here.” It just creates a bunch of dead space. We don’t call our background actors dead space. I promise. We learned that both from the acting and the writing.
Roy: There’s so much we want to do about just, you know, why are these characters here? There’s characters we’ve had hint at dark pasts or having multiple families and there’s a lot of opportunity for us to put together really great stories about this. If they let us keep making more television.
Paste: I’d like to hear how you think your characters have evolved over three seasons, but I’d like to start with Andy Fairbell, the gym teacher. I find myself engrossed in his journey, which seems difficult to write, because he’s just the most clueless character.
Orvedahl: This is showing you a little too much behind the scenes, but when we’re writing Andy we ask ourselves “What would a golden retriever in a human suit do?” In season two we had an episode where we leaned into it too far, and Andy was running around and licking faces. We just wrote an actual dog. And people were telling him he was a good boy.
Roy: We actually made the choice to make the character smarter this year, and in the first episode he calls his own voicemail and doesn’t realize he’s talking to himself. So. We made him stupider than ever before.
Cayton-Holland: I know Andrew wouldn’t say this about himself, but he’s just incredible at playing this character. Because the character is all heart and nothing else. He’s right about a lot of things and his heart is in the right place but he’s just so dumb. You can’t help but root for him.
Roy: He has a darkness. We love to play with the idea that he’s the worst out of all of us. Maybe. Under that all-heart exterior. What if he has the worst darkness out of everyone? Out of all the characters, Andy is the X-factor. Of everyone, he’s the one that can wind up doing something completely unexpected. My character has anger and Adam’s character has arrogance and those are expected. But when it comes way out of left field, that’s more fun.
Cayton-Holland: In season three, we also said that Andy Fairbell is actually 56 years old. I don’t know if that got cut, but we did that.
Paste: I have friends who are now writing spec scripts for your show. Which is the sign, I think, that you’ve made it. When people want their ability to write your voices to represent them in the industry—
Cayton-Holland: Good. Because the industry stole the idea of a teacher-based television show from us. We came up with that. If those specs don’t work for us, I’m sure they can get staffed on AP Bio.
Paste: But what is the secret to cracking a great episode of Those Who Can’t?
Cayton-Holland: I don’t know. We haven’t done it yet.
Roy: I mean. Have a great writing staff. That helps. We also start each season spending a week just coming up with ideas without having to make it into anything that makes any sense. It just gets your mind going.
Orvedahl: Letting go is important. We’ve had entire episodes written that we have to let go for one reason or another. And you just have to come back and move on to something else. We had a whole episode that was supposed to be set in virtual reality. It was all fleshed out and of course we had to cut it. The episode we wrote in its place is so much better than the episode we had to scrap, so it’s often worth it.
Cayton-Holland: I think a good episode involves understanding the dynamics of how all these characters function and how they’re supposed to act in a situation and you just remove that. Change a relationship or a status or a personality. When you shift the dynamic like that and return it to normal slowly by the end, those are the best.
Paste: You guys love to mention that Maria Thayer is the one teaching you how to act when you’re on set. Is that still the case three seasons in?
Roy: We’ll go into the editing booth and we have to ask if she made a deal with the devil, because she’s so good at all of this. When it cuts together she always looks so effortless.
Orvedahl: It took me two seasons to figure out how to play to camera. I just kept giving it the back of my head. Now my face is in the shot. She always knows exactly where to be. She’s never telling us that we’re doing it wrong. But she is. By example.
Roy: We had a hard time with the first version of the character. We had to develop it into this very funny, neurotic character she occupies now. Here’s what I’ve learned from her: she’s always in the scene. Even when I’m the one talking, I’m watching her in the background because her eyes and face are reacting because she’s living in that moment instead of anticipating her line.
Orvedahl: You can see me silently mouthing my next line to get ready.
Roy: And I’m preparing for what I’m going to do with my arms.
Orvedahl: We also ask a lot of her. We shoot in Van Nuys High School in the summer. There’s no air conditioning. And we’re always telling her she’s about to be covered in black slime or crawl through and air duct or she’s going to be beheaded. She’s always up for the challenge. There’s plenty of people that would say “Fuck you guys” and leave.
Roy: Her blooper reels are epic. And I realized why: it’s because she hurls herself at a scene. So when something goes wrong, she’s still got all of that momentum and she’s giving it more than anyone else. She throws her entire self at it.
Paste: As working stand-ups, where do you draw the line between material for the show and material for the stage?
Orvedahl: I’ve had tweets that I realized would work on the show but never stand-up material.
Roy: I’ve used quite a few things in crossover because my character on the show is a cartoonish, only slightly exaggerated version of myself. So when I get into a rant, sometimes that rant belongs equally in both places. People watching the show don’t know my stand-up. They’re not gonna get angry and shout “Oh, he’s ripping that from one of his bits!” And if they do know the bit, they’re probably streaming the album instead of buying it. I need them to buy the album. That’s where the money comes from.
Cayton-Holland: If we have a clever turn of phrase, I’ll use it on stage. Who is gonna sue me? Me? Someone said that stand-up is the quest to sound like yourself on stage. The further we get in our careers and the further these characters develop, the less there’s any overlap. Me on stage is not my character from the show. Or at least it’s less me than it used to be.
Those Who Can’t’s third season premieres tonight on TruTV. You can catch up on every episode of the show free on the TruTV app or on Hulu.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.