In A.P. Bio, Jack (Glenn Howerton) is a truly terrible teacher. Bitter over not getting tenure at Harvard and the runaway success of his rival, Jack finds himself reluctantly working at a high school in Ohio in order to lie low, lick his wounds, and plot his revenge. Viewers certainly aren’t asked to cheer for the hero (if he can even be called that) of A.P. Bio, and will more likely be left hoping that Principal Durbin (Patton Oswalt) will fire him for child endangerment at the end of every episode.
But this is not a world inhabited by put-together, shiny people. Creator Mike O’Brien, formerly of Saturday Night Live, has created a world of chaos, with everyone keeping their mess, well, not contained at all. Howerton and Oswalt were kind enough to sit down with us at SCAD aTVfest in Atlanta to talk about what to expect from A.P. Bio, comedy in the age of Trump, and how being an asshole doesn’t give you free rein, no matter how smart you are.
A.P. Bio really has an absurdist sense of humor that’s different from a lot of other network comedies.
Glenn Howerton: Actually, that’s what I liked about it, too. [Mike O’Brien has] created his own playground. I think he’s trying to world-build in a way, right? So, he’s trying to drop you into this world which is reality, but it’s a slightly altered reality. And I think he did such a good job of presenting you with this world where you can be a little bit absurd, but still have it be grounded in the reality that we all know.
Patton Oswalt: And also, as far as the absurdity, he also shows you how a lot of the stuff that we sort of do mindlessly. If you look at it as a third person, it seems like absurdist almost dada-esque humor. Because you’re just using it to get through your day, you don’t dwell on it. And I think he’s one of those people. He has that Maria Bamford ability to take a step back from what seems like just normal filler stuff and go “Wait a minute, that’s actually kind of crazy.” And to actually look at that stuff, so that’s totally fascinating how he can do that.
I feel like the whole idea of “He’s so brilliant, but so awful” has sort of become its own genre of television in a way, so —
So what sets A.P. Bio apart from other shows like that?
Howerton: I don’t know. Give me an example so I can use.
Oswalt: House. The person that’s so good at something that they almost have the leeway to be an asshole.
Howerton: Oh, I see.
Oswalt: You know what I mean?
Howerton: Well, I would say that what sets this apart is that he’s not good at teaching high school. He’s not good at it. You know what I mean? And we don’t even know really if he was a good professor at Harvard.
Oswalt: Yeah. The way that he gets fired from Harvard makes you think he might not have been that good to begin with.
Howerton: Yeah, he gets passed up for tenure. He must not have been that good. You know, I mean he’s his own worst enemy. He’s not cocky and then excels at what he does. He’s cocky and he pays the price. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, I think is more the lesson that’s being learned here.
Oswalt: If anything, he is a… it’s really interesting that you bring that up. He is a commentary on the effect of a lot of those shows on society where, if you’ve noticed, there are a lot of people that are like “I have the right to be this douche bag because I’m…” But then you realize, no, that was actually a construct. People aren’t actually that smart, and how ’bout don’t be a douche? You can do both. You can be brilliant and be nice. It doesn’t affect the brilliance at all.
Howerton: Yeah, it shows the cracks.
Oswalt: I never thought about that. That’s actually… Hmm. I did not think about that at all. That’s really cool. Fucking Uproxx, man.
Howerton: What’s another example on the show like that though? I’m honestly curious.
Oswalt: There was one a few seasons ago with Rainn Wilson called [Backstrom]…
Right, it was a cop show…
Oswalt: He was a cop in Portland…
Howerton: Oh, okay.
Yeah, it happens a lot on like detective shows, lawyer shows.
Howerton: Oh, okay. So, not necessarily comedy.
Not necessarily on comedy, but sometimes that still shows up.
Oswalt: That is a really funny thing about these dramas, which make that look very sexy and what if somebody was really like that…
In reality, it’s really not.
Oswalt: And in reality, it looks like a comedy. That’s a really cool way to look at the show. What if this is a guy who thinks he’s one of those characters —
Howerton: Right. That’s right.
Oswalt: — but in reality, if you actually see how those people… Like, House in reality would be a comedy. “I’m really glad you saved that kid. You’re still fired. You can’t treat people that way.”
Right. You can’t almost kill people dramatically all the time.
Oswalt: “We will actually work with someone less brilliant than you because we don’t have to have all these lawsuits. You’re not worth it.”
Howerton: You’re not worth it.
A lot of people talk about comedy in the age of Trump, but A.P. Bio feels really apolitical. It’s really just focused on this one slice of life instead of — and not that you shouldn’t be making a message — but at the same time, sometimes it’s nice to just watch a show and forget about everything out there.
Oswalt: And also watch a show that still reminds you… Because I think one of the dangers of the age of Trump, if you do want to call it that, is we’re losing a lot of what makes us human. It is very much and all “short attention span, blip, blip, outraged, outraged, outraged.” So a show like this… And I remember a show like Parks and Rec was like “How about let’s take 22 minutes and actually celebrate how messy it is and gorgeous it is to be human.” You know, Glenn’s character does make horrible errors in judgment and then it’s more about how do you then come back from that as a human being. That’s what I love.
Yeah, that’s a really good point. Your dynamic on the show between the two of you guys is really funny. What can people expect going forward and will the principal ever stand up for himself?
Oswalt: You know what. I can say that I don’t think Mike O’Brien believes in the state of grace aspects of sitcoms where, you know, no matter what happens on an episode of Gilligan’s Island, they are back, they’re on that island.
Oswalt: They don’t reset. Things change, and statuses keep changing. Not to him and me, but between the teachers, between the students stuff changes. Like, there are a couple of really amazing episodes where you do some kind of life lesson stuff for that student and then after that episode, that character is a little bit different. The characters aren’t there to serve a character trait or one joke, and that’s what’s really cool.
Howerton: Yeah, the show is mildly serialized. And I say mildly because I really do think you could drop into the show at any time and love the episode and have fun. But for those people who stick around and watch every episode, they’re gonna be rewarded for that as well, because the thing do build. Characters do learn small lessons along the way. They do change. They do evolve to a degree. I think with a TV show, you can only evolve so much as a character before you can’t do the show anymore because it becomes a different show.
Oswalt: Self-actualization is the death of comedy.
Howerton: It is. You’re exactly right. Right, right. Yeah. We always like to use Sunny as a statement on the sort of American… What’s the term I’m looking for? American –
Howerton: Yeah, exceptionalism. Oh yeah, where it basically means like sort of having an opinion about something and then refusing to ever change.
That’s too real, yeah.
Howerton: Do you know what I mean? “Because by God, this is who I am, I’m never gonna change it regardless of the evidence that’s set before me.” You know? I think that that’s great fodder for comedy, too. But I think the relationship between our characters is one of the things that’s sold me on the show from the beginning. I just thought it was so funny. But, there is an evolution to it. And I’m really excited for people to see where things go. I’m so tempted to tell people like what —
Oswalt: I know. There’s stuff that’s coming —
Howerton: I can’t.
I mean, I will turn the recorder off and you can tell me.
Oswalt: No, no. Let yourself — and I’m not being coy. There’s some actually like “Oh, so now what are they doing?”
Howerton: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Oswalt: And also, you know getting back to Sunny, with the Dee-Dee character, I think you guys don’t get enough credit for listening to that actress and saying “No, I don’t want to be the voice of reason and the person going ‘Now guys!’ I want to be just as damaged and messed up as the rest of you.” And so on this show, there’s no character that is the voice of reason. So, even though you have moments where you’re the smartest person in the room, there are also moments where you make horrible decisions. So, everyone is damaged in a little way.
Nobody wants to be the most together person on a comedy.
Oswalt: No, but I thought Sunny should get way more credit for breaking that trope of it’s the woman that’s always the “Now guys! I’ve got to keep these guys in line!” No, there’s episodes where they’ve got to go like “What the fuck do we do with Dee-Dee?” Yeah, the trio of teachers on our show has just as many problems as me, as him. It was a nice shift.
A.P. Bio returns Thursday, March 1 at 8:30 p.m. EST on NBC.