Class is in session at Whitlock High School, but there’s no teaching going on here — unless you count lessons on how to “shut the f— up” and still get an A.
After 12 seasons, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star, co-creator, and writer Glenn Howerton walked right out of Paddy’s Pub and into the classroom, stepping out on his own as the lead of the new NBC comedy A.P. Bio.
While Howerton insists he hasn’t creatively left his long-running FXX series (he says his character Dennis’ future is the bigger question), he’s used his time away from Sunny to star on what he describes as “something a little darker, bolder, and stranger” than you normally might see on network television.
Created by Saturday Night Live alum Mike O’Brien and executive-produced by Lorne Michaels and Seth Meyers, A.P. Bio follows Jack Griffin (Howerton), a disgraced Harvard philosophy scholar who returns to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio to teach advanced placement biology (with no emphasis on teach). But Jack’s more interested in plotting the demise of his rival and hooking up with a student’s mom than pulling a Dead Poets Society.
To preview A.P. Bio, EW chatted with Howerton about why this was his next step, getting to focus primarily on acting, and developing chemistry with a much different and younger cast.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why was this the right show and the right time to branch off onto your own?
GLENN HOWERTON: It was a lot of things. I just thought it was really, really funny. It was the fact that people who I’m really a huge fan of were making the show, Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers, and Mike O’Brien. And then it was the opportunity to do something a little darker, bolder, and stranger on network to a wider audience. My main concern was whether NBC was actually going to let us make the show that I read, because when the pilot hit my desk, I thought it was so f—ing funny. It just made me laugh. The character really resonated with me, and I just really liked it. So once it seemed like NBC was actually going to let us make this show, it was a pretty easy decision to make.
That concern seems totally valid considering some of the things that your character gets into in the early episodes.
[Laughs.] Yeah, so many things that happen on the show had me thinking, “God, is NBC going to let us do that?” But to their credit, it seems like they really let Mike O’Brien make the show that he wanted to make. I don’t know if they knew they were going to do that or if they had certain changes that they wanted to make it more network-friendly, but that was also the great thing about having Lorne Michaels involved, is that I think he really helped us protect the show creatively. I wasn’t in all of those conversations because it’s Mike’s show, but as far as I could tell, they really let Mike make the show he wanted, which is cool.
You mentioned that it’s not your show, so after all these years on Sunny, where you were so involved with everything, what’s the adjustment been like to focus primarily on what you’re doing onscreen?
It was an adjustment period. I’d say there are a lot of positive things and a few… not negative, but it was easier in the sense that I didn’t have as much responsibility to shoulder, which I was excited about, because it’s nice to come to work and, like you said, focus on one thing — my performance — and not be trying to wear so many hats. That was the best part about it. But yeah of course, after 12 years of being in charge creatively of the show and being able to make the call whenever I wanted to change a joke or rewrite something or to give the actors direction, all of that stuff was difficult for me to not just do without feeling like I was stepping on Mike’s toes or the writers’ toes or the director’s toes. I am a producer on the show, so Mike was extremely collaborative. I know he respects the work that I’ve done on Sunny as a producer and a writer, and he was always very open to notes on the scripts and the edits of the episodes. But ultimately, what I really liked about Mike is that he also had very strong opinions. We didn’t always agree, and he wouldn’t back down, yet he always listened to my thoughts. But he had a very strong opinion on what he wanted, and that’s exactly what I would want in a showrunner.
How would you describe Jack? Although, he does do a pretty good job of describing himself in the opening scene (which EW exclusively debuted and can be seen above).
He’s a pretty interesting portrait of a guy who is just constantly being humbled. I’d say he’s egotistical, and he’s narcissistic, and he’s really, really smart, and he knows he’s smart, which has gotten to a lot of great places, but it’s also standing in the way of him maturing emotionally. He can usually outsmart any situation that he’s in, but I think it’s stunted his growth as a human being. He’s been humbled and fired from his dream job as a philosophy professor at Harvard and had to move back to his hometown, a place he never wanted to come back to, and now having to teach a high school class there has put him in a position where he still thinks very highly of himself, but he doesn’t have a lot of evidence to prove it.
You’re so connected to Dennis that it will be easy for people to try compare him to other characters you play, so how would you say Jack differentiates from Dennis?
Jack is actually quite smart, whereas Dennis just thinks he’s smart [laughs]. And Jack actually has achieved some great things, having graduated from Harvard and being a professor there, that’s pretty badass. Whereas Dennis, he always thought of himself as having achieved great things, but he has absolutely nothing to point to make that case. While he has some of the same narcissism and big ego as Dennis, he’s certainly not a psychopath. And I think Jack is a little bit of a softie. He’s got quite a big heart, he’s just afraid to show it, because sadly he thinks that would be weak. There are moments of heart in this show, which I think are quite nice because they happen when you least expect it. On the surface, this character is a little bit of a jerk, BUT I think underneath it all, he really does care about his students. He actually cares about them enough to talk to them like they’re adults, which I think is kind of cool.
In taking on this role, did you go and study or pull from any past pop culture teachers? Or even some of your own teachers from when you were younger?
Honestly, there was no need for me to do that because this is a guy who likes to be sort of the rebel. He probably was slightly more conventional with his style when he was teaching at Harvard, but when he shows up to this high school, he has no intention of teaching them anything; he makes that pretty clear off the bat. There was no reason for me to figure out how to be a high school teacher because Jack has no intention of being a high school teacher. He’s like, “Look, if you guys just shut the f— up and do what I tell you to do, you’ll get an A.” And of course, he’s sadly mistaken because — this is one of the other things that I really love about this show — these kids really desperately want to learn something from this man, and he’s not teaching them anything. It was one of the things that grabbed me when I first read the script is that Mike just lays it all out in this giant monologue right at the beginning.
After 12 years of working with your core Sunny collaborators, what was it like trying to establish chemistry and a dynamic with a new group? This is a much bigger cast, too, with all of the actors playing the students and teachers, as well as Patton Oswalt as the principal.
For me, I was trying to set a tone on set where this is a place that we can play. Sometimes, I’ll say things that I know are never actually going to make it in the show just to make the cast laugh and make myself laugh. I like to think that energy transfers through the camera, and the audience can tell. So it was my intention to do that, especially with these kids. They’re young actors, and when you’re a young actor, I think you show up thinking you have to do things a certain way, and there’s a tightness that comes with that. Right off the bat, I just wanted to be like, “All bets are off. You got hired because you’re funny, so be funny. Do your thing. Let’s f— around. Let’s be in the moment.” When I was their age, I don’t think I could have been as loose as they were; they’re amazing. And Patton, he’s such a pro. He was so fun to work with. And then the girls, Lyric [Lewis], Mary [Sohn], and Jean [Villepique], who play the female teachers, they’re like my older sisters. They’re basically professional improv comedians, and they’re better at this stuff than I am. The chemistry was there immediately.
A special preview of A.P. Bio airs Feb. 1 at 9:30 p.m. ET before the show airs its official premiere on March 1.