Those Who Can, Make ‘Teachers’; Those Who Can’t, Make ‘Those Who Can’t’

Both Teachers and Those Who Can’t are single-cam sitcoms about teachers. Both hail from comedy troupes — the Katydids from Chicago, the Grawlix from Denver. Both appear on networks with names that make them sound either dubious or fantastical: TruTV and TVLand, both of which have included these shows in an effort to up the ante (or for TruTV, begin the ante) on scripted series. Both begin with episodes that focus on bullying. Both are gender-specific. Teachers has a staunchly female perspective, while that of Those Who Can’t is equivocally, not-so-incisively male. And both differ dramatically in quality. The fact that they’re contrasted along such lines doesn’t solely stem from what you may assume may be my knee-jerk male=bad, female=good reaction. (Though while we’re at it, sure, there is still a call for all-female casts — as seen in the upcoming Ghostbusters — because maleness has heretofore been the dominant gauge against which society has defined all else.)

Rather, the shows differ in quality because of the ways they deal with these gendered perspectives, and the ways they do (Teachers) or don’t (Those Who Can’t) use the tensions and prudishness of the classroom to their greatest potential as a backdrop to  hypersexual humor. A gender-stratified show about teachers can be an interesting way of exploring one of the formative spaces in which the gender binary is wrought and policed — and if it’s not doing that, it ought to be at least, well, funny.

Those Who Canseems unable to even rise to that occasion. The series, which airs Thursday, was originally a pilot for Amazon a few years back, and the streaming service had asked them to alter their one semi-central female character — seemingly to make her, you know, a person. (It was thereafter picked up by TruTV — with a second season order before its first even aired.) Abbey, the librarian character (originally played by Nikki Glaser), as the members of the Grawlix admitted in a talk with Vulture, originally “just sort of lived in the library and served only to flirt with Adam’s character” — she was “originally more of an object for flirtation.” The creators’ grand epiphany? “We just want to have Abbey be one of the gang, to have all these people on equal footing. We were saying, what if she’s just one of the guys? Like, what if we just make her purely funny?”

The casting on these shows is somewhat antithetical to that of a typical television series, where you might imagine producers and casting directors strategizing exactly which demographics they need to hit. These are projects stemming from small comedy communities and group collaborations; they’re people whose ideas happened to grow to national broadcast level, and the groups come ready-made. As such, it makes sense that the leading roles from both series would be played by members of the troupes. (Though this also seems to have led the leading cast of both shows to be quite white). And since one of these troupes is comprised of women and one of them is comprised of bros (albeit, bros who seem to have only recently found out that female characters can, cool!, have interiority), it’s easy to see why the latter group may have thought, “Us as the same people we usually are + high school teachers = funny!” and left it at that.

But what may have worked for them as an idea for a sketch routine cannot help feel out of place on a TV screen, a form that’s somewhat more reflective of real-world structures. It’s a little off-putting seeing the three men + one woman (not even a teacher, but a librarian) breakdown used to portray a field that’s 76% non-male. Their efforts to turn her into “one of the gang” have stiffly made that character the opposite of the flirtation-machine she originally may have been, fighting come-ons and a general air of testosterone with words like “mansplain,” and she literally spends the whole first episode erasing dicks from library books. (So, the men that conceptualized her have granted her the promotion from object to token.)

Watching Those Who Can’t — which draws its humor from long-winded wordplays on “nut allergy,” aforementioned dick erasure from the likes of Sweet Valley High (okay, I was tickled by the mention of Sweet Valley High), and showing that both high-schoolers and teachers aren’t so different because both anally hump each other for laughs — it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of this show, or its ability to comically shed light on gender constructs as much as it reinforces them.

But the difference between this series and Teachers lies not only in the fact that Those Who Can’t is pretty male and Teachers is very female.  A key component to the shows’ success — or lack thereof — in smartly underscoring sexual and gender norms lies in their choices of the age of their student body. Teachers is set in an elementary school and Those Who Can’t is set in a high school.

With Those Who Can’t set in the smelly core of post-pubescense, the contrast between adult/student dissolves, and that’s the intended point: the show seems interested in showing how these male teachers and their male students are the same. It may occasionally make fun of the more primitive forms of homosocial male behavior, but it’s also just awash in it. Imagine a less funny Superbad, but in double, where student and adult characters blend.

The opposite is the case for Teachers. I, personally, can recall first learning what sex was as a kid and then being mortified as I mentally went down the lists of adults I knew who surely partook in it. Perhaps most horrifying was the notion that teachers did it. This show is hyperaware of the hilarious dissonance between teachers’ interior lives and the odd people they pretend to be in front of children. (It actually mines this dynamic in a more laugh-out-loud funny way that Wet Hot American Summer.) But its humor mostly lives in the moments where characters allow one side of themselves to slip through the barriers separating the two. One of the funniest plot lines involves Katy O’Brien’s character, Mary Louise Bennigan, becoming enamored of the father of a school bully, and instead of chastising his son, telling him his kid’s “the pussy’s pajamas — cat’s.”

The show is pretty Foucauldian — the elementary school classroom is one of the only spaces that remains (at least in the U.S.) where sexuality doesn’t really exist discursively, but where it’s quietly pervading in the ways children are taught. Its absence creates a presence — in the narratives kids may learn about how babies are made, how they’re programmed to fulfill gender norms and told by the likes of Disney, Barbie, etc. that those norms attract the opposite gender but never told, particularly, why.

Another amusing magnification of this is in Ms. Snap’s (Katy Colloton) stifled reaction of repulsion to the way one student draws her — how she isn’t capturing her cheekbones, figure, etcetera properly. The show does the same with a perverted yearbook photographer (played by SNL‘s Rob Riggle), leading us to reconsider the gendered ways we’re led to pose for our photographs as children, how the simple dictations a male-hegemonized binary become identities.

This photographer, with increasingly sexualized instructions, ends up calling one of the teachers a “nasty little slut,” which escalates to an incensed teacher repeating that he likes getting his “balls gobbled.” The diction is awkward, disgusting, repeated. It isn’t just puerile genitalia-oriented humor (which can, of course, be cool in certain doses on its own): it’s drawing comic attention to the tense social conditions that bring these things to the surface.

It may at first be hard to see the difference between the humor of “ball gobbler” and Those Who Cant’s pretty unfunny symphony of “nut” puns. But it’s there in the fact that the one seems to say, “‘nuts’ is funny,” and the other says “‘ball gobbling’ is funny because...” As the Foucault said in History of Sexuality (presumably unaware that it’d one day apply to a sitcom on something called TVLand), “There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things.”

The humor of Teachers is in the grimacing expressions of characters as their attempts to compartmentalize themselves crumbles. The lack of humor in Those Who Can’t is in the fact that, because it’s high school (that’s been exaggerated as a lawless place), nobody’s really trying to compartmentalize anything. Any policing by the prudish principle, for example, is tossed aside as a joke, and so the proverbial nuts dangle a bit too freely, creating — in this viewer at least — something of an allergy.