Dan Harmon walks us through Community’s second season (part 3 of 4) 

Dan Harmon walks us through Community’s second season (part 3 of 4) 

Community creator Dan Harmon recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the show’s second season, episode by episode. This section of his interview covers episode 13 through episode 18, beginning with “Celebrity Pharmacology 212” and concluding with “Custody Law And Eastern European Diplomacy.” Parts one and two were posted earlier this week.

“Celebrity Pharmacology 212” (Jan. 27, 2011)
The group puts on an anti-drug play to educate some kids, but Pierce's desire for attention backfires and leaves the kids with the wrong message.

Dan Harmon: It probably started as something simple, like, “We haven’t done a Pierce story in a while.” Honestly, I have no idea, it’s just another one of these episodes where partway into it, I start going, “What are we really doing?” And the goal becomes to just get through it. 

I think there was an element in there at one point where we were going to mirror Chevy [Chase]’s biography in a strange way, not in an obnoxious way, but hopefully in a profound way. That this play for kids was actually going to mirror Saturday Night Live’s first season. [Laughs.] That’s why there’s bee costumes involved, because the legend is when Chevy returned to host Saturday Night Live in its second season, he and Bill Murray got into a fistfight backstage that a killer-bee-clad John Belushi had to break up and shove Chevy out for his monologue. And that you could see Chevy coming out, kind of being pushed out, or that he was just in fisticuffs with Bill Murray because of something he said. These legends, probably none of them are true, but that is why there are bees. I think we were going to build to some kind of weird scuffle backstage. 

But at some point, those bits start to reveal themselves as having no actual value. They betray you. You go, “How much harder are we going to work to contrive this? And what’s the pot of gold?” And then unfortunately, sometimes in those situations, abandoning that lofty, intriguing concept, you’re now hip-deep in a Small Wonder episode about a children’s drug play gone awry because somebody’s a stage hog. 

The only thing noteworthy about that episode, in my opinion, is how touching it feels for Chevy to be near Alison [Brie], which I never would have predicted on paper. If you had pitched me the idea of him being a fatherly mentor to her, I would have worried that there might be a lecherous vibe to it, because Alison is so coveted. She brings the lupine qualities out of all of us. I saw them in that scene together where he’s writing her the check, and I was like, “Wow, we have arrived at a lot of goals that I talked about at the beginning of the season.” We’ve got this character revealing she’s living above the dildo store, and we’ve got a relationship forming between those two that is the furthest thing from sexual, but is completely real and resonant and interesting. 

The rest of the episode is fine. Neil [Goldman] has this expression that he introduced me to in the first season after a 70 percenter. He says, “It’s pizza,” meaning, “Bad slice? Good slice?” Like, [Nasal voice.] “Ehh, pizza’s good food. We make pizza.” And that’s a good way of looking at it. Community is pizza, as compared to having to eat shit, you know? That’s a different meal entirely; that’s bad. And you can have a bad slice of pizza, and you can have a really good slice of pizza, but it’s important to fall back on the comfort of going, “We make pizza. People like pizza. It’s greasy, and it’s gooey, and it’s crispy, and we do it right.” Sometimes, we don’t redefine fucking television with every slice. My problems with that episode are the kinds of problems that people never notice in the episodes that they love that I secretly don’t like. It’s structure stuff. There’s no story being told there. There are too many double beats. How many times are we going to establish that this guy wants more than he has? I tried to incorporate revelations about his father and backstory and stuff. [Sighs.] 

One interesting footnote about that episode is that that’s the episode that was about to air when we were writing the Dinner With Andre episode. And I’m pretty sure the only reason we didn’t get a federal injunction filed against us to keep us from shooting Dinner With Andre is because there was no table-read for the Andre episode. And when we were handing in the pages that were about to be shot, when people’s alarms should be going off because they’re seeing six-page monologues about Cougar Town, at that exact time, everyone was embroiled in this ridiculous pissing contest about the editing of this episode. Specifically, a Sony executive really wanted me to just cut the entire end of the first act, where you see Chevy watching the old commercial for the moist towelettes. I’m not going to sit here and say that that scene makes that episode Citizen Kane, but when you start cutting out everything weird from the episode, I start to get really depressed, because there ain’t much left to it, except a glimpse that connects you aesthetically from Space Bus, where the Colonel Sanders figure is antagonizing Chevy’s claustrophobically antagonized mind, and the magic trampoline where he’s saying “Father,” to episodes like 214, 215. There’s a story happening here. If we can do one thing with a lukewarm episode, can we plant a weird one-off scene in the canon of the show, so when you’re watching it in 2020 on DVD, you go, “That’s cool”? Do we have to cut that out? Is that going to make the show get a 2.3 instead of a 1.5 [rating]? It’s not. 

It’s hard to argue, then, in favor of macro-serialization of your character’s arc and stuff when people just want to cut the scene because it feels weird to them. But the beautiful result of that was that there were so many conference calls about the editing of that, and there were so many arguments and so much politicking and so many alliances changing, that meanwhile, we were writing a My Dinner With Andre episode. Nobody knew we were shooting. They didn’t know. I can’t believe that they did know, or they would have told us to stop. But other than that, what is that episode? It’s cute. It’s got some funny moments.

“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (Feb. 3, 2011)
The group gets together to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons to help depressed fellow student Fat Neil.

DH:  I played D&D when I was a kid, and I’m more familiar with it than most people are with poker. So it’s the same reason that people on other shows are pitching, “Let’s do a whole episode where it’s just Paul Reiser and Norm Macdonald watching a Lakers game.”  Or these guys are fixing a car in their driveway, and the whole episode is they’re fixing their car. Whatever you have a relationship with, you realize the potential for it story-wise. For me, it’s Dungeons & Dragons. The closest analogy is poker. What I kept saying is that when they’re playing poker in The Odd Couple, I don’t know anything about poker. It’s not what’s important. And arguably, I think Dungeons & Dragons is a more accessible game than poker, because there are all these weird arbitrary rules about what beats a straight flush, but there are no arbitrary rules about if you take someone’s sword and rape their family. That’s worse than if you don’t. 

So I always wanted to do a Dungeons & Dragons episode. I knew that we had predecessors there. I knew that The IT Crowd did one. I knew that Freaks And Geeks did one. I saw that what all those had in common was, number one, they bounced back and forth from the actual game to other stories, and also that the joke, the conceit was that it’s a nerdy game, and that’s the whole point. I wanted to just fade into the group playing the game, and how do you tell a story that way? That was another case of the writers blowing my socks off, because I gave them a Rubik’s cube of a quandary. I said, “Make a game of Dungeons & Dragons.” And none of these other people even played the fucking game. I came to the lot with this milk crate of books from when I was 15. I plopped them down on the table and I said, “You don’t have to start reading this stuff, but flip through the pages and see if you figure out a way that there could be stakes in Dungeons & Dragons, the way that Jeff and Britta fucked in [‘Modern Warfare’].” And they fucking nailed it.

It was all while I was out of the room, somebody coming up with these Fat Neil concepts they equated with Saving Private Ryan. The idea of this stranger you didn’t know being the point of this whole thing, and somehow that being even more important. I remember Megan [Ganz] coming to the fore in the third act, and really being invested in these concepts of “How do we break this third act? What is it that happens? How do you beat Evil Pierce, who has the power of a dragon?” And coming up with concepts ranging from, “Well, he seals them in a cube that they can’t get out of, so in the game, they start creating a game called Dungeons & Dragons where they start playing their own game sealed in the cube, and he’s not allowed in it in the confines of his own game unless he unseals the cube.” That got simplified to “I use my turn to feel sorry for you.” [Laughs.] That was great.

Chris McKenna and Andrew Guest and I spent two days in a row on that script, first at my place, and then we moved over to Andrew’s place. It was a 48-hour, three-man working of that script, finding the final points of the story and stuff. It was in those final hours that I came up with the idea that Pierce could cheat by getting hold of the actual adventure that they were playing and stuff like that. 

You’ve got Christmas, and you’ve got Dungeons & Dragons as the major political plot points in the making of Community’s second season. I was asked not to write the episode, they said “Because it won’t be an accessible topic.” I said, “I appreciate your concern, I’ll make it accessible.”  This was the studio, not the network. We spent two days writing it, and we finished it, and we read it through, these two gentlemen and I at Andrew Guest’s house. His girlfriend made us Pop-Tarts and we had a little shot of cognac or something. We’d been up all night. We almost cried because we were like, “God, that was fucking hard.” And it was so satisfying. “What a nice little story this is. Let’s get to that table-read.” And we did it. We threaded the needle. We made Dungeons & Dragons accessible. We went and table-read it, and it was a great table-read, people loved it. The director, Joe Russo, was like, “I can’t wait to shoot it. I don’t have any thoughts about how to improve it. I think it’s great.”

The studio and network response at the table-read was so removed from that. They were so upset about the crime of this episode having been written. The note session as a whole was preceded by a 45-minute period of them walking around the lot whispering to each other. They told me they would come up to my office and meet me privately. When they came up, I had the director and all of the writers in the office with me, because I was terrified. They sat down, and they said, “Look, where do we start?” I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was like, “This is opposite of how you should feel right now. This is a great episode. We’re going to get a 1.7 no matter what. We will build our ratings in other ways. The episode is not about credit cards; it’s not about Hilary Duff. It’s going to get the same numbers. There is a cultural build to a hit show. We have to prove to people that we’re capable of good things so they can trust us, so that we can have a relationship. One day we will either be a highly rated show or we’ll be cancelled. It will not have to do with this moment. This episode is good, the story is good, these characters are good. Anyone who doesn’t tune in because the commercial says they’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, it’s not my fault. It’s not on me.”

It was such a depressing note session, because they didn’t even have any notes on the story. They just didn’t want it to exist. I took a photograph of my eyes driving home that day at 3 p.m. because I was leaving work early. I looked in my rearview mirror, and I was crying. More than crying, I was red-eyes, tears streaming, weeping. And I was weeping out of self-pity and frustration, like a child weeps when he doesn’t understand his parents’ rules. “Why can’t I have ice cream when I ate my liver?” I took a photo of it, so I could show it to them between seasons, because as I told my girlfriend when I got home, “I think I’m going to have to quit my own show, because I can’t operate under these circumstances. I can’t be this proud of something that the people paying me to do it are this ashamed of. It will never work. We’ll never achieve anything. It’ll never connect.” So it was the best of times and the worst of times. I think that episode is fantastic. I haven’t watched it again, but I remember it as being something else. I invite people over to my house to watch the episodes with me on Thursday night that I’m really proud of, and that was definitely one of them.

“Early 21st Century Romanticism” (Feb. 10, 2011)
Three small stories take us through a Valentine's Day at Greendale, as Jeff reaffirms his commitment to the group and Britta believes she's friends with a lesbian.

The A.V. Club: It felt like there hadn’t been a lot for Britta to do until that episode. How do you balance out which characters get what kind of storylines?

DH: It’s pretty base logic. We try to keep our eye on it. We just try to say, “Well, it’s been a couple of episodes since we’ve done anything with so-and-so.” The thing that terrifies us is the day we get comfortable going, “Well, that character, fuck her.” When I think about Britta, I rub my hands together and roll up my sleeves and be like, “Oh, is it her turn?” Because I don’t even have an idea, but I already know it’s going to be fun. And I want to feel that way about every single one of those people. We try to do a rotation, really, but there’s no real system to it yet. We’ve got seven characters played by seven sophisticated, high-comedy-IQ weapons. We try to find different combinations and try to give them all screen time. 

Then there’s other random things that happen where you go, “Well, this story bumps with that story, and actually, are you thinking what I’m thinking?” “Yeah, now that we’re breaking this story, it actually sounds like this character who’s going up and down the beanstalk should be Jack, not Jill. Jill should go up a hill.” It comes from structural things, that you go, “Well, this character’s having these things happening to him, wouldn’t it be more profound if this was Annie?” So sometimes that stuff happens. 

The lesbian thing, I’m pretty sure that had to be driven from the outset from Karey “real-life lesbian” Dornetto. I talked about it with her a lot, this concept of the straight girl who wants to hang out with this girl who thinks she’s a lesbian, and meanwhile, the other girl thinks that this straight girl is a lesbian. It’s adorable, the concept. It’s so perfectly Britta. That was easy pickings. The original concept was that we were going to do this crazy Love Actually kind of thing in the spirit of these holiday movies, or He’s Just Not That Into You, these romantic comedies with these casts of thousands. The original concept was to decidedly be fragmented with our storytelling. It’s Valentine’s Day, and we’re just going to do these rapid-fire stories. Well, one of our characters was pregnant and repairing her relationship with her husband. With Troy and Abed, it was easy; let’s do a love triangle. I said, “Let’s make it a librarian,” because some librarian tweeted me on Twitter, and I want to feel capricious and improvisational about it. It will blow that person’s mind when they see a hot librarian as they requested on Twitter. But then with Jeff, it was like, “Well, what’s he going to do, fall in love with some outside stranger?” 

Somewhere along the line it became, “Well, this is a story about Jeff’s relationship with the group.” I decided that it’s halfway through season two. We will never go backward from this. Jeff will be in love with the group now. After this, you’ll barely be able to tell the difference, but he’ll never again have the relationship with the group on the table for negotiation. It will only be prices having to be paid for committing to that relationship, whether he likes it or not. So this must be the episode where he says he loves them. So I guess that means, as in a typical rom-com, it’s preceded with him experimenting with not loving them, and cheating on them, in fact.

In the end, it’s pizza. There’s a lot of great elements of it. Again, structurally, it’s not much of a story. What’s he doing? He’s watching soccer instead of going to the dance. All right. What’s Chang’s deal? Okay, Chang, turns out, just wants to move in with him. It’s all good. It’s fine. 

I remember there was a complication in there somewhere. This is the Pierce complication. There was this original plan that we were going to trace his addiction to painkillers from the moment he broke his legs in “Trampoline,” and then we were going to have him go down a rocky road with pills, culminating in the hospital episode. But it was built around this idea that Chevy had asked for a week off in there. So we’d built a whole thing around this thing, so we were like, “Week off to Chevy, that’s great. We can build a story around that.” And so that’s why he’s unconscious on a park bench at the end of Valentine’s Day. The idea is that the next episode would have been the only episode without Pierce in it at all. That he would be missing, and then they would find him and then go to the hospital. We were breaking those stories about him being missing when Chevy found out the reason we were so gung-ho about him taking a week off is because we wouldn’t have to pay him. Then his agents wanted to be paid for the week he was gone, and we were like, “We’re not fucking paying you not to be here.” So everything fell apart, and we just jumped from Valentine’s Day to “He’s in the hospital” and stuff. That’s unfortunate. 

That’s why I’m reticent about planning ahead. I’m going to next season, but when you make plans, you’re a hostage of everybody that’s unpredictable. When you’re unpredictable, you’re Osama bin Laden, “Now I get to say when the destruction happens.” So I’ll try to be Obama next year. Face those demons down, harness that chaos. Valentine’s Day. Tiny Andy Dick. We had all these lofty goals. Because when Pierce takes his pills, he sees the tiny man in the Quadrocopter. I don’t know. It all seems like misfires to me. All seems like stuff that started with these inspired pieces of passion that all suffered the erosion of reality and schedules, and not being able to get Sam Elliott, and that kind of stuff. [Laughs.]

[pagebreak]

“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” (Feb. 17, 2010)
Pierce's troubles with pain killers (and a night on a park bench) land him in the hospital. Abed makes a documentary about the groups time there.

AVC: A lot of critics have wondered why the group would still be friends with Pierce after this string of episodes. What’s your answer to that?

DH: I think they just felt responsible for him. I didn’t see it the way that other people saw it. Like, I have a lot of friends who are incredibly high-maintenance. In the Dungeons & Dragons episode, he is ditched by the group. He busts them ditching him, and he creates a ruckus that ultimately saves a kid’s life. So I just never really saw it the way other people saw it, until they started proclaiming it so profusely. And it’s like, “Okay, the customer is always right.” I never knew the character was loveable, or had the ability to be loveable. I always just saw him as a dick and a test of other people’s humanity. I feel like there is a heroic quality in non-redemptiveness there that at least gives the character the opportunity to have some backbone. But I’m not really interested in selling a fake Griswold grandpa character who’s kinda racist and sleepy. I mean, where’s the story? Someone pitch me a better storyline to do with a character like that. 

I totally respect people’s right to ask, “Why would they hang out with him?” And it became my goal to answer that question, at the time, but at this point that you’re describing, I wasn’t perceiving this as a problem. If you asked me at this point, I wouldn’t have had an answer. My answer would have been, “What do you mean? Is there a problem here?” Why are any of them hanging out with each other? The answer is the same across the board, right? Is that a question, or is that the answer?” You are hanging out with him and you have been for a while. He’s like the shitty member of your family. 

It’s like a sweater thread, and when you start pulling it, it’s like, “Why the fuck are you friends with anyone you’re friends with?” That’s how I would have responded at the time. And when this episode aired, I saw the comments section, and the audience was divided into two groups. One thought that Pierce being such a dick made the show unwatchable, and the other said “No, they have a plan.” And I was like, “There seems to be a consensus here, and it’s not really my right to say that there isn’t one. I need to have a plan that this other group is talking about,” so that’s the direction I went. 

But at the time that that episode was being created, all I was thinking was, “Okay, let’s create a good story and further this character.” And keeping with the character, I just kept thinking, “What are his vulnerabilities and his desires? How come they haven’t stopped hanging out with him?” Like, don’t you have a ton of friends who just drive you nuts? Like, “Oh shit, it’s fucking Sue on the phone again.” And you just roll your eyes. But it’s not Survivor, you can’t just vote her off the island. The guy is there every day. He goes to your school. What’s the protocol? And I made those questions non-rhetorical in the last few episodes. It’s the best I could do. I don’t want to be guilty. Like maybe I have a neurological disorder that makes it impossible for me to think what other people are thinking about a character, so I just had to go with the people on this one.

AVC: Single-camera sitcoms are really popular, and that’s the style you adopted for this episode. Did you see this episode as a critique of that style?

DH: I just wanted to do it to see what it was like. You know, to take those weights off our ankles. I feel like 30 Rock and Community never get an award for doing a format that’s twice as hard. Because it really is twice as hard. Not only can you not lay in a voiceover, sort of explaining what people are doing and how they feel, but on top of that, you are combining all of the crutches that come from flashbacks and jumping around in time and multiple points of view. I wanted to do it and verify that it actually is easier to make an episode funnier using that format. And the answer is, yeah, it is. I mean, there were a lot of jokes in the episode, and it just seemed faster, like we were able to fire off more and pack more into it. Everybody has a little story, and it moved fast. It’s a bummer that we found that out, and now we have to go back to playing the violin while they play stickball. But I like our show the way it is.

AVC: And you launched the story of Jeff’s dad in this episode. Will that be coming back into play in future seasons?

DH: Yeah, definitely. I want you to be able to go back and say, “See!” three years from now. And I don’t have any definitive plans. I don’t erect statues; I erect pylons. “This marks the site.” There are plans for a whole bridge there, and those pylons are farther apart than say, an arc about Troy being good at plumbing because that’s a plan for a larger bridge that will have more traffic on it. And that’s basically all I can say, not because I’m trying to be coy, but because that’s all I really know. I just want to make sure that there’s a tree in that orchard.

“Intro To Political Science” (Feb. 24, 2011)
Greendale holds an impromptu election to elect a student body president on the brink of Vice President Biden's arrival on campus.

AVC: That reintroduced the Jeff and Annie thing. How do you feel about building those romantic storylines?

DH: I try to just be willfully ignorant of it. I know that they have chemistry and I guess that’s just another pylon. Like you go, “Okay, let’s just get them in a room together.” 

I feel like there’s a curse on that story, because believe it or not, we tried to do that story in the first season, but it became “Chicken Fingers.” The story is very loosely inspired by the Robert Redford movie The Candidate. It’s supposed to be about politics without being partisan. It’s like a shining candidate being coached by society to make the changes required to start winning, just to discover that after you win, you are nothing. You are just a winner. That was, believe it or not, what the script was for the “Chicken Fingers” episode. There was a chicken-finger shortage, and Jeff got Troy installed as the manager of the cafeteria menu, and Troy became a very powerful figure for the people, and Jeff was his Karl Rove, and there was a conflict between them having to do with Jeff being the puppetmaster and not letting Troy grow up. And so we table-read the episode, and it was terrible. So in a flurry of frustration, it suddenly became this Scorsese thing about Abed. 

But a year later, I was like, “Let’s go back to that fight that we lost that one time. I’ve got armor on now. Let’s kick some ass.” But God, that’s like our fucking Vietnam, that concept. It just never happened again. So we bailed again, and the easiest bail was Jeff and Annie. And I think that was spurred on by the original concept, which was Jeff coaching Troy to run against Annie. So the breakdown happened when we were just like, “Why isn’t Jeff just getting up there? It’s too hard to coach somebody.” Well, because he feels above it; he doesn’t care about politics. But really, of course, he cares about politics; he’s just a hypocrite. So he gets up there and runs against Annie himself. 

We very cynically and lazily did say, “Okay, we don’t have the time to break this story any better than that, but Jeff and Annie will be onscreen together.” And we aren’t jaded about that. It just came to us in the 11th hour in order to break the story. I would never take advantage of anyone’s proclivities for ’shipping or anything like that, but we had that going for us. You know, those kids are cute together. Let’s just make it like Tracy and Hepburn up there, less of a story and more of a romp. Let’s get as many podiums up there as possible and get all these characters in here, and it just won’t be a story-driven episode, it will be like The Muppet Show, sort of a playground. It’s almost a bottle episode in a lot of ways. That might be stretching the definition, but it takes place mostly in the cafeteria. 

“Custody Law And Eastern European Diplomacy” (March 17, 2011)
Britta is interested in Troy and Abed's new friend, a student from the Balkans named Luka who may be hiding a dark past.

DH: That happened somewhere in the gravity zone of the Andre episode. There is a good chance that while that episode was being written, I was tangling with one of the most terrifying things of the season, which is this Dinner With Andre thing. And you can bet that if 215 is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the mockumentary style, then 217 is… Wait, what was 216? The election one? Jeez. There was just a glut of these, and they were all rushed. The election one was all slapped together in panic, and there is a cycle that happens when you fall behind on one. Then it pushes them all back, and you are behind on everything. 

You just do a frantic dogpaddle to get to the closest edge, and you beg for an extra hiatus from the studio, but that involves them writing a check for like, $275,000 to tell everyone to just go take a break for a week while the writers catch up. And even when you get those, somehow the week doesn’t even matter that much. You just get into a space that’s like, “What’s a week gonna do?” You almost need a week off, not just a week where they aren’t shooting. 

And if you don’t get that, you become native to the Vietnam of having to make 50 decisions a day, and you can only make each one once. It’s like a thousand dice rolling all at once. You don’t have time to second-guess yourself or think about anything. So yeah, 217 is Chang coming out of the air vent in the end, just another example of scripts being written the day before they are shooting them, and it’s slapped together. It’s not a favorite of mine either. These are the things that get B’s in The Onion and 75s in Paste. You aren’t supposed to write for critics, but I’m walking out of those tapings and going “Ehh, C+.” So then everyone else says so, too. Your fans are your base, your support. You go home and they are all tweeting, “This is the best episode ever. I love this,” and I’m so grateful of that. But I know they really only have two or three of those before they just go like, “This stinks.” 

Your wife loves you even if you don’t give her an orgasm, and she really means it when she says she loves you, but that being said, you better not just stop giving her orgasms all the time. But it isn’t always something you are controlling in real time. It will just happen, you might just not have warning about it. So I have that sense in episodes like that, like, “It’s not gonna kill us, but it’s not great.” It’s tough because there are probably a million things about that episode that I thought were hilarious. 

AVC: Has there ever been an episode that you felt wasn’t very good but then the reception for it by critics and fans was far above what you were expecting?

DH: Yup. That is coming up.

Parts onetwo, and four.