Gillian Jacobs

The third season of Community has unexpectedly turned into a showcase for Gillian Jacobs’ Britta Perry. Britta was originally conceived as half of a will-they/won’t-they couple, but the show floundered over what to do with the character after those first few episodes. By the halfway mark of the first season, however, Community discovered Jacobs’ skills at broad comedy, and the show hasn’t looked back since, playing up Britta’s sheer devotion to whatever she’s invested in at the moment. In the third season, that’s included becoming a therapist, thanks to her new major in psychology. Jacobs recently talked with The A.V. Club about the competence in Britta’s incompetence, how she and her character both love NPR, and the highs and lows of the show’s obsessive fandom.

The A.V. Club: Recently, you tweeted a photo of yourself wearing a T-shirt with Troy and Abed as Calvin and Hobbes, which originated online. How aware are you guys of your extreme Internet Community following? 

Gillian Jacobs: We know that it’s strong; we know that it’s hardy; we know that it’s rabid. But I would say all the ins and outs of it, we’re not so aware of. Whenever someone tweets us a fan-art photo or something like that, then it comes to our attention. But I don’t know that we know all the nooks and crannies of our fandom. 

AVC: You have this huge thing talking about you that you can’t constantly monitor. Is that something you have to put out of your mind? 

GJ: Well, I think the nature of the chatter for our show is by and large positive, and they’ve been so supportive of us, and I feel like they’re basically a promotion machine for us. So I feel nothing but positive, happy things about it. Maybe if they hated our show, I’d be trying to ignore it more. [Laughs.] But given the fact that they’re really advocates of us, and that they are spreading the word and making their friends and family watch the show, I’m excited that there’s a large group of people talking about us online. 

AVC: This has been a really good season for Britta, so far. How much did you know about her arc for the season, going in?

GJ: I didn’t really know anything about her arc going in. Originally, in “Paintball 2” [“For A Few Paintballs More”] last year is when I announced that I had decided to be a psych major, and then they cut it from that episode. So I didn’t know, going into this season, if I had no longer decided to be a psych major, but then I guess it turned out that they wanted to save it for the season-three première. 

So I had a hint about that, but other than that, I didn’t really know anything. We tend not to know anything about the upcoming episodes. Sometimes they’ll send out a casting call, and I’ll find out more information from my agent forwarding me the casting notice, and I know about an episode that we’re gonna start shooting the next week. We know very little. [Laughs.] 

AVC: Has there been a time when you’ve gotten a script and thought, “Good God, I was not expecting this”? 

GJ: Hmm. Oh my God, probably a lot. I’d have to think about it. Now, it all seems inevitable—but at the time? I’d say that for whatever reason, the chicken-fingers episode [“Contemporary American Poultry”] first season seemed really ambitious at the time. Certainly, the clip show [“Paradigms Of Human Memory”] from season two, I think, took everyone aback because it was so different from anything I’d ever seen on TV. I’m trying to think… gosh. Golly gee willikers. I’m sure there’s so many of them. Maybe if we move on, they’ll all come to me as soon as you ask me the next question. [Laughs.]

AVC: In the clip show, it was revealed that Jeff and Britta had been having this affair all season long, and yet it was never in the foreground, except for a couple of moments in the “Mixology Certification” episode. Was that something you’d been told about beforehand? 

GJ: Well, we recorded the dialogue for the stop-motion-animation portion of that reveal, but then I kinda forgot about it, and sometimes, you don’t necessarily know if something’s an idea they’re gonna use, or if they’re gonna decide not to go with it. I’d sort of forgotten about it, so it was kind of a reveal, to me, when we read the script for the clip-show episode.  

AVC I’ve talked to creator Dan Harmon, and it sounds like you guys are able to pitch ideas to the writers. Is there something in particular you’ve brought up to them that they’ve incorporated?

GJ: Well, I never brought it up, but suddenly, Britta started listening to NPR podcasts, which I definitely do. And everybody in the cast made fun of me for it, so I don’t know if the writers overheard other actors making fun of me for my NPR addiction, or if they just simultaneously decided that Britta would listen to that as well. But definitely when I had that podcast joke in the Halloween episode [“Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps”] with Michele Norris, that definitely felt like, “Wow, that’s Gillian.” [Laughs.] That is 100 percent Gillian. But I don’t know if they were taking that from me, or if they just thought Britta would be into that, as well. 

Definitely first season, I remember telling people I could dance a little, and I think that was the reason they had Troy and Britta do the dance episode [“Interpretive Dance”] first season, where we were both taking dance. I’m trying to think of other things. I certainly know second season, [writer] Karey Dornetto was asking us what we thought [our characters] would want to be for Halloween, and I said, “Tyrannosaurus Rex,” ’cause I had been a Tyrannosaurus Rex as a kid, and that was one of my favorite costumes. My grandmother made me a green velvet T-Rex costume that I was really proud of. [Laughs.] I’m trying to think of things other than that, but definitely the NPR podcasts. That’s Gillian.

AVC: Are there podcasts you recommend, in particular? 

GJ: I like the Moth podcast a lot. I listen to that. I’ve been listening to This American Life since I was in junior high, so I would feel remiss not to mention that. The New Yorker’s fiction podcast, I like a lot, where they have authors pick short stories by other authors that appeared in The New Yorker. See how nerdy mine are? [Laughs.] Bookworm, a show on KCRW where [Michael Silverblatt] interviews authors. I’m not kidding. I wish I was making this stuff up. 

This is, like, what I do. I think I really shocked Yvette [Nicole Brown], because I really don’t listen to a lot of music. Music is so important to her, and she used to have a recording contract with Motown, and it’s just such an essential part of her life. And when I get in my car, I turn on NPR, and when I go home and I’m cleaning my apartment, I’m listening to NPR podcasts. Fresh Air I listen to, like, every day. RadioLab. All these shows.

AVC: Britta has been a messed-up therapist for Jeff and a couple of other characters this season, and it seems like, even though she’s kind of bad at it, she does get to the truth, or the right answer. How do you play her being both incompetent and also competent? 

GJ: Uh-huh. [Laughs.] Well, I think she’s full of conviction in everything she does, so no matter how stupid or wrongheaded it is, she’s going at it 100 percent. So I just try to approach everything with a lot of certainty on her part, and let the fact that she’s wrong be self-evident. I love that moment in the Pulp Fiction/My Dinner With André episode [“Critical Film Studies”] where she’s like, “What, you think I have 3-D vision?” And Annie’s, like, “Yes, you do.” And I’m like, “You don’t know me!” [Laughs.] I just love those moments so much. I keep saying that I’m really biting off Ken Jeong’s Señor Chang moments, where it’s like, “You don’t know me!” It’s like, “This is so stupid.” But I just love how pig-headed she is. I just love that. 

AVC: Do you ever worry that there’s a line that she could cross where she would just be too oblivious? 

GJ: I think that’s a hard thing, because so much of comedy comes from that, so you feel like you’re constantly walking that line of the joke vs. the character. I guess there’s a line there, but I trust the writers to determine where that line is. And once they give me the script, then I just gotta go for it as much as I can, while hopefully maintaining my dignity somewhere in the middle of that, maybe. [Laughs.] But sometimes dignity certainly has to go out the window. 

AVC: You guys filmed 12 episodes in a vacuum. What’s that like, having these episodes that you’re making that aren’t airing or getting feedback from anywhere? 

GJ: It’s strange, because you realize how much a part of the experience the viewers are when you’re making a TV show. Even though it’s not instantaneous, their response, normally—you shoot it, and then a few weeks later, they see it and they respond to it. Generally, with our show, I think the fans love the same things we love about the show, so it’s kind of affirming that they latch onto scenes or characters or moments or lines, even, that we all fall in love with as we’re shooting it. So I guess now, we just hope we didn’t go down a strange enough turn with this second half of the season. 

But there’s something nice for us that even though the show wasn’t airing and we weren’t on the schedule, we were still going into work every day. So there was no pause or break for us, and I think that’s something people don’t necessarily understand about TV, is that we just kept on going. We didn’t take a day off, or a week off, or a month off because we were no longer on the schedule.  

AVC: What are some things coming up in the second half of the season that you’re particularly excited about? 

GJ: Well, let’s see. It’s so hard to remember what I’m allowed to say to you, and what I’m not. [Laughs.] I don’t wanna get in trouble for saying too much. There’s a two-parter in there that I think is gonna be pretty great. That’s not the season finale. There’s kind of a doppelgänger episode that I think is pretty great; a Law & Order episode that I thought was really well done. Gosh, see, we shoot them, and then I forget them. It’s also like, I haven’t seen any of them since we shot them, so there’s whole sections of all these episodes that I have very little awareness of, ’cause if I’m not in the scene, then I have no idea what it looks like or how it came out. I’m just going based on the table reads for some of these. 

I think we have some really ambitious and strange and funny and very Community episodes coming up. I feel like the NBC promotional gods will strike me down if I say too much. I’d rather say too little. But I feel like there’s some really strong episodes in there, and I really hope people are as excited about them as we are.  

AVC: Without spoiling them, how would you say Britta’s storyline for the season evolves as the episodes go on?

GJ: Well she definitely keeps trying “therapizing,” so you’re going to keep seeing her attempt to “therapize”—her word, not mine—members of the study group, and wield her mental arts on them. She’s a practitioner of the mental arts, and so she is “needed.” She feels like she is needed by the group, so you’re going to see that continue to happen, obviously mixed-bag results, but she is undeterred thus far, which is already really fun for me. I wear glasses; I get a pair of glasses somewhere along the line, which probably to Britta denotes intelligence. [Laughs.]

AVC: So when the show was not on the spring schedule, there was this huge outcry, and Twitter hashtags were immediately formed, and people were putting fake beards on their avatars and stuff. What was the whiplash of that day like?

GJ: Well, it was really disappointing to not be on the schedule. I felt like in retrospect, I had been kind of willfully oblivious, because I should have been anticipating 30 Rock coming back, and there being an extra show for Thursday night. So in retrospect, I guess I should have been more cognizant of that all along, and less surprised that something happened. But it was still disappointing, and it’s hard, and it’s not what anyone hopes for. 

But also, I do feel like it kind of unleashed the floodgates of our fandom, because in some ways, they’ve been primed and ready for an event like this, to really show us how much they care and how devoted they were and how obsessive they are about the show, so in some ways, it gave them an outlet for those feelings. They have such strong feelings of ownership of our show, which I think is so amazing. It’s really their show, and they feel very protective of it, and they want it to continue. So to have really engaged, involved fans like that is all you could really cope for, with the exception that maybe there could be a couple million more of them. But I’m so grateful for the level of devotion they have to the show. 

So in some ways it felt like, “Wow, this is their chance to really show us how much they care, and they’re totally doing that, and it’s really exciting to see how much noise they’re making about the show getting pulled.” And I feel like my friends who aren’t in this business, even they sort of saw, like, “Every website I go to has something about your show!” or “Everyone seems to be tweeting about it!” So I think it reached a greater consciousness beyond the super-fans of our show, or people who work in Hollywood, which was really encouraging. 

AVC:  The Twitter hashtag is #sixseasonsandamovie. But it’s a show about college—do you think it could wrap after a fourth season?

GJ: Well, I don’t think we shot a series finale [for season three]. I feel like we shot a season finale. So in my mind, the show should definitely come back for a fourth season, and then beyond that, I feel like starting very early in this season, we’re seeing people outside of Greendale so much more, we’re establishing more and more why these people are friends beyond just the framework of being in college together. And so I feel like even the dean is a bigger presence this year, so maybe it’s about him outside of Greendale as well. I could see us going on for more than four seasons.

I think people care about these characters so much, and it’s not really a show about the college anymore. We don’t really need that as the framing device, for people to buy that these people are interested in each other’s lives, so I think that really opens us up to additional seasons, beyond even their graduation from Greendale. I’m just hopeful that we’ll go more than four seasons, because at this point, I’m not ready to stop. I’m not ready to stop working with these people, and playing this character.