In its first season, Community quickly went from one of the most promising pilots in a season full of promising pilots to one of the best comedies on TV. Initially, the series centered on reluctant community college student Joel McHale, who ends up in a study group with a bunch of oddballs; but as the show’s ensemble gelled into one of the best on TV, the show’s writers rapidly evolved the concept. As the season progressed, series creator Dan Harmon—whose previous TV work included The Sarah Silverman Program and the famed pilot Heat Vision And Jack—revealed his stealth goal for the show from the start: Making the community college setting one where people could come together and change the things they liked least about themselves. The first season of Community came out on DVD Sept. 21, and the second season begins airing on NBC Thursdays at 8 p.m. Eastern on Sept. 23. Harmon, whose writing has also formed the basis for several films and Internet series, recently spoke with The A.V. Club about how the show changed in its first season, what he has in store for season two, and why primatology might explain the popularity of multi-camera sitcoms.
The A.V. Club: Community changed a lot in its first season. What was the biggest change you saw between what the show was initially and what it became?
Dan Harmon: You know, I think that the biggest change, which wasn’t accidental or surprising, was the shift from a kind of a lone wolf vs. a cabal of misfits formula into a genuine ensemble comedy. More than that, more like a family comedy. We always felt that that shift was going to happen, that it needed to happen, but that was the biggest shift.
If you mean in terms of things that maybe caught us by surprise, I think that one thing that surprised me was how quickly that happened successfully. I remember feeling that we were going to spend the first 12 episodes, approximately, sort of telling the story of this guy thinking of these people as friends, becoming a friend of theirs. And really, it took about six. What took me by surprise is how much the medium and the actors’ charisma and chemistry doubled the rate at which we were willing to accept the idea that this guy just liked these knuckleheads and that nobody was going anywhere.
It was really around the Halloween episode, which was the sixth one that we shot, that you could really feel it, that there was not going to be any point anymore of pretending that this guy was a reluctant member of this family. You can see that in the Christmas episode. The idea was that that would be the final threshold, but in reality, we had already, for six episodes, been sort of an unlikely family. So that was sort of a last-minute surprise that was something that couldn’t have been predicted, that it just happened faster.
I think that the fact that any combination of these characters can sort of hold their own—that, although a tremendous anchor and an indispensable part of the show, Joel McHale is not necessarily a necessary ingredient for any particular moment on screen, that you can take any two, three, four of these people and stick them in a room and have them grappling with a problem and there would still be a show there—that was a very pleasant surprise. That was our hope. The extent to which we nailed it in casting came as a pleasant surprise in the first season.
AVC: On Newsradio, creator Paul Simms tried to make every relationship between every character different. You have a similarly large ensemble, and it seems like you’ve done something similar. How did that happen?
DH: Well, we tried to make sure that you’ve got a group of characters that every conceivable combination of them could be a different sitcom, so to speak. That’s sort of a goal from the first episode forward that we were consciously making. You want to feel like if you stick any two of these people—and this is something I was saying during casting as well—we want to be able to stick any of these two people in a car together and if they pull up and get out together, you don’t want to say, “Oh, I assume they were friends from college.” You want to say, “What the hell happened here. What went wrong? Who got a flat tire? Who’s being forced to be with who?” You want to feel the irony with any of these pairings. And therefore, the further irony that there is no irony to the pairings, that they sort of click together and need each other in different ways, that they fill gaps within each other, like a little piece in a gear.
AVC: Was there a particular relationship that surprised you?
DH: Yeah, the Troy/Abed combination. … You can see evidence of it in the early episodes. We really thought that a fruitful relationship was going to be Pierce and Troy, that those guys were going to be like our Beavis and Butt-head, kind of getting into hijinks together and things. We were shooting the Halloween episode when NBC told us we had to start shooting these tags at the end of episodes, so the first tag we did was the Spanish rap, the “biblioteca” rap with Danny [Pudi] and Donald [Glover], which I wrote because I had seen those guys on a red carpet event—someone pimped them to do a rap about Community and I saw that they both had a beatbox skill and could trade off rhyming and stuff, and I thought, “Well, that’s a rare weapon to have in your arsenal, let’s exploit that.” Sticking those two together and the energy and charisma coming off those two as a couple, that was not foreseen at all.
AVC: It seems as though you know a lot about sitcom history. What traditions do you see this show fitting in?
DH: You know, I reference Taxi a lot with the writers. I don’t really have an encyclopedic knowledge of those shows, but I have memories of the way I perceived those shows when I was a kid, and I prefer to stick with it that way. Like, I didn’t get out the box set of Taxi and study it frame for frame when we started doing the show, because I think actually what’s more valuable is your memory, your perception of a show.
What I remember of Taxi was that there was a sense that all these characters were broken in a way, that they were a lot like the toys under the bully’s bed in Toy Story. They were coming to each other with equally dark but varying backstories that had made them misfits, at least by television’s definition, and this place that they were in together was potentially depressing, but by virtue of the transitions that it was putting them through, was a healthy place for them to be, was the place they needed to be at the time.
Similarly, Cheers, sort of the same thing. If you pitched a show about a bunch of people hanging out in a bar, on paper, there’s a depressing element to that. But the thing that they share is that they’re all hanging out at this bar together. The guy that’s bartending is a former pitcher that’s past his glory days, and his coach who’s sort of losing his mind is the owner of the place. On paper, it’s very, very depressing stuff, and from that stuff comes this really, really clear feeling of family because the environment, without depressing the hell out of people too much, sort of symbolizes the fact that the world wasn’t necessarily designed for us to feel good about ourselves, and that’s something that has to happen through us, and through the relationships between us and the choices that we make. Definitely Cheers and Taxi are two really, really huge ones that I think of as having achieved television excellence and sort of aspire to in my head.
AVC: Both the shows you mentioned were multi-camera shows filmed before a live studio audience. Do you think Community could work as that kind of show?
DH: Well, technically yes. In a sort of technical, creative sense. There’s a multi-camera conducive tonality to it. More so than if you were watching Larry Sanders or something. There’s more of a cadence. You could imagine that between these couplets there was chuckling and laughing and pausing for it. I would kill myself before I wanted to see that because it would cut your content down by about a quarter. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen—and I’m not digging on the show at all, I have to be very careful to say that now that we’re in the same timeslot—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen on YouTube The Big Bang Theory clip where they remove all the studio laughter?
AVC: Yeah, I have.
DH: To me, I don’t think that it’s a jaded look at the show and the revelation that it’s not funny or anything. I just look at it and marvel at how much extra time it takes to get your storytelling done when you have those gaps. People are getting something out of that, the viewers are getting the sense that they’re watching the show with their tribe of cavemen, you know, and they feel better about it, it’s more appealing.
I don’t think there’s ever been a year on TV where the most successful single-camera comedy even came close to the most successful multi-camera one. I would be surprised to hear that that was the case, unless M*A*S*H maybe counts, or something. I may do a multi-camera show one day, but Community, to me, the heart of what makes it so cool is that it has that energy, but it doesn’t have to pause for the laughter, and it’s packaged in visuals that feel kind of cinematic. There’s a unique product there, in my eyes. It’s unmistakably television. It’s the things you like about a Snickers bar. It’s got the peanuts and the nougat and it goes down easy. But there’s a classiness to it too, and I think adding a laugh track, having it multi-camera would just push it into something else entirely.
AVC: A lot of shows like Community—30 Rock, Arrested Development, these kind of movie-style, single-camera comedies—struggle in the ratings. They’re great shows, but they’re shows that people seem to catch up with on DVD. Why do you think that is?
DH: I can speculate as to why it is. I think the answer is somewhere in primatology. We are really, really, really most comfortable feeling like we’re hanging out with about a hundred or so people, experiencing something with them, and it’s just the most comfortable thing in the world to watch a sitcom, a multi-camera one, to just slip your foot into this warm slipper that’s been molded to fit your foot after a hard day’s work. Going back to Jackie Gleason, we have that format down. That industry has now made a science out of finding the funniest, most charming people who can pull off that weird combination of Broadway performance and fourth-wall acting, even though they’re pausing for these gigantic laughs that you can hear. If you were describing it to a Martian it would sound absolutely insane, you would have no way of logically explaining why. But the answer is, it’s more comfortable. I can attest to it. I watch reruns of Seinfeld. I mean, it’s perfect. It’s just like drinking a nice cup of tea before bed. Maybe that’s a bad idea. It just feels appropriate and good.
I think that hearing people laugh at the end of a long, hard day, if you cut that out of your life… Some of us can afford to do that because our jobs aren’t as hard. And we get to think about TV for a living. We want more of a challenge. We value the TV actively, ever so slightly asking us to do a little bit of the work in our head. And I don’t want to slip into bagging on it like it’s a base craft, because obviously the good stuff is satisfying, richly satisfying to everybody. Smart people, dumb people, who cares. You’re going to catch more brains with this sort of thing that fundamentally has that going for it. It just makes people comfortable. Single-camera suggests to people that you’re a fly on the wall. You’re floating around in space; you’ve got to keep your eyes peeled for story and lessons and things. I wish there was a bigger secret to it, but I think we just like to howl at the moon with a hundred of our pack.
AVC: You’ve built up some will-they/won’t-they romantic relationships, like the pairings of Jeff and Britta or Jeff and Annie. Did you have those in mind at the start?
DH: There was consciousness of the fact that Annie was a quote-unquote “viable romantic interest,” the quotes coming from the fact that it’s absolutely inappropriate, but then the fact that that sort of makes it interesting. That was an observation that came to us during the season and certainly not at the outset. I wasn’t standing at the front of the room going, “This is where we’re going to go.”
What I did do, in pitching the show, was try to create very specific lines of age so there was no such thing as any combination of them being taken off the table, just to insure a kind of complexity that exists in real life. As for the will-they/won’t-they, I feel like that’s stuff that is best done improvisationally, letting the audience sort of want what they want and experimenting with giving it to them, withholding it from them, giving it half to them, giving it all to them, but letting them have an ownership over it, or at least a big vote on that stockholder’s board. I think that the audience is very, very picky about what they’re being fed. They don’t want to feel like you think they’re stupid and I think they feel like you think they’re stupid when you suggest to them that this is romantic, this person and this person are destined to be together and you think that’s cute. You’re inviting them to go, “No, I don’t think it’s cute.”
Whereas if you stick to stories and comedy, as far as what you put a lot of thought into, that’s a good place to put your energy into as a writer because the audience can’t really have a resistant read to a joke. If it’s a good joke, they have an involuntary spasm, they laugh. And a story just happens to you. It’s like a roller coaster ride, you buckle in and you experience it. Laying out these kind of soapy, relationship-y combinations and going, “Ooh, look what you adore,” I would much rather create environments where anything is possible and just toy around with it in a general way than to hang the show’s hat on any of it.
AVC: One of the key differences between Community and some of the other shows in its genre is that it doesn’t have cut-aways or flashbacks. Was that a conscious choice? Might you play with in the future?
DH: It’s a conscious choice, and if we play with it in the future it would have to be in some way where the pros outweighed the cons. I don’t feel like that stuff is necessarily bad, and I actually think it was great that that became a device, specifically the whip-pan flashbacks and stuff. But by the time we came into that arena, to me, it wasn’t an option to do that stuff and have any kind of dignity because everyone else was already doing it. So very consciously, I wanted to have this thing be very bare bones, to burden the characters and the stories with keeping people’s eyes open. If you’re afraid that people are going to flip the channel, tell a better story, write a better joke, add a C story where someone is dressed like a wizard. There’s other ways to make sure your show has a little dash of all-important absurdity and energy to it.
I love 30 Rock. It’s one of my favorite shows. It’s certainly the gold standard of comedy writing. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if we were just another show that was using that technique. I wanted to let that be their thing, and let mockumentaries be the mockumentary people’s thing, voiceovers be the voiceover people’s thing. We were just going to have to start fresh because there was nothing left to be able to do. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the things you’ve mentioned before is that the characters on the show are all realistic, but Greendale is a place where crazy stuff can happen. How weird can Greendale get?
DH: You know, I think pretty weird. I was watching the Spaced DVD, and Edgar Wright was talking about this same topic, talking about how that universe was pretty elastic … they were using the elasticity of that universe to reflect something about the characters inside of it, that the characters were pop-culture addicts, that they had a certain IQ, a certain mindset, a certain emotional maturity.
With Greendale, it feels to me, it’s a purgatory. It’s a place that these people have been sentenced to so that they can get their shit together, and it will stop at nothing to make them do that. When you look at the character of Jeff, he has some pretty fundamental stuff to work out, and the situations that you have to get put into to work that shit out—and it’s in a 20 minute format—can, will, and should be pretty weird, pretty big, because nobody wants to see another group of people get snowed into a cabin. We’ve seen that before.
There are things we want to see over and over again. We want to see people be subjected to strange experiences that make them question fundamental things about themselves so we really have no choice but to make Greendale a crazy place where crazy things can happen. And one of the tools that you have at your disposal is the Dean character, because he’s obviously sort of a flawed guy himself who is intent on turning Greendale into Harvard or whatever his imaginings are of a legitimate university. So he sort of inadvertently turns them into a grade school by having all of these activities and dances and attempts to collegify the environment. Those things backfiring can create all kinds of things, but I do think tonally we’ve achieved a nice balance here where it’s understood that if I tell you to go to hell, that has a realistic effect on you as a person. It doesn’t matter that the environment that we’re standing in, it sometimes rains frogs. We will tether ourselves to the reality that we understand, which in this case is the one between people.
AVC: Abed comes right up to the edge of breaking the fourth wall. What do you see his role as, and would you ever have him directly break the fourth wall?
DH: No, I never would. And in fact the whole reason for him being the guy that’s such a fan of TV and movies is that he’s not afraid to say the thing that TV characters usually aren’t allowed to say which is, “Isn’t this a lot like a TV show?” Because if somebody is not allowed to say that, I would get bored real fast writing a sitcom. But at the same time, the fourth wall cannot be broken in my mind. I have a real sensitivity to that. People feel like it’s the opposite, that it’s constantly caressing it and punching it, challenging it and stuff, but it really couldn’t be more the opposite. I really believe that you need some pop-culture referencing and some little bit of, “Wow this is really sort of coming together like TV shows do” in order for modern audiences to actually believe what’s happening is happening, because that’s how you and I would react if we were in those situations. We would not just go, “Oh good, I’m glad we all worked this out in 20 minutes through a succession of Joseph Campbell steps.” We’re somebody apt to go, “Yeah, exactly, because this is a TV show.” [Laughs.] So to represent the fact that it’s happening in reality.
But the big question [with] Abed is, “Is there a situation where he might look directly at the camera and start talking?” Well yeah, that’s possible if Sony and NBC would allow it, because maybe the concept would be that Abed wants to start turning it into a mockumentary, so he’s looking to a fixed point in space that happens to be occupied by our camera and he’s talking into it. Everyone else would be reacting, like, “What the hell are you doing? What are you looking at?” Or maybe Abed would just be looking off at some other place having chosen that as the camera, but it’s not where our camera is, but in his mind he’s talking to “the camera.” Because I remember doing that as a kid, I’d sit in the mirror and practice freeze frames and stuff. I’d be walking down the hall in my home and every once in a while I’d do a punchline and hold as though there was credits frozen over me, because I was growing up in a world where I was understanding that that was the height of coolness, that that’s how good, awesome, clean people were presented.
AVC: What are you guys looking at for season two?
DH: Looking at dimensionalizing characters, but at the same time, hopefully upping the percentage of what I’ll call “paintball level” dynamic situations. I mean, I think that as much as people liked stuff like the chicken fingers episode and the paintball episode, that stuff runs on a fuel tank that you fill up with incredibly grounded stories and relationships between characters. Otherwise, what’s the point?
So the solution is that you have to pull like taffy in both directions simultaneously. I want to do way more cool stuff like paintball, while simultaneously doing stuff for which I’m being inspired by The Office, season two… or their dinner party episode, where it’s like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and it’s so incredibly emotionally meticulous, circuitous, that it sort of takes your breath away, what you’re watching on screen. I want to expand the world, start pulling outward on these people with forces, start answering some of these unspoken questions. Why are they here? What are their plans? What’s this going to come to? Making them just a little bit more real, while making their situations just a little bit bigger, and as a result, hopefully, get nominated for an Emmy.
AVC: How do you feel about getting completely passed over by the Emmys?
DH: I’m not surprised at all because I’m from Wisconsin. [Laughs.] I’m just getting caught up with the fantasy fulfillment of having a show on network TV, let alone with that peacock logo on it, so I’m really satiated by that. I got tricked in the last 48 hours right before the announcements of actually believing that Joel might get a nod just because of that superstition of, “Well, he’s presenting [so] the odds are that he’ll be in there somewhere.” And also because he did great work and I’d seen his name being mentioned a lot and I just thought, “You know what? That might make sense. I bet Joel McHale might get a nod.”
But I didn’t feel snubbed. It just feels appropriate for this show. I think we have to be the bridesmaid for a while. Otherwise, how could we ever be the greatest show in television history? We can’t have the story begin with us blowing people’s minds and being applauded by a nation of people in unison. We have to begin as Charlie Brown, or we can never actually become this thing that I hope that we can become.