Before landing a regular role on Community, Yvette Nicole Brown bounced around the TV landscape, doing guest roles on numerous TV series, both for adults (Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office) and kids (That’s So Raven and a recurring role on Drake & Josh). But now, she’s probably best known for Community, NBC’s wacky pop-cultural Cuisinart, which begins its third season on Thursday, September 22. As the sometimes-judgmental but always-caring Shirley, Brown was the center of season two, as Shirley’s pregnancy (and the mystery over the father’s identity) radiated out to encompass nearly every other character. Brown recently talked to The A.V. Club about being a Christian in Hollywood, her favorite Muppet, and the secret to good conflict management.
The A.V. Club: Last season, Shirley had a really big storyline. What was it like to be handed one of the emotional cores of the season?
Yvette Nicole Brown: I thought it was really kind that they trusted me to do it. [Creator] Dan Harmon is very knowledgeable about these characters, and very protective of these characters, and there were some things, initially, that were like, “I’m not sure Shirley would do that,” because we’re all so protective of the people that we’re playing. And he was kind enough—he’s always been kind enough from the beginning—to listen to me if I have a concern. All the producers are. And it was a little push-back from me about where I thought they were taking her, and whether I thought it was authentic to the person I believed she was. And the end result was, they were like, “Yvette, trust us. We love her as much as you do. Let’s dirty her up! Let’s take the journey. Let’s see where this ends up, and give you something really great to play as an actor.”
And that’s what they gave me, which was a great gift. So at the end of the season, I thanked Dan. I apologized for ever doubting that he had Shirley’s best interests at heart. And I thanked him for writing such a beautiful arc for her. Because she went through hell. But at the end of it, she had her family back, she has her man back, and she’s stronger. And her friends know her better. When Troy turns 21 and they go to the bar, we find out stuff about Shirley that we never knew. Now, there’s an explanation for why she was drinking that had to be cut for time, but there’s something that Troy says to her. He says, “We like you a lot more now.” Because she became real. She’s not just, “That’s nice” and “Jesus loves you.” There’s more to her. There’s a rich life that she’s had. So yeah, it was a great journey.
AVC: Were your concerns over the pregnancy?
YNB: Well, initially, we didn’t know whether she was gonna become pregnant or not. My concerns initially were, I thought she was a celibate Christian, so my thought was, “Well, if she’s celibate, why would she be having sex with someone in a bathroom?” And then my concern was, “And if she was gonna fall in that way, she’d probably fall with her husband, who she loves, instead of Señor Chang, who she hates.” And I thought my theory was logical. But I understand, first of all, it’s television. And second of all, these are heightened circumstances. There’s somebody bangin’ at the door or whatever. And I thought that there were things about her… if she was a woman of faith, there are certain things that would bother her. There would be some outward manifestation of what she had done. So I did my best to act those things. ’Cause I know that if she really is the woman I thought she was, she would feel those things. So as an actor, I just added them to my performance. So it was a really great experience for me last year.
AVC: You got to work with Malcolm-Jamal Warner a lot as your husband. What is it like forming that chemistry with a guest star?
YNB: You know, it’s so funny. I think Malcolm and my love affair began 20-some years ago. It was one-sided. It actually still is. I’ve loved him my whole life, it seems like, because I was a big Cosby Show fan and a big Theo fan, in particular. So for me, the chemistry was already there. Like, the sight of him… I’m 12 again. But he’s a really kind, gentle, intelligent, wonderful man. And they could have put Malcolm with anyone on the show and created a long arc, and you would’ve still felt that warmth and that care and that concern. So I want to take credit and say that he and I have a great chemistry, but he’s just someone that brings chemistry with him, and he’ll mix it up with anyone. So it was just kinda captured on film.
AVC: You’re a practicing Christian. And there are other Christians who would say that show business is not a place to express your beliefs or love for Christ. What would you say to them? Obviously, you disagree.
YNB: Yeah, because I feel like it’s a part of who I am. I’m not someone who believes I can make it by myself. So it would be kinda disingenuous to be like “Look at me! I’m so great!” and not go “Look who helped me! Or who made me!” you know? And also, I feel like what my faith has brought me, especially in this industry, is peace. And I feel like, who wouldn’t want to know about peace? And how can you have this great thing you know about and be stingy and not go… Not pushing it on ya, but just want you to know it’s available if you’d like to try it. That’s kinda the way I see it.
And the other thing is, I think Christians have gotten a bad name because of Christians. Like, I don’t blame other people for the rap that Christians have. A lot of Christians are just mental. A lot of Christians are more concerned with telling you where you’re gonna go when you die than what you can have while you’re here. For me, not to get preachy, but when they asked Christ, even, to boil down what it’s about, he said, “It’s about love. Love God, love yourself, and love each other.” He didn’t get deep into lists and “Do this and do that.” When asked what it is really about, “What would you have me do while I’m breathing on this Earth?” “Love each other. And love yourself. And love God.”
So if all I’m supposed to do is love, that’s easy! Love is easy! Kindness is easy. So I try on my Twitter page to acknowledge everyone that reaches out to me. I try to make my page—I can’t control the rest of Twitter—but I try to make my page a safe place for people. So we don’t yell and scream at each other. We don’t call each other names on my page. I tell people, “Hey, we don’t do that here. This is a good place. If you’re having a bad day, come to my page. There’ll be something there to make you laugh, encourage you, or just to show my gratitude.” And that’s what I try to do.
AVC: Can it be hard to maintain that tone? I usually want to yell at people on Twitter.
YNB: You know what? I’ve found a way to do it in a respectful way. Again, the Bible says, “You can have all these great talents, but if you do them without love, it doesn’t matter.” If I know the right way for you to do something, but I tell you in a really crappy way, you’re not gonna listen to me. And now I may have hurt you. I may have had something that would save you from getting hit by a truck. But if I yell it at you, you might be so angry, you won’t stay on the sidewalk. So I need to find a way to say, “You really shouldn’t run in traffic,” but in a nice, funny, interesting way. So there are times I say, “Hey guys, you know, postin’ the same thing 20 times is not gonna get that ‘follow’ you want. I love y’all… But looks like spam!” You know what I mean? So you find a way to kinda make it a little better for them. You put the medicine in the cupcake.
AVC: Before you were on Community, you’d done a number of guest spots over the years. What’s that like as an actor?
YNB: It’s hard when it’s a show I watch and love, because I’m such a fan of people. Like, not even just people on TV. I just love people. And if it’s someone whose show I’ve been following, I have no problem going, “I think you’re great!” And I think that’s why it’s a blessing for me to be on the other side of it. Because when someone comes up to me, I’m always available to people who love Community or love Shirley, because I’m a fan. So it’s been really, really, really great. And when you work on a show for a couple-a days, you gotta hit the ground running. And sometimes, the other people there have their own relationships, and they have their own jokes, and sometimes it’s kinda hard to find your way in. And then you don’t wanna get too far in, ’cause you’re only there for two days. But the funny thing is, before I was an actor, right in the beginning when I started acting, I was still temping. I was an office temp. And it’s the same thing. When you’re going into MGM for a day, you’re gonna be at someone else’s desk. You need to learn how to fax and file, which is the same as learning lines. You need to make enough friendships to get you through the day; you don’t wanna upset any apple carts. It’s kinda the same thing. But it’s great to get to see all those different people and be on different sets, because I like variety.
AVC: In season two, we didn’t really get to see Shirley’s kids. Will we get back to them in season three, or have the child actors grown up too much?
YNB: Yeah, you know what? The kids that played my kids are probably way too big now. Which is horrible, because they are both amazing actors. We had joked with Dan Harmon. We had this joke that every time we see Shirley’s kids, they would forever be 7 and 9. You know, they just never grow, kinda like The Simpsons. So that’s possible. But I don’t think it’s really about any of our families outside of Greendale, except for the way they color our time at Greendale. Andre and Shirley’s relationship is not important so much as it’s “What does Andre’s relationship do to Shirley, and what does she then bring to that table that other people now have to deal with?” The show is really about the family we’ve created, and so I kinda, aside from missing the actors I got to work with as my sons, I’d be okay if they were just referenced. Even the new baby, I’d be okay if the new baby was just referenced. Because it’s what? Five hours a day she’s at that school? Let it be about the school.
AVC: The second season took you guys all over the town, and then re-centered on Greendale again. Will we see more of a Greendale focus in season three?
YNB: I think we will. Dan Harmon has made it clear that last year… It was big, bombastic because we, all of us, were surprised we were coming back. We just could not believe that we got to play some more. And I think he was like, “Well, this is my last season,” because we think every one is our last, “Let’s go out big.” And I think this season, he’s thinking, “We did that. Like, we’ve given everybody that watches our show these amazing episodes where they can laugh and go to space and all this, zombies are gonna attack, but let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what this school is really about.” And the Greendale campus is so rich. Just academically. With our Dean! And the dances and all the shenanigans that go on there… It can be grounded in reality and be just as exciting.
AVC: There are many, many supporting, recurring Greendale folks. Who are some of your favorites?
YNB: I was really impressed with Charley Koontz. He plays Fat Neil. I was really impressed with his depth as an actor. He was in [the Community episode] “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” He was referenced before, but he’s such a good actor. And he’s one—like I said, sometimes you go on a set and you have to figure out where you fit—Charley came right in and just deposited himself, and I mean this in the best way, right in the center of it, and was like, “No, I go to Greendale too!” It was like he was always there. Some thing with Leonard [played by Richard Erdman]. And you know, [writer and co-star] Dino [Stamatopoulos] plays Star-Burns. They’re like family. They work on the show as much as we do. From the beginning, we haven’t had a difference. This year, Jim Rash [who plays Dean Pelton] is a series regular. He’s always been a series regular in my mind. He’s been in every episode, just about. He’s a part of our fabric.
AVC: What’s it like to build that kind of Springfield-esque world where all these people can come back at any time?
YNB: I love it. I love when we get new people in the script, because I know I’ll see them again. So it’s not like on other shows, where “This is the girlfriend for the week,” or the teacher for the week. And you kinda don’t want to get invested in it, because you’re gonna leave, and if I really like you, you’re gonna not appear anymore. From the day we meet them in the makeup trailer, at the table read, we can actually get in there. We can bond and build a rapport with these people instantly, because we’ll see them.
AVC: I’d say that, of all the characters, Shirley’s evolved the most from the start of the show. What has that journey been like for you?
YNB: It’s been great for me. I’ve been an actor for probably 10 years now, and Ken Jeong and I were laughing: We went down our résumés and realized that we have each been on, like, nine or 10 of the same shows. Good shows. It’s very rare, as an actor, to be someplace—to have an address, so to speak. I’ve been blessed to know where I’m going. This is the first season over the summer I actually bought stuff for my trailer. Because it’s my trailer for another year, and I know I can put a cork board in there, or get a nice blanket or a pillow. ’Cause we’re kinda nomadic. We’re gypsies. So it’s really great to get to walk in the shoes of a person. Like I said, I respect Shirley. I respect her journey, and I want to honor her. And so to get to walk in her shoes now for three seasons and show the world who this weird, crazy woman is has been great. And that she’s growing? And that’s she’s learning?
Like, the very first season, the Christmas episode, Shirley was very judgmental. Very rigid. “It’s Christmas. It’s my way or the highway! It’s Christmas or the highway!” And by the end of it, it was like, “Yeah, I think Jesus is the way everybody should go, but I also understand that you have the right to make your decision for you, and I can’t run roughshod over you. So let’s have an inclusive situation where we all get to be who we are and love each other.” Again, it comes back to the love. So I love that she’s on that journey.
AVC: Were there any scripts or parodies in season two where you were like, “I don’t know if this is gonna work, but let’s go ahead and do it anyway”?
YNB: No, you know why I don’t question the parodies? Because I don’t usually know the references to any of them. Like, I knew Goodfellas existed, but I had never seen it. Because I’m a girl, and we aren’t necessarily gonna go to a gangster movie first. I shot that episode, watched the episode—still hadn’t seen Goodfellas—enjoyed it completely. Watched Goodfellas, went back and watched [the episode] again, enjoyed it even more. And Goodfellas is an amazing movie, by the way. Everyone knew it but me. So yeah, there’s been none that I’ve been nervous about, because I know that the fans of whatever that movie or reference is will be pleased. And as long as they’re pleased, and I pronounce it right… ’Cause I didn’t even know how to pronounce “meta.” I was like, “Meeta?” They were like, “Yvette… Cut! It’s ‘meta.’” So there’s a lot of stuff that goes over my head.
AVC: You guys revisited the action movie this year. If there was one of those you could revisit again, which would you be most interested in doing?
YNB: I would love to revisit the flashbacks. That was my favorite episode to read, to film, and to watch out of everything we’ve done. We finished that table read, and it was a standing ovation. We, the cast, clapped for the writers. And we love every script they write, but that one was just… And that whole week of filming, because we knew we had so much to get and so little time to do it, we all were runnin’ and gunnin’, and it felt like we were this well-oiled machine, gettin’ it done. So if we could go back and do another hilarious flashback episode, I’d love it.
AVC: Are there other genres you would like to visit that you could think of?
YNB: This is my one, this is the one I’m going with, this is my money one: Muppets. Wouldn’t that be great? To see all of us as puppets? And Muppets? Muppets is my term, but just puppets would be… Gosh! I can just see… ’Cause Greendale lends itself to us just kinda… I remember, I saw the episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth was seeing everyone as Muppets, and I was so jealous! So even if it’s just someone’s dream, just for a nanosecond, to see that world… I mean, we got to be stop-motion animation. It’s the same childhood love of that. So, yeah, I’d go with Muppets.
AVC: Do you have a favorite Muppet?
YNB: [In a “Duh?” tone.] Uh, Kermit. I had a Kermit lunch box when I was a kid, and I just bought another one. They were selling them at Old Navy, and I bought one. You know, Kermit is my favorite, and I also love Gonzo, because he’s different and he loves himself anyway. And I love Piggy, just because she’s so confident. And the world would say “You shouldn’t be.” But Piggy says, “No, I’m beautiful.” So those are my three favorite: Gonzo, Piggy, and Kermit.
AVC: What would you like to see happen in season three?
YNB: That’s a good question. I mean, if I can just be fanciful and say that I would love for Sandra Bullock to be on the show. I just think Sandra at Greendale would just be so great, and I’ve heard such wonderful things about how she is to work with. So if they could get her… I mean, we got Betty White, so I mean, Sandra’s in the echelon of big dreams. If that could happen, I’d be so happy.
AVC: Do you have any hints to give as to what’s going to happen, or don’t you know yet?
YNB: I do know some things. The characters are going to define themselves more this year at school. Some will be hunkering down and going, “Okay, I’ve been here two years. What am I doing?” And I think Shirley might be one of them that is gonna finally zero in on what she needs to do to literally graduate. ’Cause let’s not forget, they’re there to graduate. They formed this great study group and they met these great friends, and they’ve learned a lot about life, but they are really there to learn about a particular major and get enough credits to graduate. So I think this year, they’re going to zero in on that.
AVC: In the season finale, Pierce suggests that the study-group members hurt each other as much as they help each other. Would you agree?
YNB: I would agree that there are certain characters that hurt others more than they help them, but I think, as a whole, that’s not true of the study group. Although we fight a lot, I think we help each other way more than we hurt each other.
AVC: If you had to take your Shirley journey for nine years, where would you want to see her end up?
YNB: At the end? I would like her to have a degree. I would like her to have a business in which she bakes. I’d like her to have Mom’s Muffins or Shirley’s Baked Goods or whatever, and I’d like her to be, like, an Internet sensation. Or somehow her baked goods enter some competition and win, and she’s now hosting a cooking show. Or on billboards with her baked goods. Like, I just really would love for Shirley to have a big life, because she’s lived such a small life.
My backstory that I created for her was that she and Andre were high-school sweethearts, and she married him, and now they have these kids, and he cheated on her, and it’s like… That’s a small life there. And Greendale is opening up her world, and she’s meeting new people. And she probably hadn’t heard of half of the religions the study-group members are. She’s only heard about God, you know? So everything in her life is opening up and expanding. So I would love for it to expand in a huge way for her. That would make me happy for her.
AVC: In the pilot, you talked about baking something.
YNB: Brownies. They were brownies.
AVC: Is that gonna come back at some point?
YNB: I don’t know. I know she was studying marketing. None of us really talk about our… I don’t know what anyone’s major is out of all of us. And I think the third year is when you start to declare, right? You have to figure something out, or you’re just gonna be there forever. Maybe that’s the plan, just be there forever. So I think she’s still doing that. I think that’s her passion.
AVC: Season two was such a big, exciting year with all kinds of crazy things. How are you guys gonna top that?
YNB: If it can be topped, I think we’re gonna top it with heartfelt stories that are packed with jokes. I think our per-minute joke ratio is gonna go through the roof. That’s what I believe.
AVC: I don’t know if you’ve ever read our comments section—
YNB: I have read the comments sections.
AVC: Inevitably, below this interview, a huge fight will break out between two people about something. On Twitter, you’re very good at resolving conflict. Even though you don’t know what this huge fight will be about, I would like you to resolve it before it even happens.
YNB: I would like to say, first of all, both of you are really capable, wonderful human beings. He didn’t mean to say that about your weight or your height or your race or your television preferences. She was a little touchy, but it’s fixable. I want each of you to write five things that are special about the other person based on previous posts, and I want you to post them with an apology now and know that I love you both equally. You can do this. Go get ’em.