Dan Harmon walks us through Community’s second season (part 1 of 4)
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In its second season, Community tried so many different things that it sometimes seemed like a different show every week. In 24 episodes that aired from September of 2010 to May of 2011, the show visited genres and episode types as diverse as zombie tales, stop-motion animated Christmas specials, and clip shows. Along the way, it attempted to tell a complicated story about the ways in which its central characters could be just as bad for each other as they were good friends to each other. Series creator and executive producer Dan Harmon sat down for an epic interview with The A.V. Club to talk through the season, episode by episode, and his thoughts will appear over the next four days. Today: the first six episodes, spanning from the season première, “Anthropology 101,” to Halloween episode (and zombie epic) “Epidemiology.”
“Anthropology 101” (Sept. 23, 2010)
Another year begins at Greendale, and Jeff must deal with the fallout from the season one finale. Betty White guest stars as a crazed anthropology teacher.
Dan Harmon: There was a laundry list that we started with. One was to have them take a different class. Now, obviously, at the end of the first season, they were already teeing that up. I did that on purpose, because I wanted to be able to point to something. I didn’t want to have conversations over the summer with brass about the still-to-be-defined template of the show. My fear was that unless I directly conflicted with that in the narrative of the show, then over the summer we were going to have these meetings and people were just going to decide—not because it makes a better TV show, but because it’s less scary to them—to keep things the same.
I knew that the hub of the show was that study room, so I knew that they had to, academically, have tasks ahead of them to thinly justify them sitting down at this “Cheers bar.” It has to have something to do with supposedly studying. So it couldn’t be gym class, for instance, it couldn’t be survivalism class or anything that would have maybe been more fun. It had to have some roots in academia, and I cited anthropology in the first season as my preference. My thought at the time was, “Well, this is a topic that, way more so than Spanish, which is a one-joke topic, could actually furnish us with story ideas.” I turned out to be incorrect. Anthropology class was not a backbone at all, much less was it sprouting limbs from which we were telling stories, but the thought at the time was that with a topic like anthropology, which is literally the study of humanity, that we would have all kinds of excuses and opportunities to have assignments.
Both as a matter of preference and as a matter of logic, Ken Jeong was not going to be the teacher. So we talked a lot about, “Is he going to be in the study group or…?” And the decision was, “Let’s improvise.” It was [executive producer] Garrett Donovan who presented that solution, which I was surprised to hear because it sounded like the kind of thing that comes out of my mouth, typically, and frustrates a logical guy like Garrett. But his logic told him the thing to do here is to embrace the very energy that we’re having in this conversation, which is, “What do we do?” Embrace the confusion, embrace the idea of this character as a Gollum-like figure, this underbrush figure. He defines the perimeter of the campfire because he’s neither necessarily having a seat, nor is he a monster out in the dark, but he’s just sort of out there.
The first episode—and I’ll put it on the DVD so people can see it—there was a debate about the ending. We do an ending of the first episode, where Jeff does the standard, ironic setup of, “Oh, what’s the worst that can happen if Chang’s in the study group?” and we cut to this sort of Gollum scene where he’s stroking the study room table, and it cuts back and forth, so there was pushback on that from the network, predictably enough, because it’s weird. And I was going, “Okay, first day of school, no problem, pushback, let’s use this as an opportunity to make this even better.” The way I make things better is by grounding them, darkening them, edging them, so I actually preferred the new thing that we did shoot, which was Joel saying, “What’s the worst that can happen?” And you just cut to Chang walking outside the medical office, and the camera dollies on him, and he’s twitching. And he’s got this glare in his eye, and it’s just a very slow dolly, and you hear, faintly, the sort of Chinese lullaby that you heard in “Modern Warfare,” when he was Chow Yun-Fat. And you hear, also, inexplicably, other sounds including a baby crying, and it builds to this intensity.
I liked it. It reminded me more of Spaced, where it’s like, “Okay, this is funny because it’s not that funny.” And, predictably enough, being presented with those two choices, the brass wanted the silly Gollum ending. The problem was that I’m a creative, I can’t unring bells, so I had seen that ending with Chang, and I had fallen in love with the storyline that we were gonna pursue. The reason I put the baby crying in there was because I wanted to link it with this concept that Chang had eaten his twin in utero, which was a joke that Andrew Guest had written in the first season for the Family Day episode. It feels like such a throwaway, but I just was in love with the idea of actually revealing this incredibly deep foundation to his personality and disorders, and we had this whole thing plotted out where we were going to tell this seasonal story of how he’s plagued by the guilt that his mother put in him that he had a twin in the uterus, and it was a little girl, and he ate her. And [his mother] dressed him up in little dresses and said, “I wish you were your sister instead,” and that rejection triggers these psychotic breaks in him. We were gonna slowly bring in the ghost of his dead sister, playing with a little ball and encouraging him to do bad things. We were gonna slowly uncork that, one step at a time, so that we wouldn’t have to pitch it to anybody, because obviously the answer would be, “No, don’t do that.”
And so I started looking at Chang like a big joke that would happen one joke at a time. So it’s ironic, sometimes, that the people who wanna protect your show from too much craziness often cause a less marketable craziness. Like, “Oh, that seems weird, don’t put it in the show,” or, “Okay, that seems less weird than the weirder thing, so do that instead.” And you end up with a character who spends—and this is not a bad thing—the year not knowing his place because he’s been disconnected from his God, i.e. the writers. So he just wanders, and that was the big discussion: what to do with Ken Jeong at the beginning of season two.
There was the macro-directive on my part, and I knew this would be an easy thing: The camera’s gonna start going off-campus. That means we’re gonna see where some of these people live. It’s probably time to reveal that Annie lives in relative squalor, for instance, which is something I’ve been talking about since the beginning of the first season. It’s time to hint at backstories. We don’t have to break stories anymore around third-act dances and social functions, because those were all a result of me raining on the writers’ parade in the first season, saying, “Trust me, we have to keep the camera on the campus because it pays off later.”
There was talk about Annie and Britta, Annie and Jeff, Britta and Jeff, and all that stuff. Very early on—[producer] Emily Cutler was a driving force behind this—in one of our first conversations about the season, we were having the conversation about the eventual reveal that Jeff and Britta were fuck buddies. And that conversation came from my anxiety about, “How do you follow Pam and Jim without doing a sad attempt to recreate the same energy, which would be mistrusted, or B: ignoring it and not giving the audience food that they eat,” i.e. romance, sexuality between men and women. So I said, “There must be so many more ways of portraying sexuality on television.”
But that led to the road of like, “What is the punk-rock thing to do? What is the self-destructive thing to do? How do we convince the audience that we don’t intend to sell them snake oil?” And the answer is: You take a can of snake oil, and you dump it down the storm drain in front of the audience and you go, “This isn’t the business that we’re in, I swear to God.”
So, second season, that conversation resulted in Emily Cutler saying, “What if you just found out toward the end of the year that Jeff and Britta have been doing it the whole time, and it was no big deal?” And I thought that was genius because the audience might not believe you if you just tell them on camera in real time that it’s possible for a relationship to not eclipse everything, but they won’t believe it in their hearts, because they haven’t seen any evidence that it’s possible for a relationship to not eclipse everything. Guess what, as many of you in the audience have been doing at various points in your lives, particularly the broken points, two of these people have been, in an ungodly middle finger to our fairytale perceptions of monogamy, using each other as sex toys.
Presenting the idea that you’re full of shit believing that, too, was intriguing to me because that’s how the relationship with my girlfriend and virtually betrothed mate happened. It started as friends with benefits. It started with this ironically romantic concept that romance didn’t need to be in the equation. It made it exciting. Love always finds a way. If two people have been hurt enough, they trick themselves into falling in love through a different door. They just need to protect themselves with a certain chant beforehand, like “This is bullshit.” And, for that reason, what I love is when the show doesn’t presume any factual positions on things that have any binary truth to them. “Is there any such thing as true love?” The question is the important thing. There’s no answer.
Ultimately, the more important issue at hand became the sand trap that we had knocked our ball into at the end of season one with this huge cliffhanger. Not only that, but we had suggested that Troy was moving in with Pierce. We had suggested that Britta had said “I love you” to Jeff and that had gone unanswered and he had gone and made out with the other girl.
And we talked about how The Sopranos never did that. You know, they would just end, and everyone would have dinner. And I had also seen the finale for Spaced between the first and second seasons. It reminded me of The Wire and these shows that take a deep bow and say, “Thank you for watching a great season of television,” and it accomplishes the same thing as a cliffhanger, which is to increase your excitement to see the next season. So I was intent in the first couple episodes of the first season: “Okay, second season we’re ending... we’re just gonna take a bow.” It ended up not happening. There’s a little cliffhanger aspect to the end of the second season. But I’m all the more determined to do it in the third season.
“Accounting For Lawyers” (Sept. 30, 2010)
Jeff returns for a party at his old law firm and brings the rest of the group with him. Drew Carey guest-stars as a powerful man with a hole in his hand.
DH: We’re spending a majority of the episode not only off the campus, but in Jeff’s origins, his old life. And we’re bringing in guest stars as if there’s an entirely different show out there for each character. And that, in its very nature, is going to provoke conversation about stunt casting, whether you like it or not. At the same time, it’s those kind of roles that I applaud being stunt cast, because as long as you do it appropriately, it actually supports your narrative purpose. For instance, in Drew Carey’s case, the reason why I think that’s a beautiful piece of casting is that, in a meta sense, he is what he is. In a fourth-wall sense, he is an old familiar friend with a pleasant demeanor and a disturbing amount of power.
There are important implications there about the world that Jeff comes from. Jeff’s relationship with that character is very important to me because there’s a lot more to learn about Jeff Winger and why he is the way he is. And it has a lot to do with something I’m very invested in, which is bootstrapping versus blue-blooding and the issues that occur between self-made men and men that are born. There are good guys and bad guys in both lineages. That’s a truly American topic. We all worship the dollar and we all sort of dream of being important. And you’ve got people who are born important, and you’ve got people who will do anything to become one of those people. And that forms a lot of personalities, especially between fathers and sons. Maybe it’s just me, because my dad was definitely a self-made man, and I’m sort of obsessed. I have class issues. I hate rich people so badly that I wanna become one really bad. And it’s all kind of interesting stuff to me.
AVC: Was there any pushback on going off-campus from the writers or the network?
DH: Certainly not the writers, because they’d dreamed of having such freedom forever. It’s like getting the keys to the car. The stories that you typically tell, it’s not natural to be confined to this purgatory, so there’s no pushback there. And no, I don’t there was any pushback from anybody up top, either, because at the time it didn’t represent any sort of larger issue.
It wasn’t until we got picked up for a third season that there started to be discussions about how to freeze time and keep people going to a community college for 20 years, with the low-hanging fruit answer being, “Stop saying it’s Halloween every October, stop saying that Annie is now 21 and then 22, stop saying that it’s a four-year degree. Just drop it and be Welcome Back, Kotter.” Not a noble suggestion. Not one with the audience’s mind and heart in interest. Not thinking of people as individuals, just thinking of the audience as this big blob of money that watches or doesn’t watch. And I know in my heart of hearts, I would bet my life on it, that if you think the show would be disappointing if, in year five, they all simultaneously left Greendale, blew it up with dynamite and started working at a pet shop across the street… If you think that’s disappointing, you have no idea how disappointing it would be if, at the end of year four, Jeff looked at his degree and went, “Wait a minute! You spelled ‘degree’ wrong! Another four years!” You may think that’s gonna make the show last eight years, but it ain’t.
But when you’re in your first season, your goal is to get a second season, and when you’re in your second season, you just don’t believe you’ll get a third. Nobody up top believes that statistics are on your side. This is where it usually ends. If we have to promise free ice cream to get to a third season, then we will and then we’ll deal with it. So no, never any real pushback at all. NBC’s always really great about letting the show be what the show needed to be.
“The Psychology Of Letting Go” (Oct. 7, 2010)
When Pierce’s mother dies, he comes to believe that her soul is housed in a lava lamp, rather than grieve.
DH: Troy and Pierce living together… This was an attempt to sort of feather that in, I think, because otherwise it just felt odd that we forgot about it. It turned out to not be an odd thing at all. Fuck it. Just follow your heart, and if two guys are set to move in together at the end of season one and you do nothing with it, it must be for a good reason.
We were blinded by the shiny, seemingly sandbox-y concept of those two being roommates, but then we had this honest conversation: What do we do, what are the premises? Do we build an entire set that’s like a breakfast nook in this mansion? Do we do Silver Spoons stories? And we sobered up about that. But before we did, the possibility barrel that was scraped was furnishing things about the Laser Lotus Cult because we felt like that was a topic that could suck Troy in and also function as a Pierce-alone story and simultaneously generate some comedy.
I think the question probably became: We’ve already accepted that everyone is a different religion, but can we put that to the test now? And the answer is basically yeah, the guy next to you is a cuckoo bird and says that God says it’s okay to be a cuckoo bird, and if you’re liberal, you can still handle that. But if you’re a narcissistic liberal, and you’ve recently had your God taken away from you by virtue of finding out that you’re mortal after all… We just sort of landed on that gradually, this concept that Jeff was such a flawed character that you could tell him that he had high cholesterol, and it could give him an existential crisis because he didn’t know, he hadn’t really realized fully in his heart that he would one day not exist, and that that would actually provoke him to get into the business of invading other people’s religions.
I think part of the reason we flopped episodes two and three is because I got anxious about that one. I think that was kind of a misfire, frankly. The whole B-story was literally about Annie and Britta changing sweaters and doing impressions of each other. The buck stops here. I remember running with that ball, just sort of falling into that, “Yeah, this feels good because this feels like something on television.” And once we were on the set and I was watching this thing unfold and then editing it, I was like, “What have I done? This is like Small Wonder or something.” You could hear the spaces where there’s supposed to be a multi-camera audience applauding because someone’s dressing like the other person and doing an impression of them. This is your second episode of a season that no one watched the first season of. This is both pretentious, presumptuous, and, at the end of it all, tacky, twee, and underwhelming. And you’re using it to anchor a story about a lava lamp that may or may not contain the soul of Chevy Chase’s mother?
I got really nervous about the episode and thought—and I think simultaneously the network probably did too, so it was an easy conversation to have—“You know, this ‘Accounting For Lawyers’ episode is really turning out swell. It really feels like a second episode.” And so we made a quick flop. Sometimes that happens. It seems like an even enough exchange, because it felt like they were both just modular episodes, and it was easy enough to put our best foot forward, and we were helping this supposedly weaker episode by getting to know these characters a little more first. You didn’t ask for all that commentary on the quality of the episode, but I look back on it like the shadow of what certain people expect of our show when they say, “You’re getting too weird.” I wonder if they understand what comfort really looks like, and how uncharismatic it would wear on our show.
AVC: That was the episode that had the Abed storyline going on in the background.
DH: And that was an attempt to cope with that anxiety. I think [writer] Hilary Winston drove that. That was happening in rooms that I didn’t have time to be in. I wanna say that Hilary was the driving force behind this concept of just having him doing something in the background the whole episode. I really liked it because it reminded me of MAD Magazine, the little drawings up in the corner. I’d finally notice those and go through all the MAD Magazines again and see all these little people having these little stories up in the corners of the pages, these doodles. And I think there were a bunch of pitches about what Abed would be doing in the background. I wish I could remember the clever alternative so you could see the sublime difference between that and then Hilary suddenly coming to me and saying, “Pregnant woman gives birth. It’s a pregnancy scare.”
Now that I think of it, the writers’ pitch was, there’s this joke going on in the background that clearly Abed is having a paternity scare. It wasn’t until after the table read that I think [director] Anthony Russo said, “It feels like you’re missing a step there.” I think that was sometime after the table read that the decision to actually show the birth happening and then to write backwards from there and actually have the story not be about who’s the father, which is just a joke about, oh, Abed’s such a stud… It’s funny to me that we ended up bothering to do that in the foreground with one of our main characters [later on], when we proved that you can do it in four beats and in the background.
“Basic Rocket Science” (Oct. 14, 2010)
The group is tasked with cleaning up an old space simulator, but an unfortunately timed towing leaves them stranded in the desert.
DH: The concept didn’t come from my love of space or anything like that. The concept came from my love of bottle episodes. My passion for Star Trek is actually rooted in my love of television and the art of franchise and a premise designed to stick people together that have to figure out what to do. I think that’s just what good TV is: the Seinfeld Chinese restaurant, parking garage episodes.
The original concept was just that Greendale was so cheap that their space simulator basically was a storage unit, and that the Dean put it in a no-parking zone and it was forklifted or towed. We went from there to why would anyone ever tow a cube that’s used to store things, and then we said, “Well, maybe it’s a vehicle in and of itself,” and somewhere after that I thought, “This is the kind of thing that they’re always talking about for product placement opportunities.” They’re always pitching us dumb stuff that we have to reject, and they don’t understand why we have to reject it, because they’ll say things like, “Well, could Jeff’s computer in the computer episode be a Dell computer, and could it be in the frame the whole time?” It’s stuff that you have to reject because you go, “No, we’re not being precious about this, it’s going to be distracting.”
On the other hand, here’s this opportunity to show them that I’m all for integrated marketing. And so I pitched it as an integrated marketing platform to our own people and had them start calling around… Somehow Kentucky Fried Chicken became a concept, and I fell in love with that. It just seems particularly ironic as a juxtaposition. The crispy, deep-fried chicken and space. It just seemed particularly funny to me.
I have a weird place in my heart for that episode because, in a vacuum, I just think it’s brilliant and fun, and it’s almost like it was before its time in the context of the season. It was too smart, too awesome, too soon. And it needed to come after the zombie episode. It needed to come in the third quarter of the season or something in order to be really appreciated. I understand if the audience didn’t like it. That’s when I stopped reading reviews, because I felt like something was happening. I was first starting to see the potential negativity of it, because, in order to get applause at Comic-Con, I was like, “Well, this will fucking jazz them.” And it’ll also lock the network into having to accept the pitch, because they’re here in the back, and they’ll hear these people applaud. I’m going to pitch them a spaceship episode, but now they’ll have to say yes. So that’s why I did that. But the way the words came out, it was like, “We’re doing an Apollo 13 homage,” and I did not get the applause I wanted because it was not an understandable thing. I can’t remember the circumstance of it linguistically, but it seemed weird. It didn’t seem like something you would go, “Oh, how exciting, I know exactly what you’re talking about.” It was also inaccurate. It’s not an Apollo 13 homage; that’s just the way I was trying to get it into five words. And more importantly, it was a terrible, terrible idea to incite the fan community with anticipation of a blank-themed episode. I’ll always be gun-shy about that for the rest of my life.
It’s my fault. I got whorish. I got weird. I turned into Richard Dawson in Running Man. “Here comes Apollo 13!” It was important for me to actually see it that way, because then I read Sepinwall’s review, and he was underwhelmed. I was like, “How can anyone be underwhelmed by the spaceship episode?” The answer was, well it is just them in the fucking container. That’s all you ever wanted. You shouldn’t have hyped it. It would have been a really pleasant surprise if The Office just did an episode with the space simulator in the parking lot, and it got towed.
This is the hardest one to solve, because it came from the best of intentions. From the get-go, we said, “Well, crazy episode. They’re in a spaceship. Why is this not just a stupid, stylistic, masturbatory, spoofy thing?” In other words, and the thing we always say is, “What’s the Jeff and Britta fucking of this paintball?” And the answer was perceived as forced by the audience and critics, which is that Annie just reveals that she’s the spy. She’s like the equivalent of a Russian spy aboard the spaceship because she’s been thinking about leaving Greendale this whole time, and it was understandably perceived as like, “Why the fuck are you forcing that on me just to tell a stupid story like that?”
I haven’t watched that episode since. I haven’t watched any of them since they’ve aired. If the second season is like the first season, I’ll come out of the DVD commentary realizing this is a great show. But that’s the stigma I have against that episode. I feel like I fucked it from outside, and it’s a victim.
“Messianic Myths And Ancient Peoples” (Oct. 21, 2010)
Shirley hires Abed to produce and direct a YouTube short about Jesus for her church. In the process, he gives in to his own Christ complex.
DH: I remember we had a list of the characters on a board with criss-crossed lines between them, and we were analyzing which characters had not had a lot of interaction. Shirley doesn’t have a lot of interaction with anybody, but particularly Abed, and I thought, “Well, what do I think of when I think of Shirley and Abed? What is a situation that would force them to work together that would also maximize their conflict?” The first thought in my head was Ed Wood, the biopic, that concept of a church looking to raise money by appealing to the kids and going to this weirdo to make one of these space movies that the kids love so much.
It was an easy thing to think of. I’d been saying it for a while, “We’ve gotta do an episode where Shirley just walks up to Abed and says, ‘Hey, I got a bunch of money from my church; we’re gonna make a Jesus movie together.’” And watch them create conflict. It’s fish in a barrel because we love to write about Hollywood and acting and shooting and writing, and now we get to because it’ll be anchored by the least inside-industry character of all, Shirley. And so that was pretty easy to break, because I just said to [writer] Andrew Guest, “The obvious thing to do is that Abed is the Christ figure. In spite of not being Christian and in spite of Shirley defending Christianity, the irony will be that she’s actually a Pharisee. If you’re true to the tenets of the gospel, you should always think twice before bringing the hammer down on anybody unpopular. It seems to be the fundamental lesson that gets obfuscated.” And then I said, “We’ll break that story with Abed as a Christ figure, but then we have to balance that, because here’s where we’re in danger: People are going to see politics where there are no politics, and they’re gonna see bullying where there’s no bullying.”
What’s worse, what I really didn’t predict happening, is [people thought] I was almost too kind to Shirley. The message felt too Christian to people. My fear in breaking the story was of being perceived as a West Coast liberal atheistic bully. Once again, just hanging up this easy piñata of the flyover states’ religion and smashing it with a bat and going like, “You guys are so dumb, you don’t even know how dumb you are.” I think even as a liberal, I feel like it’s a cheap shot. Yeah, there’s a lot of dumb people that say a lot of dumb things. Doesn’t that make them an easy target, and doesn’t that make the act of bashing them actually less comedic than political?
I wanted to make sure that Abed was guilty of his own sins, and I didn’t know what to do except make them my own and put myself in Abed’s shoes and say, “What gives you a Christ complex? Well, taking myself too seriously.” I wanted both characters to be equally flawed and equally justified and equally capable of teaching the other an incredible lesson about life. And Abed is, for a great number of reasons, an unrepentant narcissist. Or maybe narcissism isn’t the right diagnosis. He’s just so self-assured and so into his work. And you go through all these different permutations of, “Well, that’s the cool guy, because he just wants to make cool movies,” and then the conversation, “You know who really wanted to make the coolest movie of all? Jesus Christ!” And having that guy get really into it and going, “Yeah, you’re right! I stayed up all night reading the New Testament, and it’s actually a really good story. It’s especially appealing to me because I feel like Edward Scissorhands, I feel like Marty McFly, I feel like E.T., I feel like Crispin Glover, and that’s what I see in these pages. This is an important story for the creative! And it was written by creatives, this story.”
So I told Andrew, “Break the story, break the hacky, low-hanging-fruit version of the story, and we’ll do all the bits about how he made the budget last six days instead of three days; oh, he walked over the Hollywood equivalent of water. We all know it’s going out the window, but let’s use that as a framework, and then let’s twist it. Now let’s run it through Shirley’s story, and let’s make them both simultaneously Jesus and both simultaneously Pharisees and really make the first sitcom episode to address the topic of religion in a while that has no opinion about it, except for it’s a sin to second-guess your friends.”
That’s all we know, that’s all the show knows, that Abed and Shirley make better friends than enemies. We don’t know anything about religion or filmmaking coming out of that episode. All we know is that people should probably help each other out. I think it’s really interesting that Abed actually learns from Shirley that there might be a God out there working through the sometimes seemingly stupid activities of people who operate in His name. Maybe not in the way that they want to, but it’s all just part of banana peels and stoplights. Idiots are a part of that, so don’t just dismiss them because they might actually be carrying some sort of message that they don’t want to. And simultaneously Shirley is learning, “You know what? Maybe this story is so important, and this deity is so important, and his prophets are so important because you actually have to walk the walk. It doesn’t make any sense that you could be handed a belief system and now everything’s easy for you.”
So I thought that I had succeeded in this sublime act of genius, which is walking through these two laser beams, where it’s so easy to get your clothes caught on fire on either side. I thought I just walked right through it… Then I started reading reviews and comments, and it was like, “Oh, that felt treacly and Christian, and I guess we should all worship Jesus now,” and I was like, “Oh my God, no! I didn’t mean that at all!”
“Epidemiology” (Oct. 28, 2010)
A Halloween party on campus is ruined by an experimental bioweapon that turns people into something very much like zombies. Troy must save the day.
DH: We spent a good month breaking that story in every conceivable other way. We came up with every clever way you could justify zombies on a community college campus and exhausted all of them. The one with the longest shelf life was an experimental pharmaceutical that was being overprescribed.
We broke that story, and it was like dog paddling through mud, and it just felt like cleverness for the sake of cleverness. The story just kept being dead weight, like a child that doesn’t want to leave a party and goes limp. We can move it because we’re bigger than it, but there’s something wrong. And there was a point where I said, “What is our nightmare? What is the biggest sin that we’re not supposed to be committing here? What started us down the road of thinking of ways to do a zombie movie without doing a zombie movie? What happens in our zombie movie that can’t happen in our sitcom?” Easy answer: People die. Okay, absolutely right. But how much of the zombie motif has to do with people dying? Well, a lot. It’s about diminishing numbers, but the reason numbers diminish is because when you die you become a zombie. What if you became a zombie just by being bitten? And it went down this road very quickly. And that was late in the game. If we hadn’t spent a month doing stupid Prozac metaphors, God only knows what could have happened with that episode.
But I knew the whole time that this was further than we’d ever gone. The litmus test I used to prove that was to run through every episode in both seasons and picture myself reading the events that take place in the story in the local paper. I ran “Modern Warfare” through that. I ran chicken fingers through that. There was a shortage of chicken fingers on campus, and some kid took over the supply and was selling chicken fingers for favors. Whatever! Why did this make the paper? It was on page eight. There was a paintball game that got out of hand. Somebody built a fire in the cafeteria to warm their hands because the power went out. A guy set off a dye pack, and there were Die Hard themes. Again, it sounds interesting, but if I’m more than a city away, it’s not even in the paper. The military is covering up an experimental bio-weapon in the form of a rabies virus that spreads through bites and turns people into zombies and it was accidentally served at a Halloween party. Yeah. It’s on the cover of Time. [Laughs.] No matter where it happened. It could have happened at the North Pole, and you’d be reading about it.
Here’s why that’s dangerous. It doesn’t really have anything to do with not believing Peter Pan can fly and now you’ve damaged the fabric of the universe. That’s not the case, because a sitcom is a fucking constant violation of all reality. That’s the point of it. It’s an opiate. You are experiencing life as life is not. In the most successful ones, you’re literally hearing 150 people laughing when you’re supposed to laugh. It has nothing to do with whether something’s believable. What it has to do with is protecting the characters’ minds within the canon. The simple example is, I don’t wanna be breaking an episode in season five where Britta is arguing with Jeff over the remote and having this thing looming over my shoulder where anybody can stop this argument at any time and say, “Britta, why are we arguing about this? The military is lying to the people it’s supposed to protect. The Pentagon invaded our campus, and it was going to murder us. We were zombies!”
So when I narrowed it down to that being the thing that was the biggest threat, I came up with the forgivable if obvious solution of amnesia, of just going, “Well, if you’re not yourself when you’re on this stuff, it’s not that big a deal to say that when you go back to being yourself, you weren’t collecting memories.” Actually, there’s some logic there. It’s not necessarily a Bold And The Beautiful contrivance to say, “Well, you wake up from a roofie. You don’t remember.” And more importantly, even if it did feel contrived, I felt like it was a noble contrivance because I don’t want these people living in a world where that’s on the table.
It largely had to do with this feeling that drove the whole second season, which was, I have this feeling that I’m not gonna be around next year. I’m either gonna be fired or the show’s not gonna be on the air. In either case, I’m never gonna be on NBC at 8 p.m. on Thursday night ever again. This happens to how many people in the last 30 years? And it’s Halloween? I’ve gotta do this. I will drive past this campus every day for the rest of my life and get a sour stomach if I don’t do a zombie episode for Halloween. If you told me I had a six-year order of episodes, I could probably see my way to not pollute my show with such fantasy. But it had to be done. [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s also the episode where Shirley and Chang hooked up. How much of that arc did you know going into that episode?
DH: None. Halloween was where it all began. I don’t know how to access the character of Shirley. I don’t know who she is. All I know about her is how big her purse is and that she talks like Miss Piggy and Gary Coleman in alternation. I know these circumstantial facts about her: She’s got kids. Her husband left her. She’s a Baptist. She’s allergic to blibbedy-blah. Meanwhile, you’ve got Britta next to that, which is a fucking phenomenal study in the work you can do developing a character. I’ve dated women like Britta. I have politics like Britta. I’m awkward like Britta. I pronounce the word “bagel” like Britta. There’s just a million tools that are brought to bear in creating a character that to me is a unique move in a sitcom. I feel that way on one level or another about almost all the other characters, and my white guilt kept saying to me, “Is she sticking out because she’s a black woman?” And that all the more made me say, “I’ve gotta get in there. I don’t want to perpetuate this cycle.”
So my impulse was to start doing to her what I was doing to Britta in the first season in response to people saying, “We don’t like that character. We’re not responding to that character.” My response was to start pulverizing that character, putting pressure on her, saying, “You’re not supposed to like her. It’s all part of the show. Have you ever not been liked?” And slowly but surely, this Britta character went from being perceived as a mistake to being perceived as an achievement and numerous people’s favorite character, including mine, frankly. I want to always make sure that all of these characters can all be worlds and universes in and of themselves. And I just felt obstacles there with Shirley, and I felt like I just wanted to make her human. So I had her make out with Chang in the bathroom.