Dan Harmon walks us through Community’s second season (part 2 of 4)
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Community creator Dan Harmon recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the show’s second season, episode by episode. This section of his interview covers episode seven through episode 12, beginning with “Aerodynamics Of Gender” and concluding with “Asian Population Studies.” Part one can be found here.
“Aerodynamics Of Gender” (Nov. 4, 2010)
The girls and Abed take a class on feminism and get caught in a rivalry with some "mean girls." Jeff and Troy discover a secret trampoline.
The A.V. Club: One of the things I’ve seen in discussion of the show at our site and elsewhere is the idea that season two got too far away from the season-one formula of everyone taking a class and learning something from it. This is a return to that formula. Was that a conscious attempt to get back to it?
Dan Harmon: It was. This is the problem I cautioned people at the start of season two against the dangers of. People wanted to sit down and have those conversations about how many “weird” episodes vs. how many “normal” episodes we’d have to do, and I didn’t want to have that conversation, because can you imagine working on a show where some of the time you’re thinking it’s a “normal episode”? [Laughs.]
What’s a normal episode? 202 is a normal episode. The girls are arguing about how they dress differently, and one of the characters refuses to accept that his mother died. That is a 45-year-old A-B story episode. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was compelled to stick Abed in the background. I didn’t even think that would be enough, but I got away with it. People liked it. 207 is supposed to be a normal episode the way I would like to do them. I don’t know what the fuck a secret garden is. I only know the literal definition of that combination of words, that there’s a garden somewhere that’s secret. It has all kinds of mythical connotations to me. I don’t know what that movie is. I’ve never seen that movie. I just thought it was funny.
I think [Chris] McKenna pitched it. It was one of those ideas that germinated when I was out of the room. I think Neil Goldman texted me the idea, which was they find a secret trampoline that a janitor’s been keeping secret since the ’70s. I loved it. And the reason I loved it is because there’s nothing funny about that. We’re not Seinfeld. It’s not like the Soup Nazi, where you go, “Oh, that’s a funny premise.” What it is is a story. It’s got roots in reality, but more importantly, it’s got the potential to have real characters be subjected to circumstances that reveal more about them.
I do engage in referential, derivative, postmodern, hip-hop storytelling, where you say, “Okay, I didn’t take music classes. I just have a record of what you did, and I’m gonna play it backward. I’m gonna play it forward. I’m gonna play two at the same time.” I have a right to call that music, but I guess I don’t have a right to complain when people go, “Oh, you must be really into other people’s shit, so what’s up next, DJ?” I do have to say, I do so many fewer references than people think I’m doing. What is the reference to someone discovering something in a garden that’s secret? That’s all it is. The ball goes astray. He follows it back. He finds this magnificent thing. It’s a 5,000-year-old reference. It’s the place that’s too good to exist in the outside world.
We play it off as a joke. We do this 30 Rock-style absurd undercut of the whole thing in the end, but the undercut is profound. Jeff throws away this question that only took as long to write as it takes him to say it. It wasn’t a big, knit-browed arrival. Jeff just sort of goes, “Maybe purity worth protecting isn’t actual purity.” And he’s talking about racism! He’s talking about the fact that if the only thing you’re proud of is that you’re white, and if whiteness is only achievable through beating people up and keeping people from having sex with your daughter, then what does being white even mean? What are you proud of? It’s not even just a hot-button metaphor, because that applies to gated communities, it applies to democracy vs. monarchy, it applies to egalitarianism, it applies to the economy. Things you find yourself gripping white-knuckled, are they valuable or not? And it’s only a question. I love bringing mythology into a sitcom.
I watched it in the mix bay, and I thought, “Eh. It’s a C-plus.” What was the B-story? Oh, was it the RoboCop thing? Again, fucking stories about how women dress. I can’t take it anymore. I actually said that aloud during 207. “No more stories about sweaters! Enough! I can’t take it anymore.” They’re all my ideas initially. I sign off on all of them. But you start these things with the greatest of intentions, but that Mean Girls story—[Affects voice of angry viewer.] “Mean Girls spoof! What?”—it was supposed to end with the dean after Abed has Bitchzillaed out the whole school. Once [the dean] accepts the mission, he goes over to a trunk in his office, and he’s got some really sharp, stylish clothes in there, and you get a glimpse of the dean before he became a dean. Before the clip-on ties and the short-sleeved shirts, he was actually kind of a committed, really queeny club kid who was really bad-ass and bitchy. He goes up to Abed and takes him out back, and they have this private Every Which Way But Loose kind of bare-knuckled bitchfest. And Abed still wins! [Laughs.] I must have been the one to somehow fuck up that story. I don’t know how it became Abed walking around and snapping people about their clothes and then learning that he shouldn’t.
The trampoline story, I really liked. Of course it was the tee-up for this concept that Pierce is the simplest backstory of all. It’s just the idea that someone’s got daddy issues. He says “Father” as he reaches the apex of the trampoline jump. I love that story. I like the idea that a basketball can roll into a bush at Greendale, and you can find something that is just this silly joke, but can also be an actual story.
“Cooperative Calligraphy” (Nov. 11, 2010)
The bottle episode. When Annie's pen disappears, she is certain one of the group members must have taken it. The group tears the study room apart to find it.
DH: That was, “What’s the opposite of launching people into space? Let’s do that four episodes after we launch them into space.”
I always said about the show to the writers, our ultimate goal is to get people to stop, make them add a drawer to their filing cabinet. We gotta shake this tendency on the viewer and the critics’ part to file us somewhere that already exists. Sometimes, I admit, we’re obnoxiously doing so. It’s like kids that do things when they’re 16 to prove they don’t have to clean their room. They’re doing something absurd, but they’re also doing it because it’s kind of absurd to insist that they clean their room. I won’t say whether it’s a good or a bad thing, or a right or a wrong decision.
I felt like the guillotine was coming on it, and it just started like, fucking going crazy. I never wanted that to become, “Oh, it’s the crazy show.” So I always said to the writers, like, “Crazy has to have a new definition, too. It has to be about versatility.” I always used the metaphor of the elephant’s trunk, because an elephant can pick up a house key with the tip of its trunk. It has the same dexterity as a pair of human fingers at the end of its trunk, but that same trunk can knock down an entire tree, and both of these things are worth doing, and they’re both breathtaking things to behold. It’s just different scopes, different tones, and we want them both.
So the bottle episode was definitely directly designed to kind of blow your mind on the heels of getting you accustomed to grandiose experimental tones. To just say, “What is it that you want right now? What are you craving? What do you think we’re not capable of doing? What do you think we’re hiding with this big cowboy hat? Do you think we’re bald? No! Full head of hair!” And I love bottle episodes. I think they coined the phrase on the Star Trek set because it was a ship in a bottle. They never left the bridge for certain episodes. And when I learned that term, I looked back on Barney Miller and Cheers and Taxi, and, I mean, there are entire series that I just named that are essentially bottle episodes, several episodes in a row, seasons in a row. I think for the first couple seasons of Cheers, the only other set was Sam’s office, which doesn’t even count. All In The Family was always in that living room. It’s like you’re watching a play. And there’s no reason why that can’t be good. There’s one reason: if you suck. And I’m really arrogant and really competitive and really eager to please my mom, and I really wanted to do a bottle episode. And the writers make that possible, because I could stand up and say that in a room, and I can go and I can work on three other episodes, and when I come back, they can have graphed out on a whiteboard concepts, like Shirley’s pregnancy, her pregnancy tests, Abed’s menstrual charts, things like that.
Sometimes my perception is totally warped, because my side of the story would be, “Ugh, that episode was like a hot knife through butter. We should do every episode that way, because it’s just fucking perfect, and there was never a hitch in that process.” Because I just said, “Let’s do a bottle episode,” and we talked about what that meant, and then we brainstormed a few concepts for like an hour, and everybody at the end of the hour was saying, “Look, don’t use this idea or anything, but I’m just saying, it should be simple. It shouldn’t be that there’s a lightning storm, and the doors all have electronic locks. Just say, for instance, that Annie loses her pen, and she doesn’t know who took it.” I barfed that out as a placeholder, and we ended up going with it.
But my perception is, then I got up and left the room. I’m sure there were… literally tears shed during the writing of that episode. That was Megan [Ganz]’s draft. I think Megan is a remarkable writer, and I just took an immediate liking to her because I came up through features, and I came up through luck and craziness. I didn’t come up through the writing staff of other people’s shows, and all I’ve ever heard my whole life is people telling me not to get cocky and to know my place and to know protocol and stuff. Those are very valid things, but I’m also just used to them as hexes, and I perceive Megan’s personality as bright and loquacious. And she was the driving force behind, “Yes, let’s do this bottle episode.” She loved the idea, and I think it was a stressful time for her, too, because all of a sudden she’s stepping up, and she’s at the whiteboard.
And it was a profound experience, I think, watching from afar and dipping back into the room now and then, and I was just so proud of her for taking this outline home and delivering this draft that I read and I went, “Switch these two events. If they’re gonna rip his casts off, just because it’s a physical event, it can’t happen as early as it’s happening, move it to the end of the act, so we build to what feels like a stripping down of the characters physically. Put these events in this order so that physically, you feel that it goes from purses being dumped out to clothes being removed to casts being ripped off to rooms being torn apart.” But a lot of that stuff stayed the way it was, because Megan’s got a great gift for dialogue, and her passion for the show is so evident in that episode.
AVC: You’ve employed a lot of female writers, in both seasons. That’s not true of a lot of other TV comedies. Was that a conscious decision?
DH: It was conscious on the part of [former NBC programming head] Angela Bromstad, before she left NBC. Angela said, “Get more women on your staff. Make it half women.” I remember going, “Are you fucking kidding me?” to myself. “Okay, I got a sitcom, and this is as far as you go,” because I’ve just been told that half of my staff needs to be a quota hire. From the mouths of bureaucrats come the seeds of great things. I dug extra hard. You find somebody like Hilary Winston. You find people later like [Emily] Cutler and [Karey] Dornetto.
They’re harder to find. It’s definitely not because women ain’t funny, because I’m finding the opposite. It’s because there’s fewer of them. The statistical probability of picking up a shitty script, it’s compounded for women. There’s the same percentage of genius happening in both genders, but there’s less women writing scripts and out there looking for the job. So you dig a little extra-hard, and you end up with a staff that took a few extra meetings and a few extra shitty scripts to read. Now you have a staff that is just as good as the staff you would have had, but happens to be half women. And it seems like the greatest thing in the world, because the world is half women. And the male writers across the board, from top to bottom, in their most private moments drinking with me, when they’re fully licensed to be as misogynist, reactive, old-boy-network as they want, all they can say is, “This turned out to be a great thing.”
The energy is different. It doesn’t keep anybody polite. We’re not doffing our caps or standing up when they enter the room. They do more dick jokes than anybody, because they’ve had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they’re not dainty. That’s not fair, but women writers, they acquire the muscle of going blue fast because they have to counter the stigma. I don’t have enough control groups to compare it to, but there’s just something nice about feeling like your writers’ room represents your ensemble a little more accurately, represents the way the world turns.
Race is another thing entirely. It would be fantastic to have 18 percent black writers on your TV staff and stuff. But the fact is, black women have ovaries and white women have ovaries; black men have testicles and white men have testicles, so actually, race is far more an artificial construct than gender. There’s a literal, actual difference between men and women, and it’s in their blood, and it’s in their brains, and it’s in their fingertips, and it’s in our conversations. I think women are different, and I think having them in the room is crucial to a family comedy, ensemble comedy, television comedy, where half the eyeballs on your show are women. As it turns out, I think Megan’s the only female writer who’s staying this year, so now, even though Bromstad’s gone, now I’m carrying this legacy, going, “Eh, guys, we really need a half-female writing staff.” I would teach it. I think we have to stop thinking of it as a quota thing and think of it as a common-sense thing.
“Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design” (Nov. 18, 2010)
Jeff's suspicious credit from night school appears to be a real thing... until Jeff reveals he has no idea who the "professor" teaching the class is.
AVC: At the Paley festival, you talked about how you weren’t sure that one was going to work. Was there a moment when you realized it did?
DH: The moment I realized I didn’t care if other people liked it or not—because in my opinion, it was a great episode of television—was the sound mix, and very often that’s where that happens. It’s where Mark Binder and Doug Mountain, our sound guys, they put their finishing touches on these episodes, and now the color correction is in place too, and Ludwig Goransson has laid his score in. It’s not just like, “Well, the episode’s 95 percent there, and the last 5 percent is that stuff.” If that were the case, you could always tell a good episode from a bad one, because you could go, “Oh, it feels like 95 percent of a good episode, so bring in the music! Lay on the frosting!” That’s probably the case for multi-camera sitcoms, where you lay in a bass riff and the sound of the door closing. It is not the case with Community, and no episode is more exemplary of that than “Conspiracy Theories,” because I think Ludwig’s work might have ended up being probably 40 percent of whether that episode scans. I couldn’t tell it was good until it was absolutely finished.
It became an homage to twists, and that was my way of pulling out of what I was scared was going to be a confusing episode. We were working too hard on the actual conspiracy for a while. Chris McKenna, it was his baby and his pitch. All his pitch was the beginning of the story. Jeff took a class called “Conspiracy Theories,” and the dean is busting his balls about it, confronting him. Then this guy comes out and says, “I’m Professor Professorson [the professor of the class].” And then he walks away, and Jeff says to Annie, “I’ve never seen that guy in my life.” That was Chris’ pitch. So it’s not just building an episode around a joke. That’s a third of the episode, and there was a magic to it. You’re like, “God, that is the most intriguing story I’ve ever heard in my life.”
And now the big question becomes “What do you do next?” It’s not typically how we approach stories. There’s not supposed to be that much detail, and then you don’t know what happens next. I kept going, “Goddammit, we’re doing this wrong. I know we’re doing this wrong, because we’ve built episodes around jokes before. We’re supposed to go in passes. We’re supposed to know the overall story. We go in, and we add detail, and whenever we don’t do that, we have a shitty story. This is a terrible idea. This is like building a bridge while standing on it. You don’t know if it’s going to get to the other side.” And then I thought, “That’s what this episode is. Just improvise it. Keep going with that energy. Don’t add any depth to it; don’t add any more pipe. You’ve already told the whole story in the first act. In this episode, everything is going to be up for dismissal and conjecture.”
And the important epiphany for us was that there needs to be no reality beyond that. It was originally a story that eventually led to the night school and the revelation of this whole faculty that was fake, and they had this sort of conspiracy, and they had a backstory to them, and they offered Jeff a place at their side, and he had to choose between Annie and it. The lesson from the space-bus episodes was, “Yeah, but we’re trying to insert this grounded element instead of just having fun. Maybe this is a fun episode. And maybe the amount of twists that we have in the first act needs to create this parabolic curve of [Sings, speeding up with each one.] “da-da-daaaa. Da-da-daaaa, da-da-daaaa, da-da-daaaa, da-da-daaaaaa, da-da-daaaaaaaaa!” Until “da-da-daaaa” loses its meaning.
That was a beautiful epiphany, because it was a pure one. I have no regrets about that episode. I watched that one again recently only because I was showing the animator who was going to make the animated tag for the end of the clip show, I was taking him through the dean’s character. And for that reason alone, I did something I never do, which was to go back and watch an episode before the DVD commentary. Because I don’t. I just freak out about it. So I went back and watched it with this guy, who had better things to do. I’m just supposed to be showing him the dean, you know? We were both just enthralled. That episode is gorgeous, Adam Davidson shot it beautifully, and Ludwig, I just can’t overstate. And Joe Russo also deserves a tip of the hat there, because it wasn’t just Ludwig in a vacuum. It was Joe Russo sort of annoying the fuck out of Ludwig. Joe got on board that episode, and was over there with Ludwig really getting to this very American concept of the thriller score. Ludwig is this genius from Sweden. There’s just certain pop-cultural vocabularies that don’t exist [for him] that we share [in the U.S.].
I didn’t know at any step of the way that that thing was going to be good or bad. If the people that shovel money into the show could see how many times I had no idea whether the final product was going to be good or bad, they—well, I guess they do have the ability to see that, and they react appropriately, which is to mistrust me completely. [Laughs.] It feels like I can’t be right that many times; it has to be because I’m making the appropriate decision every step of the way to do what is probably philosophically prudent. Sometimes that means, “Just wait a second, hold on, just see this through.” Sometimes, that means freak out and flail and stop everything. But more often than not, it’s about being like water and just assuming the answer is “yes” to whatever anyone says, but just subtly always committing to your tastes in a way that creates this river that flows.
“Conspiracy Theories” is Chris McKenna. He’s such a relatively unsung hero because he’s higher-ranking, and he precisely makes less of a splash because of his stability and his experience. He’s like 6-foot-4, hardened salt of the earth, American Dad writer that believes in keeping his head down and toeing the line, and he loves the show. And every episode that he writes, he produces as well. He frets over details that even I have outgrown fretting about. He was the first writer I’d ever employed in the first season that ever called me at 9 p.m. worrying about something that I heard myself say, “It’s just a sitcom, man.” [Laughs.]
The night before we shot [the third act], I had to run down the hall, tell the line producer how many guns we needed and what kind they should be, and then I had to get on the phone with Standards And Practices, who thank God, we have a good relationship with, and talk her through the concept, because we needed that clearance before we committed a word to paper, when you’re working down to the wire like that. So I had this conversation with her about, “Look, there’s guns. They look real; they’re gonna sound real, then there’s gonna be some squibs, blood packs, all the stuff.” I just walked her through it beat by beat. Then the end of it with Craig Cackowski coming in and saying, “Guns aren’t toys.” She goes, “Thank you for adding that at the end. It sounds like overall, no one’s going to come away with the idea that guns are a fun thing to screw around with.” [Laughs.] She’s really cool, and I was actually able to clear it with S&P and then go write it with the writers, and we shot it the next day. And yet you can’t tell from watching the episode that it was assembled like that. That the pitch was the first act, we improvised the second act, and then came up with the third act the day before. You would think that there would be some kind of awkwardness to that episode for that reason.
AVC: This is the one with the blanket fort chase, where the A- and B-stories intersect in a very strange way. Where did that idea come from?
DH: I wanna say McKenna, too, but that might just be because McKenna was pointman on the episode. I don’t know if someone else came up with that idea or if it was Chris’, but it wasn’t me. The idea of those guys making a blanket fort together that became the size of a city—I can’t remember. [Long pause.] There were so many permutations of it. There was supposed to be this whole French Connection-like chase sequence that you could see represented, but as is often the case, it was this vision that we have that you can’t do.
To me, that’s another example of, like, that’s a normal episode. Can’t we just do that every week? Does that have to be called a conceptual episode? Does that have to be called a departure, because isn’t that just a story about Jeff trying to fudge his grades and Annie trying to appeal to his responsibility and Troy and Abed doing a goofy thing together? How different is that from an episode of My Name Is Earl, except for the fact that we, I don’t know, think differently? So if you go, “Well, you did too many conceptual episodes this year,” okay. Is that one of ’em? Like, which ones are the normal ones? How many of those normal ones do you want? Because I can only think of a couple normal ones, and I just hate them.
“Mixology Certification” (Dec. 2, 2010)
It's Troy's 21st birthday, and the group goes to the bar to celebrate, though Troy ends up doing the least celebrating of all.
AVC: This one ended up being surprisingly controversial. For a lot of our commenters, it wasn’t funny enough and was too depressing.
DH: And [they said] it felt like an anti-drinking message somehow in there. There’s no bigger drunk than me. I’m drinking a glass of vodka while I talk to you about this. I’m not Trey Parker. I don’t wanna just assume that the way I live my life and the things that I believe need to be somehow imparted to people. That’s easier with Trey because he’s a libertarian, and his views are more neutral. I can’t get away with that, because my views are left of Chomsky, and my habits are left of Belushi. I can’t just suggest that America get into what I’m into. So in an episode about everybody getting shit-faced, I was the one going, “Let’s not glamorize it. Let’s make sure that if you don’t drink, you walk away from the episode not thinking maybe you’re missing something.” [Laughs.] But at the same time, if you do, you’re going, “Finally, an episode for me.”
And it was another based on the rush I got from the bottle episode, which at the time had yet to be shot. The production code on that is 209, so that’s right after the bottle episode in terms of the order we’re writing it. I guess I was just in a phase of really believing in this idea of making a show about these people, and we can still be clever and fun about it, but that doesn’t mean you have to do dragons and zombies and stuff. So part of it is like, how do you do another bottle episode? So that must be why we flopped the order of it, ’cause it felt like two bottle episodes in a row, almost. We must have taken [“Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design”] and stuck it in between.
But that’s one of my favorite episodes. I saw the first cut of that and was practically ready to ship it. I wanted to start growing Troy up. I wanted to establish a calendar in subtle ways. I think that was also about saving money. I think maybe Sony had sat me down at some point around this time and said, “You’re $700,000 over budget, and we have only done six episodes,” and I said, “I told you that was gonna happen, because we were gonna come out swinging, because Big Bang Theory’s coming,” and they said, “We know; you’re right, but get back down to zero.” And I think that the bottle episode and “Mixology” and stuff were all a part of that. The bar that we used was a pre-existing set from Happy Endings, the show the Russo brothers were working on, so we redecorated their bar and shot in there, so it was a very cheap thing to do.
Not funny enough… I was surprised at that response. I was a little less surprised by the suspicion that I was somehow doing an after-school special about how drinking is bad, because I was like, “Well, that’s probably a good thing, right?” If you spend an afternoon with me, you’re going to be more of a drunk walking away. I have the opposite influence on the world around me, so it wouldn’t be a terrible thing to spend a half hour of my primetime sitcom accidentally giving the impression that it’s not that great a thing to get shitfaced. But the jokes, I thought, were there. The cold open of that episode is one of my proudest little diamonds. I mean, coming in on them halfway through the birthday song, and it’s just a setup, punchline, one-liner, one-liner, one-liner, setup, punchline, punchline.
And I remember one of the notes on that from the studio was, “I don’t understand why they’re going out drinking.” “Because Troy’s turning 21.” “Yeah, but why does that mean they have to go out drinking?” “I don’t know, man.” That just goes to show you that one of the inherent problems of the old world of television, which is that 1 percent of the country is controlling what 99 percent sees. And I think, in their world, on your 21st birthday, your pony gets a different haircut. [Laughs.] Everyone else knows that when the government says they won’t throw you in jail for drinking anymore, you go out and you get drunk in public.
AVC: A lot of the impression that it wasn’t funny enough may have come when the final act skews away from the hard jokes and more into character drama.
DH: Yeah. It was a departure from the strictest tenets of my story structure. The story, for all intents and purposes, was resolved at the end of act two. Yet we have an extended third act that is its own event. I really liked that, too. It made me feel like I was watching an episode of Taxi. They would have a dark but familial feel to some complicated situation, but very often, in the last leg, Danny DeVito would humanize, and everything would get quiet. And there would be stretches between the audience laughing, and it would be just odd and interesting, and it would make you go, “Ah, I can’t wait until the next episode. Are these guys gonna get their shit together or what?” It wasn’t an homage in that sense; that was just something I noticed as it was coming together. I was like, “This is beautiful to me the way Taxi was when I was a kid.”
The real thing that was being expressed there was that this is what drinking is. This is the ride home. This is the asymmetry of an evening. We get excited, and we have adventures, and we get high. Then there’s this shameful, quiet, dark, odd, clumsy, tear-stained kind of like, “We did all that stuff, and it’s over.” And I just wanted that stuff to feel like it feels and feel a way that it doesn’t in other sitcoms, where drinking is a potion that you take, and then you go crazy. We’re all familiar with that joke. You drink and then you have a lampshade on your head and your dick is out. Then you don’t remember anything, and then you wake up, and you put the steak on your head, and Fred Flintstone takes you bowling. Not drawing the division line there, but drawing on the ride home and dropping people off, walking them to their door. Troy and Annie never having talked since… I’ve never seen those two relate as high-school classmates growing up.
The most important part of your college life is shedding your high-school skin, going through these outwardly childish experiences. You stop learning very quickly, after the first couple years of college. Your personality is set. All kinds of crazy shit’s gonna happen to you, but it’s gonna be crazy shit happening to some guy. It’s not gonna be a person forming, coming out of this chrysalis. And Annie and Troy are different from the rest of the cast in that sense. They’re changing every week. Not only did Troy envy grown-ups in the beginning and end up driving them home and parenting them, but he walked his “sister” to the door and was capable of being attracted to her, appreciative of her, and responsible for her, all without any objectification of her. It was an epiphany. Those are the kinds of things that happen in good summer teen movies from my youth, too. Even movies with titles like Fraternity Pussy Paradise always had some weird third act where the guy from Fright Night has a monologue about how hard it is to be unpopular or something, as the sun comes up behind him. Bachelor Party with Tom Hanks had an odd energy to it in the third act, where the sun starts to crest the horizon and there’s, like, solitude.
The best part of all was Jeff and Britta making out and then Abed sitting there. [Laughs.] I can’t think of a better show than that. And like, somebody’s sleeve or elbow flicks against his face and he’s just sitting here. And then there’s the pause, and he says, “They were making out.” And you think, “Oh, we’re gonna make a ‘will they, won’t they’ situation out of this,” but “No, fuck you.” He just tells them. And they yell at him, like, “Why would you do that in front of me? I’m not a coat rack.” [Laughs.] There’s not a single person in that car who’s a hero or a villain. There’s nobody in that car that’s a sidekick. There’s just a bunch of people in that car getting closer and closer and more and more tangled and realizing there are all these different hats that you have to wear all the time. Troy’s driving Jeff’s new Lexus, and Jeff is saying, “Happy birthday. You’re a man, now,” and it’s like handing a curse off to him. Britta is sort of attracted to him. He’s nutting up and maybe she’s making out with the wrong guy, and it’s all through that Vaseline-coated lens of drunken stupor. I love it.
“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (Dec. 9, 2010)
An incident leaves Abed perceiving the world as stop-motion animated on the brink of the holiday season.
DH: The nature of that episode is, we had to squeeze it into a schedule in order for there to be room for it. That’s why I have a credit on it. There’s not a single writer in this building that I could justify burdening with the actual writing of the draft. It was clerical work and had to be done by a body over weekends, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, because we were already so busy. [Co-writer] Dino [Stamatopoulos] is a consultant on the show. He gets paid very little, and he’s my friend, and so this was all how I could justify it to the brass. I just said, “It will be as if the episode doesn’t exist. No writer will be taken off of work for it. No other episode will be delayed. There will be no extra hiatus. You won’t even know anything happened, because my drinking buddy and I, who we barely pay anything, who plays Starburns, we’ll just fart it off on the side. And Dino produced probably 50 percent of the grunt work on that. He had to write the first draft, and then I rewrote it, and we basically shot it.
It’s important to note that before Dino and I really dug in, I had a two-hour window with the entire writing staff. I said to [executive producer] Neil [Goldman], “I know I promised you we wouldn’t take any time with this episode, but just let me talk to them for a couple hours. All the writers in the room that were available just talked conceptually. I said, “Everybody keep your minds open. Here’s the dilemma. Why are we doing a stop-motion episode? If it’s because it’s detached from the canon, then there’s so little satisfaction doing it at all. On the other hand, you ground it enough that it can be canon, why is it stop-motion? This is gonna be a stop-motion episode about doing homework? That’s still masturbation. So how do we get out of that?” And we talked about it for two hours. And somehow, collectively, we found that concept: Abed’s mind. The way Abed sees things. Abed undergoing a trauma that has resulted in the medium being the way it is, and that being the inciting incident. The awareness of it. Getting to the bottom of it through the exploration of it. That will justify all of the visual splendor, but it will be as grounded as anything, because it will be depressingly rooted in a very human experience.
So it had to be two hours, tops, that we went from zero idea of what to do, to that. And that’s everything. From then on, it was all incredibly hard, sweaty, thankless, shitty work with me and Dino with a blackboard going, “What’s that story?” But it’s also the most important decision that was made in two hours. That’s why it makes sense. I remember Dino and I breaking all these stories. I remember there was this little elf girl. There was a visit to Duncan’s office where you actually meet all the broken toys outside the hallway. Christmas is a booming time for Duncan because of all the suicide attempts and thoughts and things, and there’s this little redhead elf girl out in the hallway who Abed befriends, and he indoctrinates her into the ability to willfully deny reality and just engage in this fascination. It just got too fucking dark. [Laughs.] Because she ended up killing herself again or attempting it. And it was like, “Oh my God, there was no way. I can’t even watch this.” So that may help explain why that episode seems kind of dark and depressing. You have no idea. That episode is Brady Bunch compared to what we were starting with. We’re drinking buddies. We’re old, we’re dark. We love depression. We think it’s hilarious and fun and profound, and we’re comfortable with it. The two of us in a room together, we could have put something together that would have been an actual crime against television.
The nature of that medium is [as you] write the script, they have to be recording it. [Snaps fingers.] The animation is backed to the recording of the voices. You can ADR if you don’t like their inflection, but their lip sync is their lip sync. They do it to the original recording. That script had to be final. Unlike any other script, there’s no time to go through and go, “Hey, what if he said ‘Got milk?’ as he’s falling off the milk?” [Laughs.] I have a feeling that that would have resulted in a fantastic piece of television, if we had also been able to have Chris McKenna and Megan Ganz and Adam Countee and Andrew Guest sitting around a table with a sad, sweet, awesome journey into Abed’s dementia. It would have been a Smithsonian-worthy piece of video. As it is, it was better to do it than not do it. As with the zombie episode, never gonna get this chance again.
I was lamenting [to my girlfriend], going “I’m an idiot; why do I keep doing these things just to do them? This episode’s not funny. It sucks. Everyone’s waiting for me to fail, and I finally did them a favor.” And she told me about Charles Schultz and how hard he had to fight for the Peanuts Christmas special. He was the one proposing it from the beginning. He’s going, “This thing’s gonna be depressing. Christmas is a depressing holiday.” And he was the one saying, “I want them to sound like real kids, but I want ’em to talk like adults and I want it to depress the fuck out of you like Christmas sometimes does, but ultimately having a spiritually uplifting sense.” And they wanted to burn him at the stake. Here was a guy that had done a Christmas special and had a much harder time than I had. So it really relaxed me. “Eh, I’m no hero, and I’m no villain, and I’m nothing. I just want to make a Christmas episode that reminds me of those days.”
“Asian Population Studies” (Jan. 20, 2011)
Troy accidentally reveals that Shirley's baby may be Chang's. The group gathers to consider possible new additions to the study group.
DH: There’s one where it’s obviously a normal episode. So that one should be held up in approaching any debate where the show should be watered down, weirded out, or a combination of the two, because I assume everyone can recognize that episode as normal. And I don’t look at it and cringe. I don’t think it’s bad. I would not be ashamed of myself if that were broadcasting every week. ’Cause it’s got one of my favorite jokes, which is people coming into the bathroom and arguing, and Britta’s the last one in, and Fat Neil comes in. He comes in and gives her a look and she lifts up her shirt, and he gives her two concert tickets and walks out. [Laughs.] And she looks at them and says, “Mezzanine!” And that’s like, the tent-pole between her and the beginning, she says, “Shirley, this is what guys do. They come back into your life. Sometimes it’s Chili Pepper tickets, sometimes it’s soft-serve ice cream, and yes, I’ll admit it, one time it was a gym bag full of nickels, but the point is….” [Laughs.]
Anyway, that makes me laugh hard enough that I could do a show like that. I would certainly be home earlier. If I married my girlfriend and had kids, they’d be happier. They’d have more of a dad if we just decided now, “Let every episode be like that.” Okay, I’ll barely be here. I’ll name a successor, and I’ll go develop other stuff that’s easier. I’ll reexamine that. Take a look at that episode.
I don’t know if you read that Atlantic analysis of the show. I was fascinated by it the whole time. He’s writing this in-depth analysis of the show, and his thesis is “Is Community too clever and meta to stick around?” And he’s pointing out How I Met Your Mother as an example of something that’s sort of like a line drive up the middle and is succeeding. And I’m like, “How am I supposed to write How I Met Your Mother knowing that someone like you is watching?” Look at this article! [Laughs.] Don’t you think How I Met Your Mother is telling you to go fuck yourself? Like, how many essays have you written about it? And aren’t there more of you out there?
And it’s a big question. Like, are you supposed to assume that the audience is critical and invested? Or are you making a fundamental error there in a medium that is not designed to engage, but to comfort? Because you’re a critic. If you do work 12 hours a day, you’re just working on, like, watching TV. Or something that is not digging ditches. Something where you aren’t going to the TV for, like, an ice pack. You’re going to it for a Popsicle. You’re going to it for flavor and for engagement. So you have that spectrum of HBO on one end and ABC on the other end, and you get these huge numbers of people going, “Hey! Don’t assume anything about my IQ, but I got work in the morning, and I’ve got better things to think about than the concept of entertainment. Charlie Sheen just made me laugh with a boner joke. Done! He reminds me of me. He likes his slippers. He’s got amnesia in this episode.” It’s not an easy debate. Like, are you supposed to engage in fucking art on TV? Is there a way to do both? But “Asian Population Studies,” that’s as mainstream as Community can get, I think.
Come back tomorrow for part three, which covers episodes 13 through 18.