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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 part covers episode 19 through episode 24, beginning with “Critical Film Studies” and concluding with the two-part finale, “A Fistful Of Paintballs” and “For A Few Paintballs More.” Parts one, two, and three were published earlier in the week.
“Critical Film Studies” (March 24, 2011)
For his birthday, Abed invites Jeff out to dinner, but Jeff and the rest of the group have already set up a party for him at a diner elsewhere.
Dan Harmon: I think it ironically began as another bottle episode to save money and aim for a four-day shoot, which saves even more money. Like, what is a bottle episode? Two guys sitting at a table eating dinner. That makes you think of My Dinner With Andre. What’s the irony of Dinner With Andre? There had to be something more to it, since we had the whole Pulp Fiction thing. There had to be a reason why this straight man was stuck at the table. He had to be a prisoner at the table stuck talking to this guy. And also, you had to have a reason to cut back and forth between some things. My Dinner With Andre came up as a target at some point in the writers’ room, and from there, we went. We were so far behind schedule that there was no table-read for that episode, and the brass were arguing among themselves over editing the drug-play episode by phone.
For the large part of this episode, I was in this room alone with Megan [Ganz]. I remember that experience very well because I was at my emotional wits’ end. I had been told numerous times before that, as early as episode seven, that I was at my wits’ end. People kept telling me to stop. They would say, “You’re at the end of your rope.” And I’d say, “Why are you saying that? That seems like a weird thing to wish on someone. I’m really happy. I love my show.” And they’d say, “No, no, you are exhausted, you need to cool out.” And I’d go home from those meetings thinking, “I think that they just wish that I wasn’t me.”
And it’s funny, because on that episode, I found out what the actual end of the rope feels like, because there is definitely no point in both seasons where I’ve been so terrified of my own failure. I’ve never been able to taste it like that. It was a combination of being that far behind schedule—there was no breaking the story, having a draft, table-reading, getting notes—and the episode obviously wouldn’t have existed if that had had to happen, because that process was designed to stop weird things from happening. And for good reason. There was too much risk and not enough reward. There is money being made and a business being transacted on every other network, and here we are on this little island of “Who gives a fuck?” But at some point, it doesn’t even matter. “Stop overthinking it; stop being weird. What’s the worst thing that could happen to your numbers if you go home and sleep a little bit?”
Sometimes you focus so much on getting away with stuff because you think, “Oh, if I could just get away with it, then everything will be great.” But then you get away with something accidentally, and you realize, “Wait, I get away with everything. I’m at the tippy-top of a $2 million investment into a half-hour of television about what? What is even going on in this story?” And it surprises people to hear me describe it that way, because mostly it was just a cute episode. It wasn’t perceived by anyone—and I refuse to read any reviews of this episode—but it seemed from the Twitter feed that really all of my anxiety was… the disparity was really odd.
I don’t think anyone looks at that episode and thinks, “Oh man, you must have really been wrestling with that. It looks like it terrified you.” But I was sitting at that desk in front of a computer, and Megan was sitting where you’re sitting, and the first thing that happened was I heard that Russ [Krasnoff], one of the EPs, was wandering the set asking questions about Pulp Fiction—like whether people would understand references to Pulp Fiction. This was the worst thing I could hear. I mean, I was thinking of the Pulp Fiction thing as the sort of dumb anchor that you could just hang onto. And now I’m hearing that this guy is going, “You know, who knows? Isn’t that movie kinda old? And you aren’t even saying Pulp Fiction, you just have a guy wandering around with boxing gloves on.” And it’s the validity of that observation that made me upset. It’s like pulling north off of your compass. So now the needle is spinning.
I’m sleep-deprived, I’m breaking a story on a whiteboard with a 25-year-old writer from The Onion who has never worked in TV in her life, except for Important Things With Demetri Martin. I’m breaking a story within a story about a character visiting the set of another TV show, and the story has to be structured to simulate birth, life, and death—and there are no jokes. There are just no jokes in it. And I’m trying as hard as I can to do what I always do, which is follow my instincts and be pretty sure that what is entertaining to me will be entertaining to the right kind of people in the right numbers to keep me alive. It’s just going too far for me to really have this confidence deep down. But it’s too late. I can’t pull the plug, because then we have nothing. I have to stick this landing, but I don’t totally believe that I know what I’m doing anymore. I can focus on the micro-tasks, like making sure the Cougar Town story actually is a story. I focus on that. I’m thinking with a different part of my brain. It’s like deck chairs on the Titanic. You’re arranging them beautifully, but what does that mean? That’s not a story.
I was putting it off, but then I heard this Pulp Fiction thing. And Russ walks past my door, and I pulled him in, and I just yelled at him, like, “Hey, I hear you’re walking around not knowing if this Pulp Fiction thing is marketable.” And I was like, “Why are you asking this now?” I’m just lashing out at somebody like a gorilla beating my chest, and it’s really the opposite of being a gorilla, because I’m terrified. And I was just more disrespectful to him than I think I have been to anybody in the past two seasons. It was like pulling the wings off a butterfly. I was just asserting myself and letting him know that his opinions didn’t matter, which is obviously the opposite of what is true, because why else am I doing this? And he left the room, and I look over, and Megan is like, slumped under the table, because, I mean, why am I doing this in front of a staff writer? And she just tried to stop existing by going under the table. She just lowered her posture to the point where she was invisible during this conversation. And I realized, “Why did I do that? I just saw The Social Network, do I think I’m [Mark] Zuckerberg?” I’m trying to Hulk out on this guy who bought the pitch from me.
So I went and apologized, and I came back, and I sat at the keyboard, and I can’t remember any of the actual conversation, but I was just like, “I fucked up, I fucked up really bad. Everybody had been waiting for me to fail this whole time, and I finally did it. This was going to be 20 minutes of dead air. This is a terrible thing. I spiraled and barfed it up.” She could have destroyed the show at that moment by just agreeing with me. If she had said nothing, everything would have fallen apart. Instead, I heard her say what I needed her to say, which was something like, “I think this is a great episode. This is a great show. If you stop doing what you’re doing, I will move back to Michigan. We have to keep doing this and finish it.” I know I started crying, and I just rubbed it away, and we just kept going.
And it was a fine episode. People liked it. I cried again when I saw the Twitter feed. It wasn’t like they were saying it was Citizen Kane, but they also weren’t saying, “What is this? What happened?” They were saying, “I love this. I know what’s happening.” Whether they had seen My Dinner With Andre or not, my hope was that I didn’t make the episode dependent on that. People just enjoyed it as an episode. I was at home in my office just crying and watching people not hate it. It made me feel like I couldn’t believe how much of a weight had been lifted off my chest. In that six weeks between me crying in my office and the night it aired, I had been walking around with unresolved anxiety. You know, something related to that fraud complex. “You don’t know what you’re doing. Why do you deserve a TV show? Why are you doing these things? Why do you keep trying to get fired? When are you just going to be happy?”
“Competitive Wine Tasting” (April 14, 2011)
Jeff grows suspicious when an attractive woman falls for Pierce, and Abed takes a class on Who’s The Boss.
AVC: You had two episodes added onto your order fairly late. Was this one of those?
DH: [Laughs.] No, I know what you mean. But the first season, they added the three extra episodes so late that those three are actually modular, because we proceeded with the last three episodes and just figured, “Well, if they actually order the extra three, we can insert them into this gap.” But this season, they ordered them early enough that we could fit them in.
It was just the same situation as before. We were running late and panicking and just throwing things together. Anything that was happening within the vicinity of My Dinner With Andre was impacted by the gravity of that episode. There were two things happening: There are resources being drawn from my brain for that episode, but more importantly—because my brain ain’t that crucial to the goings-on around here—my terror about what I’m doing on one of these other episodes that seems risky was being overcompensated for by my going, “Whatever you do, make it sound normal. I need a normal one before and after this episode.” So 217 and 219 are apologies for 218. In advance and afterward. It makes sense to do that. I go, “Look, if I’m wrong about this being a good episode, then God forbid that there be a string of three of them.”
I mean, it’s a sitcom. There is whistling and clapping, and some guy says, “Got milk?” and some other guy says, “Talk to the hand,” and then it goes “boing,” and there is a reaction shot, and there is a tuba. I was like, “Give me that shit.” That’s my directive in those moments. I probably shoot stuff down in overcompensation. I can’t remember specifically, but I shudder to think. There are probably people pitching me cool shit before and after 218, and I’m just like, “Nah, what if one of them grows a mustache?”
It couldn’t be more standard. I feel like that one could be in like, season zero. I mean, what is that? It’s Jeff Winger not liking to think that Pierce can get laid quicker. It’s dumb. You could put it after the STD-fair episode in season one. So what, he hasn’t changed since then? Nevertheless, fine, good pizza. Is there anything good about that episode? It’s got to be one of the worst.
AVC: Stephen Tobolowsky’s in it.
DH: Oh yeah, that’s the Who’s The Boss one. Yeah, and he revels in his blog that he was recovering from heart surgery during that, and he still knocked it out of the park. He was great to have. And that story is the redeeming thing about that episode. It was written from scratch three hours before the table-read. And it didn’t really change after that. We read it, and then we shot it.
Really, the story started out as Abed taking a class about analyzing Who’s The Boss. It was more of a runner. There wasn’t really an arc to it. He just keeps saying that the class is really complicated. He thought that it would be really easy, but it’s a lot harder than he expected, you know, figuring out who the boss was. So three hours before we table-read it, we talked about the tropes of professors and students and academic stores and heroes and how this thing could play out. It was fun; it came from a place of joy, just the adrenaline of making shit up and making people laugh. We were writing on the fly. You know, we had a part where Abed says what he says to the professor and walks about and the cameras track him across the courtyard, and there are Cambridge bells for no reason, and then gunshots, and Abed stops and turns his head and keeps walking. [Laughs.]
And I killed it. NBC didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t push back. And I think the writers were a little mad, like they thought I sold them out. But it just wasn’t Abed’s character. If he knows someone is blowing their brains out and he had a hand in it, he wouldn’t not care. That’s not Abed. I think some people were genuinely disappointed that I wasn’t punk-rock enough to endorse that storyline. But I felt that that didn’t pass my own Standards & Practices. That’s just not Abed.
“Paradigms Of Human Memory” (April 21, 2011)
When the group discovers an unexpected treasure trove, they think back over the adventures of the year—adventures the audience hasn’t been privy to.
DH: That was just one of those things. It dovetailed quickly with the whole “What if Britta and Jeff had been fuck-buddies for the whole year” thing. I really love the concept, and the attractive thing about it was that we could do it again. We can do another clip-show episode. We established that it wasn’t too obnoxious or too treacle-y or too driven by one particular premise. It can be like the nub of your pen that you switch out for a certain different style. And I can’t wait to do it again, because for as cool as that episode turned out, it was so much work, and so hard. Relative to the amount of work, there are ways we could have done that episode and gotten three times as much out of it. It was very difficult to break a story around it.
Again, there is always that thing that weighs on us where we go, “What do Jeff and Britta fucking have to do with paintball?” And this time, Jeff and Britta had been fucking. And I remember [Chris] McKenna being hesitant to build an episode around that. And I never really understood what his beef was, but I wanted to respect that, because he is just good. He just didn’t like the idea of building the whole episode around those two hooking up. And it quickly became dog-paddling and thrashing for our lives. I kinda wish he was sitting at the table so I could remember what the difficulties were in breaking that story. But I know they were tremendous. It was a huge challenge.
Typically [clip shows] will be bookended. The Family Ties family will say, “Oh no, the power went out, let’s open our presents early.” And then they will spend the whole episode opening presents, but there’s not really a story being told. It’s just a clip show. And at the end, they say, “Oh, the power’s back on. Merry Christmas.” We were insistent; we had to feel like we were rounding corners here, on how you do that. It’s the comedy that saved us from our failings in that department. Because it really is a challenge we never conquered.
If you watch that episode, you can see the seeds are being laid. It’s a strong first act in terms of the story. Jeff and Britta have been fucking, “What? Oh my God, this portends dot, dot, dot.” And we never revisit it. It cascades into random accusations of people being shitty people, and then it comes back around to apologies. It actually ends up being a commentary about their predictability and their ennui, their existential vacuum. I think maybe that’s what McKenna might have meant. Maybe he wanted to build it around something like that so it would have had a theme and a backbone, and it probably would have been a superior version of the episode. I don’t know, the Jeff/Britta thing seems wedged in there, it really does.
AVC: It comes up organically within the episode.
DH: Remember how it comes up? I mean, Abed just drops it. It comes up organically, but it is decidedly a sandbag. Originally, my concept was that because Jeff and Britta had been fucking the entire year, they were in higher spirits than the rest of the group. That was a dumb idea. You can see traces of that in the script, but it’s a dumb idea. It’s like, “Well, they fuck all the time, so they aren’t as tense, and they have a secret, and that makes them seem healthier and almost smugly above everyone else.” So they remember the Glee episode better, like they forgot that everyone died on the bus, and they remember everything as being adorable because it’s no big deal. Like, when you’re getting laid, nothing seems like life and death. And then you’re prying up that suspicion until it’s like, “Wait, have you guys been fucking all year?” And there are remnants of that in there that aren’t held faithful to. It’s neither here nor there with any of it.
The concept plus the jokes hold that thing together fine. There is some duct tape so strong you can make anything out of it. It all turned out for the best. That was an episode that I didn’t walk away from thinking it sucked and then find out from the audience that it was good, but as with many, many, many of them—I’ll just estimate 40 to 60 percent of them—I was absolutely convinced that this thing was going to suck in the editing bay as I was editing it. I was just like, “This thing is going to stink. We fucked up bad.” That happened a lot. And the process is like looking at this baby coming out of me and thinking, “This is a monster. What are we going to do?”
AVC: Are there any of the fake episodes that you flashed back to in that episode that you wish you could have done?
DH: Yeah, “Haunted House.” The idea that these guys would go spend the night in a haunted house, like some kind of creepy old mansion. Well, there goes next Halloween. But I justified it by thinking, “Well, that episode would have been fun to write, but it probably would have sucked.” I played that game with myself, where you go, “Okay, they are around a campfire, so you’re telling me they can never go camping together again?” No, they can go camping again, and they will go camping again. This show moves faster. Its metabolism is faster because it was born in a later age. It’s like Eric Stoltz in The Fly II. It needs to be faster than Jeff Goldblum in The Fly in order to live. So when they go camping in season three or season five, then it will be the second time they have gone camping, and that will be part of the story.
And that’s a good thing. It challenges you. Before it even becomes a template, pronouncing Dean Pelton coming into the room in different costumes and beating it to death and making it an emotional experience for him. That was the cool thing about that episode. With the Winger speech and stuff. My fear was that we were only accomplishing the negative part of that, to destroy things that people valued. But when I saw that in the final mix, it was like, “We did it. We threaded the needle.” It should be an uplifting message—subtly. We are going, “Hey, in our world, we will call ourselves out on any predictability before you will have to. Even if we make it up. Also, any patterns that we get into, they will move twice as fast. We are all the more committed to being a real sitcom by virtue of knowing what that entails.”
There were times when I was making early cuts that I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I think I fucked up again.” Actually, when she was looking at an early cut, she resonated my worst fears. She said, “You are kind of waving a giant flag about your sitcom and saying, ‘This is a sitcom this time.’ Like, you’re often accused of that, but now, you’ve done it.” And I compensated for that in subsequent cuts. Because it’s just tiny, micro things that send that message. If you strip things out and ground them, there is a little bit of ridiculousness to things in the form of ad-lib taglines, like Jeff and Britta would walk away from the torn-up house, and Donald [Glover] just ad-libbed, “Jeff said he knew how to land a plane.” And it was like, “Okay, it’s funny, but if you leave that in, then you have created a different fabric of your reality.” The dean saying this habitat was for humanity, there are just so many things going on, but we can fit that into the canon of the show? Where were they? Tijuana? These guys are pointing guns at Pierce. We know they aren’t in Amsterdam or the North Pole. I felt ultimately really, really, really good about it. But I will always regret that we weren’t able to simultaneously tell a really great story about the group that made you cry at the end. That would be the hat trick. But the good news is that with that concept, we can go back to it again.
AVC: Are there other TV-episode types you’d like to play around with?
DH: Well, the things that leap to mind are the Rashomon thing. There are a lot of branches coming off of that tree, the Run Lola Run thing, multiple revisitations of the same timeline, multiple timelines, Sliding Doors, all that stuff. Malcolm In The Middle did a Sliding Doors episode, and every show does a Rashomon episode eventually. They are the best episodes ever. The X-Files’ Rashomon episode was so great and so insightful about their characters. To see Scully’s perception of Mulder when she’s in a bad mood, her characterization of his persona in a typical X-Files episode where she walks into the room and he is just a little more bubbly and smug and he doesn’t have the same vocabulary. He wasn’t the real Mulder, he was Scully’s perception of Mulder, and I can’t think of a better way to reward a fan than that kind of thing a healthy amount of seasons down the road. It seems like there is a lump of like, five different things in that category, and I don’t know what you would label it—like timelines, Sliding Doors, alternate possibilities. I like the idea of the episode that takes you through four iterations of the same events given that this one random thing happened. It’s nothing new at all. Paul Reiser has done it, for God’s sake. The good news with that is that I can say, “Hey, this is pretty normal sitcom stuff.” And I would like to do stuff like that.
“Applied Anthropology And Culinary Arts” (April 28, 2011)
Shirley gives birth in the middle of class, and it’s revealed that her formerly estranged husband Andre is the father.
AVC: When did you decide who the father of the baby was going to be?
DH: On the breaking of that episode. I thought, “Let’s make it Andre’s. She’s been through enough.” It worked in nicely as a simple mislead. It was another episode that we had no time to write. It’s ironic to me that you watch that episode, and like I said earlier, we had a childbirth happening in the background of an earlier episode, as if to flagrantly say, “We don’t run on this stuff. We disregard it, because it is just a regular part of life, and it’s not that big of a deal.” I don’t know if it’s shameful or delightful doing exactly that in the foreground. But it was hard to make engaging. I was like, “What are we going to do? Get her to lay down here and squirt the baby out?” It’s hard. It was really hard. It’s so funny to me that the handshake part with Pierce, for the moment that it was onscreen, it was absolutely sucking energy away from this creation of life. Like Troy saying “Nooo” and refusing to do the handshake with Pierce. There is so much more joy in that moment than in the actual creation of a life.
AVC: One of the characters having a child with all of her friends around in a public place is a very standard TV device. When you use these types of devices, what do you do to make it stand out?
DH: Well, what I would have done to make it stand out would have been to make it real. I would have done a lot of reading about actual childbirth and made it more like a M*A*S*H episode talking about the plumbing and the ins and outs of what needs to happen. That’s what I would have done to make it ironic. I would have said, “Look who’s giving birth on the next Community.” And I would have put it in, and you would have been shocked at the medical texture of the birthing process. And Abed would have understood it, too, because he would have researched it. But I just didn’t have time. We had to do the birth story, the baby had to come out. I mean, it’s either that or she’s not going to play paintball. I thought it was surprisingly touching with Chang’s performance, holding her hand and lifting her up with the silly stories of Chang babies. That was a success.
Pierce disappears from that episode. You see, with the handshake, they are like, “It’s back,” and Pierce is supposed to walk in and be like in the frame. I’ll put it in the DVD. And he goes, “Congratulations, you have passed the test.” But the whole thing is driven by the fact that he tried to kill their handshake. So what we’re missing is coverage. They are doing this thing, and you are supposed to sense his envy of them. You are supposed to see him looking at them getting their magic back and then see him say, “Congratulations, you passed the test.” And having them go, “What test?” and feeling the pressure of not having an answer in that situation, he looks over at Shirley and says, “Shirley, I’ll give you $500 for that baby.” And she says, “No,” and he says, “Congratulations, you passed the test too,” and then just runs out before anyone can call him on his evil. That was the script.
None of the nuances of the performances were captured. So it was just like the oddest fever dream you’ve ever seen. They get their handshake back, Pierce walks into frame and says, “Congratulations, you have passed the test.” There is no tracking of his envy or anything. Now the audience is identifying with them and not with Pierce. “What are you talking about?” And he is going, “Shirley, I’ll give you $500,” and it seems like we are telling you that Pierce had snapped. He has lost his mind, he’s having a stroke or something, and he just skips out of the room. It was just like the director didn’t get the joke. It taught me a lesson about cutting it all from the episode.
DH: We conceived it as a two-parter in order to make the pitch more palatable. When we started talking about paintball finales, the studio’s justifiable response was, “You just got back down to zero over budget, and now you’re pitching something that’s going to go back up to 700 over?” And Joe Russo and I tap-danced and said, “Yeah, but if it’s a two-parter, you amortize your costs and stuff.” It’s all very true. It turned out as much over budget as anything. We didn’t care whether they were going to air them a week apart or back-to-back, and I knew that if we got used to one idea, it was going to end up being the other. So I am proud of myself for anticipating the unpredictable nature, because for a very long time, they—I think even the schedule indicates that it was going to be an hourlong finale.
I can’t imagine how gross it would have been, because I kept saying from the beginning, “Okay, hourlong finale, but still, each half-hour needs to stand on its own.” I especially knew in syndication and on the DVD and stuff, you’re going to be viewing these things differently, and I also knew there was going to be the possibility that minds would be changed. So I was like, “These things need to function individually as episodes while somehow having a little bit of a narrative connection.” They were saying, “Yeah, we’ll air it back-to-back on this date,” and then very quickly, they changed their minds. It had to do with staggering things with 30 Rock, this and that. It’s always things that are outside your control. You’re a sailor, and there are hurricanes, and you just need to plan for everything. I wanted them to be back-to-back, but I didn’t care if they weren’t. That was the philosophy there.
AVC: Looping back to the première, what did you want to accomplish with the finale? How did you want to close out the story of the season?
DH: Back in the beginning of the season, my only directive was, “Let’s just make sure we don’t do another cliffhanger.” It kind of went out the window, didn’t it? I mean the idea of not doing a cliffhanger. Everything went out the window, because we were behind schedule, because it’s hard to write those stories and shoot those episodes. In the end, we’re just pulling together whatever we can. In answer to your question from earlier, is there an episode that I thought sucked that everyone liked? The answer is the last one. [Laughs.]
I didn’t watch it until I saw that you guys were reviewing it positively and that the audience was enjoying it. I didn’t go to the sound mix for it. I couldn’t stand the idea of watching it ever again. I edited my cut. I handed it off to the network and studio. I didn’t even get final cut on the episode, because they had notes they wanted to address. It wasn’t their fault, either. It was none of that. I just felt like the script was rushed and the shooting of it was rushed. And I felt like when people are charging across a field in this big paintball war, we hadn’t captured any of it on camera. I felt like we had absolutely failed to tell the story that we were trying to tell.
What I didn’t count on was the fact that that TV as a medium is a closer cousin to radio than cinema, and that you can get away with a lot more just by saying, “I’m a hero. I feel this way. This is a huge battle, and we’re scared.” People respect the effort; they’re not even drawing the distinction. I was looking at it like a filmmaker, going, “We’ve shown nothing. This is supposed to feel like Braveheart. These people are supposed to be in a war. You can’t tell who’s winning and who’s losing.” So I was abjectly ashamed of the episode.
Because I look at “Modern Warfare,” and I go, “This should be hanging in a museum, this is a perfect piece of television.” The shots are composed, and the story is told. It’s unstoppable, and everyone’s going to compare. The next time we go down this road, they’re going to compare it to this, and it has to be twice as good. And I thought the finale was three times as bad. I thought, “This is going to disappoint our fans, and is going to blow our chances at Emmy recognition, because it’s going to leave a bad taste to a perfect season in everyone’s mouth.” I was really down on it, and last night everybody liked it.
This must be what brought [Kurt] Cobain to the garden house, because I don’t get how I’m supposed to tell the difference anymore. Am I getting in the way? Should I just play power chords? Then I watched it, and I was like, “Oh, I get it. The jokes are funny. The stories are landing. The characters are people that we’ve grown to love over 49 episodes.” There was much less at hand than I thought. And yeah, I am getting in the way to the extent that I take myself so seriously that I think the job is more than to support these characters. They’re already in people’s living rooms and are welcome there, and my job at this point is to take a garbage bag and make sure that the ashtrays don’t fill up and order pizzas in advance. Facilitate the relationship that is there. I can fuck that up by overthinking things, and I’m just glad I was wrong about that.
It is a notable response to your question. I’ve never felt that way that much, there was never that much disconnect between episodes. Like I said, there’s been one through-line in the edit, going “This thing is going to suck,” but I usually realize by the time I’m done with that, either that it’s so good to me that I don’t care if people like it, or it’s not that great, and then people are okay with it. Never have I not gone to the sound mix because I felt so terrible, “This episode’s bad, it’s a bad way to end the season,” and then had people go, “Epic, awesome, best, best-ever, great, you did it, good job!” Pretty weird.
AVC: How’d you make the choice to go from the more action-heavy motif to a Western and vaguely Star Wars-ian episode?
DH: That was easy. The fear was that doing a “Modern Warfare” sequel, we wouldn’t be able to have the rate of fire, the body count. The philosophy was to supplant action with style, and we asked ourselves what genres do that. Spaghetti Westerns, fewer people get shot per minute, and yet it feels all the more visceral and action-movie-ish, because of the codes they represent and the idea that if this gun comes out of its holster, someone’s gonna die. The original concept was to do one big spaghetti Western back-to-back, have them be two stories narratively, but not to break style like that.
The subsequent decision to lighten things up, it was just one of those things where Joe [Russo] was shooting the spaghetti episode, and doing such a good job of it, making it so dark and so postmodern and creepy and John Carpenter-y, that he and I both arrived at the simultaneous conclusion that we should probably not stick the landing on this one in the second episode, that we should probably come up for air, turn the fluorescent lights on. That’s what made me start thinking about Star Wars, because the body count is higher, things are exploding, people are falling in love. It’s truly epic, and there’s a lightness to it. Everything is washed in light, and music is sweeping. It feels innocent and yet somehow there’s a gravity, because of the epicness. That seemed the way to go. And yet there’s a traditional union there between Westerns and Star Wars, in which Star Wars is Magnificent Seven in space, or Seven Samurai. It was a spontaneous decision, but a good one.
AVC: The finale is less any one character’s story than this entire ensemble you’ve built.
DH: Yes. The four-year story’s got Greendale all over it. We start the pilot with the arrival at this campus. This fish out of water, the one guy who doesn’t want to be there. The characters of Jeff Winger and Greendale are created simultaneously. First season, the camera stays on campus; second season, it starts to wander. Halfway through that second season, Jeff Winger makes the decision that he loves the study group. At the end of the second season, Greendale is being more celebrated than the study group itself.
There are implications of that in the Valentine’s Day episode. It’s the idea that once you’ve made the decision to love your wife, you’re almost making the decision to love women a little more. You have to respect them more. You can’t just say, “Well, my wife is the best person ever, and everyone else is a piece of shit.” You have to become less misogynistic. And Jeff Winger is becoming less misanthropic and less solipsistic. Ending the season with a celebration of Dean Pelton and Greendale and our group fitting snugly within it like a Russian doll is definitely a deliberate macro-narrative decision that has to do with how the next two years will play out. It’s an important way to begin the third season, and it sets up very important things for season four and beyond.
AVC: Looking back at all these, what would you say is your favorite, and which your least favorite?
DH: It’s really hard to pick. Least favorite, let’s go first, it should be easier. Let’s say either 217 or 219, right? 217 is —
AVC: “Custody Law And Eastern European Diplomacy.”
DH: Oh right. So that one’s great, because you’ve got Britta stealing the Kickpuncher DVD and getting busted. The muted-trombone joke. Britta’s in there and interacting with Troy and Abed. 219 is—
AVC: “Competitive Wine Tasting.”
DH: “Wine Tasting.” Yeah, that one’s got to be my least favorite, that’s a piece of shit. Set fire to that fucking thing. [Laughs.] It’s still great. It’s still so much better than other TV shows. Kevin Corrigan’s in it. Yeah, but I’d say that’s probably my least favorite, unless there’s one I’m blocking out emotionally.
I mean, 202 [“The Psychology Of Letting Go”] is pretty shitty. But it’s an early one, so you’ve got some energy there. But you’ve got that whole oil-spill thing. It just doesn’t feel like my show. It’s me fucking up. Between those two, I’m going to say, “God, fuck that Who’s The Boss thing.” That’s hard. It’s really hard, because they’re almost at polar ends of the season. 202 has this ruddy-faced shittiness to it. 219 is this weathered, behind-schedule shittiness. What is the worse crime? I think it’s probably actually less charismatic, less admirable to be on schedule and to break an episode like 202. That’s the shittiest one. Yeah, it’s the girls oil-wrestling because they don’t like how each other dresses.
Oh wait, you want me to pick my favorite one too.
AVC: Or a range.
DH: The ones I rattle off, it does start for me at 208 [“Cooperative Caligraphy”]. All the episodes before that, I have varying levels of fondness for, but I do feel like something happens going forward from 208. None of the episodes before that are submitted for Emmy consideration or anything like that. But 208, 209 [“Mixology Certification”], 210 [“Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design], the Christmas episode, Dungeons & Dragons, the hospital episode, Dinner With Andre episode. And the first paintball, the spaghetti Western paintball, is kind of growing on me. There’s a lot of stuff in there, but I got to give that time. Picking the absolute favorite is really difficult, because they’re so different. [Let me] run through a thought experiment in my head that defines “favorite.” Like, if I was going to heaven or a high-school reunion or a desert island and I wanted to bring an episode that represented, like, “I make a sitcom,” I think I would go with 208, the bottle episode. Because all of the other ones are good in the commission of proving something right or wrong about TV, and the bottle episode is pure love of TV and love of the show itself. You look at 215 [“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”], it’s a great achievement, but it’s soiled by my spite for better shows. It’s like I’m trying to make some point. 214 [“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”] even is me trying to rub my nerdiness in the studio’s face. All of them are tainted with some agenda. 208 feels the most innocently joyful. It feels focused on those characters, and they drive the episode. There’s cleverness, of course, but it’s all a back seat to, “Wow, this show could run forever.”
AVC: You start work on season three in a month. What do you hope to do?
DH: I hope to plan ahead. I’ve had good experiences with that and bad experiences, but I hope to sit down with the writers in the beginning of the third season and ask ourselves what the most glorious way to end the third season would be. I want to ask where we’re going to end up. I want to ask that generally, and I want to ask that about each character. That’s a dangerous firecracker to play with, and I was wise to not play with it before now. But now’s the time to play with it, because if I don’t, I’m not being responsible. It’s the third season. It’s not about proving things and reacting to things anymore. It’s about, “So what?” It’s about, “What are you going to do?”
And so whether I like it or not, and as risky as it is, I need to lay some plans at the beginning of season three that we’ll build to at the end. And I think that’s going to be a sweeping enough change to accomplish. I’ve been studying The Wire over this break and observing the art of the opposite of modularity, which is serialization. That’s not to say that season three of Community will be season four of The Wire, but it is to say that beyond Modern Family and beyond Parks And Rec, the ingredient that will keep Community alive to season four exists somewhere in The Wire. [Laughs.] I don’t know how to explain that, but I know it has something to do with the way they end their seasons with these glamorous montages and needle-drops of these stories that seemed disparate and all operate on some theme.
It very much reminds me of the end of the first season on Spaced. There’s a feeling that starts from your diaphragm that goes up to the top of your scalp when you’re watching the final moments of a season being executed by someone who didn’t think of themselves as getting away with something episode by episode, but rather looked at their season as a product, too. I want to bring 8 percent of that into Community for season three, to stay alive.