‘Community’ – ‘Epidemiology’: Behind-the-scenes of zombie-land

Senior Television Writer
10.28.10 122 Comments


We’re going to do something a little different for this week’s “Community.” Rather than a straight review, I’m going to offer some behind-the-scenes tidbits about the conception of this episode – tidbits that, as I’ll explain, would be more detailed if I wasn’t a complete spaz. But I got to hang in the “Community” writers room for an afternoon while Dan Harmon and the staff worked on the outline for “Epidemiology,” and I got to see a later draft of the script, and I got to interview Harmon about it (which we’ll get back to in a moment), so rather than a review – and I did laugh a bunch of times, even after hearing most of the jokes in multiple stages previously – I’ve got some making-of tidbits, all coming up just as soon as I’m accidentally handsome in a costume…

So this was on the same day when I wound up making my debut as Creepy Oil-Wrestling Watcher #3, and also when I got to observe some of the later work on the “Apollo 13” episode, but the bulk of my time was spent in the writers room as the staff continued to work on the outline for this one. The plan was to follow that up after the script was completed with an interview with Dan.

So a few weeks back, I got the finished script, and I got on the phone with Mr. Harmon, and we talked for 30-40 minutes, and it was great. If you’ve read some of my previous conversations with the guy, or interviews he’s done elsewhere, you know that Dan has very elaborate thoughts on every aspect of this show, and so he went into great detail about the episode’s structure, the challenge of doing a reference-heavy episode like this one or “Modern Warfare,” deciding on the costumes for each character, etc. We said our goodbyes, I put on that week’s episode of the show (our conversation ran into the start of the East Coast telecast of “Accounting for Lawyers”), did other work, etc., etc. Then the next morning, I went to play back the recording to check something…

…and it was blank.

As it turns out, I had forgotten to plug in one end of the phone tap gizmo I use for my digital recorder. And where I’m usually typing a very rough transcript as an interview goes, here I wanted to focus entirely on what Dan was saying and worry about the transcribing later, and so I had nothing.


Dan and I briefly discussed the idea of re-doing the interview, but we could never make the schedules work (running a TV show is kind of time-consuming), and besides, I had this fear that it would wind up like that sequence in “Groundhog Day” where Phil kept trying to recreate that one perfect day with Rita, and failing because he knew too much going in and kept forcing it. (In that analogy, Dan is Andie MacDowell.)

The long and the short of it is that I suck, but between the notes I took during my afternoon in the writers room and what I jotted down the morning after the unrecorded interview, I can tell you the following details about the origins of “Epidemiology”:

1. It took a very long time to put together. An average “Community” episode can take a week to 10 days at the most “break” (that’s writers room terminology for coming up with an outline that includes all the story beats, jokes, etc.). This one took more than four weeks, which Dan said was among their longest ever, up there with the paintball episode and “Basic Rocket Science.” It’s a different kind of writing than a more typical episode. Though all “Community” shows feature a lot of pop culture references, these special episodes are driven by them. So for “Modern Warfare,” for instance, the staff spent a while just listing their favorite action movie moments, figuring out why they worked, and deciding which ones they’d like to include in the episode, assuming they could pull them off on their budget and schedule.

With “Epidemiology,” there was a lot of discussion of zombie movies themselves before anyone could start figuring out how a zombie story would work in the context of Greendale, and for a long time no one was sure they could pull it off. The day I was in the writers room, the outline still devoted a lot of time to an opening sequence that explained how the tainted meat got to campus, the clean-up after, etc. There were also phases in which the infection didn’t lead to such obviously zombie-like symptoms, and was more of a zombie allegory. Harmon said everyone was having trouble embracing the idea that they were just doing a 22-minute zombie movie, and ultimately it was decided to cut the exposition to the absolute minimum, and to make sure that people were still biting each other.

2. Anyone could have been the hero. In my “Basic Rocket Science” review, I talked about how at different points in the planning, Abed was going to turn into Ed Harris, or Troy was going to be Ken Mattingly, etc., before the writers settled on everyone’s role. That’s a modular approach that the staff often takes to episodes – not viewing the characters as interchangeable, but recognizing that each of them could bring something different to the same situation and trying to decide what would work best. In the buddy cop episode from season one, for instance, Abed was originally one of the two campus cops, but Dan felt that Abed settled into the cop show cliches too easily and it wasn’t really a story; when the final pairing became Annie and Shirley, the writers realized it could be about their shared need to assert themselves.

At various points in “Epidemiology,” every character was talked about as a potential hero. Ultimately, they settled on Troy, using Halloween as an excuse to confront an issue they’d become aware of as the first season moved along: Troy the former hero jock had become an incredible nerd since befriending Abed. They felt that having the two of them team up on a geeky Halloween costume would force Troy to deal with that transformation – to become ashamed of it for a while, and then embrace it as he saved the day.

There still wasn’t as much time to deal with that kind of character arc as there would be in a typical episode, but I felt this one worked better than the Annie story in “Basic Rocket Science,” because it wasn’t coming out of nowhere. Abed and Troy’s friendship, and the ways he’s changed since the pilot, are a key ongoing part of the series. So given the limited amount of time in which they could tell a character story, better to draw on something we all know so well.

3. The costumes, like everything else, took forever to figure out. On the day I visited, the writers hadn’t thought of costumes for anyone yet, and they were just beginning to discuss Troy and Abed’s, since that would be a plot point. A lot of ideas were thrown around, and everyone was getting frustrated. I stepped out for a while to be in the background of the oil-wrestling scene, and when I returned, they had just had their eureka moment: Troy and Abed were going to be dressed as a hot dog and a bun, and Abed was going to have to spend the night hugging Troy. Everyone was very excited – the hot dog costume would actually protect Troy from the zombie bites, so it would be practical as well as funny – and Dan was on his feet and freestyling about how Troy might have to climb up very high to turn on the air conditioning, then fall back into the crowd, slo-mo, where Abed would catch him inside the bun costume.

A day or two later, that excitement went away, because the episode’s writer, Karey Dornetto, remembered that a similar gag came up in the writers room on “The Life & Times of Tim” (I can’t remember if it ever actually was used in an episode), and therefore they couldn’t use it. This happens a lot in the business – everybody’s worked so many places, and watched so many things, that ideas lodge in their heads and they forget where they came from – and they had to start over.

As for some of the other costumes, Pierce was at one point going to be Morpheus, but the rights to Captain Kirk came much cheaper and with less red tape. Yvette Nicole Brown suggested that Shirley’s costume look like Miss Piggy (even though she was really Glenda), which plays off of how her voice sounds when she plays Shirley, and also the confusion over her Harry Potter costume from season one’s Halloween episode.

4. There were a lot of other digressions and changes. In the original outline, Morgan Freeman was going to be the narrator, though everyone knew that was a pipe dream. Then the target became Sam Elliott, and when that didn’t work out, they went for the dulcet tones of George Takei.

Patton Oswalt was supposed to play a big role in this one as Nurse Jackie, but he had a scheduling conflict with “United States of Tara,” so his material was given to Rich from “Beginner Pottery,” a character Dan had always liked, and whose rivalry with Jeff gave Joel McHale a few more beats to play than he had in the original version.

The gag with the cat – inspired by a short film that writer Chris McKenna once did, and by Dan’s own amusement at cats that jump across the screen in horror films – at one point seemed like it was going to go on much, much longer. While I was in the writers room, everyone was so tickled by the cat idea that it began to take over the entire third act, to the point where that was going to become the joke: Jeff and the other survivors would become so obsessed with the cat that the zombie apocalypse would resolve itself in the background. Similarly, there was going to be a very long piece of business involving a journey into the steam tunnels below the library, and a little person dressed as Yoda proving a very bad guide through them.

As Dan explained to me later, “At a certain point, everyone in the room is just laughing over the idea of us not doing our jobs well.” Eventually, as with the tainted meat backstory, the digressions were trimmed to a bare minimum.

5. In virtually every version of things, Shirley and Chang had sex. Just saying.

So what did everybody think of “Epidemiology”?

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