“I hated reference humor in my 20s,” I was once told by Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s “Community” – which happens to be one of the most reference-heavy comedies on TV. (It’s also one of the funniest.)
During a January TV Critics Association trip to the set of the NBC comedy about a misfit study group at a community college, which airs a new episode tomorrow at 8, I asked Harmon about the show’s fondness for both meta humor, in which characters (specifically, Danny Pudi as eccentric film student Abed) talk about the show as if they’re aware they’re in a show, and for references to popular culture (also usually via Abed).
How much, I asked, was too much?
Harmon invoked one of his (and my) favorite sitcoms, the grounded, timeless “Taxi.”
“When they were on the set of ‘Taxi,’ I’m sure someone said, ‘Let’s do a Rubik’s Cube episode!'” Harmon suggested. “And someone else said, ‘How about we do a good show?’ And when aliens are digging up the earth, they find ‘Taxi,’ and they go, ‘I get it! The taxicab is like a UFO, and…'”
He said that he tried to keep the reference humor confined to the character of Abed, whose obsession with movies and TV make him a natural repository for jokes about “The Breakfast Club” and “The Dark Knight,” and that despite Abed’s running commentary on how the show’s characters and plots relate to pop culture archetypes, Harmon and the other writers had a line they drew about how far to take those jokes.
“We don’t go to our Thursday night half-hour shows hoping to have our illusions subverted,” he said. “We don’t hope someone will kick us in the ass and say, ‘You’re watching television, stupid! Stop doing it!’ We go there because we want a half-hour break, and we want to escape into a place that has a fourth wall… How meta is too meta? The answer is simple: it’s too meta when you’re being punished for watching the show.”
In the months since we had that conversation, “Community” has somehow managed to become even more meta and reference-heavy. Two weeks ago, the show did a note-perfect homage to “Goodfellas,” in which the study group became an organized crime syndicate controlling the supply of the school cafeteria’s beloved chicken fingers. This week’s episode, meanwhile, starts off with Abed discussing where wisecracking Jeff (Joel McHale) and tragically hip Britta (Gillian Jacobs) fall on the spectrum of classic Will-They-Or-Won’t-They? sitcom couples – this in response to many viewers complaining, as Abed does, about their lack of chemistry – and then takes a right turn into a storyline about a campus paintball tournament that winds up spoofing every major action/thriller movie cliché of the last quarter-century.
The episode couldn’t contain any more references to “Community” itself – at one point, Jeff tells his paintball allies that he doesn’t want to “resort to cheap ploys” to win, followed immediately by him stripping down to an undershirt to show off the physique that makes Joel McHale such a hit with certain demographics – nor to other shows and movies. (Among the specific films cited: “The Matrix,” “Scarface,” “Die Hard,” “Hard Boiled,” and “28 Days Later.”)
Yet even though it makes Harmon’s January comments seem a little silly, the plain fact is that the episode – written by Emily Cutler and directed, appropriately enough, by Justin Lin, of “Fast & Furious” fame – is a ton of fun, and another winner from what’s quickly become one of the best comedies on television.
While the idea of doing a timeless show that even space aliens can appreciate is a nice one, we do live in a society that is exceedingly aware of pop culture (even if nobody knows it as well as Abed does), so there’s nothing wrong with telling stories and jokes about characters who have seen a lot of Bill Murray movies. (Chevy Chase movies, on the other hand, are off the table, since Chase plays the group’s resident scapegoat, Pierce.) The trick is to not go down the rabbit hole so that your story becomes nothing but references. Because that way lies “Family Guy” – amusing on occasion, empty and tedious on a regular basis.
What Harmon and his “Community” writers understand (just as their counterparts at NBC’s “Chuck”) is that the references can be used for humor, and/or to please audience members who recognize them, but that they have to be tied to honest efforts at characterization to work long-term. The “Goodfellas” episode was ultimately about how Abed and Jeff each relate to other people. A recent episode where uptight study group members Annie (Alison Brie, who’s been a comic revelation after coming over from “Mad Men”) and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) turned into a pair of bickering buddy cops was largely about how both of them resented how they were perceived by the group. When Abed and Troy (Donald Glover) sang the love theme from the animated children’s movie “An American Tail” in order to lure their lab mouse out of hiding, the duet became a commentary on their budding, absurdly watchable friendship. (The show has very wisely turned the “tag” scene over the end credits into a weekly showcase for Pudi and Glover to be silly, and the world is a happier place for that.)
And what is the paintball episode about? Well… okay, so there’s some Jeff/Britta stuff in there (and the show has become much smarter about how it’s used that pair in recent months), but for once this one’s a pretty shameless journey into Abed-land – albeit a hilarious, well-executed one.
That’s fine every now and again, particularly from a show with as much enthusiasm and surprising heart as “Community.” But I look forward to talking with Harmon about aliens, taxi cabs and Rubik’s Cubes again before season two begins.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org