Yesterday, I posted the first part of an extremely long interview I did with “Community” creator Dan Harmon about his return to the NBC comedy, saying goodbye to Donald Glover, making peace with Chevy Chase, and more. Now it”s time for part 2, where we get into more of the specific creative decisions that have driven season 5, why Chang remains the character Harmon struggles with most, letting Annie grow up, and how Harmon feels about the possibility of the phrase “six seasons and a movie” becoming a reality, among many Greendale-related topics.
The interview will conclude Monday with Harmon talking about his Adult Swim show “Rick & Morty” and what it”s like to be the creator of a low-rated network sitcom at a time when the networks are struggling to figure out the future of their business.
So when you set up the re-pilot, part of the point is that they”re all these huge failures despite their time together at Greendale. What was motivating that? Just to give them an excuse to still be around there?
Dan Harmon: We had a two-day conversation with the new writers which I didn”t want to speed up in spite of what we were up against. I said we”re gonna spend two days exhaustively exploring every single option that we have as fifth season “Community” writers. And we talked about everything no matter how absurd. First of all including Danny Pudi coming out of the cardboard Dreamatorium in his apartment at the beginning of season 5 and shaking it off and saying, “That was weird.” I mean, insane things like just finding out that the Greendale that we had seen for that year was actually some strange underground test facility. We just talked and talked and talked and had lots of fun talking about all these possibilities. And then after that two days expired, I said, “Okay, so we know every single possibility. So what do we think we really need to do? What is really our job?” And three minutes later, with absolutely no contention or debate in the room, the unanimous agreement was that what we needed to do was create a new pilot about the protagonist returning to his alma mater with whom he had a complex emotional relationship. We wanted to write a story that would hold up to the standard of a brand new television show being rolled out by NBC. And so we, yeah, we needed to retell the story we told in the first season pilot, because we knew the show was gonna continue to be about broken people. And so we needed to reestablish that they were broken. Not that they were particularly perfect at the end of the previous season, not that they had spent any time really becoming unflawed. But we really needed to create a situation in which Joel McHale could once again be put in the ironic position of rallying these people for dishonest reasons.
So we broke that story pretty quickly, and the embryo of 501 stayed intact. However, the outline for that story must have changed a thousand times. There was at one point a fully broken story about how the dean had summoned them all back because he had landed the school in financial jeopardy by taking grants from the federal government for a particle accelerator that he said Greendale had that didn”t exist. And that the Greendale Seven – the Greendale Six – needed to spend the episode creating a cardboard particle accelerator that they had to convince this visiting politician was actually functioning. We broke that one for a while. I got very gun shy right at the eleventh hour and thought that this thing was gonna be based on costumes and cardboard and it might feel to a conflicted fan or new viewer like this dead mouse which was being batted around the carpet by various cats and that it was always gonna be a dead mouse. And what we needed to do is bring the mouse back to life. And that had to be a more sublime job than the kidding in one direction or the other and that the cardboard had to go and the costumes had to go, and we really needed to just have them sit around that table and reestablish themselves as broken people so that Jeff could actually give them permission to destroy Greendale, have them give him the power to do it on their behalf. Have him walk away and make his own decision that he would stop all this business about trying to be a lawyer forever and find a new home at Greendale as a permanent member of its halls. And it turned into a relationship with the dean that was more like Hogan and Colonel Klink, you know, where they”re not quite on the same team but Jeff is always frustrated with the dean”s inability to make this place legitimate.
We haven”t gotten a lot of the dean so far, but you”ve definitely moved away from just putting him in funny dresses and crushing on Jeff. When he”s around, it”s for other things now.
Dan Harmon: Yeah. The dean makes a great authority figure for sitcom. He”s a new kind of archetype, so that”s his fundamental function. I mean, how many more costumes are you gonna put him in? We can get him back around that but (we enjoyed) just zooming in on him with a camera and revealing that in his head he”s hearing a soothing French acoustic guitar song about how Jeff won”t learn Excel. We wanted to reestablish that the dean is a very complex guy, and his complexity at one point started being expressed through these odd wardrobe choices. There were indications that there was something deeper at play in him. They eventually became, you know, the opposite of that. They became what they call a Flanderization. There”s nothing simpler than the guy who dresses up in funny costumes. (On “M*A*S*H”) Klinger started as a guy who was dressing up in costumes because of this really touching reason. He was wanted to get Section Eighted and get out of Korea because he wanted to survive. But after a while, it”s a guy just wearing a new dress.
Chris had a scene in 501 when Jeff storms back into the dean”s office. He”s getting dressed and saying he”s not decent. There”s a deleted moment from that. The dean was actually trying on a dress that had a musical note on it looking in a mirror and he says, “Pretty one-note, Craig.” And he takes it off. We had to lift it for time but also, if you”re gonna do away with the costumes for reasons of purity then why are you gonna do it through the fire hose of more “Community.” Let”s just let it go for a little bit.
When you left the show the first time at the end of season 3, you left most of the characters in a position where they were usable by your replacements. Chang, much less so. You handed them something there and they did what they could with it and Changnesia. And you came back and just moved him back into his original function.
Dan Harmon: Yeah, and I still don”t know what to do with Chang. He”s become just a symbol of mental illness. I mishandled Chang from the beginning. He was funny as the borderline psychotic Spanish teacher. Sony wanted him to stay a borderline psychotic Spanish teacher. Going into season 2, I was possibly unreasonably very passionately phobic of making Spanish class a part of a template for the show. Looking back on it, they probably could have just done another year of Spanish because for some reason they may have all needed another Spanish credit – it was invalidated or something. But that”s after having been through all the insanity that the show”s been through and realizing how much you can truly just correct your course as you go. But back then I thought I was writing a sonnet and it was imperative that the second line not rhyme with the first one because then it wouldn”t be a sonnet and it would be screwed forever. So they told Sony, “We need to find something else to do with Chang, because if they keep taking Spanish class then we have several points of consistency with the show that is eventually going to need to not be reliant on all of these ‘Welcome Back, Kotter”-y gimmicks. So before anyone thinks that it”s part of the show that changing would be a crime, we have to not let them get addicted to Spanish class. I want them to take a different class together every year and I want the teacher to be different and I want time to move forward. And I want the study room to stay the same and I want that to be the bridge of the Enterprise. And I eventually want them to not need to necessarily be in community college anymore because it”s called ‘Community,” not ‘Community College.””
And that was the beginning of a relationship with Sony, where they”re clearly in the business of making “Seinfeld”s. It was them going, “We can make billions of dollars if you just accept that the form of this medium is about templating and consistency and timelessness and repetition,” and me going, “I don”t believe that that”s true in this case. I think the show will fail if we do another season of the same show again. I think that it will run for two years and I think that if we continue to let it grow and change I think that it can last for five, six, seven years.” And we will never know who was right and who was wrong but what we do know is that that was at the beginning of season 2, that was a rift between me and the people I worked for that was gonna end up probably getting me axed. I was just a threat to a big pile of money for them. And I agree with that. They called me to their office at the beginning of season 2 and they said, “Congratulations on the pickup. Now if you get cancelled you”ll have wasted twice as much of our money.” And that”s true. Because until you get to syndication numbers the studio doesn”t recoup. So I respected that candor. I respect it when the suits talk about money, when they talk about what they need so that they can get what they want. I don”t believe them when they then tell me this is how you”re gonna accomplish that creatively. I don”t believe they know because they make 20 shows a year and they throw 19 in the garbage. And if you did that at a tuna cannery no one would buy your tuna. So I don”t believe that anyone knows how to bottle television. And since nobody knows, I would like to roll my own dice.
Well, we”re at this point where NBC”s doing very well in a number of places but Thursday is a catastrophe. And you guys and “Parks” keep doing horribly in a vacuum, but better than the shows that NBC wants to succeed.
Dan Harmon: We”re number one, baby – on Thursday night.
There”s a chance there could actually be six seasons.
Dan Harmon: Or there”s a chance that Thursday night could become live musical night, which I don”t think is a bad idea. NBC”s having successes in non-comedic areas. They”re huge successes in event-oriented, “proud as a peacock” stuff. Maybe it”s time for that peacock to stop meaning “proud of our intelligent Emmy-winning comedies” and time to start meaning “proud of our classic satisfying big production numbers.”
Although in the fall, CBS is now going to have football on Thursday for eight weeks. NBC will need to put something there that they know is going to get its ass kicked. You could be that something that gets its ass kicked.
Dan Harmon: Well in order for us to make a good candidate for that someone would have to assume that our audience didn”t like football for some reason.
That”s crazy talk.
Dan Harmon: We are this weird creature. We”ve got an audience around us that finds us and tunes into us no matter what else is going on. I will point out but I”m outside my jurisdiction. I don”t want to be a network programmer and I don”t envy them the decisions they have to make and the games they have to play, but we go up against “Big Bang Theory” every week in this Vietnam time slot, and obviously everyone watches “Big Bang Theory” first and then they watch us on DVR, because our live+3 numbers go up 50 percent. And then live+7 goes up more than that. We are a little keepsake. We are a species more and more to the new emerging mediascape than the Nielsen compatible one.
I don”t know how the season ends, but have you given any thought to what you might do with the show if it somehow miraculously comes back for one more?
Dan Harmon: No. My worst moments at “Community,” when the audience is suffering the most, when the show sucks the most, is when I decide that I know what I”m about to do. Like I made a huge mistake season 5 of being bound and determined to do a second Dungeons and Dragons episode. I think it”ll be pretty good. I think they”re gonna like it a lot, but it was the hardest episode to write a script for at a time when we needed the easiest. It put the subsequent episodes all off schedule, put us back into that old familiar Dan Harmon zone of, “We”re writing page three, and you”re shooting page two and here you go.”
You”ve become David Milch.
Dan Harmon: Yeah, I”m one bad back away from laying down on the floor and calling out lines of dialogue. So in other words, if we do a season 6, I ain”t ever again gonna go, “I know one thing we”ve got to do, baby.” Because it always screws us over. And that”s not how paintball happened and that”s not how chicken fingers happened and that”s not how some of our finest episodes have happened. Certainly not how our finest seasons happened. Our season that people point out as being arguably the worst of my first three, for example, the third was the season that was pitched in advance in an NBC boardroom so that we could get permission to do it. We had character arcs grafted out for every single character on the show and then executed them throughout the season. And so I don”t have good experience with laying plans. I think that I have a huge ego and an active brain and a big mouth but I don”t think any of those three things are the things that get the work done that people like. I think that laughter, joy, collaboration, impulsiveness and confidence create these moments that people point out as being “Community”s big selling point. We swing for the bleachers, and sometimes we miss and sometimes we hit. But it”s terrible when we point at the bleachers and it”s terrible when we sit with a clipboard and change the batting order and it”s just good when we get up there and just fucking swing really hard. And as we fall into the dirt we turn it into a tumble and, you know, we make a silly dance.
You do realize, of course, that if there”s a sixth season, because of this little throwaway joke in one episode in season 2, the fans are now going to be demanding a movie of some sort.
Dan Harmon: Well I honor that stuff so much higher than practical things. I believe in magic. I believe in mythology. I believe in shamanism. I believe that spells can be cast and I believe that random things coalesce and reveal themselves to be part of a plan we don”t control, you know. Why six? Why not five? Someone asked me that today. They shook their head and chucked and said, “So you could have had them say ‘five seasons and a movie” and you”d be done.” I said, “Yeah, true. But he said ‘six.”” That”s Abed”s definition of a perfect TV show Valhalla. So I”m locked into that. If I turn my back on that I am Barabas.
So if NBC renews you, you”re gonna go to Sony and says, “Look, we just need a little extra money. We”ll do four episodes that we”ll consider a movie,” or…
Dan Harmon: The movie part is the movie part. I mean, if they do a sixth season, I have to participate. And having done that, if the movie has to be made out of clay and duct tape in my basement, then that”s how the movie will be made, because there has to be closure. The title of the book about the show is not “”Community,” An Interesting Journey into a Show No One Ever Watched.” The title of the book is obviously going to be, “Six Seasons and a Movie.” So it”s already over. Sometimes our hands are just tied up in fate.
You said before that there were really only two things from the fourth season you needed to carry through. But you chose to bring back Brie Larson. I don”t know if she comes back at any point later in the season or if that was just it. But you clearly saw something there that you wanted to have come back.
Dan Harmon: Well I”ll break your heart by telling you that, I mean, she”s in demand and did us a favor probably financially by coming back. She comes back in this next episode, the Vince Gilligan one, but there”s no closure with that. The idea is that Abed”s in a relationship and we”re not making a big deal out of it. We tell a story about what it might be like to be in a relationship with Abed for this episode but we didn”t have the Brie Larson availability to have her there at the curtain call and the finale or anything like that. But she was magical in her appearance in the fourth season. She doesn”t even say anything. She might as well be a pair of glasses and a wig on a mop handle, but it”s Brie Larson so she has this humanity, this energy coming off. I never wanted to go the Latka route (from “Taxi”) and pair Abed with a female Abed. Maybe at one point I thought, “Let”s have Parker Posey come on and be a film professor that Mrs. Robinson”s Abed,” where she can”t keep her hands off of him because of his genius and also soils him with classic education about film that starts to pollute his pop cultural purity. I think that would have been cool. I like pairing out of the passionate people. We did that Secret Service agent and that was as close as we got to a female Abed. We lifted a lot from that story and one of the biggest things we lift was that they actually kissed. And it just didn”t feel right. It felt actually more powerful that they passed in the night and that they intellectually acknowledged their compatibility and couldn”t be together. The idea of a healthy or semi-healthy but clearly quirky in her own regard woman being able to recognize Abed”s value and strike an emotional connection with him on a more intimate level than we”ve seen – that”s a story in and of itself and I think that was the iceberg tip that we saw laid out in season 4 that I think is deserving of further exploration. So we did what we could with the time with Brie Larson that we had to examine that in a very funny way and she”s just great. And it was just verified on set. Most of our cast is of this species but it”s weird, too, when a new person come on to set that they just get it. They read the script and they inflect the lines in the way that makes them the most funny and the most human and if we were to do a sixth season, it would be great to see her come back.
And I guess you probably wouldn”t have Banks available because he”s going back to play Mike Ehrmantraut.
Dan Harmon: Yeah.
You talked a lot at Comic-Con and other times about having to do some TLC on these characters. And I don”t know if you would agree on this, but it seemed to me going into the year Annie was probably the one who maybe needed the most of it. And when we got to the second episode and she”s fighting Jeff and it”s not about her crush on Jeff, it”s just here”s Annie sticking up for her principles – that was the moment when I knew that you had pulled the show back in.
Dan Harmon: Yeah, Annie is a character that we really like watching grow up. And it was really, really a difficult decision for me to make but we put her in pants this year. At a certain point you just have to. It was starting to get egregious. She was becoming Mary Ann on “Gilligan”s Island.” It was like, “Boy, she looks cute as the forbidden fruit,” but she”s a grown woman. And Annie Edison started as a Tracy Flick rip-off in the “Community” pilot and quickly became infused with so much Alison Brie that this dichotomy emerged. The response to her from girls who identify themselves as having been an Annie Edison in high school is so overwhelming, and their response to her growth as a person is too hard to ignore. You can”t stunt Annie when you have so many young women admiring her. You have to give them something to continue to admire. And we all know that Annie Edison is gonna end up a senator or a forensic detective or something incredibly activated and mature. We know when we look into her eyes that she”s not going to be wearing a fuzzy cardigan and a short skirt with tights and flats with a little pink backpack on her. So we did that by imagining her as becoming this pharmaceutical rep, and coming out of that, she”s a young woman now. And there”s so much to enjoy about Annie as a young woman growing up because like Alison Brie is – Chris McKenna coined her “the Ferrari” early on in season 2. She”s this luxury sports car that you put a line of dialogue into and she just like gives it life and humor and lands things like double takes. Fundamental comedic tools, she brings those to the table like Jennifer Aniston or something. But she”s also got enough dramatic chops that you could drop her into the middle of “Downton Abbey” and no one would bat an eye. She”s got a lot to offer if we start letting her turn into an adult woman.
The mandate going into this season – and you”ve already said that when you try to make plans, things go awry – was to scale things back and write human stories. But within the last four episodes that have aired, even with the Olympics in between, you”ve done two different Greendale dystopia episodes.
Dan Harmon: Yeah, yeah. We get a little carried away. It never starts that way. The MeowMeowBeanz app was just a funny idea. That”s all it was. It was forever it was on the whiteboard as “Yelp for teachers.” That was the phrase. It was just the idea that there was gonna be a new app coming out where people could review teachers. And that Jeff was gonna get caught up in the dangerous game of trying to be a better teacher – a higher-rated teacher instead of being a good teacher. That”s it. It sounds like a good idea for an episode in a sitcom. We tried to break the story and somewhere along the way, the interesting plot point became okay, so it starts with Yelp for teachers but then the teachers demand, “We want to be able to Yelp the students.” And okay, good fun story. All right. So this Yelp thing is getting out of control, this Yelp app. So what”s the road of trials? What”s the goddess that we meet with? And at some point just after hearing the eighth version of the story I go, “What the story is about is the effect that this app has on everybody.” And we”re not really telling a story about Jeff because if I start telling you a story about a character who”s taking Yelp for teachers too seriously in the first two minutes of a 20-minute story, I think you”re gonna be waiting at the finish line for me when I get there and tell you that Jeff shouldn”t have taken Yelp for teachers too seriously, and that he should have just been happy with the way he was. And that”s a big problem with TV. I want to bring you on a journey where you”re not exactly calling the shots and expecting the next thing to happen.
And a director like Rob Schrab comes along and says, “Maybe we should dress them differently.” I think we went overboard. I think we went way overboard. I think this is great that we made the decision that the app takes over the campus. It”s great that we actually called upon and are breaking the story, the genre of dystopian future and social striation within that. I think it”s arguable that we pushed the gas pedal down too hard. When you come back for the second act and everyone”s wearing something different, we shouldn”t have cut to a room that was absolutely unrecognizable to anyone. It was covered in white sheets. It turns out it”s just the study room with sheets draped around it. We should have mitigated that. We should have had people hanging white sheets up in the background when Annie said “the futurization of the campus”s décor is almost complete.” We could bbserve and go, “Oh, they”re becoming ‘Logan”s Run” because they”ve been living like a dystopian future.” Such a simple production issue, and you”re tangled up in three other episodes while that one”s shooting and you look at the monitor and they”ve been shooting for 20 takes and there”s white sheets everywhere and you go, “Eh, we fucked up.”
Coming up next: “Rick & Morty,” pop culture pastiche and the outdated ratings system.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org