Press Tour: ‘Community’ stars and Dan Harmon on high-concept shows, Abed, relationships and more

Senior Television Writer
01.14.11 43 Comments


The cast of “Community” (minus Chevy Chase, who wasn’t feeling well) and creator Dan Harmon rolled into press tour at the end of a long day, near the end of long tour, immediately following a panel for “Harry’s Law” that sucked all the energy out of the room. Fortunately, when you have one of the smartest, most tightly-knit, genuinely funniest ensembles on TV, as well as a creator who has thought at great length about every detail and layer of his show and can articulate that to you, you get a session lively enough to overcome both general tour fatigue and the particular brand of despair that the “Harry’s Law” panel(*) gave us.

(*) I’ll explain a little more about that in my review of the show in a day or two, but it mostly involved David E. Kelley sounding eminently reasonable as he described a vastly different show from the one any of us had seen.

Some highlights from the panel after the jump, and in the very last paragraph I’ll include Harmon’s teases of a few upcoming stories, so you can stop reading before then if you don’t want to know…

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the talk in the panel centered around the difference between the show’s more high-concept episodes (paintball, zombies, space, conspiracy thriller) and the slightly more traditional episodes. Harmon said that he doesn’t try to create different script drawers labeled “conceptual episodes” and “normal episodes” – “Because, God forbid, we’d never be making a normal episode of anything” – but did acknowledge, “I probably shouldn”t have done a spaceship episode two episodes away from a zombie movie for Halloween,” both because it tired everyone out and because they blew a lot of the budget on those shows. (So for fans of “normal episodes,” you’re going to be seeing a whole lot of them in the season’s second half.)

After Joel McHale pointed out that “a lot of character stuff happens” in the conceptual episodes (Jeff sleeping with Britta in the paintball show, or Abed and Jeff coming to understand each other better in the chicken fingers episode), I asked the actors if it was any more difficult to find the reality in their characters when they’re doing episodes involving zombies or runaway space simulators.

“If anything, it maybe even makes us connect more with our characters,” Alison Brie said, “because you are seeing how they would react in this kind of situation. You kind of connect more with them when they are in a moment of crisis or something that seems so weird that they maybe wouldn”t

know how to handle, and you have to stop and be, like, ‘Oh, yeah. This makes total sense that she would handle it this way,’ and I”m learning how she ticks and who she relates to more in the group and things like that.”

In general, the cast understands their characters much better now than at the start. Gillian Jacobs recalled a scene in the series pilot where everyone is yelling at everyone else, and no one knew quite what to say, so much of the dialogue was looped in later.

“But at this point,” she explained, “we could do an entire episode of improv”d, loud argument at each other. And so when you are that much more comfortable with your dynamic as a group and your

character as an individual, it”s not so hard to have a really human moment in the midst of a conceptual episode.”

There was also, unsurprisingly, a lot of talk about Abed and the role he plays in a show that’s so much about pop culture.

“I know why I like Abed,” Donald Glover said. “It allows us to say, ‘We know you’re not stupid, audience.’ We all know how TV works. None of us are gonna die… These people can’t get together. We”ve seen enough TV to know how it works. Abed allows us to do those things anyway and still feel fresh.”

Harmon talked about how many ensembles have a “shamanic” character, citing Reverend Jim on “Taxi,” Gonzo on “The Muppet Show” and Snoopy in “Peanuts.”

“It”s like there”s some character that”s got one foot in and one foot out (of reality), and even though it”s counter-intuitive, that can rivet you (to reality). It makes Charlie Brown more real to have a dog that can go in his doghouse, and then you hear billiard balls. How big is that doghouse? For him to go off and fight the Red Baron in some vivid fantasy that only he is experiencing, it just makes you really realize that the football is really being yanked away from Charlie Brown when Snoopy is not around.”

There was talk about the show’s sentimental streak – “I will always be the first to admit the recipe for ‘Community,’ out of all of the NBC shows, has the highest percentage of sap to make it taste right,” said Harmon – and McHale noted that because there’s so much of that each week, and because the writers aren’t afraid to undercut the pathos with jokes, the show is never in danger of doing A Very Special Episode.

“There’s all these tender moments that Dan’s able to buy back if he needs to,” he said, and Harmon joked, “I”ll just go through (a script), and I”ll go, ‘Okay, that”s, like, a full page with no laughs,’ and I”ll just drop in a pop culture reference halfway down: ‘Mark Ruffalo’ (farting noise).”

Glover also framed the Troy/Abed friendship in a different way than many people think of it: “Troy and Abed’s relationship can be kind of tragic sometimes. (Abed’s) not going to ever reciprocate. He doesn’t really understand what’s going on with a lot of the feelings I have, which is why they’re the perfect match. He’s very robotic, I’m very emotional, I don’t know much, he knows a lot.”

Harmon also acknowledged that he and his cast and crew probably think about the show much more deeply than many of the people who watch it, and that he never wants it to become so layered that it’s impenetrable.

“I don”t want to presume that somebody is that invested in the show,” he said. “I want to give somebody the right to eat a toasted cheese sandwich and watch it with half of their brain if that”s their jam. Did I say that?”

And finally (stop reading at this point, spoiler-phobes), Harmon previewed a couple of upcoming episodes. One involves the study group playing Dungeons & Dragons for the whole episode – “There’s no elements of, like, you see them in the woods, running around and swinging swords. They are sitting at a table, playing Dungeons & Dragons” – with Abed (naturally) as the dungeon master. Another takes place entirely away from the Greendale campus and is set in a hospital, where Pierce is a patient for some reason. (“It”s shot in a different way. It makes it a completely different experience from a normal episode of the show.”)

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