When I asked two comedy nerd friends of mine if they had any questions for Megan Ganz, a writer for “Community,” their responses were as follow: “She has an awesome job” and “How did she get the position?” To the former, I replied, “That’s not a question. What’s wrong with you?” To the latter, “I’ll ask.” In short, during season one of “Community,” she was a fan of the show; by season two, she was a writer (there were some steps in-between, too, but mostly, she’s super talented). Since getting the gig, Ganz, who previously worked as an editor of The Onion and a writer for “Important Things with Demetri Martin,” has penned three of the series best episodes, “Cooperative Calligraphy” (a.k.a. the Bottle Episode), “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” and “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux.”
She’s also the scribe behind the upcoming “Law & Order” episode, which is just one of the many things we touched upon in a phone interview, including what the pitch process for the show is like, her favorite running gags, and how “Community” fans are the bestest fans in the entire world. Also, Alison Brie’s Santa dance may or may not have come up…
First off, congrats on the Comedy Central news.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, it was just announced today. That’s great.
Is this a good sign for the future of the show?
I think syndication’s always a good sign. It means that people are getting paid; it means it’s turning a profit. So, in just a very strict business sense, it’s a good sign, but I don’t know if it has anything to do with whether or not we’ll get renewed.
How sick are you of the renewal question, by the way?
I wish that I had more information. I totally understand people asking, and it’s hard because if I were watching the show as a fan, I would be the same way. Like, “When is it coming back? When will we know? We just wanna know.” But the closer you get to knowing that sort of stuff, the more you get to knowing it has to do with so many factors that it’s better not even to guess. It’s better to wait. Last year, I found out we got renewed right around St. Patrick’s Day, and Twitter knew like minutes after we knew, so it’ll just happen if it does. It’s like someone waving a magic wand.
It feels like “Community” is one of the first shows in TV history where the writers are nearly as active in the fan’s mind as the actors, or they at least have a very public persona. Do you think that comes from Dan Harmon? You’re all interacting with one another, everyone seems to know who you are.
Oh, is that true? Do you think so?
I think so.
I think we’re capturing a certain demographic, a very Internet savvy demographic, and that kind of demographic looks for things that the quote-unquote “average” viewer wouldn’t know about. So, you get a nerdy fanbase and they explore every avenue. They hound up on Twitter and they’re people who are really into the show. I don’t know. Do you feel it’s more than any other show?
Yeah, I think so. For instance, take the Daily Beast interview you did not that long ago with the ladies in the cast. I feel that with another, more traditional sitcom, they probably wouldn’t have asked one of the writers to participate.
Yeah, I was actually kind of surprised that they asked me, but it was kind of just a lady thing, so they were getting all different types of ladies. But that’s weird. I never thought about that before. I think we get a lot of feedback from the fans. We’re hearing a lot more about people’s impressions of the show than ever before. On other shows, it’s not like you can go to a website and search a hashtag, or you search for it in terms and you can literally see a timeline, moment by moment, of people reacting to the show. It’s like if you were sitting at a theater and overhearing people lean to the person next to them and saying something about it, which as a writer, I don’t like to be on stage, I don’t like to be reading my own jokes, because it makes me nervous, but I love to have them played for people and get to hear people’s reaction to them. That’s why you go into comedy. You want to make people laugh, you want to make people happy. So Twitter has been so amazing because we get to basically hear people talk about the show.
Along the Twitter line, do you read recaps? One of them has over 30,000 comments. [Editor’s note: LET’S DESTROY THAT NUMBER, WG READERS. /runs out the door screaming //no one follows.]
I saw that! I don’t even know what people are talking about at that point.
I think I can probably guess, with that episode.
Annie Mebane and Steve Basilone wrote that episode [“Regional Holiday Music”], and Annie and I wrote the lyrics for Alison’s “Santa Baby”-type song. And I remember being like, it’s Christmas for the commenters. Alison was so funny. When they did the first take of it, Dan [Harmon] told me that she did it one take, and she was so great, she was so perfect at it immediately, that she was like, “Do you want me to do another one?” And they were like, “I guess. You could, but we’re basically gonna use that first take that you did.” And she did one more and that was it. She so nailed that. It was great.
On behalf of the Internet, I thank you. The way I read the scene was that you were turning the table on the creeps like me, who ogle Alison.
I think it was supposed to function in two ways. Every character in that episode is being lured into the glee club by another character, and they use that person’s weakness. So, Pierce’s baby boomer nostalgia, they use that, and they use Shirley’s religion. For Jeff, what Annie is appealing to is his attraction to her infantile sort of nature. But that’s the same thing that sort of repulses him in a way, her youth. But obviously we’re sort of satirizing TV shows that do use women singing and dancing in provocative ways to lure attention, so that’s a very basic story point. There are songs like “Santa Baby” that show that men are interested in this sort of infantilized woman that’s kind of baby doll and dumb. And in the song, she’s getting dumber and dumber and crawling on the ground and trying to eat mistletoe because she doesn’t understand what it is, so it’s just a parody of those types of songs and also playing at the dynamic between Jeff and Annie. But I remember thinking as we were writing that, I’m sure they’re going to have a big reaction to this, the commenters, but I think that it was mostly those other things.
Do you think the hiatus helped you? Were you able to tinker with the scripts during it?
No, we actually had to stay on the same production schedule, regardless of the fact that we went off the air, so nothing changed on a day to day basis. We had to film all of the episodes at the same time we were supposed to, because obviously all the actors and writers and everyone had plans for us to be at work in February and March, and then we had this hiatus of three months to go do whatever. Probably movies for them and life for the rest of us. It only probably changed the tone. It was supposed to be a dark season, and now it’s this dark season that was written in a vacuum. We’ll see how it’s gonna come out, how people react to it.
How aware of the “30 Rock” ratings were you when they had the 8 p.m. time slot?
We were watching them. I felt bad. I have a friend that writes for “30 Rock,” Sam Means. He just started writing for them this year and he was texting me being like, “AHHH” and I was like, “Welcome to the time slot! It’s fu*ked.” Obviously I love “30 Rock,” I watch “30 Rock” every week religiously, we all talk about it all the time, so nobody wants it to do poorly. I mean, it doesn’t help the network at all for any of the shows to do poorly, so we were more worried that “30 Rock” would just do amazing and we’d be like, “No, it wasn’t the time slot. It was us.” But it’s clearly a really difficult time slot. I think that’s been established. There was a New York Times article a week ago that was talking about how most of our viewership is Internet viewership. People are not watching “Community” on TV unfortunately, and so hopefully it’ll help things, in the sense that we won’t be able to rely on the ratings of the show to determine whether or not the show is popular and doing well.
If you guys could get paid by the GIF, you’d be millionaires.
[We began to discuss “Remedial Chaos Theory,” specifically Troy’s timeline with the evil troll, when Megan mentioned that “there’s a joke that’s so great or so funny, that no matter what, this [episode] is gonna work, because it has this moment in it.” Which leads to…]
What do you think those moments were for you in your episodes?
I remember “Cooperative Calligraphy,” it was when we realized the ghost of the pen, that’s what they would agree on, and then that would allow them to leave the room. Once we came up with that, we were like, “Oh, this is great.” Up to that point, we knew that they were all going to stay in the room and they were going to go through a process of searching each other and everyone was going to be rolled in like 12 Angry Men style, rolled into the chaos of it. But we kept talking about who took the pen. Does Chang take the pen, or does Abed have it in his shoe? These are all big possibilities of where they would find it, and we kept realizing there’s no way for the characters to find it and have it be satisfying. So after talking about the emotional journey that they’re going on as group and what they need to settle on, once we came up with the idea that they would all rather believe in something paranormal than believe that one of them is so mean that they would do this to each other…They basically believe more in each other than they believe that there are ghosts. And once we realized that it was like, “Great.” That made me so satisfied, a nice heartwarming reason for them to leave the room. So it doesn’t matter as much what happens before or after that, although Dan came up with the idea of having the monkey take the pen. And having that is obviously awesome icing on the cake. But it feels good, before that moment when they’re walking out of the room, it feels good already, so you already know that was the moment when we’re breaking, we’re like this is going to be a fun episode. It tells a full story.
The first documentary episode, I think it was [producer/writer] Chris McKenna who came up with the idea that Pierce would show up as Jeff’s dad, and that Jeff would know and chase him down and pull him out of the car and start beating the crap out of him. I think that was the moment where we’re like the story was fun, and it established the Jeff and Jeff’s dad dynamic between Jeff and Pierce. As for the second, I’m trying to think. I think we just wanted to do a Heart of Darkness homage, and I think maybe it was when we realized that Abed’s documentary was the thing, or that Abed makes the commercial. I can’t remember for that one.
How did you decide upon LeVar Burton and then Luis Guzmán? I mean, I know Luis Guzmán was established beforehand…
Luis Guzmán might have been the moment in the story breaking where we realized it would work, because we came upon…Well, I’ll start with Levar Burton. We portioned out each person’s story. We had to figure out what everyone’s mini story was going to be. And for Troy, we thought it would just be this fun thing that Pierce got him a person to hang out with. I think the first idea was that it would be some really hot girl or something like that, and then somebody mentioned LeVar Burton. His name comes up, and I love “Reading Rainbow,” so I was immediately like, “YES.” That’s a funny thing for Troy to be preoccupied with, hanging out with Levar Burton for the day. It plays into the nice part of Troy still being an eight-year-old kid. So we decided to bring him in, and I think the idea was that he wouldn’t be able to talk around him. But I remember after we’d broken it and they took it home to write the writer’s draft, I was texting Donald and saying, “You don’t have any lines in my upcoming episode, but I think it’s going to be the funniest one I’ve ever seen you do.” LeVar’s honestly great. He was also really excited to do it. He was such a sport on set. He was really funny improvising with the actors and was totally into it, and actually the last line of, “More fish for Kunta,” we’d originally had it, “More fish for LeVar.”
As for Luis Guzmán, that was more of a story thing. We knew we wanted the Dean making this commercial, and we knew we wanted Abed making a documentary about the Dean. That we knew from the very beginning. We didn’t know what would make the Dean kind of go insane. Why he would think that this commercial that he was making was the most important thing that had ever happened. Maybe he loves Greendale so much that he doesn’t want to ruin it. And we stay in that area for a while, but then we realized that the Dean has always been a little bit embarrassed of Greendale. He’s always done things to try to “shine that nickel,” to make it a little bit better. He’s doing things like buying the new judges table for the pool in the first season. Things that don’t actually make the school any better but are all about a facade, I guess. So we’re talking about that and how he’s embarrassed, and how the Luis Guzmán statue is the prime example of him saying, “The best thing you can do at Greendale is get out of here and go be a famous actor in Hollywood. That’s who we love at Greendale: people who are better than us.”…Thankfully one of our directors and executive producer of the show, Joe Russo, he’s worked with Luis Guzmán before, so they were friends, and we talked to him and he knows about the show because we had to get his permission to use that statue, just like the Dean has to in the actual episode. But it was great, and I really want to have him back again for something. The scene of him walking and just looking up at his own statue is just so funny.
Is there anyone you’ve tried to get for the show but just haven’t been able to yet?
Tons. I don’t want to say anybody, but we have a very hard time getting people in scenes. Scenes where we have a very particular person in mind, it doesn’t usually work out. But we’ve also gotten some really amazing people. Like we got Michael K. Williams basically through Twitter. One of our producers, Neil Goldman, tweeted at him, and was like, “Hey, basically none of our people and your people are allowing us to offer to have you on the show, but we would like to have you.” And he was like, “I’m interested.” And so they talked through that, and that’s how we got Michael K. Williams. It’s hard, though. It’s hard with people’s schedules. Also to get people that we love, like John Oliver and Patton Oswalt. We always want to have them. I really want to bring Paul F. Tompkins back, but I don’t how you justify it. But we got John Hodgman this year. We did really well this year.
I can’t wait for more John Goodman and Gus from “Breaking Bad,” too.
Oh, yeah! God, Giancarlo. There are tons of “Breaking Bad” fans on the writing staff. We talk about it all the time and we got Dan into it lately. Usually he doesn’t like it when we talk about other shows, but we were like, “No, but you HAVE to watch ‘Breaking Bad’! This is the one we’re telling you you have to watch.” So he started watching it and loved it. So when we were talking about 322, the one that he’s in, and we started thinking about if we can get him to play this role, everyone just got so excited, and all the writers made a special field trip down to set just to say hi. We formed this almost “cheer line” that he had to go through to say hi to all of us. We were so excited to see him.
Are there any nods to “Breaking Bad” in the episode?
I know of at least one. I haven’t seen that episode fully, and things can get edited out, but there’s a nod or two that people will recognize.
Of the remaining 12 or so episodes, how many are you the credited writer for?
I’m credited for just one more, 317, which is the “Law & Order” episode.
Did you come up with the idea of having a “Law & Order” episode, or is that something that was floating around the writers’ room for a while?
Yeah, it was floating around for a while. I know that I’ve been obsessed with “Law & Order” for a long time, and I talk about it in the room a lot, especially “SVU.” And I know Dan loves “Law & Order,” especially the original. We sort of based ours on the original years, the Jack McCoy years, seasons four through eight. I actually scheduled my classes around the show in college because I was so obsessed with it. But it’s not like we just go, “We wanna do this” and come up with the story later. Usually, we have a story or something we need to accomplish in the overall narrative that leads to using a certain style. I think this one was a combination. I was up in the rotation, and Dan said, I want you to write that one, and we were thinking that one was going to be the “Law & Order” episode. So we had to come up with a story that would necessitate us picking that departure, conceptually and stylistically. I think it was really fun to break the plot of that episode, because it was like coming up with a mystery. Think of it in reverse and then halfway through the episode, you split from the cop drama to the law drama. And it’s such a good format. I kind of cheated by picking that episode because it was really like you know that formula is going to work. It’s already been working for 16 years on television, so you already know it’s going to be great. And then Rob Schrab, Dan’s friend and writing partner, directed it, and he was just awesome and instantly got the feel of “Law & Order” and made everything look very pretty and New York. That’s an exciting one.
How long is it, roughly, between the time you’re given a writing assignment and when the episode starts shooting?
It depends. Towards the end of the year, it’s very compact. And a lot of the time towards the end of the year, for time reasons, people don’t go home with the script. We group write them. Or we’ll take scenes and split them up and then we write all together. But I would say, on average, we usually spend a couple weeks breaking the story. Once the story is broken, we have an outline and someone writes for a week, and we bring back the writer’s draft, and usually it’s another week or two before it starts being filmed. Like I said, towards the end of the year, we start breaking the story Monday, we have a draft done by Friday, and it start shooting the following week. But sometimes the story breaking takes a really long time for whatever reason. The Halloween episode last year, “Epidemiology,” took a really long time to break.
Do the larger concept episodes take longer to put everything together than a “normal” one?
Not by rule. Some of the really low-concept episodes took a really long time to get through, even something like the moving day episode from this year. It took a while to break that. It’s three different stories all intersecting, so something like that will take a long time, whereas “Law & Order,” for instance, that story broke kinda easily because you already know the format, kinda already know what markers you need to hit. So even though it’s kind of conceptual, it was easier. Something that’s a mix is like the My Dinner With Andre episode [“Critical Film Studies”], where there’s this highly conceptual element to it, but it’s also two people sitting down and having a conversation. Those take a very long time because so much is relying on you keeping the audience’s interest while you’re just having two characters talking.
Now that the season has wrapped, what are you working on?
It’s strange, you don’t know if the show’s getting picked up or not, so there’s a staffing season where you kind of just go out for all these meetings, where everyone’s like, “Hey, you kind of have a job already, but we just wanted to say ‘Hi,’” and you meet with them. It’s very odd…I’m also going to try to write something, I think, an original script, just because I think it’s about that time. I think it’s probably just for me because I think you have to get a bad one out of your system first before you do something good. And I’ve never written an original pilot before, so I’m going to try to make something happen there.
Do you have a favorite running gag on the show?
I have a couple. I really like the rhyming — “Well, well, well Harvey Keitel,” “Well, what do you know, Henry David Thoreau?” This season, I really like that everybody is humming that “Daybreak” song. We keep putting it in because everyone in the office kept humming it. I also really like, which we did more last year, people saying, “Let him finish” when people are giving speeches. I do that to Dan a lot when he’s going off on some tear.
Last question: who comes up with the episode course titles?
Dan comes up with most of them, I’d say, but people obviously pitch ideas for their own scripts. The overarching rule is supposed to be that when people read it, they should immediately be able to remember what episode it is. But it’s so funny that that’s the only rule because I feel like with so many, that’s not true about so many of the episodes. Like the “Law & Order” one is “Basic Lupine Urology,” which you only get if you know about Dick Wolf.