TV

Exploring Donald Glover’s ‘Community’ Exit And The Evolution Of The Show’s End Tags

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In 2017, Dan Harmon told The Hollywood Reporter that he could agree that Donald Glover’s departure from Community signaled the beginning of the end for the series, but that he had “needed to convince [himself]” that that wasn’t the case at the time. That denial wasn’t for naught. There’s good stuff in season five and season six of Community, particularly in Harmon’s approach to the brief scenes, or tags, that appeared at the end of each episode. Scenes that had often housed some of Troy and Abed’s best and silliest moments before Glover’s exit.

When we started work on this article in 2017, one of those tags was the primary focus. Appearing at the end of the season six episode “Basic RV Repair And Palmistry,” the nearly three-minute-long “Giant Hand” tag tells a tragicomic tale about a bickering couple (Matt Besser and Danielle Schneider), a missing kid, and an obsession with oversized things. All of this loosely tied into the episode’s main storyline about the study group’s doomed RV trip to transport a massive fiberglass hand — an attempt at a bottle episode that wound up being more complicated then the crew had imagined, Community creator Dan Harmon told Uproxx.

We were going to talk exclusively about details like that and how the giant hand started as a pencil, a large bowling pin, and a taco that didn’t look like a taco — fun bits of trivia. But a loose tie between Glover’s departure and that darkly funny end tag and some of the deeper philosophies at play in season six were revealed when speaking with Harmon. This prompted a brief look at the history of the end tags, Glover’s impact, and the subtle long goodbye that Harmon laid on fans in what would be the show’s final episodes.

End Tags And The End Of Troy And Abed

Troy_and_Abed_in_the_morning
Sony

While Community never shied away from taking Troy and Abed (Danny Pudi) to wildly imaginative places, Harmon was usually careful to keep the characters’ adventures in line with that episode’s plot rather than allow them to splinter off on their own all-consuming episode-long side-quests. It’s the exact opposite of what a lot of shows would have done when presented with the possibility of a breakout character (or two), but Community would have folded in on itself had it become The Troy And Abed Show. Like candy for every meal, and other things that fall under the heading of “too much of a good thing,” life surely would have grown tedious within the Dreamatorium for Troy, Abed, and fans of the show… eventually. Troy and Abed needed structure. But they also needed playtime.

Through episode tags like “La Biblioteca Spanish Rap,” “Troy And Abed In The Morning,” and others, Harmon was able to satisfy that need, giving fans a micro-show within the show (sometimes literally) to let those characters fly freely. A perfect compromise that allowed for a deepening affection for both the characters and the show — usually in only a minute or two of screen time.

“When we first started doing the tags I had no idea what to expect,” Danny Pudi told Uproxx, adding that the tags with Abed and Troy became some of his favorite moments from the show and helped establish the chemistry that he and Glover had on screen. “We loved the freedom to explore a weird idea and found [that] the extra time we had to build our relationship was priceless.”

The Troy and Abed tags weren’t just about fun and chemistry building, though. They were part of a collaborative process that pushed Glover’s talents as an improviser to the forefront. Pudi told us that he couldn’t wait to see what Glover would come up with on the fly as a scene partner and Harmon has, in the past, testified to the brilliance of Glover’s comedic mind and improv skills. In 2014, he told Rolling Stone that Glover could out-funny the writer’s room and he often talks about leaving scenes with a blank space so Glover could end them on a high.

“I’m a pretty narcissistic guy,” Harmon told The New Yorker in March while again lavishing Glover with praise. “For me to do that [leave scenes for Glover to finish] I had to know that, one, he was more talented than I was and, two, he was a better person than I was, that he wouldn’t misuse his power over me.”

With a solid formula in place, Community’s first three seasons earned critical praise, a loyal fan base, and a rep as a buzzy show that didn’t do enough in the ratings to continuously justify its existence. When it came time to plan for season four, Sony (the studio behind the show) made the decision to oust Harmon and hire Happy Endings producers Moses Port and David Guarascio — capable writers who didn’t move the show too far away from its comfort zone… or up in the ratings.

When Community snagged a fifth season pick-up, the decision was made to bring Harmon back, but Glover was only one willing to hang around for five episodes, adding a bittersweet layer to the surprising return. For the second season in a row, Community would be in a state of transition (a streak that would continue in season six when Yvette Nicole Brown left), but the differences (including Chevy Chase’s departure) would be more clearly felt on-screen this time, pushing Harmon and the writer’s to find fresh angles that might distract from what was missing.

Meditations On A Giant Hand And Meta Sadness

“Troy and Abed dominated the tags,” Harmon told Uproxx. “More likely than not, you were going to get a nice fix of their friendship during the credits and that was a pretty big deal trying to figure out how to fill those vacuums without it just feeling like a very brazen measurement of a loss.”

The solution? Embrace the absurd with the tags. Fake trailers for a Gremlins knock-off, a screwball sex romp starring Koogler (Mitchell Hurwitz), and of course, a giant hand. All of these came across like ideas that could have used a little more exploration, and that wasn’t an accident, according to Harmon.

“The philosophy was if each unique episode is a campfire, then our favorite tags became ones that tracked one ember from that campfire that you normally wouldn’t have tracked as it blew off somewhere else. The implication being that all embers are potential fires in their own right. That was actually a very, very subtle reinforcement of a tragically identical message that season six would play on, which was that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if this situation went away because, as much as you love these people and all the things that they’ve done, the truth is there are little communities everywhere. It did nestle into that theme to have a lot of the tags be about ancillary characters with an emphasis on… This could be a show, too, and if it was on for six years, you might love it just as much.”

Community wasn’t known for half-measures. Theme episodes didn’t lightly touch on the subject matter to get a little nostalgia contact high, they transformed the show into a Law And Order episode, a Ken Burns documentary, Hearts Of Darkness, and an episode of G.I. Joe. Authenticity and attention to detail mattered as much as pushing a joke as far as it would go.

“I remember saying, ‘Oh, we could stop there but don’t we want to know now?’ Don’t we? Doesn’t it move us to find out why this guy isn’t just a joke and isn’t that even funnier?,” said Harmon, who acknowledged the darkness in the concept at the heart of “The Giant Hand” and the lesson that he wanted to get to. “You hang out in his living room long enough, you’re going to find out that all comedy is about pain and that everyone’s lives are intricate and detailed and have pasts and futures.”

That’s a heavy statement, especially when attached to what some might view as a throwaway comedy sketch, but Harmon saw something worth exploring. Something that seemed to align with the larger themes that seemed to be on his mind as the show ran toward the end of season six. He also felt more pressure than any showrunner should when it came to serving his audience. You have to remember that Harmon’s relationship with Community fans (and his fans, in general) is a bit more intense than the norm. The Harmontown podcast and the repeated battles to keep Community on the air have seen to that.

When we spoke, Harmon acknowledged that the relationship many fans had with the show and the meaning they had derived from its existence. It was a clubhouse for the comedy nerds and the weirdos. He wanted to give them some kind of reward at the end for all their troubles. If not a soft landing, than an existential comment on endings and earned joy.

“There was a very real burden on me, emotionally, about, how do you keep these people from just feeling bad? How do you keep this show from being like everything else in their lives that’s kind of cool for a while and then just sort of ends on a fizzle? At a certain point, the answer was, oh, I guess the way you handle that fear isn’t by running from it. You definitely face it, and you say to the audience, ‘Yeah, life sucks. Isn’t that funny?’ There are a million ways that it could suck. It just never ends. You could live 150 and you’d never run out of ironies, tragedies. You definitely get bored with smiling and hugging and being on the same team. You get bored of togetherness and high fives and feeling good and high fives, but you never get bored with all the fucked up ways that life can just come at you and take you out of the meet.

Since that’s the case, maybe this show never ends, and maybe it never existed. Maybe there were a million shows that you missed while you were watching this one, etc. It’s trying to follow that tragic road all the way back to the comedy. Like Turner And Hooch. Hooch has to die in order to reap the value… a bunch of puppies. If you just made a movie named Tom Hanks With A Puppy. Fuck that.”

The End Tag

If the thread begins with Glover’s exit and the realization that real change was a necessity and continues to “The Giant Head” and its message that funny can live even within a tragedy, then it’s fitting that it came to an end in the show’s final end tag and moment… assuming a comeback or the movie from the “six seasons and a movie” rallying cry never comes to fruition.

In that tag, a family plays a board game version of the show before realizing that they are mere pawns in Dan Harmon’s reality — not created by God, but by a joke. Harmon’s voice then appears, reading a disclaimer for the game that jabs at the show, the Nielsen ratings, Chuck Lorre, and Harmon’s inability to tell people that he loves them.

It’s meta, a bit self-indulgent, darkly funny, and razor smart — everything Community was throughout its run and one more example of how vital the end tags were — first in building the show’s central relationship, and then in trying out new directions and weird ideas as its purpose evolved.

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