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Community Creator Dan Harmon on Reference Humor, TV Love, and Whether Joel McHale’s Going to Grow a Beard

Dan Harmon, creator of NBC's Community, is a pretty chatty guy. Which makes sense, given the rapid-fire pace of his sitcom about a bunch of community-college misfits, starring the chattiest TV star of them all, Joel McHale. Ratings have been low, but Harmon — a co-creator of The Sarah Silverman Program and frequent collaborator with Jack Black — is optimistic about a second season, as the network has ordered three more episodes for the spring. Harmon spoke to us from L.A. about the benefits of reference humor, how they changed the tone of the show early on, and how long Community can last (hint: “It’s not Laverne & Shirley”).

When I first started watching the show, I was initially turned off by McHale’s character, Jeff. And then very quickly, it seemed like he turned into a nice guy. Was that always the plan?
When we started out, I wanted to spend the first twelve episodes telling the story of this guy who’s this lone wolf, having his membranes dissolved by a new community. That plan sort of went awry in that I think we were more successful than we predicted we would be with making the audience comfortable with this group as an unlikely family. So really, by the Halloween episode, it already felt like we’d told the story of Jeff growing on these people and vice versa. We also didn’t predict that people would adore every single one of those characters for different reasons. It feels like we jumped light years ahead of schedule, and could do this ensemble-comedy show. … And Joel McHale can do his own thing in the background that can be some sort of geek psychological story about him overcoming his pettiness. That’s an upcoming episode, by the way.

A lot of the humor in the show derives from pop-culture references. How do you know when you're doing it too much?
The funny thing is, I was never a fan of reference humor when I was younger. At that point, it felt very cheap to just have two characters talking about Star Wars for ten minutes and call it a creative piece of work. Then the world changed, and with every passing year, characters on television are more in danger of being further removed from an audience that lives in a completely different world then they do. I mean, there’s a long-standing rule on TV that we’re not going to watch characters poop and sleep, but we also don’t watch them watch TV, and we don’t listen to them talk about it, and we don’t know what movies they like, and if we find out what their favorite song is, it costs us $40,000 to say it. So reference humor sort of became a way to make a classic TV show feel relevant. I don’t want the entire car running on that gas; I think it’s a flavor you use to keep the bread moist.

Do you think that too much reference humor can be a turn off to people who might not get the more random references?
My philosophy is that you get two [misses with] your average viewer. If they hear a third one that they don’t get, then they’re done with you. Their time is valuable. But if two slide off and the third one hits them right in the forehead, then they’re good for another two to slide off. My mom doesn’t want to hear a lot of Twitter jokes, but on the other hand, my younger friends don’t just want to watch Chevy Chase fall down. So, you know, it’s a symphony.

What’s up with Jeff and Britta (Gillian Jacobs)? Are they going to be the next Pam and Jim?
That’s actually another important thing about the pop-culture aspect of the show: The characters have all watched Friends, they know Star Trek, they’ve watched The Office and 30 Rock, even. Much like the audience, they’re not going to tolerate having a "will they/won’t they" shoved in their face. The nice thing about having a character like Abed is that you can be meta, and the audience can trust you because you can send them little signals that you’re on the case.

So you can have it both ways — the audience knows you know you’re creating a love story for them, but it still boils down to: You’re creating a love story for them.
"Will they/wont they" stories, I’m discovering, that’s the aspect of a TV show that the audience creates for themselves. The audience likes to pick two characters and decide they want them together. While we are circling those kinds of things with different characters, we’re not putting any pressure on it. All we’re doing is running our fingers along the audience's back.

And what about some of your other pairs, like Abed and Troy. They're such a funny duo; was that a casting choice?
No, it was way more organic than that. I remember the writers and I being very excited about Chevy Chase’s character and Troy, how they were going to be the Beavis and Butt-head of the show. But we sort of abandoned that story, because it didn’t germinate as quickly. And then when we did that first 30-second tag that goes on the end of an episode, that rap with Troy and Abed, and people loved it so much, and you could feel the chemistry while we were shooting, it was instantly apparent that that’s the thing you go towards.

Jack Black was a recent guest star. I know you work with him often, so was that a onetime thing? Or are you going to have more guest stars?
We’re a freshman show, so we have to do things now and then that the network can promote. With Jack, I thought it was an interesting story to tell, the idea of somebody wanting to be in the group, are they a clique now, etc. There are a couple more guest stars coming up. I’m too new to network TV to know the merits, but I don’t want to ask the audience to invest in someone that half their brain is conscious of as a visitor.

How long do you think the show can last?
Jeff is going to get a bachelor's degree, and contrary to popular belief, you can get one of those at a community college. And so we’ve got that four-year story — is his life changed or the same? Or is something going to happen to derail the whole thing, for example, the cancellation of our show? I don’t have any ambition to be the next Laverne & Shirley, and have it run two decades. Jeff’s not going to grow a beard and start teaching there while the rest of them open a pet store across the street.

One last time: Are Britta and Jeff going to get together?
When I was a kid, I watched Moonlighting stumble into that vein and suck it dry. You can’t get away with the same tricks anymore. In the third episode, I had them make out for a dumb reason. It wasn’t "will they/won’t they touch each other," it would be "will they/won’t they actually have a relationship." People in the audience get drunk and make out with their co-workers once in a while. It never feels like a season finale when that happens.

Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images