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Community Creator Dan Harmon Explains the Genesis of Every Reference on Last Night’s Episode

Classes resumed at Greendale Community College last night, as NBC's Community kicked off its sophomore year with its usual barrage of sight gags and subtle pop-culture shout-outs. To find out the backstory on all of them, you could wait for the commentary tracks on next year's DVD (season one is out now, by the way), but why wait? Vulture got Community creator Dan Harmon to walk us through last night's episode, revealing the thoughts behind everything from Troy’s Spider-Man jammies to why a George Clooney impersonator ended up at Britta and Jeff's fake nuptials. Harmon even stayed after class to explain just why characters in his show seem as obsessed with pop culture as, well, us.

The Calendar Above Abed's Bed
“It's a group shot of the GCC basketball team, along with school mascot the Human Being. That was an Easter egg for hard-core fans. In the debate episode last season, it's established that, for whatever reason, Greendale has an entirely gay basketball team. That's what's on the calendar. We had to figure out what to put on a calendar. It was one of [executive producer/director] Joe Russo's favorite jokes and one of my least favorite. So I razzed Joe that he should put his favorite joke on the calendar."

Abed Running in Place in His Underwear
“We just wanted to see him in tighty-whities and register his enthusiasm.”

Troy's Spider-Man Pajama Top
“Troy would definitely be a Spider-Man fan. He wrote a comic book that's included as an extra in the season-one DVD. He's a hybrid of nerd and jock. Nerds and jocks overlap in the area of bad-ass stuff, like robots and things that kill things ... video games and total domination of this and that … And it's definitely a cutesy inside wink at the Donald Glover for Spider-Man campaign, and the curious eruption of a previously unknown demographic of racist comic-book readers it ended up uncovering."

Pierce's Stuck-in-the-Seventies House
“I sort of imagine Pierce living in a really nice house that was full of a lot of action and debauchery in its heyday. Now it's sort of a disco Grey Gardens.”

The Reagan-Era Portrait of Pierce/Chevy
“I wanted him to have an oil painting of himself that he probably stole from the lobby of his company, Hawthorn Wipes, as he was either fired or quit. To make the oil painting, we wanted to give a reference (to the artist), so we gave the guy a picture of Chevy from the Fletch days. It's great to think about that character going to bed every night with that painting above his head.”

Jeff Winger's Nearly Nude Work-out
“It's Richard Gere from [the opening of] American Gigolo. Joe [Russo] suggested that I've never seen American Gigolo, though, I'm ashamed to say ... ”

The Twilight Poster in Annie's Room
“It's my way of saying she's too young. I'm so old that ... I'm just shaking my cane at it, saying, 'You young people with your vampires!'”

Britta's Sleepwear
“In our first episode after the pilot, there's a rally Annie and Shirley throw for a slain Guatemalan journalist named Chacata Panecos. They had T-shirts at the rally [with his face on them], and Britta's wearing one of them. And in a super-duper obscure note, the guy who posed for that T-shirt was an actor in a pilot I did in 1999 called Heat Vision and Jack.

Pierce to Troy: "We're like Batman and Shaft"

“I wrote that joke to tee up the oldwhitemansays gag. We needed Pierce to say something inappropriate ... so the first thing out of his mouth needed to be something that would cause Donald to tweet it. But deeper than that, I then wanted to explore the concept that a lot of racism comes from the best intentions, and the worst kind of racism is revealed in the attempt to be the least racist. We don't want Pierce to just be Eric Cartman, and just be plain old racist. He doesn't think he is; he thinks of himself as a progressive person.

And in a larger way, that joke was kind of a valentine to Donald, because in his stand-up he talks for a while about the ‘Donald for Spider-Man’ thing, and he references one comment in particular in which a guy says, 'This guy for Peter Parker? You don't see us going and saying Michael Cera should play Shaft!' Donald's take on that is, 'I'd love to see Michael Cera as Shaft.' But this Shaft thing is me sort of winking at Donald while I'm doing an impression of the Baby Boomer generation that raised me to be racially obsessed and sometimes put my foot in my mouth while trying to be the least racist person in the world. His version of equality ... is saying, 'Batman's partner doesn't have to be this white guy named Robin. He could be a black guy like Shaft.'

I think it's my favorite joke of the entire episode. I remember composing that joke: I was writing at home, working on it for like an hour, and when I was done, I ran into the living room and I did a little dance for my girlfriend. She smiled politely. She was trying to watch The Soup behind me.”

The Gang Talks About Seeing Toy Story 3
“I try not to date the show, but I felt like ten years from now Toy Story 3 was so good that it will be one of those movies that everyone saw and everyone cried at.”

Jeff and Britta's Fake Wedding Song, "Winger" (based on the Cranberries' "Linger")
“That all came from the writers' room. I remember sitting [in the office] and all of a sudden I could hear them singing that song. I was not there for the conception of that; all I heard was a bunch of giggling for an hour and a half."

The George Clooney Impersonator at the Wedding
"We were breaking a story last year, which we never got around to doing, in which Abed turns out to be a very good matchmaker and people are all beseeching him to hook them up. He sets Britta up with this George Clooney impersonator. It was one of those random things ... I never asked [the writers] what the science of that idea was. In our heads, we feel like Abed discovered a celebrity look-alike service, which for him was like a porn addict discovering a 900-number: For 30 bucks he could have lunch with Ben Affleck, and then he spends all of his disposable income on these secret hook-ups where he writes scenarios for a William Shatner look-alike. So maybe he has this George Clooney guy in his Rolodex."

Señor Chang's Dual Personalities
“We wanted to start telling the story of Chang being insane. And as with the paintball episode, sometimes the reference is just the result of the fact that the camera is stylized. But yes, we're definitely ripping off Peter Jackson [with his Lord of the Rings Gollum] to illustrate a man conflicted internally and who is deeply, deeply disturbed. I'd like to slowly unravel Chang and his genuine origins and reveal to the world what's really going on there.”

Abed, Troy, and Betty White Rap Toto's "Africa"
“We were talking about the rap, and the writers wondered whether Betty White would do it. And I was like, ‘Yeah, rapping granny, are we really going to go there? ... If she's not into it, it's going to be so uncomfortable for all of us.’ Then one of our writers, Adam Countee, said, 'Why don't you have her do the Rihanna bridge?’ And then he blurted out ‘Africa,’ which I thought was so brilliant. I asked him later, ‘Did you get that from some song you heard that uses it as a sample?’ and he said, ‘No, it just seemed appropriate because of her being [an] anthropology [professor].’ I thought it was a brilliant stroke because it was just like one of those tunes you could imagine being being done by a hip-hop singer."

So why does Community love its pop-culture references so much?
“Ironically enough, it's my way of shoring up the fourth wall. People think of it as a challenge to the fourth wall, but I'm actually doing it because, in this post-YouTube, media-saturated universe, to go for a half an hour with characters that not only don't poop or sleep, but also don't watch TV or movies or listen to music — there are writers out there who are good enough at the sitcom form to do that, and hopefully shows like mine will spur a whole new anti-pop-culture, post-ironic commitment to the form kind of renaissance.

But for me, that's the language I think in, that's the language I speak. I'm very much like Abed in that way. I don't have voice-over, I don't have characters that are able to stare into the camera and tell you what they're thinking, and I don't use a lot of ... flashbacks. I got one crutch, and that's the fact that these characters are allowed to have seen the same movies you've seen. And if things are going in their world the way things went in a movie they saw, they're able to do what I would do, which is go, ‘This is an awful lot like that movie, isn't it?’ And that's my way of making the viewer feel, as much as possible, like these people might be down the street somewhere and aren't just performers on a stage. It's the most effective way to do my job, which is to get you to suspend your disbelief.”

Photo: NBC