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Community Creator Dan Harmon on Tonight’s Stop-motion Christmas Episode, and Why He’s Not Scared of American Idol

The long-anticipated Community Christmas episode finally arrives tonight. Creator Dan Harmon broke news of the special stop-motion-animation episode to Vulture last summer, and last month we brought you a first look at the Greendale gang's dollish alter egos. We checked in with the man behind the best show on TV to ask a few more questions about the process of making this episode, why holidays are so special on the show, and how he thinks he'll do opposite a certain Fox reality competition that moves to Thursday nights next month.

So why did you decide to tackle Christmas so ambitiously this year?
At the very beginning of the season, when I was deciding how much crazy stuff we were going to do, Christmas was laid down there as a time when we could be ... I want to say, "Paintball"-ish, but there are so many ways for this show to be crazy. So many ways for the people above me to ask us to do something else.

You really do like the holidays on Community.
The concept of doing holiday episodes is a huge part of what's fantastic about doing TV. And viewers agree; you see the numbers going up for holiday episodes. I went to this NBC seminar when I was just starting out as a show-runner. They showed us that holidays, weddings, funerals — all the things we share as human — have been shown empirically to bring in more eyeballs.

But this isn't just about numbers for you.
For me, when I was growing up, the thing that made TV so magical was the idea that Sam Malone was also celebrating Christmas. You got the characters from Taxi and All in the Family experiencing the same seasonal traditions at around the same time as you, and that makes them all the more real. So that's why Halloween's gotta be crazy, Christmas has to be special.

What about the Fourth of July? You don't see many Independence Day episodes since most shows are in repeats.
There are lots of emotions that go with the Fourth of July.

Can we expect a Valentine's Day episode next year?
Yes. Valentine's Day will be special in its own Valentine-y way.

When you first told us about the plan to do a stop-motion Christmas episode, you said it wouldn't be Rankin-Bass style. And yet, it sort of does look ... Rankin-Bass.
When you glance at it, yeah, you're going to come away with a Rankin-Bass feel. The reason it's ultimately not that different is they're basically using the same tools they did in the sixties. The craft is so meticulous: Every frame has a human being involved in it. So you get the same magical feeling that these are little dolls that have come alive. We did everything we could to put together the best stop-action episode we could.

So sum up the plot of the Christmas episode.
Abed wants to know what the meaning of Christmas is for a very specific reason, and the other characters have to help him find out or Abed may be kicked out of Greendale. It's an unprecedented look at how Abed's mind works.

Will the characters have an awareness that they're in a stop-action world?
We worked hard to make sure the characters don't forget this the next morning. The things that are happening in this episode are happening.

And there are songs.
There are songs, but they're very fast songs. There's as many as I thought we could do without being overbearing. When people would start singing [in other holiday specials], my brain would go to sleep. But I think there's something cool about short, fast songs.

Let's move on to some other questions about this season. The romantic entanglements are getting wild and woolly. Like Shirley and Chang. Are you purposely picking the weirdest possibilities for hookups?
It's not being deliberately forced. It's more of a lack of forcing anything in particular. The Office opened, pursued, scoured, and then thoroughly closed the case file on the standard will-they-or-won't-they story line, and they just nailed it. If I were to step up to the plate and do the same old thing, it would be obnoxious and not fulfilling and nobody would be interested in it. We're sort of embracing the other side of the Jim and Pam coin. Life's indecipherable sometimes. We're all like molecules: The more heat there is, the more we bounce off of each other. So there are endless possibilities.

So you've survived going up against The Big Bang Theory. And now Fox is moving American Idol against you.
I've never done well when when I've been appreciated. I've done best when I'm targeted for death.

But do you think you'll be okay against the Death Star?
I actually think we're going to be fine at this point. We've got this very, very strong fan base. That number you see most weeks — that's them. We got a 1.9 [adults 18 to 49 rating] before Big Bang and a 1.9 after. The number sometimes fluctuates when we do special episodes ... but the people who are watching Community are watching it because they love Community. I may be Pollyannish, but I think we'll still be standing.

There's been a lot of talk lately about show-runners bonding on Twitter. And you've also given a couple of on-air shout-outs to another Vulture favorite, Cougar Town.
We try to help each other out. Shows before bros.

Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images