Behind the Scenes at Community with Writer Megan Ganz

Community is the sort of show that turns casual fans into semi-obsessed fanboys and fangirls. Wildly ambitious yet earnestly grounded, its episodes bounce from over-the-top homages to genre films to understated character studies, all while focusing on a group of characters that have only become more endeared to fans over time. To say it’s a writer’s show is an understatement.

Last year, Megan Ganz was a big Community fan. This year, she was one of the newest staff writers on the show, penning season-highlights “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking.” Before landing the Community gig, she worked as an editor at The Onion and as a writer on Important Things with Demetri Martin.

I talked to her about her varied jobs as a comedy writer and what it’s like working behind the scenes at Greendale Community College, including what they’ve got planned for upcoming seasons and whether or not Chevy is as crazy as he seems.

First of all, congratulations on the show getting picked up for another season, that’s awesome.

Thank you! I’m super excited about it, obviously. I was already celebrating by the end of the season, and then we found out about our pickup, so it became a whole new celebration last night. I’m excited for the show too, in general, because I just want to see the show do a number of years. I feel like it’s so ambitious that’s it’s like, what do we have left to do in season three?

It’s interesting because there’s kind of like a built-in timeline to the show. It’s set at a college, so after four years everyone should graduate. Do you have plans in place for that yet?

Yeah, there’s plans for that, and we’re slowly starting to talk about that stuff all the time. But in general, this year was their second year and we didn’t spend a whole lot of time on campus. I mean, we did, but last year every single episode was on campus. And this year they went to bars and restaurants, and Jeff’s apartment, and Annie’s apartment at one point, and sort of just expanded the world. I think that hopefully by the time we get to the end of those four years, the transition will have happened as gracefully as how people actually transition out of college. So you’ll just feel like these people are ready to leave and then they will. But we should be so lucky to have to figure out how to do that.

Yeah, it would be a good problem to have to figure that out. And this is the first sitcom you’ve written for, right?

Yeah, I started with The Onion, that was my first job out of college. When I was in college I wrote for a newspaper there called the Every Three Weekly, which, like a lot of college humor papers, was sort of based on The Onion. From when I was like 13, the job I wanted was to write for The Onion specifically. So when I got to college and they had this satirical newspaper, I started writing for that. I was an editor and became editor-in-chief for the last two years I was in college.

One day we got an email from The Onion saying that they were starting this writing fellowship program, which they had never done before, which was pretty spectacular because there’s almost no way to get in at The Onion unless you know somebody. They’re just very insular people and don’t accept submissions. But they started this writing fellowship program and that’s how I was able to submit like 25 headlines and a bunch of other stuff. And I got picked — me and one other person — to be writing fellows. So I moved out to New York like a month after I graduated and I started this writing fellowship, which was essentially like an internship where you actually got to write. I did that for three months and was totally broke in New York, but thankfully it paid off because after I was done with the writing fellowship I kept writing for them freelance. They were publishing my stories, and then they ended up hiring me, and I worked there for three years.

What’s the writing room there like? I feel like it’s not something that is talked about — they seem pretty secretive about their process at The Onion.

I think it might not be secretive but it’s just like, people who are kind of awkward or removed. So we just don’t go out a lot? [Laughs] So you probably don’t hear about it because there aren’t a lot of Onion people floating around. Plus, people don’t leave The Onion. Some people have left to go on to do really cool things, like Colbert and The Daily Show, but half of the staff when I started there had been there since the beginning of the paper. So there aren’t a lot of people going on to other positions. But that’s happening more and more lately, so I’m sure you’ll hear more and more about it, because I can not stop talking about The Onion. I loved it there.

The room was tough, but in the best way possible because it was really objective. I never felt like there was a lot going on in that room that wasn’t people trying to make the funniest product they could make. And as long as that’s the goal, you’ll never have a problem in rooms. Because you can say whatever it is you want about my pitches, as long as it’s in the practice of getting some really good material out. So I really liked it. And for the majority of the time I was there it was me and all guys, which I really liked, I feel really comfortable working with mostly men. And they were just really strict in the best way, it made me become a joke machine really quickly.

Yeah, the one thing that I’ve heard multiple times is that for every headline that gets accepted there are a hundred that get rejected. They want tons and tons of pitches.

When I started we were submitting 25 headlines every week. And when I think about that now, that’s like 25 jokes a week, which is a surprising amount of output. And not even jokes, because I would write an article every week, but every Monday I would come in with 25 headlines. Headlines are really difficult to craft if you do them well, because they have to be short but also have enough of a joke to them that you can flesh them out to a whole story, ideally.

So we’d write 25, and you were really lucky if you got five on the list for the next day, and if you got one or two in the paper you felt like your job was secure. Because we went through like 600 headlines every Monday, and then we whittled it down to I think like 16 to 20, to go into the paper. So it’s a lot of jokes being thrown away. But it was great, the guys there are really smart, they care about humor and know a ton — they’re like humor scholars. They’re very good about just getting very particular about what makes a joke funny and how to make it better.

It seems like Dan Harmon is also kind of a scholar of comedy. He’s written almost like a book about writing comedy, and deep comedic theory.

He’s really brilliant and it’s great to work with him. It’s a good transition from a place like The Onion, because it’s such a particular kind of humor. And the way that he’s evolved Community is such a specific type of humor, and I really like hearing him talk about it and what he’s going after and how we form our jokes and everything. I like working for a show, also, that’s really joke packed. They try to get every other line to have a punchline, which is how The Onion always was. You just have to get as many jokes in as possible, that’s the goal.

I’ve had the real pleasure to have, in the formative years of my comedy career, been with some really amazing people. You can’t ask for a better teacher to tell you how to write sitcom episodes than Dan. I mean, I had never written a sitcom episode. I wrote a spec to get hired, which was an It’s Always Sunny, which had two acts in it because I didn’t even understand act structure. I was just like, I guess that they have acts in them so I’ll put an act break somewhere. Just randomly, in the middle of the episode. I don’t even know if he actually read my full spec. And that’s probably for the best, because it probably wasn’t that good.

But with the bottle episode being my very first episode, and being taught how to properly craft a story to have such a good, meaningful resolution in the end, I’m going to be so set up for any other place I ever work. I haven’t worked on a lot of different shows, but from just watching different shows I’ve noticed that there isn’t necessarily on every show that love of crafting an episode that has the three part act structure that comes around and actually tells a complete story.

So what’s the writing process like? When you wrote that first episode, what was it from pitch to completion, how did you go through it?

Well, we have sort of a batting order; we start from the top and work our way down. So I was the last person to write an episode before we went back to the top of the batting order, and it just happened that at that point, Dan had been talking about wanting to do a bottle episode for a while. It was something that interested me as it seemed like a good way to start out writing television episodes because nothing really happens. It’s pretty easy to track what everyone’s doing because they’re all in the same room at the same time. So just in that respect, I jumped at the chance when he said, “Well what about the bottle episode, why don’t we try breaking that?” I was like yes, that’s the episode that I want, that would be great for me. Because it’s more like a play. Not that I’ve written plays before, but it’s just manageable, as far as dialogue and who’s there and what’s going on.

So he said he wanted to do a bottle episode and we started talking about it, trying to figure out a reason why they would all have to stay in the room for an entire episode. At first it was bigger things, like maybe someone had a real problem with someone else and didn’t want to leave until they solved it. And just through talking about it we realized that it’s actually better if it’s the smallest thing possible. Because then you don’t have to justify it; it justifies itself. Everyone has had that moment where one little thing has been that straw that broke the camel’s back, and there’s no justification for the way you act in that moment, but you just freak out and people have to deal with you. As much as I can’t really believe that an entire study group would stay in a room to look for a pen, I can believe that if Annie freaked out enough they, because they care about her, would have to deal with that situation before they moved on.

After that it was just a process of figuring out how can we involve every character and give them a reason to not leave this room. So you have Britta next; they accuse her and she dumps her bag and then she’s activated to want to keep everyone in the room because she feels that someone lied and pointed the finger at her. So then slowly you just roll everyone into the snowball. We broke it for a couple weeks, meaning we sat in a room and just talked about what’s going to happen next and break all the scenes down. After you’re fully done breaking, you have a week in which you write your draft that everyone works off of. And when I went off to do that I had, pretty much, a scene-by-scene break down. So it would say, at the beginning of the episode everyone is working on the diorama and they mention wanting to go to the puppy parade, and Annie is looking for a pen, she can’t find it, Abed offers her some chocolate, and everyone tries to leave but she screams. That’s what I would take home, and then you would write out that scene. Just a writer’s draft, about 30 pages or so.

That’s really my favorite time, that week, because you feel the most writerly. You’re sitting at your laptop, all alone. I was so nervous writing my first episode because I was sure that they were going to fire me after I turned it in. I smoked a pack of cigarettes, and I don’t really smoke. I was in this totally horrible headspace the entire time, and I kept having these anxiety dreams that I was going to turn it in and that Dan was going to read it and then look at me like, “We wanted you to write a television episode, what is this?” I was sure it was going to go down like that.

But he read it and really liked it and gave some notes, as far as different things to adjust. For example, we moved cutting open Pierce’s cast to the end of the second act. Things like that we shuffled around, based on how it read. And then we do a table read and then some rewriting if we need to.

Then they start filming it, and I got to be on set the whole time they were filming. I got to sit next to the director, Joe Russo, which was awesome because going into it I had no concept of how shows were shot. I had only seen maybe one sketch on the Demetri show being filmed before. So to go from that to sitting in on your own episode, in the Greendale library, of a show that last year I was just a fan of — it was really intense. All of the sudden they were just filming in front of me.

That sounds really surreal.

Surreal is the only word that can describe it. It took me two days to adjust to just being there. And then the second episode that I did, the hospital episode, the writing process just felt so much easier. I felt like I knew what I was doing when I was on set. And that was another bottle-y sort of episode; we filmed it all on sets that were built inside of our cafeteria. So it was a whole little hospital bubble that we did, that was really great.

So do you guys, as writers, interact with the cast a lot? As an outside observer just seeing you all on Twitter, it seems that you guys are just a big group of friends. But I assume that being in the writers’ room and being on set are two pretty separate things.

Yeah, we do interact. A lot of us like going down to set and checking it out while other people are filming. But most of my interactions with the cast came during my episodes, because you spend the entire week with them. With the bottle episode in particular, it was just us sitting in the library for five days, filming. So every day we were back in the exact same place, in the exact chairs, wearing the exact same clothing. That was really my first introduction to the cast, on a whole.

But we don’t get to spend a lot of time with them, since we’re sort of locked away in our own little writers’ hovel for the most part. But when we do it’s really fun, it is a really happy family. I got to do the last day of shooting for the finale episode, with Adam Countee, the other new staff writer this year along with me. Well, you can look at it one of two ways: either we got to be on set for the finale shooting, or nobody else was around and they let us do it. [Laughs] Either way, I was on set for the last day, so I got to see the last shot and it was so awesome. The entire cast was just so happy and relieved. You just feel like, we put that in the bag and it was a really good season and we’re all really proud of it. And it just comes with a sense of real relief when you’re done, like you’ve done something really great. The finale especially, I can’t wait for people to see it, it’s really great.

Yeah, there have just been so many bits and pieces of it talked about online, I feel like people are getting really excited about it.

I know! We’re surprised that this year it feels like there are more spoilers. People are more vicious about getting in there and trying to get more information, which is good. It’s a totally good thing and I’ll take it.

It’s awesome that we got to do an hour-long finale, it’s great. I don’t know, in the first season I was like, Oh man, this show should do an hour. If any show should do an hour this one should. Because they’re basically like mini-movies, every single episode, so it would be easy to beef one of them up into an hour-long thing. And that is what we’ve done.

So, speaking of the idea of mini-movies, how do you guys balance out writing the more traditional sitcom episodes, such as “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” with the more meta or thematic episodes like the paintball episode or the zombie episode?

I think it’s a natural balance that comes from the exhaustion that you feel after having done one of the more conceptual episodes. The same way like if you go out partying all the time, the next day all you feel like doing is staying inside and doing nothing. Not that those sitcom-y episodes are doing nothing, but they have this nice feeling of being in a comfortable area with a cast we really love and we’re getting to see them just interact with each other. That’s fun to watch, and it grounds us for those crazier episodes that we see. If we see enough episodes of them just going to class, then when they get attacked by zombies it sort of earns you those episodes in a way.

Yeah, it would be difficult to do an entire season of those kind of episodes and have people still relate to those characters, I would think.

Yeah. And this year I think we’ve done better at finding a balance of having conceptual episodes that are grounded. For instance, the bottle episode is not a crazy episode in the sense that it’s like a movie or anything. And yet it is a concept, it’s based around the premise of, What if they never left the study room. Which is a different type of conceptual episode from, say, the Halloween episode, which is an homage to zombie movies. Even though that one is also grounded, the point is to make it feel like a movie.

And that’s also the case with the documentary episode and little things with Abed, when he was like robocop, where we just brought elements of a cinematic attitude into a normal sitcom episode. Those are the sweet spots, the notes that we should hit as often as possible, where it makes sense within the world that we would be doing these things. And we never want to do an episode just because we wanted to do a zombie movie, or because we wanted to do Jurassic Park or something, that things are true about the characters that aren’t. I really appreciate that Dan really stays true to his characters, even if there’s a desire to do these conceptual things.

So you mentioned earlier at The Onion that it was you and mostly guys and you liked that, but the Community writers group is pretty evenly gender balanced, right?

Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s incredible that the room is so balanced. There are four women, including myself, that work in the writers pool, which is only eight or nine people, maybe ten people tops, that you would call writers on our staff. And four of them are women. Those are insane numbers. But it works really well for sitcoms; I don’t know if it would have worked as well at a place like The Onion. Because The Onion is more straight joke writing, where Community is more about telling stories and character dynamics and what do we want to say about these characters and how are they going to grow and evolve. And, not to generalize, but I can tell you this specifically about the Community writers room, it’s really nice having women around to talk about that stuff. Because they’re interested in being true, for instance, to Annie’s feelings about Jeff and how she reacts as a girl who is nineteen years old and very headstrong, but hasn’t had a lot of experience yet. So I feel like women really come in handy in that respect. And I really like that dynamic on our set, it works really well for us.

It’s great, it’s probably one of the most equally balanced of any of the writers rooms of any of the major sitcoms. It’s always been like a big problem of, like, ten dudes and one girl on a writing staff, so it’s pretty great to see it be about 50/50.

I know, I was really surprised when I started there, it was like man these ladies are coming out of the woodwork. [Laughs] They’re all over the place here. And even at Demetri I was the only girl, I’ve always been the only female on any staff that I’ve been on — not many, two before this one. But I’m just used to that dynamic of being the only girl, so it’s great. And we’re also really mixed as far as our age range. All of that stuff is good because you’re more likely to have someone in the room who has had an experience that’s like the experiences your characters had, and you’re just naturally going to get more realistic characters.

So what would you want to do after this? Say you get four or five more seasons, and then what do you want to do afterwards? Do you want to do your own show, or do you want to do movies, what would be your goal?

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this actually, now that we’re on hiatus. This is the first time I’ve had to start thinking about this sort of thing, because everything in my career so far has been gravy. Once I started writing at The Onion I was like, oh this is it, this is my dream job, I’ve achieved my dream job. I remember when I was getting interviewed they asked me what my five-year plan was and I was just like, To eventually work for The Onion? So I’m past it. [Laughs]

Then when I was there the opportunity came up to transfer into TV and I was like, wow, I had literally never considered writing for television before, even as a dream. I came from a really small town in Michigan so I never thought that that was really probable for me. And when I came out here for the Demitri show, I was like oh this is really cool. I’ll do some sketch writing, which I’ve never done before, and maybe I’ll be OK. Maybe I’ll get to do this show for a little bit.

And Community was my absolute favorite show last year. It was the one that I told my agents, if I’m going to be staying in LA and not going back to New York, this is the show that I want to be writing for. And it ended up being my first and only interview, and I got the job. At my interview with Dan, I freaked out at him and told him how much I loved the show and what a big fan I was. [Laughs] And he was like, I guess we should interview you, I guess this should be like an interview. But I was really happy because I felt like that would be the only time I’d be able to say that. Because I figured this will be my only interview and I won’t get called back, or whatever the interview process is. And that’ll be it. So I want to tell Dan how much I love the show and how much I want them to keep making it. So when I was hired I was just blown away.

And then writing my first episode was a big thing for me, too. It’s just been all these big thresholds I’ve been crossing, so I can’t look ahead to what the next one is, because I haven’t quite dealt with passing the last one yet, if that makes sense?

Yeah, definitely.

So I’m just really happy to, hopefully, be coming back next year and get to write a few more episodes and do that. Over the hiatus I’m going to try to write a feature script, but I don’t know how good I’ll be at that. I’ve never done it before. I have like an idea of something, but I’m just going to do it and not talk about it too much. So then if it’s not good I won’t be one of those people in LA who’s like, I’m working on my screenplay! And then nobody will have heard about it.

[Laughs] Sounds like a smart plan.

Yeah, but that’s just for me to try out. I want to be on the show and focus on the show. I’m super excited for season three. Even with being inside the show and knowing what’s going on, there’s still this feeling of, What are we gonna do next? Because even seeing it this year as a fan I wouldn’t have predicted all of the crazy things that would have happened this year. So I can’t imagine what we’re going to do next year. It’s going to be fun.

Yeah, I assume you guys haven’t laid out any overarching ideas for next season? Just saving that for when you get back together?

Well, we definitely talked about things that had to happen this season that will just naturally play out over the arch of next season. For instance, Jeff’s dad coming up in mid-season was probably a little early, so that will probably be some season three stuff that we can deal with. Getting people’s back stories, why they’re really here and what they’re going to do next. But overall we really do go from episode to episode. We know a little bit about what we want to happen over the course of the entire show, but generally we get to the next episode and we’re like, OK, what are we in the mood for, what seems like the next thing that we want to do?

I know you said you just hung out with the cast a bit during your episodes, but do you have any Chevy stories? He seems like he might be legitimately crazy.

[Laughs] Chevy Chase is a very funny person. I grew up watching his movies and stuff, so I was a super big fan when I started on the show. I remember I got a line in the season premiere, and it was one that he said. And I was like, I got to write something that Chevy Chase said. And it was huge, it felt really huge for me at the time.

He’s not crazy, he’s just — I don’t know. Like a lot of the characters he’s played, in one minute he’ll be like infuriating, and the next minute he’ll be hysterical. In my second episode, he asked me if I was a lesbian. And I was joking that it’s like I always dreamed it would be. For him to ask you if you were a lesbian.

I like impressing him. I remember at the table read for the documentary episode there was a joke that was from my original writers draft that made it in the episode that he really liked. And he made a point of saying he really liked it, which is usually not his style at the table reads. He usually makes some jabbing jokes at the end about how many lines we got in, or whatever. But he really liked this joke, and he sold it really well and he commented on it. And I was like oh, it’s cool. It still works, it still makes you feel good when you please him even if he’s hard to deal with sometimes.

Yeah, I can imagine getting a compliment from Chevy Chase on a joke you wrote doesn’t get old very fast.

Yeah, and it’s not diminished by anything else he says or does in your life. Even if he was a nightmare, if he says your joke is funny it’s like, oh, Fletch thinks my joke is funny. [Laughs] At least that’s what it feels like for me anyway.

Behind the Scenes at Community with Writer Megan Ganz