Next week, the TV upfronts begin, when the big broadcast networks reveal their new shows and schedules for fall 2011. Vulture will be immersing itself in all things television, analyzing and dissecting the new series, and New York Magazine will publish its annual TV issue, filled with profiles, articles, essays, and a special feature surveying several of the top showrunners in the industry. From The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King, to Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan, to Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur, these discussions will reveal just how these people make such dependably riveting and funny television. Starting today with Community’s creator Dan Harmon, Vulture will be posting the extensive transcripts of these insightful interviews. Harmon spoke with us about last night’s finale, Cougar Town cameos and all, as well as Pierce’s season-long story arc, his showrunner philosophy, and Cheers.
So now that you’ve completed another year of the show, how do you feel differently than you did this time last year?
You know, I feel like a showrunner. I feel like I have a TV show. The last two years, I’ve felt sort of like a guest star on Fantasy Island that needs to learn an important lesson about growing up by getting a TV show. I’ve felt reactive and adaptive and insecure. And ultimately, every creative decision that I’ve made was, while coming from a place of joy, also coming from a place of “well, this might be the last time I ever get to do this.” And getting a third season of TV — you should never say this out loud, but I guess I’m about to — you’re slightly more likely to get a fourth season from a third than you are to get a second from a first or a third from a second. So it’s as close to tenure as you can get in this sort of gladiatorial world.
Tell me about getting Busy Phillips and Dan Byrd to appear in the finale.
Well, that was part of a cleverness exchange with [Cougar Town executive producer] Bill Lawrence. This all began, I think, with me tweeting long ago as the Abed character — before anybody was really watching the show, I’d tweet more frequently as all the characters — and I just knew Abed was a big fan of Cougar Town. I don’t know why I knew that. Then we dropped references to it this season, [Jeff] acknowledged that Abed was a fan of Cougar Town, and at that point my No. 2 was friends with Bill Lawrence from the Scrubs days. Bill and Kevin Beigel, who’s a Twitter buddy of mine, we started just tweeting back and forth about the possibilities. I never took any of it seriously because I didn’t want to engage in, like, whorishness. But then we did the “My Dinner With Andre” episode. We didn’t plan that as a package deal or anything, but we did start thinking, Well, what if it’s a story about Abed’s visit to the set of his favorite show, because we were trying to think of what kind of transformative experience Abed could have. That’s how it all started, because I think Bill Lawrence had this idea for a little while, like, you should have Abed in the background for one of our shots, and Busy Phillips loves Community, so she should be in the background for one of your shots. It’s weird, because it’s the opposite of logical. I mean, talk about the OCD part of your brain not getting satisfied by anything, because it’s a Möbius strip of logic. If Cougar Town is making references to Community as a TV show, and we’ve made so many references to Cougar Town the TV show in our show …
Well, Abed has also referred to Lost, and then you guys had Josh Holloway on the show, so everything’s folding in on itself.
Yes, well, that’s always been the problem with pop-culture acknowledgment within pop culture. If The Cosby Show existed in this world, then doesn’t Shirley’s husband look identical to Theo Huxtable? And why can’t you say that when Abed can’t even walk down the hall because his head is filled with Star Trek? I mean, nobody wants to do a show where people are just constantly going, “Oh, look, you’re that guy!” “Yeah, I’m that guy!” That seems like reality television or something. I remember seeing a Mork and Mindy episode where Mork met Robin Williams, and I got post-traumatic stress disorder from that episode.
Who do you think was more objectified in the last two paintball episodes: Alison Brie or Donald Glover?
[Laughs.] It’d have to be Alison, for sure.
There are whole Tumblr blogs devoted to her running in that outfit.
It makes sense, because there was a whole shoot day devoted to her running! As the writer and showrunner, I’m often in the edit room grousing about the lack of coverage required to tell a story or land a certain joke. I’m like, “We don’t actually have the shot where the doctor puts the syringe in the diabetic?” “Nah, we didn’t have time to get that.” Then we get to the scene where it’s Alison running, and I’ve got helicopter shots of her tits. Worm’s-eye views, I’ve got. I’ve got cameras attached to baby elephants walking through the set, in case we want to know what it looks like to them. It was pretty amusing.
Were there certain characters that you were writing more to in the last half of the season?
Well, if anybody got short shrift in proportion to how much I love them, it’s definitely Britta. But it’s because, like a mother hen or cat, I wrangle the ones who are wandering. I try to get them to a place where I can understand them. I don’t want to just overdevelop the Fonz. I want to turn Potsie into the new Fonz. I want seven Fonzies. So I definitely didn’t feel the need to pound out Britta as much as I felt the need to pound out [Shirley] this year, with that sort of odd pregnancy story.
There’s been a lot of debate this season about how you guys have dealt with Pierce, and how you’ve sort of gleefully pushed the limits on how unlikable a regular character can be. The finale even ended with an acknowledgment of that. What are the conversations like in the writers’ room about that character?
There are a couple of things about each character that are always incredibly challenging. I’ve got an incredibly long-term responsibility to the characters that sometimes, in the moment, is not the easiest thing to service. But Pierce has this core rule that I have where he’s this unredemptive character. I look at Archie Bunker and I look at Eric Cartman, and I see that we’ve got these characters in our lives. We have them, most importantly, in our personal lives. We have drinking buddies who are incorrigible, and it’s like you get married and you’re at your wedding and your fiancée either accepts it or doesn’t that you have this friend, and you can’t justify logically why you’re friends with him anymore. You just are. And even more importantly than that, we have family members who are that way. You go to Christmas and you kind of just hate your grandpa. He’s the most loathed member of the family, but that there’s always some catch there, like he fought in Normandy or something. Pierce, I’ve always said that he’s gotta stay unredemptive. I never want to see him change, as it were. But that creates the responsibility on our part of having to create a character that’s sort of like the face of Mars — it looks different depending on where you’re standing and always has things to be revealed about it. And we have to walk the audience around the perimeter of that character because the rock itself can’t change, but, like anything, we have to explore it. So the conversation starts there, even if it’s a character who gets slowly not-racist or he represents the part of us that does not go gentle into the good night.
Obviously this is a show that’s not afraid to take a leap into the absurd and the fantastical. But do you ever worry you’ve gone too far?
I constantly worry that we’ve gone too far. I especially worry about that right now. At the end of season one, we decided to end the season itself on a departure episode. And I worry about the volume with which we fantasize in season two. And then I get worried that I really need to take stock and watch all the episodes again, because there are political reasons to worry about that stuff, too: When that conversation is happening in your head, it’s happening also in hallways where people make decisions about scheduling and promotion that affect the next twenty episodes, and I need those conversations out of people’s heads. Whether or not the show needs to change in this way or that way, I need people to stop using certain buzzwords when they talk abut our show at the water cooler, like “weird,” “inaccessible,” “off-putting,” “torture,” “experimental,” “irritating.” I’ve got to replace those words with “Parks and Rec.” [Laughs.] If this show is going to for seven years, it’s going to need to somehow roll out the red carpet for my mom in the third season, without alienating the fans that we have who love nothing more than the unpredictable nature of the show, people I’m compulsively unable to betray because I’m one of them.
Is there a show that made you really want to go into TV, or got you hooked early on?
Ugh, God, so many. I mean, Cheers is the one that I always sort of default to. It was such a centerpiece to my childhood, and such a unifying event for my family. It was just a perfect sitcom. It somehow rose above the inherent limitations of the multi-camera medium and just made you feel like absolutely at home. I loved those characters and never wanted them to go away. I remember having homework to do and just not caring if I got a lower grade in class the next day, because I just had to watch Cheers.
Were you Team Diane or Team Rebecca?
I was onboard from the beginning, so I always loved Sam and Diane. But that’s one of the things I thought was amazing about Cheers, is that they proved their lack of flukeness over and over again. I think the first biggest earthquake was the untimely demise of the actor that played Coach. And they were just getting steam, and now they had to replace the cornerstone of the show. It’s a terrible thing for an actor to die off a sitcom, it’s not easy to recover from that, and then Woody Harrelson came. They didn’t just cast another old guy, but they knew that they needed sort of that archetype, the sort of mahogany-headed babe in the woods. They desperately needed that for their storytelling, so they made a creative, lateral decision to give us everything that we needed in that role, but without being superficial about replacing Coach. That became one of the best things. And of course, the huge “will they, won’t they” — one of the most famous ones of TV that I can ever remember. They went there and jumped that shark, and they just kept going — it was still great … They were lucky probably to find such a great cast, and lucky to be geniuses, but it was obviously the result of conscious decision-making that was very powerful, very shrewd.
Do you feel like you have a showrunner philosophy, or do you have some sort of maxim or saying or truth that you’ve learned that you keep coming back to?
Well, I often hear myself saying “Jack and the Beanstalk” in the writers’ room. I’m usually saying that in response to too much logic being employed too early in the story-making process. Community is a very story-driven show, so in the beginning phases, I’m very insistent about there being no wrong answers until they’re proven wrong by really embracing them, making love to them. Show me how bad I need it by nailing it. It’s later on where you have shore these things up and make sure your foot doesn’t fall through the deck, you know — engage in good carpentry. But in the early stages, it’s “What’s a good story? What separates the first act from the second act in a way that really makes you feel like you’re watching somebody engage in a new situation?” So I guess it’s “story first, jokes after.” Everyone has to believe these characters are living somewhere down the block.
What do you feel is the most valuable thing you’ve learned from working in TV, and who taught it to you?
I think that casting is probably the most important thing in television production. A well-written show will accomplish nothing in a medium where you need them to fall in love with these heads in a box, and you need them to do it fast and for a long time. So learning how absolutely important the casting process is, that lesson came from [directors Joe and Anthony Russo] when they picked up the pilot and they started the casting process with me. I think one of the most important things they taught me was how important it is to be patient. They warned me that the inevitable pressure was going to be to close people early, and that people were going to compare it to the shopping-mall parking space: You don’t like the one you have, so you try for one closer, and by the time you come back to the one you have, it’s gone. And they told me, “That never happens.” The longer you wait, the higher your standards. The more likely it is on average, statistically overall, that you will find the better cast. If you hold out, if you insist “this person is going to have to blow my mind,” you will have a couple of stories of the one that got away. But more than that, you will find stars. And that is exactly what we did. We took a very long time casting Community’s pilot, and it was just the only thing we considered important.
How much do you care what fans think? Do you read recaps of your show?
I didn’t as much during the second season as the first season. I care very much what the fans think. I’m starting to loosen my grip on caring about what critics say, because I think that critics care about what fans think of them, too, so there’s a little bit of a refraction there, through that glass. And I’m obsessed with Twitter — it’s my whole identity, I live through Twitter, and I see my friends and my girlfriend more through text messaging and Twitter than I realize … And thank God for Twitter and all these other avenues, Reddit and stuff like that, where you can examine the effect the show is having on people, but don’t give them an unfair amount of influence. I still think that if it’s raining outside my window, then that’s going to affect how the show is written, so God knows if somebody gets in a huff over Twitter, then it probably does have some sort of gravitational effect, but it’s canceled out by all the important stuff. The important thing is that I use it as a human yardstick of the experience each individual has while watching the show. What lines are they quoting while watching it? What things do they confess? You have Tumblr blogs now where people just put up screen captures from the show, and they put little confessions on the photo. They’ll put a picture of Britta up and go, “I think I’m falling in love with her.” There couldn’t be a better example. Actually, there could — there are a ton of them. There are those YouTube videos that the girls make of Jeff and Annie gazing at each other.
Right? What’s up with that? There’s this whole underground community — excuse the pun — that’s devoted to those two.
Yeah, I had to learn about that. It’s called “shipping,” when you’re rabidly endorsing the connection between two characters. It’s hilarious, because we didn’t have a word for it when we were their age — it was “Sam and Diane.” And then we learned to start calling it “will they, won’t they,” but now it’s an industry. Now it’s a drug that’s got a label. It’s like, “Hey, who are you shipping?” And those people are incredibly important. Their ability to immerse themselves into the narrative to that extent — they’re like the opposite of a canary in a mineshaft. They’re the first to get hooked. They show you the high points of your show in terms of chemistry and things like that. They’re alerting you to the fact that you’ve got something going, and they don’t care if anyone else sees it. They’re not bandwagoners — they’re tastemakers, in a sense. I think the first indication I had that Community was affecting anyone in a positive way was the shipper, because they’re the first to start unabashedly talking about their love — or hate! — of an episode.
Do you consider yourself a control freak or a collaborator?
I am a collaborator with everyone who agrees that I need to be in control. I happily collaborate with my loyalists. And the irony is that once I feel secure, I defer more than anybody. As long as I know that you’re a fan of the show and that your eyes are on the same prize as mine, I’ll start to assume you’re right more than I’m right … I wasn’t as collaborative a showrunner in the first season, I was scared that nobody was going to let the show be what it could be. But we started to hire writers who had been watching the show on television who loved it! It was their top choice of shows they could work on, and they could say why in a meeting, and that changes everything. You’re now working with somebody who you know has the same religion as you. If that person disagrees with you, fine. Good! It’s about time.
What’s your worst experience on a staff of writers?
I guess my worst experience was falling out with Sarah Silverman and getting fired-slash-quitting The Sarah Silverman Show. The Sarah Silverman program was a bad writers’ room experience because I was just getting my sea legs as a head writer, and several things went wrong from the get-go. One of them was that Comedy Central asked me what my strategy was going to be in the writers’ room, and I made the mistake of being sincere and saying, “Well, I’ve never done this before, so my philosophy is ‘Let’s jump in, let’s start doing it wrong and adapt,’ because nobody knows how it’s going to work.” And they smiled and nodded, and then the first day of work I showed up and there was a writer who had been hired by them without consulting me who was getting paid twice as much as me to sit there and effectively run the show from underneath me. And that was humiliating and enraging and it made everything buckle and tumble.
If there was one thing you could change about how network shows are made, what would it be?
I would air all of the pilots. You know? Or put them on the web or something. At the risk of offending the people who are most in charge of whether I ever work again, it seems a little antiquated that in a world where everyone can watch anything all the time, we spend all this money making all of these shitty pilots and throwing them all at the wall and seeing which stick. It seems weird that we don’t just make it part of the fun of network television, to have festivals or special website events, or even on-air marathons or something, where the audience [gets to see them]. They like to vote for their favorite singers, wouldn’t they like to vote for their favorite show?
Is there a form of television or maybe a current trend that you wish would just go away?
It would be nice if the lack of ratings for Community stopped. This whole “I don’t know what that show is” — I know it’s fashionable, but let it go already. I think that the crassness of some reality programming [is a problem]. I do wish that there would come some sort of post-ironic humanitarian phase of reality programming like they have in the U.K., where there are shows about people who don’t know how to clean up after themselves in which people really learn how to clean up after themselves. It’s, like, considered a public service. There’s an air of “You’re a good person no matter what” to their reality programming that I wish we had. We take people who are famous for being mentally ill or addicted to drugs, we parade them around, and then we roll our eyes at them. I find that very carnival-esque, and it’s really disrespectful to the customer. I wish that television would stop selling our hatred of ourselves, and start seducing us with our love of ourselves.
Other Showrunner Transcripts:
30 Rock’s Robert Carlock
Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan
How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King
Justified’s Graham Yost
Cougar Town’s Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel
Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes
Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur