Community’s New Bosses Reveal Their Post–Dan Harmon Game Plan

COMMUNITY – “Course Listing Unavailable” Episode 318 – Pictured: (l-r) Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Danny Pudi as Abed, Alison Brie as Annie, Joel McHale as Jeff, Donald Glover as Troy, Chevy Chase as Pierce, Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

Last evening, Vulture broke the news that neither Community (nor Whitney) would be debuting on Friday, October 19, as planned. It was a last-second move aimed at giving NBC more time to either (a) find better time slots for the shows, or (b) better promote the shows on Friday night. Nonetheless, NBC and producer Sony Pictures TV had already set up a round of interviews with new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port; said chats were set to begin rolling out across the media landscape this morning. And that includes our conversation. While we obviously weren’t able to ask them about the delay, we did spend nearly an hour talking about why they initially balked at the idea of replacing Dan Harmon, what fans can expect from season four, and how they’re getting along with Chevy Chase.

How did you end up running Community? My understanding is that you were weighing several other offers for other shows.

Port: At the time they first approached us, we had just heard our pilot at Fox, El Jefe, had been passed on. So we were still mourning the loss of this other thing.

Guarascio: When Sony told us Dan Harmon was leaving the show, we said, “Are you sure you really want to do that?” We actually said no the first time. But the thing that gave us hesitancy is ultimately the reason why we did it — there’s never really been a show like it. And realizing we could come in and play in this magic sandbox was a once in a lifetime opportunity. We’d been fans previously and loved it. And also, so much of the work Dan has put into the show — it’s not like a light switch, where if you turn it off the show is gonna die. The seeds have been planted and nurtured over the last three years, so there’s a great infrastructure here of returning writers and production staff and, most importantly, the cast. They bring the show to life.

What was your biggest concern about replacing Dan?

Guarascio: The notion that people felt we were replacing him. We knew that you just couldn’t come in here and be Dan. Only Dan can be Dan. And we wouldn’t to pretend we were doing Dan Harmon episodes, because only Dan can do that. But we knew that we could still do Community episodes because there were all these other people who helped make them. And they are still here, first and foremost the cast. Our biggest concern was, frankly, not wrecking it. When the studio asked us to do this, we wanted to be clear [to it] that we’re not coming here to change the sensibility of the show, to change the tone of the show. We wanted to do this job to do the same unique show we’d been watching over three years. That was condition number one. We wanted to make sure it continued being the quality show it had been.

Port: Another concern going in was that this was a show going into its fourth season. It’s told 60 stories. Can you still do something fresh and exciting? But when we were going back and forth [about taking the job], we didn’t want to make our decision based on fear. It helped that this is the only show that my two oldest kids are rabid fans of.

Did you try to communicate with Dan? 

Guarascio: We e-mailed back and forth. That was us saying, “You’ve created an amazing show, and hope we do right by it.”  He was very gracious and said, “I’m rooting for you, best of luck.” There were never any hard feelings between us and him. At the same time, the easiest thing for him is to step away from the blackjack table and let someone else play the hand now. He was either going to be all in or all out, which made total sense. But that’s as much as the communication has been.

So he’s totally gone then.

Port: Right.

There are plenty of other holdovers in the writing room, as well as the cast. Does that help when you’re wondering What Would Harmon Do?

Guarascio: We have a lot of people here who have been as close to his brain as you can be without being inside it. When we came in here, what we told everyone is that one of the things we’re going change, from a management style is that we’re going to be relying on them heavily. We let the cast know: “If something doesn’t feel right for your character, tell us. We’re going to consider what you’re saying.”

When the fake Guarascio and Port Twitter account went up, did you think, “Crap. What have we done?”

Guarascio: When the news first hit, it was kind of hard to sleep at night. You can know a tidal wave is coming, but when it’s right in front of you, it’s much more daunting than when you’re just hearing that it’s coming. Ultimately, the fandom is what kept the show alive. So we embrace it. What we’re doing more than anything is [trying to] please the people who love the show most. If we get more viewers in the process, great. But it’s just not really our concern. We’re not against that! But it’s just not our concern.

So far you guys haven’t had much of a presence on Twitter or other social media. Why not?

Guarascio: We felt that if, at first, we jumped in and start interacting in a way like Dan had been, it would’ve felt false. We haven’t earned that yet. And we also felt that the cast and a lot of writers who work on the show already have a great dialogue with the fans. If I were a fan, I’d trust them more than what Moses and I are saying. Hopefully the work will be the thing that makes people embrace the show over season four, and not anything we’ve said on Twitter.

Port: We’re a lot like stepdads coming into the situation. And we both felt like we don’t need to press everyone to call us daddy just yet.

Sony and NBC both made it clear that they wanted Dan to make the show more accessible, less insular. Not broad — just not as far up its own posterior. Are you trying to do this?

Guarascio: We’ve really never taken that mandate. And I can’t say anyone [at Sony or NBC] has said that with a whole lot of conviction, either. You know, the show is moving to a new night and a new time with fewer eyeballs. One of the things we said was, “There’s a chance ratings might not go up Fridays at 8:30, regardless of who’s running the show. Even from a business [point of view], isn’t your best decision to make sure that the little, loyal audience that loves the show keeps loving it?” So we just figure that we can’t really think about “mandates.” We’d just be second guessing ourselves constantly if we thought about it that way.

Maybe they had some expectations that, because it wasn’t Dan, things would be different to a certain extent. When we pitched them our early batch of episodes, we did get a good deal of resistance to the direction we were going in because they felt it maybe was too reminiscent of what the tone of the show had been. One of things Dan has done successfully is, he sort of tunneled through the mountain so that everyone who comes after him has an easier time telling other powers that be that it’s important that we do the show the way we feel best. It made us easier for us to stand our ground. And they eventually came around to what we were saying. So we’re getting to do it that way. 

What’s your favorite episode from the first three seasons?

Guarascio: The first one everyone always thinks of is “Modern Warfare.” But the calligraphy one, where they’re all sitting in a room looking for a pen? I remember being blown away by it. The writing was so disciplined it could’ve been a tight one-act play. Also, Troy’s 21st birthday — it felt like a different episode, in that it wasn’t as story heavy. And yet it still felt like a Community episode. It was a slice of life in the bar, and I was like, “Wow, the show can be that, too.”

Port: The Dungeons and Dragons episode signified one of the hallmarks of the show: While being very funny, it wasn’t afraid to go into some rather dark places and play some really dramatic moments. Something about that episode [showed] the best of what Community can do, when it’s trying to bring you to some place you didn’t think you were going to get to as a viewer.

So let’s talk about this season. When we left off last May, Troy and Abed seemed to be at a crucial moment in their bromance. Will this play out? 

Guarascio: We’re staying true to where show ended at the end of last year, with the emotional arcs for the characters, and we’re picking up there. It’s a year of change. College is like a biodome, where the rest of the world falls away, and when you get to your last year, you realize this doesn’t last forever. And also, in a meta sort of way, the show has always done a good job of acknowledging how it exists in the outside world, there’s been a big change behind the scenes. So that gets reflected in how we approach the first episode. There’s an inevitability to change and how relationships evolve. As for Troy and Abed, we will see their relationship evolve because of new romantic entanglements. At the same time, it’s a core relationship that has a sort of unshakeable quality to it.

What about everyone else?

Port: At the end of last season, we saw Britta and Troy becoming a couple. And we pick up this season from that point. Them being a couple, you’ll see how that affects things with Abed within the first four episodes. And the notion that this is their senior year, and that this could be the beginning of the end, shakes Abed. He’s seen his friends as this TV show he sort of put together in the pilot. That’s the way he sees the world and understands it. For the character of Jeff, he’ll come to face a demon by meeting his dad. But it doesn’t end there. Now that this big thing defines who you are, what does it say about who you are after that point.

Guarascio: We also deal with the question of how to deal with Chang after what was essentially a failed coup. We’ve addressed it in what seems to be an inevitable but hopefully surprising way. We had to get him back on campus. Shirley, because so much of her life is already defined because she has kids and a husband and a business, her role as someone in the group who understands a little bit more of what life is gets accessed more during the season. It’s more natural for everyone to look to her as a beacon. Experience brings knowledge and that’s something she has to offer everybody. And for Annie, there’s been this dance, more in her head but also a little bit in reality: Is there something going on between her and Jeff Winger?  She’s someone who always thought she knows what she wanted from herself. But let’s face it, she’s in her early 20s. There’s a lot she thought she had figured out that she didn’t.

So Dan Harmon and Chevy Chase seemed to have, at best, an uncomfortable working relationship. How are you finding him?

Guarascio: The truth is, it’s been a very easy relationship. It may be that previous years were such a difficult road that it was just, whatever Chevy brought to that previously isn’t in him right now. I don’t really know. It just has not been difficult.

Well that’s disappointing.

Guarascio: (Laughs) And it’s not even bullshit! We sat down, we had lunch, he comes to work, he does his job. He doesn’t give us a hard time, we don’t give him a hard time. It’s just a pleasant relationship.

What can you reveal about upcoming plot lines?

Guarascio: We are going to an Inspector Spacetime convention. This is a big deal for us. If you think we had our heads up our ass over here before, wait until you see the Inspector Spacetime convention episode. It’s an episode that speaks to the relationship storyline between Troy and Abed, and what direction their lives are going in. Matt Lucas guest stars in that episode, as does Trish Helfer from Battlestar Galactica. For our Halloween episode, we’re going to see the mysterious and frightening word that is Pierce’s mansion, and what he looks like on his own. That’s some twisted fun.

Any major homages in the works?

Guarascio: There’s a little Shawshank homage at some point in the season. I don’t want to say where, I don’t want to say when. But you’ll know it when you see it.

Jim Rash is writing an episode. Does he get paid extra for that?

Guarascio: He’s going to get the same rate as everyone else. He just has the luxury of bringing his statue to the writer’s room and putting it on the table as we talk about the script, as a reminder to everyone.

And if anyone disagrees with him…

Guarascio: It’s, “Talk to the fucking statue!”

It’s been out there than Giancarlo Esposito is coming back and that Malcolm McDowell will do some episodes as a history professor. Any other castings?

Guarascio: We have a number of fun cameos, but I can’t remember if I should say who’s doing what when. You reveal these secrets and the universe might implode. Adam Devine from Workaholics we have in an unexpected role.

Are you writing these episodes toward a possible series finale? Has NBC given you any direction?

Guarascio: We’re shooting our sixth episode this week. We’ll need to know within a few weeks, really as soon as possible, if we’re going to be doing more. We have a game plan to end the season, and a game plan to end the series. Neither script is written. But the one to end the season, that story is broken. I think the place we’ll land, because the truth is we won’t know about whether this is the last season until May, is that we’ll do an episode that we think will be satisfying if it’s the end of the season and at the same time satisfying if it’s the end of the series. Because, if it is the end, we want the show to go out with a bang, the way it deserves. And if the worst thing that happens is, we do that and it comes back next year? Then great.

Do you know if Dan and the other writers had already thought about how the show might end well in advance of an end date, as with a Lost or Desperate Housewives?

Guarascio: There was maybe nothing specific, but it is something people would talk about, because they never knew if the show was going to be ending or not. So there were certain ideas that had already been floating around, certain notions — but nothing as specific as on those shows.

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve discovered since joining the show?

Guarascio: The initial most surprising thing was the intensity of the fandom.

Port: And of the people who work on the show. The people who work on show are as every bit as passionate as the most fans are.

Guarascio: And the degree to how infectious that is. You can’t not be drinking the Kool- Aid. It’s just too delicious.

Community’s New Bosses Reveal Their Game Plan