Talking to ‘Community’ Writer Andy Bobrow About Last Night’s Season Premiere

After nearly nine months off the air, Community returned with the premiere of its fourth season last night. While creator Dan Harmon is gone, several key members of the Harmon Administration stuck with the show, including writer/producer Andy Bobrow, who, along with fellow veteran Megan Ganz, joined Community in Season 2. In the three years he’s spent at the show, Bobrow has penned beloved episodes like the Apollo 13 space simulation riff “Basic Rocket Science,” the Ken Burns parody “Pillows and Blankets,” and Troy’s dark but heartfelt 21st birthday episode, “Mixology Certification.” A few days prior to Community’s Season 4 premiere, which Bobrow wrote, I had the chance to talk to him about what it was like coming back to a Harmon-less Community, working with the new showrunners, and why he feels the season opener might have been too ambitious.

WARNING: There are spoilers and stuff about last night’s new episode in this interview:

So, what was it like in the writer’s room figuring out how to start the new season?

When they hired us, the first thing that happened was David [Guarascio] and Moses [Port] met with all of us individually right after they took the job. They were basically trying to convince us all to stay, but during those meetings, they got a real earful … I remember I was telling them like, “Do you guys know that we break stories differently?” The pitch to us was, “We just want to keep everything going the same way. The only thing we really want to change is the workflow – the hours – which was so amazing to all of us. But also in hindsight, I look back on that and think, ‘That’s impossible. You can’t make the show the same way and work less.’ [LAUGHS] But during those meetings, a few of us walked them through the very specific way that Dan [Harmon] had of breaking a story. There’s the famous story circle of his. They had heard about it, and they were really curious about it. I remember Tim Saccardo showed it to them. He drew it on their board for them. He said, “Here’s how we do it.”

Me and Megan [Ganz] had the most [experience]. We’d both been there since Season 2 … I remember Megan and I were both sort of on the fence. We called them back up together and said, “Do you really mean it when you say that you want to keep the show the same?” And they said, “Yes, absolutely.” And we said, “Well, do you realize that means we need to rely on some veterans to sort of run the room and make sure the show doesn’t veer away from where it’s been going?” They said, “Yes, that’s what we intend.” So, those of us who had been around had a mandate to teach the other writers the Community way of doing things.

I remember when meeting with Dave and Moses, I asked them, “Have you guys given any thought to whether you’d like to see Jeff Winger graduate or not?” Their answer was like, “Whoa, whoa, TV time works differently than real time.” The famous example is the TV show M*A*S*H lasted way longer than the Korean War. Several writers asked them the same question. It was almost like a litmus test. We felt like one of the differences between Community and other shows was expressed in the answer to that question, which is, “No, Season 4 means it’s their senior year, and that being said, it is Jeff Winger’s senior year and that means he’s gonna graduate.” We all felt like if he doesn’t, that would be a massive let-down for our fans. That would be like announcing to the world, “Oh, we’re not really telling stories about real people here anymore; we’re just doing a TV show.”

Annie, she’s changing majors, so we could excuse ourselves if she stays in school a little longer. Same with Britta. Troy, there’s a couple reasons why he might stick around at Greendale. He’s got this new thing with air conditioning. Abed, we think he’s not really on a track to graduate. He’s just gonna go to school a long time. Same with Pierce. Shirley might stay, but it was Winger specifically, we had to figure out, there’s no way he’d allow himself to stay longer than absolutely necessary … The typical thing that came up was, “Should he transition to maybe teaching a course there?” The one thing we knew we wouldn’t do was, “Oh my God, your credits don’t count! You have to do another year.”

The other thing was, we knew that in some meta way, we had to comment on the firing of Harmon in the premiere. We knew that we wouldn’t be Community if we didn’t at least wink at the audience about the changes off-screen.

How did the idea come about to comment on it in that way?

After we met with David and Moses, [Megan and I] both went to lunch to figure out “What the hell are we doing? Are we gonna stay on this show?” and how awful we felt about Dan getting fired and just what a thankless job it’s gonna be. Like, “I’m gonna be on the worst season of Community. There’s no way we can win.” Just all that anxiety. The conversation just wandered around to, “Boy, whoever stays in that first episode is gonna have a lot of fun because you’ve got to comment – there’s no way you can’t comment.” We just started talking about how we could handle the first episode, and that’s how we both realized, “Oh, this is such a fun show.” For both of us, I felt, the reason we needed to stay is something just happened to us personally in our lives – our boss got fired in a really tumultuous way, a really disruptive way – and we worked in a place where we could express our frustration creatively. It was like, “Oh, then I’m not ready to leave Community because Community gives me a chance to do that with my professional life.”

So that was a big part of your decision to stay? Getting to play around with what was happening behind the camera?

It definitely was. It was that and it was also looking at the landscape of other shows where I might go instead, thinking, “There’s no other show with these characters. These characters are spectacular. It was just like, “Oh God.” As painful as it was gonna be to try to do this show without Dan, I just thought, “Well, what’s the option?” Fuckin’ The Middle? [LAUGHS] Yes, Parks and Rec is an amazing show. That would be great to work on [but] a hard job to get… there are other good shows on TV, but still, when you think about the kinds of jokes that you can write for Pierce Hawthorne or Troy Barnes or Britta Perry, those are wonderful characters that you just don’t have on other shows. It was like, “I’m not done with these people yet.”

What’s the percentage of writers who left vs. writers who stayed this season?

Let’s see. Me and Megan, Maggie [Bandur], Steve [Basilone], Annie [Mebane], Tim Saccardo. So, six writers stayed, and we picked up Gene Hong, Ben Wexler, Jack Kukoda, Isaac Gonzalez, and Hunter Covington, plus Dave and Moses. So, it was about half and half. It was six to five.

Were all the new writers fans of the show?

Yeah, I think so. Of course, they all said they were …  What was funny was, I had this fear that we would get a bunch of new people who would want to do standard sitcom stuff. And the opposite turned out to be true. All the new people came in, and they could not wait to do Community-style stuff. It was me and Megan and some other veterans who were almost standing against the tide, saying like, “Wait, wait, wait, you can’t just do movie parodies. You can’t just do silly things. It has to speak a universal truth. It has to adhere to the emotional core of these characters.” Honest to God, I found myself saying, “Guys, the Dean doesn’t have to wear a dress every time he walks into the room.” [LAUGHS] “Guys, we can’t just do Cocktail for the sake of doing Cocktail. There has to be something true about why we’re doing Cocktail.”

Are there a lot of big concept episodes that people have pitched over the years that didn’t make it?

I had pitched a couple times a Sliding Doors-type of episode. I really wanted to do it because that was me trying to fit in with Community, trying to go like, “I get it! I get what you guys do here!” [Dan] never really bought it. He never latched onto it, but it evolved in his mind into the timeline thing, which worked really well and is probably a much better way to do it … I really wasn’t thinking on Harmon’s level. And I think that was a lot of what happened with the new people … When you do concept episodes, you have to push yourself to say, “I want to use a weird format to explore an existential truth and think like a novelist instead of a TV writer.” That’s the thing that I had lived through. I watched Dan sort of not respond to my Sliding Doors idea but come up with the much better multiple realities episode that did something way deeper in my head. But when these stories are coming in [from new writers], here’s me going, “No, no, no. It can’t just be that.” But also, I’m not Dan, and I don’t think like Dan. A lot of my frustration this season was ‘I know that we can be doing better, but I’m not good enough to do it’ [LAUGHS].

That sounds so harsh.

[LAUGHS] Yeah, yeah. I definitely get down on myself for that. We’ll see. I’m pretty sure we did some great episodes this year. There’s episodes this season that I’m pretty sure are not as bad as I think they are … but I also recognize that there were plenty  of Harmon episodes that weren’t that great. The season opener of Season 3 was just an okay episode … and it may be similar to what mine is, the Season 4 opener. Our seasons did tend to start off a little slow. So, I’m trying not to beat myself up too much over that. I think the Season 4 opener compares about the same to the Season 3 opener [with] the show coming back, trying to announce its presence in a big way, trying things that are a little too ambitious, a little frantic, but mostly entertaining people. I think that’s probably fair to say of the Season 4 opener.

What sticks out to you to as being too ambitious as far as moments in the opener go?

In the episode, we’re doing an Abed fantasy sequence, a movie parody, animation, recasting Pierce, the multi-cam trick, Abed descending into a psychotic break, a movie parody, Dean in a dress, establishing Troy and Britta’s relationship - which we didn’t do very well. It just ends up being sort of a free-standing scene – trying to do a C-story with Shirley and Annie. When I look at that whole mess, I guess I can say, on the positive side, it’s amazing that we worked it all together because there’s so much going on. Then, I [feel] we shouldn’t have done that much stuff. When I look at it, the critiques that I’m anticipating are “This is a sign of new showrunners trying desperately to assure die-hard fans that we’re still gonna be the same.” Especially, that we threw in animation. We tried to do an Abed’s descent into madness [story] that admittedly doesn’t work half as well as Abed’s Christmas madness story. Maybe the review that I’m anticipating is there’s a hint of desperation in the season opener. There’s too many tricks and because of that, we’re robbing from actual storytelling.

If we did it over again, I wouldn’t have done a Troy/Britta story or a Shirley/Annie story. I would have lumped everyone into The Hunger Games, and just done those two stories. Some version of people competing to get into a class, paired with Abed seeing the world differently in multi-camera. It would have just made it two stories instead of five [LAUGHS].

Was Chevy Chase upset at all over Fred Willard replacing him for the multi-cam sequences, or did he think it was funny?

I’m not sure because he was never on set on the same days as Fred Willard. He was at the table read where he saw that that was happening. It’s possible that he didn’t quite get the joke [LAUGHS]. I never talked to him about his feelings about that. It’s most likely that he understood. The character he plays is a hated character, so it made perfect sense in the series that Abed would replace him in his mind. Hopefully, he didn’t take it personally. At that point, we really didn’t mean it personally. We were just playing with the idea of Pierce Hawthorne, not Chevy Chase.

Was it a conscious reference to the behind-the-scenes stuff with him that was in the news a lot?

The character and the actor definitely mold together certainly in significant ways, and that’s true of all our characters … To Dan’s credit, he was always taking things he observed in the actors and making them work for the characters as well. You put your finger on it. I’m sure that if Chevy was upset at all about the Fred Willard thing, which I don’t think he was, I think the bigger thing was he couldn’t have been thrilled with the way he we were making fun of Pierce Hawthorne … I don’t know the ways that Chevy was frustrated, but I’m guessing he’s not thrilled about the ways we would poke fun at Pierce Hawthorne and how similar that was to how the actors would poke fun at him backstage. Chevy’s relationship with technology, for example, was identical to Pierce’s. The actors were making fun of him for being technology illiterate. I think Donald said, “Do you even have email, Chevy?” He said, “Yes, I have email, but it’s on my computer at home in Connecticut.” [LAUGHS] That’s Pierce, that’s Pierce. There’s no difference between the character and the actor at that moment.

But as far as recasting him, was that a reference to the voicemails with Dan and all that stuff? Was that specifically why you chose to recast his role and not anyone else’s, or was that just a coincidence?

It wasn’t so much about the voicemails with Dan, it was just about the general outsider-ness. We thought it would be fun for Abed in his fantasy world to replace one of the characters with a different actor, and the only choice was Pierce. We knew it would be fun for the fans too. You know, I guess you’re right. It was sort of a nod to the tension offstage. Yeah, who am I kidding? I didn’t feel like it was specifically about the voicemails or that tension, but Pierce being the odd man out definitely came from Chevy being the odd man out, so it was just us continuing to have fun with that theme.

Had you written for a multi-cam comedy before writing this episode?

Yes, I have. I worked on a show called The Winner with Rob Corddry. It was very brief. And writing the multi-cam was tough. I’m not sure we did a great job of it. I hope we did. One thing that was really important to me going into it was [that] I didn’t just tell the story of “Oh, isn’t multi-camera stupid?” Because that’s an easy target, and it’s really hard to do multi-camera well. I think there’s nothing stupid about the format, and I have a lot of respect for people who can write that style and write it well.

The kind of jokes we were trying to avoid were when the actor says something not funny and the audience howls. We were trying to do actual punchlines, and I hope we did. Shirley’s character had a catchphrase, which was, “Oh Lord, no!” We had her do it a couple times, and of course, that was fun to have her do a catchphrase. In the edit, it was an obvious choice for cutting because that was us making fun of multi-camera, with us saying, “Aren’t we better than this?” I didn’t want to take the attitude that I’m better than multi-camera because I’m single-camera. I just didn’t want to do that because that’s not true.

We brought in an expert guy to do our audience laughter because we couldn’t shoot that part in front of an audience. We wanted to, but the schedule just wouldn’t allow it, so we had to bring in an actual laughtrack guy – one of these veterans from the multi-camera world. He has that famous box that they all have.

It’s literally a box?

It’s a board. It plugs into our soundboard. It’s basically just a collection of samples of laughs. They’re very mysterious about it. They don’t want anyone else to have access to those laughs. He combines them in ways that take a certain amount of craft, that he’s really good at. When he tried to add laughs to our multi-camera scenes, that’s when I realized the rhythms are different. We had to change the way those scenes work to leave room for the appropriate amount of laughter. You don’t think about it when you’re doing single-camera. You have to have a harder joke. You have a joke that has a specific punchline, so the audience can respond to it … I had written jokes where actors were building on each other, and that doesn’t quite fly in multi-camera.

We had one day where we shot all that multi-camera stuff with Fred Willard and no Chevy on set. It was a really delightful day [LAUGHS], not only because the actors enjoyed hamming it up and getting into that style, but because Fred was such a pro. It gave all the actors a glimpse into [how] life could be this way if we had someone who didn’t waste our time on set between takes or flub every single line. Fred came to play, and it was really delightful. It was great.

At some point during that day, several of the actors and crew people came to me and said, “We could do this show multi-cam. Our days would be pretty easy, and it would still be funny.” [LAUGHS] Multi-camera actors’ days are much easier, and there’s a part of me that thinks, ‘We could do that.’ They’re doing it with Up All Night. They’re switching formats. Maybe Season 5 of Community can work multi-cam [LAUGHS].

It is kind of strange that Up All Night is switching to multi-cam after you guys joked about it.

[LAUGHS] Exactly.

So, how did Jim Rash writing an episode come about?

Moses and David just came to us at some point during the season and said, “Jim’s gonna write one.” And everyone was like, “Oh, that’s a great idea. Why hadn’t we thought of that before?” I don’t know if they approached him or he approached them, but Jim was a natural and his episode is great. His episode is gonna be one of the highlights of the season.

He came to us and pitched a bunch of ideas. They were all great. He wrote one. When he turned in the draft – I’m not exactly sure how this happened – but we ended up throwing it out. We know it had to have been frustrating for Jim, but he ended up writing two scripts for us – only one of which the audience will see.

Were they for the same story or for different episodes?

Two completely different episodes. It happens from time to time. It’s never a good feeling, but sometimes you get all the way through a story and you look at the script and you go, “Either this isn’t the story you want to tell, or this isn’t the story we can tell right now, or there are things in this script that aren’t working and the fixes to those problems would be so massive that we might as well start over.” I was onstage. I wrote the one that came right before him, so I remember being a little out of the loop when that happened. I remember being surprised and shocked and I remember emailing Jim and saying, “What the hell happened? Are you okay?” and him being a total pro about it and saying, “Yeah, it’s a little frustrating, but I think it’s probably the right thing. He wrote a second script very quickly for us that was better than the first. It was a fantastic table read, and I think it’s gonna be a great episode… That is [episode] 410.

For the last episode of the season, did you guys write it to be a potential series and season finale?

Yeah, it was the same thing that happened to us last year. We had to write an episode that could be the series finale but that we could recover from if it wasn’t. At the beginning of the year, I had this extended tag that I wanted to do for the season finale that would be a real series finale. It would be a flash-forward to show where each of the characters has ended up five years from now, 10 years from now. We ended up not doing that because it would have taken a lot of production time and a lot of screentime. The network, of course, said, “What if this isn’t the end?” It was like, “Oh, that’s good to hear. Thanks, guys!” [LAUGHS] … We didn’t get to do that. We didn’t get to have that big ending, although the ending that we wrote is pretty emotional. I’m really happy with the ending that we wrote because it comes right off the pilot. It’s a real full-circle sort of thing … It really tracks the progress that [Jeff Winger’s] made in his four years in this adventure.

I think there’s a pretty decent chance that we will [get renewed]. [Look at] what’s happening to NBC’s schedule. They’re losing The Office and 30 Rock. The good news for Community is we’re one of those properties that they own that is not brand new that already has an audience, that they don’t have to be afraid of airing, unless our numbers just go through the floor this season. But I don’t think they will. We may just be one of those shows like Rules of Engagement that sticks around all the time … And if that happens, that’ll be a bit of a challenge for us because we basically finished Jeff Winger’s story in terms of his relationship with Greendale. So if we come back for a fifth season – and we can definitely do this - we will have an opportunity to reframe Jeff’s relationship with these people.

Would you definitely come back for a Season 5 if it does happen?

I don’t know. If people hate Season 4 … If I find myself unable to show my face online, then yeah, it’ll be really hard for me to come back for Season 5. I don’t think that will happen. I think the consensus will be, “Ah, they’re doing okay with what they had. It’s a shame they didn’t have Dan, but the show didn’t completely drop to zero in terms of quality.” If the consensus is, “It’s still fun to watch,” then it’ll be easier to come back. I don’t know; I’m torn because I spent three amazing years with this show. I’ve grown as a writer. It’s been a fantastic experience. It may be time for me to move on, but at the same time, there will always be the allure of these characters. Like I said before, you just don’t get these characters on other shows. I currently have an overall deal with Sony. I haven’t gone to a different studio. The door is not closed. The issue will definitely come up. I like being really involved in it. I like the writers we have. It’s a possibility.

Is the ABC cop comedy you were writing still active?

No, it just died. That died last week.

Aw, I’m sorry.

It was a bummer. I think I wrote a nice pilot for them. After we sold it, they ended up buying other pitches about police work. ABC had four different comedies based in the world of police work. I was a little bummed when that happened, and I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ Bill Lawrence had a comedy at ABC about a girl cop, and there were two others that sounded interesting. I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t compete because those are bigger names than me.’ I don’t know if this is an indication or not, but the way it played out, they didn’t buy any of their cop comedies. So, I could tell myself, whether it’s true or not, that the genre was the problem, not the script I wrote.

A lot of other networks had cop comedies in development this season, weren’t there six or seven overall?

Yeah, this was definitely the year for cop scripts. The one that you’ll probably be seeing in the fall is on Fox with Andy Samberg. That’s a real solid script, and obviously, the casting is great and Mike Schur is a known quantity. I would bet on that being on the schedule, and I’ve heard that it’s really good. So, I’m jealous of it and angry about it, but yeah, I think that show’ll make it. But ABC didn’t pull the trigger on any of their police comedies and neither did CBS, as far as I know.

Sony called me in the fall, and they had me meet with a guy who is a cop. A lot of the basis for our story was this guy’s life. He’s a reserve police officer, and he is a comedy director. Sony called me up and said, “We want you to meet with this guy. There’s something interesting here. There hasn’t been a successful half-hour police show since Barney Miller.” As soon as they said that, I said, “Oh my God, you’re right. The time is right. Someone needs to do a half-hour police show.” Evidently, there are six other people in this town who had the same thought at the same time [LAUGHS].

Talking to ‘Community’ Writer Andy Bobrow About Last […]