chat room

Jim Rash on Writing Tonight’s Community and Getting Ripped

Jim Rash. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Jim Rash won an Oscar last year for writing The Descendants with Nat Faxon, and come this July you can catch their directorial debut, The Way, Way Back, starring Steve Carell and Toni Collette. Onscreen, though, he’s best known for playing Dean Pelton on Community, which is approaching the end of its fourth season. This is the first season without creator Dan Harmon at the helm, and there’s still no word on whether the embattled NBC show will be renewed. In the meantime, we spoke to Rash about this week’s body-swapping episode (which he wrote), how the show changed post-Harmon, and why the dean is remarkably fit.

It’s a little bittersweet that we’re discussing the final episodes already. I feel like the season just began.
I know, it’s so weird. Knock on wood it’s not [the final episodes ever]. But, yeah, it’s like three left to air. It’s weird, also, for us because we shot these technically last year, finished around December, so even sitting there doing DVD commentary, I’m like, I haven’t even seen these. You end up sort of staring and watching and going, Oh, that’s right, we gotta talk about it.

You’ve had some fun guest stars this season. Are there any that have been huge fans of Community? I just can’t imagine Malcolm McDowell watching NBC’s Thursday night lineup.
I know Jason Alexander is. He was a very big fan, and I heard that hopefully if we get another [season] — hopefully, I mean, I haven’t heard — he could come back and maybe be a director. So that could be something down the road. And Malcolm, I don’t know. Maybe secretly he was. I didn’t get to spend much time with him because I was in the Christmas episode for a blip. But they had a great time with him, I know that.

You wrote the episode that’s airing tonight. I hear it involves a body switch between Troy and Abed. What can you tell us about it?
There’s a slight homage to the Freaky Friday body-switching movies that every generation has their version of. But yeah, it’s sort of a device used where they do switch bodies, so obviously the thrill for me was that Donald and Danny got to play each other — expertly, I might add. I can’t give too much away, but it’s sort of like an emotional journey for that relationship.

Is Abed going to have any awkward intimate moments with Britta while he inhabits Troy’s body?
There is definitely some confusion, especially for Britta. And Abed, obviously not being of a relationship mind, it’s a great learning tool for him. He’s making progression for Abed, obviously with the Sadie Hawkins/Susan B. Anthony confusion dance. We got to see a nice relationship for him. So it’s all part of the path of growing these characters, of each one sort of coming into his own as we hopefully don’t end.

When you were writing your episode and also shooting the entire season, was there a part of you that went, “What would Dan Harmon do?”
Oh, absolutely. I think everything in my head was wanting to, on the writing side of things, just do right by the show. I have great respect for Dan, his vision, this creation, these jobs he’s given us in the sense of writing these wonderful opportunities for us. And also our writing staff, from season one to now, all of them. So to then fall into that company, obviously all I was thinking about was, I hope him or anybody don’t go, “Oomph, who’s this guy?” But they were great and supportive because this season has really been about all of us making sure we are doing our best to maintain and keep some consistency. You know everything’s going to change, in the sense that inevitably there’s gonna be differences. And there were, and there are. But that’s also the way Community’s always been in the sense that it’s a highly evolving show.

Is there a way that you think it’s changed in particular?
I think it’s fair to say that as we went from the first episode to our thirteenth of the season, it took a while for all of us to sort of make sure we were getting the tone of the characters all back into shape. Not that they fell off that way, but when you do have four seasons’ worth of stuff to draw from, sometimes you’ve gotta make sure you’re not just doing a checklist, you know what I’m saying? Like this character’s this way, this character’s this way, this character’s this way. Because the truth of the matter is, depending on the situation, a character might react differently and have more of a complicated approach and be more surprising than just saying, Troy says this and Abed makes a reference, that kind of thing. So in the beginning, to be fair, I think it felt like we were doing appropriately the right things on the checklist, but sometimes you have to go beyond the checklist.

The dean has showed off a little skin this season, and I have to say he’s pretty well defined! It seems a little out of character almost. How do you justify his physique?
Well, when I got the part, Dan was very clear that he wanted me cut. [Laughs.] No, he did not say that. I, um, you know what I think the justification for it is? The fact that — come on, from the first season something awoke in him, and he got into dalmatians, so he probably got into furry land. He’s probably very sexual, he’s probably very active, I’m gonna guess. I just think that he might wanna take care of the product that he is putting out. [Laughs.] Or, part B, I will say is that as soon as he met Jeff, he was like, “I want to be him,” and so then he started working out to at least try to get close to Jeff Winger, which I am not, compared to Joel, by any means.

Now that he’s in the same building as Jeff, do we get to see the inside of his apartment some day? Does he lure Jeff in?
My hope is that if we, knock on wood, get season five, we can have a lot more fun with proximity.

Do you get lots more offers to play flamboyant roles based on the dean?
Oh my God, I’ve made a career of them. Even long before. Right now I think I’m in some kind of sexual deviant weird phase, because on That ’70s Show I did Fenton, which was a weird dude, and then Reno 911! I was always at the bordello and had a dildo on my head. For some reason people just decided that I look like a pervert.

I wanted to ask about your movie, The Way, Way Back, which I saw at Sundance. How did you first react when you found out that Fox Searchlight was buying it for almost $10 million, which is close to a record sum for Sundance?
What’s funny is that that news came around 5 a.m., when I was in bed. Our producer knocked on our individual doors and just said we sold it. But Nat and I had to be up in an hour or so to go to the next screening, so it really was a celebration at that point that consisted of “All right!” and then back to bed. It really didn’t dawn — I mean we’d already came out of the screening and it was that weird Hollywood thing where four people wanna talk, [with] four offers, and you’re like, Wait, we literally just did our Q&A. So you’re already on the high of the fact that you’ve had this stressful journey that started so long ago and then you have this sort of big pinnacle. What felt like the best moment was just a screening, a Q&A, getting that reception, and then the icing on the cake was obviously to sell it.

Does it feel more exciting than winning the Oscar, because it’s your directorial debut?
Yeah, this was a baby we wrote before Descendants. This was a script that got us the Descendants job, so in a way it really was this little movie that we just tried to make for eight years, and so to go back and then do it and do it the way we had always hoped to do it, and then to be the person behind the camera, which was not the way it was eight years ago when we were trying to do it — absolutely. You have to say, Oh my God. This feels like something even more personal, something that came from our brains, came from my laptop.

Jim Rash on Community and Getting Ripped