A Master’s Degree in Comedy: The Evolution of ‘Community’

This Thursday, Jeff Winger’s four-year run as a college student culminates in his (probable) graduation from Greendale Community College. Since its inception, Community has been a polarizing underdog; the internet’s version of a water cooler show. The series possesses an interesting combination of self-assurance and lovable tenacity; kind of like a more articulate Rocky Balboa. Despite numerous timeslots, highly publicized inner turmoil amidst frequent threats of cancellation, Community retained a rabid fan base that identified with its intrepid ambition. We’ve come a long way since Jeff Winger, curiously sporting the unlikely combination of a blazer and track pants, attempted to use his rudimentary foreign language skills to create a fake study group in the hopes of seducing Britta. Let’s take a look at several key episodes that helped Community evolve from a conventional ensemble comedy into the perfect blend of meta humor and smart three-dimensional character comedy that it became during the peak of the show’s Dan Harmon era.

Season 1 Episode 7: “Introduction to Statistics” aka “The First Halloween Episode”

“Those floating Mexican skeletons were right. My life is over.” – Pierce Hawthorne

“Introduction to Statistics” is the first episode of Community that hinted at the shape of absurdity to come. By Community standards, it’s a relatively normal episode. Jeff finds himself in a situation where he’s forced to choose between his new life at Greendale and the superficiality of his previous life. Along the way, Abed pretends to be Batman while Pierce breaks not one, but two of the cardinal rules of Greendale – and life in general: never trust a man with star-burns and always make sure your handcrafted fort is structurally stable. “Introduction to Statistics” proved that Community was adept enough to create an entertaining balance between madcap capers and emotional stakes.

Season 1 Episode 21: “Contemporary American Poultry” aka “The Goodfellas Episode”

“If God were edible, not that I’m Catholic, but if it were cool to eat God, he’d be a chicken finger.” – Troy Barnes

If “Introduction to Statistics” dipped a toe in the waters of unconventional storytelling, “Contemporary American Poultry” was the first episode of Community to take a running start and cannonball into the deep end. In “Contemporary American Poultry,” Jeff loses control of the study group after Abed becomes the kingpin of an illegal mafia style chicken finger syndicate. One of the most critical attributes that transformed Community into such an exceptional sitcom is the undeniable amount of creative energy they utilize in their storytelling aspirations. This episode could have been a straight Goodfellas homage, but the conceit was used as a clever narrative device to explore Jeff’s need for control and Abed’s desire to connect. It ended the way all great mafia-style thrillers should end, with two men sharing an emotional connection through reenacting a scene from Sixteen Candles. Nobody can subvert an expectation quite like Community.

Season 1 Episode 23: “Modern Warfare” aka “The Paintball Episode”

“I can’t believe this game is still going on; it’s 2 a.m.! What if someone gets hurt and the police come? They’ll think I’m a bad dean! – Dean Pelton

“Modern Warfare” wasn’t just the first truly spectacular episode of Community; it was a declaration that this series had the potential to be a network television game changer. Aside from the stunning action sequences and the dazzling visuals, “Modern Warfare” definitively answered the Jeff/Britta “will they/won’t they” question; in fact they answered it all over the study room table. It’s possible my love for Sophie B. Hawkins is clouding my judgment, but the Jeff/Britta scene at the end of this season’s “Herstory of Dance” was an understated reminder of the unique connection their characters share. The Jeff/Britta relationship perfectly encapsulates one of the most prominent themes of Community: life’s not about finding perfection in companionship, it’s about allowing yourself to find happiness in a specific type of imperfection.

Season 2 Episode 8: “Cooperative Calligraphy” aka “The Bottle Episode”

“Gwennifer. Hi, yeah it’s me. I can’t make it. Yeah? Well, tell your disappointment to suck it! I’m doing a bottle episode!” – Jeff Winger

“Cooperative Calligraphy” marks the beginning of Community’s assent into cult following status. The next sixteen episodes – exactly two thirds of the season – are the apex of Community’s diverse combination of high-concept entertainment and emotional exploratory storytelling. On paper, “Cooperative Calligraphy” boasts an absurd premise for a sitcom episode: Annie loses her pen and the study group decides they’re not leaving the study room until they find it. That’s it. In a series notorious for complex storytelling, Community constructed a classic episode from seven characters, a wayward pen and a (sadly) unseen puppy parade.

Season 2 Episode 11: “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” aka “The Stop Motion Christmas Episode” & Season 2 Episode 14: “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” aka “The Dungeons & Dragons Episode”

This is why I wanted to play Chutes and Ladders” – Troy Barnes

“Everyone be perfectly sincere. Humbugs are attracted to sarcasm.” – Abed Nadir

The very best episodes of Community possess a delicate balance between humor and heart. One of the reasons Community is so well-respected in comedic circles is because it openly seems to detest mediocrity. The unique brand of playful avant-garde optimism that’s prevalent throughout both “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” may help to inspire the next Dan Harmon, Megan Ganz or Chris McKenna to create the next generation of critically acclaimed sitcoms.

Season 2 Episode 19: “Critical Film Studies” aka “The My Dinner with Andre Episode”

Abed was being weird and by that I mean he wasn’t being weird.” – Jeff Winger

In an unpredictable season featuring zombie outbreaks, KFC space shuttle malfunctions, secret trampolines and stop motion animation, the most daring episode of Season 2 may have been “Critical Film Studies.” While dissecting “Critical Film Studies” with The AV Club, Dan Harmon discussed his trepidations about the episode. “I found out what the actual end of the rope feels like,” Harmon said, “because there is definitely no point in both seasons where I’ve been so terrified of my own failure.” What makes Community such a unique sitcom is that it occasionally allows itself to sacrifice laughs to effectively serve the story. “Critical Film Studies” isn’t the funniest episode of Community, but it may just be the most compelling.

Season 2 Episode 21: “Paradigms of Human Memory” aka “The Fake Flashback Episode”

“Feast your ear- tongues on these memory pops” – Britta Perry

Community’s no stranger to subverting long-established television tropes, but revealing a secret sexual relationship between the nominal romantic leads in a fake flashback episode was a bold and memorable move. Community’s at its creative peak when it’s challenging the unwritten rules of television. To take such an important story that would be a season long arc on most traditional sitcoms and insert it as a retroactive A-plot in a fake flashback episode is just another example of Community zigging while other programs are zagging.

Season 3 Episode 3: “Remedial Chaos Theory” aka “The Multiple Timelines Episode”

“It won’t matter what happens to us as long as we stay honest and accepting of each other’s flaws and virtues. Annie will always be driven, Shirley will always be giving, Pierce will never apologize, Britta’s sort of a wild card from my perspective, and Jeff will forever remain a conniving son of a bitch.” – Abed Nadir

“Remedial Chaos Theory” may be the very best episode of Community in terms of scope and degree of difficulty. Rightfully lauded for its ingenuity, it’s fascinating to read how an episode this complex was conceived. Episodes like “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Paradigms of Human Memory” are vital to the development of future sitcoms because they set the creative bar just a little bit higher. Few sitcoms are capable of producing a high level of storytelling like this. Also, few comedic actresses are capable of producing this level of comedic brilliance.

Season 3 Episode 10: “Regional Holiday Music” aka “The Glee Episode”

“I realize the stakes aren’t that high, but somehow that just makes it way scarier!” – Britta Perry

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It’s no secret that NBC expressed their desire for Community to open Greendale’s doors of accessibility to a larger audience. Community responded within the first minute of season three with all the tact of a teenager being told to listen to their music at a reasonable volume. To borrow a term from Community’s Thursday night neighbor Dwight Schrute, I don’t believe it was simply a case of “malfeasance for malfeasance’s sake,” but nevertheless a line in the sand had been drawn. In retrospect, Harmon’s firing was probably inevitable. Harmon seemed to be stuck between a corporate rock and a fervently passionate hard place. Season 3 produced a collection of inventive episodes. The Hearts of Darkness documentary, “Pillows and Blankets,” the Law and Order episode, “Digital Estate Planning”; they’re all varying degrees of innovative. While Community didn’t “have more fun and be less weird” like they sarcastically promised, they didn’t have the characters fly to school, either. That sounds like a compromise to me. An accessible, accessible compromise.

Season 4 Episode 9: “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” aka “The Puppet Episode”

“I did see Blue Man Group! I just didn’t get it! Why can’t they talk? They have so much in common!” – Troy Barnes

While Season 4 may have lacked a certain indefinable quality that past seasons possessed, “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” felt like a throwback to the glory days of Season 2. The continued success of more traditional sitcoms like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory might be considered an anathema to a series like Community, but perhaps it’s not. Television needs balance. What would people rage against if there’s no longer a machine? Traditional sitcoms and intricate sitcoms have a mutually beneficial relationship. Without the stability of the former we wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the complexity of the latter. Sometimes viewers don’t want to watch a sitcom that requires the same mental veracity of the LSATs, but occasionally we demand more from our television than twenty minutes of hijinks followed by two minutes of a “chapter read, lesson learned” conclusion.

Community didn’t necessarily eschew the historically rigid network television status quo and thrive, but it politely declined the invitation to adhere to traditional rules and lived to tell about it. Tonight’s episode of Community could be its last, or maybe we’ll be treated to “six seasons and a movie;” I don’t know. Whenever it ends, Community will leave behind a rare legacy of a network television sitcom that felt like it was created by us and written for us. In a medium predicated on isolation, Dan Harmon and company accomplished the unthinkable by creating a televised community we could call home.

Josh Sorokach is a comedy writer living in NYC who was once referred to as a “Poor Man’s Joshua Jackson” while on a date.

A Master’s Degree in Comedy: The Evolution of […]