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In the saga of Community, a comedy show created by Dan Harmon in 2009, there have been many twists and turns. Never a ratings juggernaut, NBC threatened to cancel Community and then didn’t cancel Community. Then it fired Dan Harmon for a season and rehired him for the next. Chevy Chase left the show, then Donald Glover left the show, then Yvette Nicole Brown left the show. NBC finally cancelled Community, only to have Yahoo! save it for a sixth season. That sixth season premieres today. In the time since the show began, Community has built a devoted fanbase, and Harmon has become a cult celebrity in his own right, sparking a hit podcast and a documentary. Vulture spoke to Harmon from Austin, Texas, about what to expect from this new incarnation of the show, writing for new characters, and his feelings about network TV.
How’s SXSW going?
It’s good. It looks like a hotel right now.
Do you like being there, or do you find it stressful?
I find it pretty not stressful. Everything’s pretty controlled. I guess I find regular life pretty stressful and don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, but when I have an itinerary, it makes things a little easier.
Are there any striking differences between the NBC version of Community and this new Yahoo version?
I think the big crucial difference — that it turns out I was a big liar about — is that the runtime is going to be flexible. I swore up and down before I started this season that I would keep it at that tight 20-minute mark so it would feel exactly like the NBC show and nobody would freak out. But then I’m in the editing bay, and I realize I don’t have to kill one of my jokes if I don’t want to, and some of the runtimes changed.
Was it tempting to go off the rails more than you could on a network, or did you like sticking with the same parameters?
I mean, the show has its own built-in tone. If Annie starts acting too differently, then you’re going to be upsetting people. And so the show has this sort of umbrella personality to it. Greendale has a personality, Greendale has a pace.
Was Yahoo restrictive at all in terms of content, or were they generally hands-off?
I’ve had different conversations with different people about that. I’ve heard people higher up at Yahoo describe their margins as a “soft R rating,” but I’ve heard those same people express surprise at what that really means. We’re all doing things for the first time over there. At certain table reads, someone would come up and say, “Well, that joke in particular kinda makes it seem … uh … we think it might be good to …” you know. And I say, yeah you’re right. If someone’s doing drugs on the show, we probably shouldn’t leave the random viewer the impression that you’re allowed to just stuff any random substance into your body. It’s kind of funny because these regulations aren’t being imposed on us by an industry anymore, we’re out in the middle of this field, but we’re immediately finding these rules on our own anyway.
Was producing the show a totally different experience this time around?
Oh, it was 180 degrees different. You’re working for a company that bothered to buy the show, where at NBC, it was was always the problem child. There was a clear, sometimes even spoken feeling about Community at NBC after year one that it was a show that they wanted to either “solve” or get rid of. So at the time, I was going to work everyday at a place where my passion, my best-case scenario, my blue sky, was someone else’s definition of a huge burden. That emotional toxin is going to get into your system and affect everything. So now this is all different. But what I’m finding is my anxiety level is exactly the same, so clearly I’m addicted to a certain amount of self-loathing and anxiety. But because Yahoo is so supportive of the show, I have to admit that my anxiety is now more about whether or not I’m going to let them down.
Maybe Community just has an anxiety trigger for you that immediately sets off no matter what the context.
Yeah, because the show is difficult to do and has never — we’ve never gotten big accolades, or the ratings in the outside world, so to speak, unless you count the fans. And that sounds like I’m complaining. I’m not. But because of all this, we had to adopt a religion that the show was this god, where you could be canceled any day and you should put everything you have into this. I think it has become a strange cult.
You’ve said you could see yourself making three more seasons of the show after this.
Yeah, I do feel this tremendous sense of obligation to the show’s universe, to the audience. But let’s all watch this season, and at the end, we’ll all be able to go, “Yeah, that sucked.” Or, “You know what? You really screwed up one huge, major thing when you moved to Yahoo, but on the other hand, you made these other things possible.” Whatever the mandate is I think will be very clear by the end of this season.
So in the new season, there’s a major new character in Frankie, played by Paget Brewster. She seems to represent a sort of rule-abiding life, like she’s monitoring the standards and practices for the show.
She’s a very practical person, and Greendale’s not a practical place. So that’s what defines her. The key with her, though, is that she is very accepting of problems. She likes solving them. She will lean into them and prides herself on being a person that solves problems. And that makes her an interesting new voice for me to be able to speak in, because I would get tired [of] writing somebody who reacts to everything Greendale throws at them, like, “This is stupid, this is crazy.” I’d rather write for someone who is reacting to the insanity of life in as positive a way as possible.
Did Brewster audition, or did you offer it to her?
Somebody brought up her name in the room because we were having a conversation about how to suffer the vacuum that was being left behind by Yvette [Nicole Brown, who left the show after last season], and more importantly, the overall feeling of entropy that can sink in when you start with seven people, and now there’s no ignoring the fact that only four of those original seven are left. So how do you combat that? Of course what we can’t do is sew some appendage on and try to convince the characters in the show or the viewer: Yes, that’s your hand, I know it looks like a mitten with a meatloaf in it, but it’s your hand. Because then they’ll say, Well, why can’t I feel it, and why can’t I move it? So it’s about accepting that our body has changed. So then we ask, well, who are the machines out there? Who are the tanks that are going to get the job done? What if we stop thinking of casting as the end result of some narrative artistry, and what if we just simply pick actors that we want to write for and go out and get them, and add them to our sports team? In a world where you lost Brett Favre, Green Bay can still feel like the Packers care. They’re drafting people that are good, and they want the Packers to win.
Do you think it’s still possible for original comedy to exist on network TV? If you had to do it again, would you start Community on cable or a streaming service?
Well, the good news is that we live in a world where we don’t need networks anymore. But there’s also the other side of it, where you look over at Fox and you see The Last Man on Earth. And it wasn’t like there had been some big game-changer at Fox where someone got fired and all of a sudden you had this great show, Fox just heard that idea and thought, What are we doing? If we don’t start doing stuff that feels a little off to us, then we’re just going to keep going through this pattern where we keep doing stuff that doesn’t feel a little off and everyone else is doing stuff that feels a little off, and we’re going to go away.
But broadcast networks still have a huge advantage in the comedy world. All the comedy writers still fantasize about having a network show, so they will be willing to collaborate and work just so they can achieve a childhood dream. Plus with networks, you get to have the best people in props, wardrobe, lighting the scene. People will continue to thirst for quality, and nobody is in a better position to give that than broadcast TV.
Hopefully they will try to find a balance between doing the fun, weird, new comedy thing and doing the old, less exciting comedy things.
Yeah, I don’t know what conversations are happening at broadcast networks, but we’ve got to stop letting things live or die based on Nielsen numbers because it’s absolutely ridiculous. You cannot continue to say this comedy show that you can watch on your wristwatch, six episodes at a time, whenever you feel like, like this thing is “failing” because not as many people watched it on Tuesday night at 7:30 as watched the reveal of Who Gets to Marry a Murderer.
That’s a great show.
Is it called Who Gets to Marry a Murderer?
Yeah, I think that’s it. I read that you and Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz are hoping to work together on something. Is that on the horizon?
We keep threatening to do it. Every time we get together, we talk about this one project we really want to do. I think if he and I did it, we could actually pull it off, and it feels like something we could never do until the world switched to this binge-watching era. It’s something we’d be really excited to work on.