By Sam Thielman
(EDITOR'S NOTE: On the occasion of "Community"'s post-Dan-Harmon relaunch, Ad Week's Sam Thielman penned this wonderful appreciation of the first three seasons of the show. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. -- Isaac)
“Community,” at the beginning of its life, wasn’t much more than a weird little number written by Dan Harmon, a guy who’d been fired off “The Sarah Silverman Program,” which he co-created, and who was using his buddy Dino Stamatopoulos as a consulting producer/writer/bit player. To be fair, it is a hell of a pilot—witty; just sentimental enough; filled with clearly delineated characters played by worthwhile actors, one an aging movie star (Chevy Chase) and another a likable “Daily Show” comedian (John Oliver), giving it multigenerational appeal. It makes sense to greenlight it, if you ignore the simmering creative tension on the production side.
“Community” is about seven friends at Greendale Community College in Colorado, where each of them has landed by dint of some terrible mistake. Jeff (Joel McHale) is a lawyer who’s been caught with a fake bachelor’s degree; Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is an ultra-PC anti-everything activist who has realized at 28 that she doesn’t have any skills; Pierce (Chase) is a disagreeable, middle-aged, heedlessly rich septuple divorcé with no friends; Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is a fortysomething housewife abandoned by her husband who wants to sell brownies on the internet; Annie (Alison Brie) is an honor student who had a psychotic break her senior year after getting addicted to Adderall; Troy (Donald Glover) is her former classmate, a football star who ended his sports career in an accidentally-on-purpose “keg flip” mishap; and Abed… Abed (Danny Pudi) suffers from Asperger’s and copes with the world by pretending he’s in a television show. Which, of course, he is.
There’s so much to say about “Community” that most of its evangelists make the mistake of skipping over the obvious: it is hilariously funny. In three seasons, there is not a bad episode, though some are stronger than others. The show’s writing staff is very, very gifted, especially Harmon, Chris McKenna and Megan Ganz, and when the writers craft a rare dud joke, it turns out the cast are both so individually talented and so good with each other that they can make it work on two or three other levels. When the writers and the actors are all hitting their marks together—as is usually the case—it’s stunning. My favorite example of this is near the end of season 1, when Abed has decided that he and Troy (now his best friend) need to have the college experience they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. They walk by the rest of the group to inform them that they’re being hazed by a fraternity they have no hope of pledging. “They’re making us walk around with pretzels in our butts,” Troy explains embarrassedly, “and I put mustard on mine like an idiot.” It’s a great line, but it’s ten times funnier with the combination of Donald Glover’s delivery—the “GOD I locked my keys in the car again” way he explains his decision to put mustard on the pretzel—and the look on Alison Brie’s foregrounded face, as she goes rapidly through what look like the five stages of grief over Troy’s terrible, terrible mistake. That, and the running gag that Troy likes butt stuff.
A lot has been made of the show’s condensation of various movie genre formulae into 22-minute comedies—there’s a gangster episode, a heist episode, a Western episode, a few very inventive sci-fi episodes, and so on–but what strikes me more than anything about “Community” is that it appears to have consumed and most of the films of the “Disney Renaissance” (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin”) and metabolized them into something altogether new and weird and excellent. Everyone in this show, after all, would have grown up on those films, and would probably be reaching exactly the moment when they discover that life is not going to turn out like a Disney movie. This—for many young people, I’d hazard—creates something of a quandary. Are your emotions really worth anything if they’re about getting turned down by the cute guy in your Spanish class or fighting with your best friend, and not about monsters and demons and long-lost loves? Is your entire life bathetic by comparison to children’s fiction?
“Community” solves this problem by keeping the structure and tropes of kids’ movies—the handsome prince, the self-discovery, the triumphs over insurmountable odds—and radically reducing the scale. At one point, Abed teaches the rat in his Environmental Science class to respond to a song—the rat escapes, of course, and Troy won’t help him get it back, because he’s terrified of rats (“I’m not afraid. I choose not be around rats because they are unpopular. Same goes for centipedes and lakes”). Meanwhile, Shirley has trouble with stage fright in her public speaking class, the psychotic Spanish teacher, Senor Chang, enters a crippling depression over failed marriage, and Jeff struggles with whether or not to betray his friends for a good grade in Chang’s class.
None of this, frankly, is that interesting on paper, but the reason “Community” is both a gorgeous, well-wrought, hugely satisfying show and also a borderline flop is that it is zero concept and 100% execution. That is also the reason it will probably get canceled—it just doesn’t sound very good. In practice, it’s not just good, it’s transcendent: Abed has named his rat Fievel, of course, and has taught the rat to respond to the Grammy-winning love theme from “An American Tail,” so the episode resolves in a montage of Shirley overcoming stage fright, Chang reuniting with his wife, Jeff deciding to help his friends at his own expense, and Abed singing “Somewhere Out There” over the whole thing… with Troy returning to help him just in time to come in on the duet. Against all odds and penetrating every protective layer of irony, it is a heartwarming moment. This is a show that triple-dog-dares you not to take it seriously.
“Community” has the distinction—and this is one of the ways in which it is like “The Simpsons,” to which it is frequently compared—of trying to tell as many different kinds of stories as possible. Sometimes they’re stories about Chang (the incredible Ken Jeong, whose character is no longer a Spanish teacher but is still psychotic), or about the hypercaffeinated Dean Pelton (an equally great Jim Rash), who is described, accurately, in the third season as a “pansexual imp.” Sometimes the episodes swan dive majestically off the deep end and take place in parallel universes or as clip shows of episodes that never happened or even, memorably, as one of the more compelling characters’ claymation hallucinations of the Christmas season.
About that last one—the stop-motion episode occurs halfway through the second season, and it offers a rare window into the show’s direct ancestors. It’s in the credits: one of the writers is Stamatopoulos.
Stamatopoulos will probably be lost to television history as the guy who plays “Starburns,” a student at Greendale who shaves both his sideburns into the shape of a star in an effort to give himself some kind of identity (in this, he fails miserably), but he has another, much greater achievement to his name. Stamatopoulos created “Moral Orel,” arguably the darkest and most twisted show to ever appear on television, seriously, ever. It was a sort of cross between the old United Lutheran Church-produced “Davey and Goliath” claymation shorts and a Todd Solondz movie, taking place in a Christian community called, appropriately, Moralton, which is in the exact center of the U.S. in a state called Statesota. The town’s church is in the exact center of Moralton, which is, naturally, populated by the most unspeakable hypocrites and creeps you can imagine and some you can’t. It’s a comedy about crushing, murderous depression and all the horrible things people do to be happy, and it is consummately worth watching (advice from Moralton’s priest to an unfaithful husband: “Just say two It Wasn’t Mes and three I Blame My Fathers. You’ll be fine”) for as long as you can stand it, which will probably not be long. The show aired on Adult Swim, where Standards and Practices objected to it. Let that sink in: a producer on an NBC sitcom pilot ran into trouble with Standards and Practices on Adult Swim, and the pilot got picked up. It is something that could literally only have happened on blink-and-you-missed-him NBC executive Ben Silverman’s watch.
Every time Abed meets his evil twin in his imagination, every time we see Chang talking about his day to his new wife the mannequin leg, every time Annie throws a tantrum so horrible that Jeff tells her she’s acting like a little schoolgirl (“and not in a sexy way!”), you get the sense that Stamatopoulos is, if not behind those moments necessarily, amping them up in some way. It is comedy made by and for broken people.
A lot has been said about the show’s heart; it’s all very true. What’s also true, and less reassuring from a devotee’s perspective but somehow very comforting indeed in aesthetic terms, is that there’s a willingness among these writers to tear that heart out and eat it in front of the audience just to prove they’re not full of shit. It’s a quality only the very best TV comedies - “Seinfeld,” “Da Ali G Show,” “Arrested Development,” “Futurama” - have in any real measure, and it’s what gives me hope that the show will not merely survive without getting canceled, but will thrive. Stamatopoulos, along with Harmon, is gone from the program as of the end of the last season. Much as I love both of them, I don’t think their absence from the show will be fatal. I do think it will be nicer, gentler, and less troubling, and maybe that’s an unforgivable tragedy, but maybe it’s not.
You’d have to have been pretty blind to the show’s progress over the last three seasons not to see that it was on a deeply serious, potentially fatal trajectory, largely at Harmon’s behest. Granted, that’s part of the show’s genius: the climactic final episode of season 1 appeared to leave absolutely no room for the writing team to move, and yet the second season is arguably the show’s strongest because Harmon manages to set up a dichotomy—will Jeff and Britta or won’t they?—and then totally ignores it for the rest of the show to no ill effect. As he raises the stakes in season 3 and the show gets crazier and crazier, however, it’s hard for him to keep it grounded in emotions that the audience might on some level share with the characters, and wherever Harmon was going to eventually end up might not necessarily have been a better place than whatever neutering effect the show’s fans—me among them—feel NBC will have on it. Here’s the thing, though: at least whatever Harmon ended up doing would have been unusual.
So if we’re going to mourn—and having seen the first two totally acceptable episodes, I think we are, a little bit—it’s probably not the show we should be crying for, but the mean, angry, hurt, unhappy part of it; that maybe-it’s-not-really-a-joke that perfectly mirrors the smoldering pain good comedy quenches. Oddly, it’s an agony that just radiates off the show’s main character, Jeff, and it seems appropriate to close with a few of the very best lines in the series—a moment that cuts so close to the bone it makes you gasp a little bit. He’s at dinner with Abed, who’s acting friendly and relatable and indicates that he’d like to have an adult conversation, and so, right before it turns out that the whole setup is merely Abed’s riff on “My Dinner With Andre,” Jeff hits him with this: “…And I said, ‘No, that’s a girl’s costume!’ And my mom said, ‘It’s fine! Indian boys have long hair and braids, too!’ There was only 45 minutes left to trick-or-treat, so what could I do? I put the damn thing on, and I went door-to-door. And everyone was going, ‘Oh, what a pretty little girl.’ And by the third house…I stopped correcting them. I mean, why draw attention to it? And, honestly, once the shame and the fear wore off…I was just glad they thought I was pretty.”
Laugh, you bastards.