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Previously…on Outkick the Coverage…
Last week, touching on 30 Rock as our number six comedy of the past 20 years, we discussed a satirical show within a show, something that has been tried and done well, but often tried and failed. Today, we stay within the “within” realm, but in entirely different fashion. We’ve seen plenty of shows about other shows, from Mary Tyler Moore all the way to Studio 60 and The Newsroom, but what we’ve rarely observed is 700 shows within one other show, a 30 minute comedy that took what a program of its ilk is supposed to do and didn’t just break the rules — this show erased them and never wrote any new ones.
NUMBER FIVE: COMMUNITY (2009-2014 NBC, Present Yahoo)
Unlike everything else on this list, including what’s already been revealed and what’s to come over the next month at Outkick, Community is completely unique. It’s never been done the way creator and showrunner Dan Harmon chose to do it. While some shows did their own “it” first and have been duplicated in subsequent years or eras, Community is its own animal entirely. Even though at first glance, from the start, it looks fairly straightforward.
The basic plot revolves around a diverse group of men and women, young and old, attempting to get their associate degrees from Greendale Community College. They form a study group, created out of newly disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger’s (Joel McHale) desire to get close to Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs). Jeff lost his job when it was revealed he had lied about obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Columbia. Winger sets up a fake Spanish study group to spend time with her, but she invites others from the class and there’s the core cast. Okay, sounds decent, but I’ve seen Head of the Class, Welcome Back Kotter, Saved by the Bell, Boy Meets World, and plenty of school-centric comedies before. In terms of a wild variety in the cast, again, nothing particularly shocking there, so the show has its foundation well in hand, but it isn’t groundbreaking. The group is made up of one name, Joel McHale, known for a more sanitized Tosh.0 and some hosting appearances at different events. Another, Donald Glover, wrote alongside Tina Fey and her crew for 30 Rock. A third, Alison Brie, was a relative unknown to most of the country, except for those who saw her role as Trudy Campbell on Mad Men. In 2009, that was a pretty small group. Oh, and kind of out of the blue, but the face that enhanced my curiosity before the pilot, wow, is that Chevy Chase? It is? I guess this means no Funny Farm sequel.
Over the past several days, I’ve rewatched Community from the beginning. While I have seen episodes from Seasons 2, 3, and 5 multiple times, most of Season 1 I hadn’t gone back to in quite some time. The first two episodes of the show do virtually nothing to indicate the direction the show would ultimately go, and, in fact, illustrate that the premise above is the point of Harmon’s story.
To explain Community, one character has to come into focus and the audience must understand both his relevance and importance to the show’s shift to something — almost indescribable, but we’ll try. Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) is the son of a Polish-American and a Palestinian, but before anyone jumps to a conclusion, it has virtually nothing to do with his heritage or his past. What it does have to do with is Abed’s personality, which borders on Asperger Syndrome. In the pilot, while in a foul mood, disbarred lawyer and series protagonist, Jeff Winger (McHale), engages in this brief back and forth with Nadir:
Abed: I thought you were like Bill Murray in any of his films, but you’re more like Michael Douglas in any of his films.
Jeff Winger: Yeah, well you have Aspergers.
For those unfamiliar, Asperger Syndrome (AS) holds similarities to autism respective to emotional response, communication difficulties, and limited but passionate, almost dangerously focused interests. In Abed’s case, he is completely obsessed by pop culture, specifically television and film. I can relate — but I can’t relate. Another key component in AS is a lack of comprehension as it relates to non-verbal cues. In the Community pilot, there’s a scene where all the characters in the study group are using facial and body expressions and when it gets around to Abed, he simply says, “What’s going on?”
Abed speaks in monotone, never raising his voice and always talking in deadpan, and he talks with incredible speed and with no defined rhythm.
But, he’s just one character. Why are you focusing on Abed for such a long time? Well, here’s why: While researching his creation of Abed Nadir, Dan Harmon himself discovered he himself had a form of AS. In WIRED Magazine in 2011, Harmon said he always thought of himself as the Jeff Winger alpha male type, but realized fairly early on as his show took shape that he was much closer to Abed. He’s often described as overly sensitive and prickish (not a word but it’ll do), but some of that is likely due to the flat line of expressed feelings that sometimes accompanies the disorder.
The other reason Abed is so much of the focus of this article is that in addition to Harmon’s own AS self-diagnosis, many have speculated that the entirety of Community can best be viewed as if the audience is watching through the eyes of Abed Nadir. While that’s never been confirmed officially, it’s a fascinating theory, because of what this little show on NBC would become.
Abed Nadir: Will they or won’t they? Sexual tension.
Jeff Winger: Abed, it makes the group uncomfortable when you talk about us like we’re characters in a show you’re watching.
Abed: Well, that’s sort of my gimmick. But we did lean on it pretty hard last week. I can lay low for an episode.
Nadir’s fixation on television and film result in him seeing plotlines from his favorite shows playing out on screen through his actual life. Typically, he would say something to the effect of “This is just like…” and then move on to describe a scene in a comedy or a drama he’s binge watched or remembers. Abed didn’t just see things through sitcom-coated lenses, it’s how he was able to relate to his actual life and try to communicate with people he felt he cared about. He even admits as much in the first season finale.
Sometimes, it would be more blatant, like looking directly into the camera and saying, “to be continued,” at the end of a split episode in Season 3. This self-referential or “breaking the fourth-wall” concept is more commonly known as “meta.” That term is often used incorrectly, but not in the case of our number five comedy show. During the closing credits, the scene would often depict something separate from the episode, several times a fake talk show called “Troy and Abed in the Morning,” where Abed and his best friend, Troy (Donald Glover), would act like Regis and Regis, complete with coffee mugs. Those last minute moments became cult staples.
The best comparison for what Community does would have to be Family Guy, which consistently uses pop culture references and reimagines classic or obscure television, film, comedy, comics, and music to showcase the nonsensical life of the Griffin family and those they encounter in the fictional town of Quahog. However, most of the time those would be shown in flashbacks that were blatant jokes. In Community, the action that takes place would emulate the references, then the references would be made, and the imitation wouldn’t stop. As a matter of fact, in most cases, it would actually become even more prevalent.
Jeff: Who are you kidding, Abed? I just dragged a screaming, crying man out of a library with his pants down. No. Martinis are for Hawkeyes. I’m the same uptight jerk I was last semester.
Abed: Jeff, what’s your favorite episode of M*A*S*H?
Jeff: The one with, uh… the army.
Abed: That’s what I thought. If you’d ever actually seen the show, you’d know that Hawkeye didn’t just bed nurses and drink martinis. He also had blood sprayed on his face and barked orders when the choppers came in. If he didn’t, people died. He was a leader, Jeff. That’s your job. (S1E13)
Community’s cast and their chemistry together from top to bottom would have made it a good show, funny and thoughtful, without much effort. But, where Harmon struck gold was in the evolution of his idea into a series of homages to great pop culture of the past fifty years, with people willing and thrilled to play all of it out on screen with zero ego (sans Chevy Chase, but he still took part in all of it and was great). From Mad Men, where Abed talked like Don Draper to Annie Edison (Brie), who starred in Mad Men at the time, to an entire episode, “Basic Lupine Urology,” that was a 21-minute parody of Law and Order. Incidentally, “Urology” is absolutely awesome.
Harmon’s vision continued to expand, and, all of a sudden, everybody I knew was watching and talking about Community. It wasn’t the show of one-liners; it was the show where every second mattered. It’s a show that can leave an audience confused and lost if they lose concentration on the screen. However, even if you’re lost, it’s still entertaining, always entertaining.
In the 2011 profile, Dan Harmon explains his eight-step algorithm to creating a fictional story and a Community narrative. I highly encourage you to read the entire piece, which can be found at WIRED Harmon Profile. Here’s how he lays it out:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort
2. But they want something
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
4. Adapt to it
5. Get what they wanted
6. Pay a heavy price for it
7. Then return to their familiar situation
8. Having changed
When you read through it, it all makes sense and doesn’t seem at all out of the ordinary. Then comes the Asperger side, where Harmon admits in the profile that he now intently studies each film and television show he watches, searching for his algorithm. He calls each step a separate “embryo” and when writing, if one of the eight steps is missing, the embryo is broken and he begins from scratch.
The first rule of Community is you don’t talk about Community. That’s a Fight Club reference. Abed would have enjoyed it, but found it derivative. It’s hard to write a piece talking about all the wonderful moments in the five seasons, well, let’s be honest, in the four seasons of Community. In Season 4, NBC replaced Dan Harmon with former staff of ABC’s Happy Endings, a strong show in its own right, and the results were not pleasant. It just wasn’t the same show. It seemed like it was trying to be Harmon but without Harmon. It simply didn’t work. Harmon returned to the helm in Season 5 and all immediately became right with the world. Community is the show that broke the mold entirely, building on the Arrested Development brand of “anything goes” and “everything works” ideas to create a universe that required almost continual cognitive dissonance. But we were all so unimaginably blissful in our ignorance. We let Greendale just take us all for a ride.
At times it’s a sitcom, at times it’s almost a drama, but never is it just one thing. It’s a coagulation of humor with analogy and a fusion of pop culture and reality. The Abed character, because of what it allowed Harmon to do, and by proxy what Community could accomplish through him, is one of those special few that should endure for current fans and those who have yet to discover the show. Make no mistake, though it can get heavy at times, it is gut-bustingly funny.
Reinhold: Don’t worry. If there is one thing Germans don’t do, it’s hold a grudge.
Abed: Unless we’re talking about Die Hard 3.
Jeff: Or the 20th century. (S4E4)
It was a ratings flop from the beginning and remained so until NBC canceled it following Season 5. Due to huge demand from the small but vociferous fan base, Yahoo picked it up and Season 6 will air in March of 2015. Early on, Abed Nadir spoke of his hope for “six seasons and a movie” for some of his favorite properties, both what he watched years after it began and things he tuned into from the beginning. That phrase became a Twitter rallying cry and the hashtag, #SixSeasonsAndAMovie, trended several times when the renewal was all but assured following the later seasons. Yahoo provided a “yes” for the first part, but how about the second? Well, while not official, speculation continues to point to a solid possibility of a film to close the series.
Usually, we talk a ton about cast and we haven’t done that too much here — yet. It’s a tremendous group of talented people who all bring (or brought) something different to the classroom and to the library study group. McHale was a perfect choice for Jeff Winger and he has been such a great ambassador and supporter of the show. It’s never been the butt of a joke for him, quite the opposite. When it was canceled, McHale actually said they’d have ended up doing a theater tour to keep it alive because he simply loved it too much to let it go.
Abed: I can tell life from TV, Jeff. TV makes sense. It has structure, logic, rules, and likeable leading men. In life, we have this. We have you. (S2E1)
Gillian Jacobs plays Britta Perry, and yes, Winger’s eye is good, she’s beautiful, but she’s a feminist and an activist and a former criminal and an abject nut job. Donald Glover left in Season 5 as his alter ego, Childish Gambino, became his primary concern. As former high school football star Troy Barnes, he was Abed’s partner in crime and the two were more extensions of their counterpart than they were just best friends. He also had a major love of pop culture. He will likely appear in at least some of Season 6, or perhaps in the movie. Yvette Nicole Brown, a devoted pop culture enthusiast known for an obsession with The Walking Dead, plays the middle-aged Shirley Bennett, a moral, religious, single mother who served in stark contrast to everyone else, except sometimes for Annie Edison. Alison Brie plays the uptight, naÃ¯ve, must make A’s to change the world type that we all knew in high school and college and probably joked about, then asked for a job ten years later. If some of this sounds like The Breakfast Club, pat yourself on the back. Abed makes that connection in the pilot and in character archetypes, there’s some fire behind all that smoke.
Annie: Our library’s back door conundrum.
Abed: Sounds like a porno with Kate Winslet. (S1E14)
Chevy Chase, who left the show after a widely publicized fight with Dan Harmon, was excellent as the wealthy and eccentric Pierce Hawthorne, a racist, sexist, clueless guy who in truth was lonely and simply wanted people to like him and to respect him. Following his departure, the “Chevy Chase is a pompous, unbearable asshole” club grew to include most who worked with him on Community. Those are additions to anyone who dealt with him on Saturday Night Live, on the Chevy Chase Show, and virtually anywhere else he’s ever worked. In short, and you can look it up with almost no effort, Chevy Chase has long been a dick, or that’s the wide perception.
Abed: [opens present] It’s the first season of Lost on DVD.
Pierce: That’s the meaning of Christmas?
Abed: It’s a metaphor. It represents lack of payoff.
Abed: The meaning of Christmas is that we give it meaning. To me, it used to mean being with my mom. Now, I guess it means being with you guys. Thanks, Lost. (S2E11)
Writer, director, and actor Jim Rash is Dean Craig Pelton, who has a very unhealthy love of Jeff Winger, perhaps lust is the better word, and is known for outlandish costumes and an extremely effeminate manner. Then there’s Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and Senor Ben Chang, the Spanish teacher/conniving antagonist/aspiring Dictator that deserves his own article. At times, Community focused too much on Chang and it became overkill, but when it worked, it was stunningly effective.
And finally, of the main cast, we get to the focus of much of this article, Abed Nadir. With the exception of Jim Parsons, who delivers extremely difficult dialogue with precision and flawless timing on The Big Bang Theory, nobody has had a more difficult job in this generation of network comedy than Danny Pudi. To his immense credit, not once does it come across like it was a challenge. Pudi hits a grand slam every single time and only during a second watch or with time to think about and process what you just watched does it hit home: Damn is this guy good. That role is so hard to play, requires and demands so much of Danny as a performer, and the performance looks effortless. It’s almost unfair how good he is at it, because it’s really not Danny Pudi, the baseball fan and the guy you’d probably like to hang out with or just chat with for a while.
Abed: When you guys first came in, we were as wholesome as the family in the Brady Bunch. Now we’re as dysfunctional and incestuous as the cast of the Brady Bunch.
Shirley: I agree with Abed. This is getting creepy.
Annie: No more creepy than when Jeff wears tight jeans and you say, “I’d like to slap those buns on the grill!”
Shirley: First of all, I don’t talk like that, and second of all where I’m from it’s perfectly normal for women to talk about their male friends’ backsides. You don’t see me saying anything about Abed and Troy’s weird little relationship.
Abed/Troy: They’re just jealous. (S1E15)
The show has gotten almost no major award love, mainly because so few people actually watched it and the reliance or references to nerd-culture or niche items like Dungeons and Dragons (which resulted in one of the finest episodes not just of Community, but of comedy period in the last 20 years), puppets, paintball (two amazing episodes here), Doctor Who (Inspector Spacetime), The Right Stuff, M*A*S*H, spaghetti westerns, Batman, Who’s the Boss, and so many other strange tidbits probably just flew over the head of the voters. While Downton Abbey has been racking up hardware, Community has been racking up cool points. That’s about as accurate a description as is available to explain how the program has been on for five years, delighting a vast majority of critics, but never making a dent in the mainstream or on the red carpet. In this case, it’s less a disappointment than it is expected. It doesn’t matter that Community isn’t highly decorated. We all just know it’s fantastic. That’s enough.
NBC did a horrendous, almost non-existent job in advertising the show or acting as if they cared whether it was on the schedule or not. Despite those shortcomings, Community is going to be with us forever. Six seasons when it felt like three might be the ceiling. Six seasons when the creator and lifeblood of the show was fired after the fourth year. Six seasons when NBC brought it back and burned it off, then quietly axed it. Six seasons because Yahoo offered Harmon a chance to keep it going on their new Yahoo Screen technology and finally, because, as Harmon himself described it at last year’s Comic Con:
Yahoo called me and they seemed really smart and cool. I thought – I cannot be the one to not do this.
And, Dan, as a result of your unflinching vision and your willingness to risk it all every week to tell the story you wanted, outside of the network that seemed merely to tolerate your show, as a result of your amazing cast, almost all extremely likable on and off screen, and as a result of something truly unique on a medium that can fall into extreme malaise, particularly in comedy — as a result of all of that.
You’re number five bro. And that’s, in the words of Abed, “cool cool cool cool cool.”
All five current seasons of Community are available on Hulu and the sixth season will begin in March, exclusively on the new Yahoo Screen streaming service. You’ve got time to catch up.
Follow me @GuyNamedJason on Twitter. We’ll talk, about current events, Ansel Adams, coffee, daughters…you know, no big whoop.