An interview with the dean of “Community”

Dan Harmon, the hit sitcom's creator, talks to Salon about comedy, agony, paintball, "The Simpsons" and "Glee"

Topics: Community,

An interview with the dean of "Community""Community" creator Dan Harmon (l) and castmembers Alison Brie and Danny Pudi (Credit: AP/Matt Sayles, NBC)

NBC’s “Community” (Thursdays, 8 p.m./7 Central) is one of the most deceptively light shows on network television — a seeming spoof of pop culture and pop obsessives that’s as densely imagined as the world of “The Simpsons,” and that has a lot more on its mind than movie and TV quotes and self-referential devices. 

Last week I interviewed the show’s creator, Dan Harmon. Our wide-ranging conversation covered many of the expected areas: his sense of humor, his influences, behind-the-scenes production anecdotes, and hints of episodes to come. But it also delved into more elusive and heady issues: the role of pain and humiliation in comedy; the question of how self-referential a show can get without destroying our ability to sympathize with its characters; and the influence of “The Simpsons” and — yes, really — “Gilligan’s Island” on “Community.” It’s also the only interview I’ve ever done with a TV showrunner who casually dropped the word “vestigial.”

Now that we’ve waded into the show’s third season, I wanted to ask you what sort of reaction Season 2 got from the show’s fans. This series is closely watched and obsessively scrutinized.

I guess my perspective on fan reaction is distorted because I don’t scour the Internet for objective appraisals of the show. I pretty much sit on Twitter, which is about 99 percent positive emotional energy slung at you by fans in 140-character bursts. That’s why it feels secure to me, because it balances my self-loathing and fear. I can kind of work in a vacuum. To me the reaction to the second season is about the same as [Season 1], which is people saying “It’s great,” mainly, and one guy per month going, “You’re fat!” and “Your show is stupid!”

If you were asked, “How much of a spoof is this show, or how serious is it?” would you even have an answer?



I don’t suppose I would. It’s not really a spoof of the sitcom format, I guess, because the sitcom format is being as much honored and appreciated by the show as it is sometimes rattled by the show’s energy. If there is a consciousness drawn to the frame around the show, it’s never to suggest that the frame shouldn’t be there. It’s always just making use of the medium. There are a lot of nice things that the format can do for you as a storyteller. I don’t know — the canvas, its paint swirls outward, and then sort of blends with the the frame, and makes it easier for me to accept that this is a two-dimensional thing hanging on the wall.

You guessed it correctly — my answer is boring and pretentious!

Well, not necessarily, though. While rewatching Season 2 in preparation for this interview, I was struck by how in the second season, you seemed to push further and further and further into a kind of self-conscious, metafictional, at times almost abstract kind of direction. And yet it still seemed very sincere. There were moments where I thought, “There is no possible way I can feel anything for these people, because what’s happening has no weight,” then I found myself getting a little choked up at times. It’s strange, that dynamic.

That’s exactly — well, I shouldn’t say the intention, but it’s certainly what I hope will be the case when I’m driving to work. I am constantly assuring people that that can be the case, so they’ll trust me and stuff.

I grew up watching TV. Saying something is TV is like saying it’s a sonnet or a haiku. It’s got its rules, and those rules, when obeyed, are part of what makes the thing beautiful. You use it to communicate to someone. If you say, “This is a sonnet I wrote for you,” then you better not give them a limerick. If you say, “This is a limerick that I wrote for you,” you’re using that medium. This is a sitcom for everybody, and it’s through that medium, the sitcom, that I’m saying, “This is what humanity has been to me, for 38 years.” So yeah, you’re seeing something that is supposed to be kind of alienating and snarky, yet there’s this weird guy behind it all who is saying, “This is how I am communicating with you.” That’s why the show is neither spoof nor humble servant to its medium.

I did “Heat Vision and Jack” in 1999 with Rob Schrab, and that was us going, “We love ‘Knight Rider.’” But a spoof? That’s why we have that word “homage.” Homage means you’re actually worshiping something and obeying it. It can easily be taken as satire, but it’s not satirical.

There’s also a sense in which nothing that happens on this show is quote-unquote “real.” The community college where the action takes place obviously doesn’t bear any relation to any community college that has ever existed. A friend of mine was trying to explain to somebody who didn’t like or get the show and found the whole thing totally ridiculous what he believed the show was. And he said, “It’s really science fiction.” This college is real in the way that the island was real on “Gilligan’s Island.”

Right!

Which is to say, it’s not.

That’s a perfect example, “Gilligan’s Island.” Because here’s the thing: We could talk about whether or not the “Cheers” bar was a realistic depiction of a bar, and everybody would understand the difference between TV and reality in that respect, because even the characters’ hair looks nice, and a bar seems like a nice place to be. But then you talk about “Gilligan’s Island” versus reality, and people are turning invisible, and people are swimming in fast motion because they’re trying to get off the island, and reality itself is kind of being disregarded because they’re on Gilligan’s island.

That’s one of the greatest examples of a show that had to create its own system of physics to tether the audience to. The key to its success is the cleanliness [of the writing of] the characters. Mr. Howell was always Mr. Howell, and he was always Mr. Howell in relation to the Skipper, and the Skipper was always the Skipper in relation to Gilligan. So this crystalline pattern is there that you can always, always rely on, just as you could always rely on Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” characters and Jim Henson’s Muppet characters.

There was a “Cheers” board game that I saw in a Toys R Us once. It made me realize, “Holy shit — if your characters are really, really clean, if you start with cartoons, with icons, the relationships between them become so real, through the dependable cause/effect science of, ‘If I say something mean to you, your feelings are hurt.’”

Yes.

Ginger can hurt Gilligan’s feelings, she can make him feel like a terrible person, and those can be the stakes of an episode. And not only can you do real stories then, in a wacky environment, it makes a statement if you do it in such profound contrast. You find yourself thinking, as you said earlier, “I know I’m not supposed to believe this, and yet I do.” You’re not supposed to believe that Peter Pan is coming in this window and saying, “Come to this place,” but you do. The emotional gravity can tether you, and reality can be a balloon. It’s pretty nuts.

What you’re talking about reminds me of when I was a kid and I would play with stuffed animals or action figures or Tonka Trucks, and imbue them with personalities and have them talk.

Yes.

I might have them be really, strongly at odds with one another, and I would really be feeling it, to the point where it almost became like my own little kid version of acting. That quality of almost-anthropomorphism is there in these characters from “Community.” There are times when I almost feel like you could be doing it as an animated show. It strongly reminds me of early “Simpsons” episodes. That running gag on “The Simpsons” where they won’t tell you where Springfield is. It somehow has mountains and a beach. There’s a canyon there, too. And you just accept it.

That’s exactly the case with Greendale, by the way. It is technically part of the canon that they’re in Colorado somewhere, if I’m not mistaken. The reason for that is, sometimes on-screen you’ll see like, a driver’s license, and because it has to be from a state, we decided to use the state of Colorado, which is just my code for “in the middle of somewhere.”

But I learned from “The Simpsons” to keep that kind of thing somewhat vague. Where is Greendale? It’s down the street from your house. Why put it anywhere more specific? That’s from “The Simpsons.” And those characters being dependable, growing the universe outward from a simple family … and of course, the timing of the comedy! You had these really great Harvard Lampoon writers who were suddenly unshackled to write setups and punch lines and deliver them with scientific precision, because the characters were being drawn for them. There’s a whole generation of comedy writers that’s basing its sense of timing on that one animated show.

There were times in the second season when it seemed as though you were pushing into more serious territory. Philosophical and at times almost cosmological territory. My favorite was probably the “Pulp Fiction” episode. But I was rewatching the two paintball episodes — “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More” — that ended Season 2, and those seemed to have some of those qualities, too.

A ll the other flights of fancy on the other somewhat experimental episodes are anchored to something tangible — it’s a fantasy, it’s a reflection of one character’s internal state, what have you. But there is no rational, scientific explanation for why, in those two episodes, the “Community” universe has totally changed and the show has suddenly become a hard-edged action movie, or why there’s a super-villain in an ice cream cone costume giving the orders to attack the heroes. And at a certain point you’re like, “Why is he still wearing the suit?” It started out as a disguise, but after a certain point he doesn’t have to wear a disguise anymore. But he’s still wearing it!

[Laughs] Right! He chooses to keep wearing the suit. That’s the funny thing about people on TV — they can kind of choose to be insane, because it helps them to create an insane reality.

You almost got into Luigi Pirandello territory with the “Pulp Fiction” episode. And in the paintball episodes, there were some pretty profound personal issues being worked out between Chevy Chase’s character, Pierce Hawthorne, and the other characters in the study group, and the working-out just happened to occur in this kind of skewed universe that was like a spaghetti western in the first episode and a sci-fi war movie in the second.

Well, it’s definitely not that way because I ever come to work in the morning thinking, “I want to do an episode of television that changes the way people think or feel about everything!” I take my job as a pacifier of an existing society very seriously. I first want to make people comfortable and entertained. I don’t want to subvert their consciousness at all.

But then what happens is, stories are about people changing. They are about people realizing things and revealing things to each other. That has to feel a little profound, relative to the characters. So what we end up doing is taking our job as storytellers seriously, and saying [to each other], “This should feel as if something new is happening to this character.”

In order to do that with a character like Abed, who is so smart — and so on-the-same-level as the writers, and perhaps in some ways above them — now you have to become cosmological, because it’s the only way to tell a story in which a character like Abed becomes revelatory.

It’s just us trying to mine our salt. Sometimes it takes on an artistic air by definition.

Role-playing seems to be a very important aspect of all the episodes to some degree. Oftentimes, during the regular course of business in any given episode, the characters will be asked to pretend to be something that they would not otherwise think of themselves as being. And the upshot of that is, you get to see the actors try on different personas. In the “Pulp Fiction” episode, there were a couple of points where Danny Pudi actually seemed to be channeling Andre Gregory’s performance in “My Dinner With Andre,” while at the same time remaining recognizably Abed.

Yeah! And that’s really interesting to see.

That’s the one Emmy snub that hurt the hardest. I’m pretty sure we submitted that episode hoping that Danny would be considered for supporting actor.

You’d probably have to be a pretty hardcore fan of the show to even know this, but that performance is not just about Abed putting on a mask and being good at doing an imitation for the length of an episode. In that episode, you can actually track, by percentages, the changes, and see that by the middle of the episode he’s starting to be about 50 percent Abed and 50 percent Andre Gregory. And then you see him be 70 percent, and then 90 percent, and then suddenly 0 percent Andre Gregory! That’s pretty astounding to watch.

It is. And I think viewers are so knocked out by what’s happening with Abed that they may not notice that something similarly deep is happening to Joel McHale’s character, Jeff Winger, at that dinner. He discloses a level of insecurity and self-loathing to Abed that’s rather alarming.

We agonized over that. Well, I shouldn’t say agonized, because that’s the wonderful thing about story structure — you know there’s always an answer to any problem you have, and once you find it, it kind of relieves the pressure from you. But it could be backbreaking work, trying to figure out the criss-cross at that dinner table. I think we did a good job of finding that [moment for Jeff].

But more important, we were sending [pages] down to that set, and I don’t know how [the director] Richard Ayoade and Joel McHale and Danny Pudi — the three-member team that was at the center of that episode — managed to operate almost completely independently of the writers who were writing Abed’s “Cougar Town” monologue a thousand yards away in a stinky room.

Richard and I communicated a lot before he started shooting, and a little bit afterward. But during, he was just making one piece of this thing. He and Joel and Danny Pudi really saved my bacon on that episode.

Are there any rules that absolutely have to be observed during the writing of an episode, or any lines that cannot be crossed? Or is anything fair game?

In point of fact, we often stumble across things. We will realize all of a sudden that we’ve been thinking in terms of rules, and we take that opportunity to stop, during that moment, and ask ourselves why those things are rules.

I hope the statute of limitations on offending people has run out on this, because I need to give a particular example, which is that the first season’s paintball episode was the end result of a conversation that began with a thought experiment asking the very question that you just asked me.

I said, “Take the top no-no. Is it possible to do a Columbine episode? Is it possible to have shootings in a school? Is there a way to get away with that without offending anybody?” And then somebody said, “Well, paintball would be an example.” The thought experiment ended there, but that’s where the question led us. That conversation led there.

I think those conversations are important from a Norman Lear perspective, too, because a lot of the stuff you’re not allowed to do, doing maybe 20 percent of it might lead to some kind of social revelation or something, I don’t know.

Again, that’s not our job. But, I think that you have to ask yourself what the rules are, and why they’re there, in order to shore the ones up that are important, and get rid of the ones that have become vestigial.

Might one of those rules be that characters in a comedy cannot suffer too much real, extreme physical pain?

I don’t think that’s an unbreakable rule.

There is a school of thought that says that agony is the enemy of light comedy.

There is something behind the statement you’re suggesting that is absolutely true. We don’t want to just watch pain and feel like we’re just watching it. But the fact that we don’t want to watch pain means that we need to turn away from it, which in turn means that energy could be tapped into, and somehow manipulated to make you believe that a character is real.

When Dick van Dyke comes into his living room and flips over the ottoman, we don’t call that pain anymore. But there was a time when people tripping on shit and falling down was an easy way to make people laugh. They’re falling down and scraping their knee and stuff — it became a comedic device. It became slapstick. You can make the audience like a character by having them be clumsy, because we have all been in situations beyond our control, and you can identify with a character who’s hurting, who’s getting dumped for no reason, or smacking their head on a doorway, or tripping in front of the president.

But if you’re talking about waterboarding, or having a character have nails driven through his skin, how can you turn that into comic gold? I’m not sure that you can. But you never know.

Have there been any ideas for episodes that were abandoned because they were either too complicated in terms of their imagining, or too expensive to stage?

That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that before.

I thought of this while watching the paintball episodes, where it looked as though you covered your whole existing set in these Jackson Pollock paint splatters. Also the “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” episode, which was stop-motion animated, a very different type of production from what you usually do.

Yeah — that kind of stuff is totally expensive.

I’m trying to think of something we thought of, only to realize, “We can’t do that until we have more resources.” The only thing I can think of is to do a “Glee” type of episode, and be able to do it sufficiently, including doing these outrageously expensive, real pop music covers. We could never get that done. They have a machine over there [at "Glee"] that is designed to succeed at that. And we could never do it. If I thought I could wave a magic wand and do an episode that was kind of like what they do on “Glee,” I’m one of the many people in this town that would immediately do it.

Have you ever considered something like that? In the flashbacks-that-weren’t-really-flashbacks episode, there was a musical interlude that I liked pretty well, and that I hoped would go on longer than it did.

Well, I may have a little surprise for you this year. You never know.

Are you talking about the musical bit that opened the Season 3 premiere? Or do you have something more elaborate planned down the line?

Something else planned down the line.

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