"Community" botches damage control

A leaked memo reveals Sony's social-media blunder -- and its belief that the cast and fans are easily herded

Published May 24, 2012 4:00PM (EDT)

Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs in "Community."
Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs in "Community."

It's adorable the way Old Media keeps forgetting that we live in the age of transparency. Hey, Sony Pictures Television, your metaphoric fly is undone.

You'd think that after that ranting, complaining voice mail that "Community" star Chevy Chase left showrunner Dan Harmon went viral this spring they'd have learned. Or maybe after Harmon responded to his dismissal just last Friday by spilling his guts on Tumblr. You'd think the muckety-mucks would have figured out by now that the best you can do when there's tension in your little creative family is to be forthright and creative about it.

Note, for example, how the show's star Joel McHale spent the spring diplomatically – and wittily -- handling the talk-show circuit after Chase's meltdown, joking that the voice mail had to be fake because "there’s no way Chevy could figure out voice mail." See, it's glib and funny and sounds magically off-the-cuff! Get it? The cast of "Community" -- which includes the incredibly on-the-ball Danny Pudi, Alison Brie and Donald Glover – knows how to handle itself.

So here's what you don't do. You don't send an email saying you "wanted to forward some messaging we hope our cast will find helpful as they navigate questions that will undoubtedly come up." Oh God, "forward some messaging." This won't be good. And sure enough, in a memo obtained Wednesday by the Hollywood Reporter, the talking points sent from Sony to the cast reads like a ransom note. A poorly written one. My friend Jay at the Takeaway suggests reading it in the dean's voice, but in my head, I can't hear anyone but Chang.

"We're hoping that the news will lose some steam over the next day, especially if we're not perpetuating the topic in any way," it reads. Then it goes on to suggest the cast just tell the press, "We're also excited that we'll be back on NBC's schedule in the fall and are looking forward to working on those episodes," "I am looking forward to starting our next 13 episodes of 'Community,'" "We're looking forward to working with David Guarascio & Moses Port on a new season of 'Community.'" Also, guess what? "We're looking forward to the stories our characters will find themselves in come Sept." I'm not sure I even understand that last sentence, but you get the gist. Coming this fall! "Community"! REMAIN CALM AND STOP PERPETUATING THE TOPIC.

As one Hollywood Reporter commenter brilliantly opined, maybe now "the cast will all recite the entire memo, verbatim, in interviews. Like hostages reading off cue cards." It's just like when Avery Jessup had to do the news in North Korea! Wait, what well-regarded yet low-rated NBC sitcom are we talking about here?

This kind of thing is insulting on so many levels. Primarily, it's a dis to the cast and team of "Community," who this weekend managed to tweet gracefully their gratitude to Dan Harmon and his "dementedly awesome brain" without coming off like network-destroying loose cannons. And don't even get me started on how idiotic Sony must assume the press is to send out something like this. Guys, it's not all one big Mario Lopez-fueled parade of butt-kissing out there. Worst of all, it's a shameless slap to fans, who expect that the people who give us a weird treasure like "Community" know how to be funny and sarcastic and sad and real when there is a major shakeup in their ranks -- oh, and who also know enough about social media to know you can't stop a dumb email from getting around. It's not about sticking to some rote company line. It's about cultivating the very authenticity that makes "Community" so friggin' special, and respecting the fans who watch it. And it's about getting that the title of the show isn't just about a mythical college. It's about us.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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