Josh Wolk's Pop Culture Club talks 'Community': What if a hilarious sitcom gets less funny, but is still funnier than most sitcoms?
This week’s assignment was the new NBC comedy, Community. A comedy, I might add, that was my top pick for new shows this season. I loved the pilot and watched it a few times: it felt like a little movie to me, but one that – oh lucky day! – would go on and on every week. I loved Joel McHale’s smarmy persona, and thought it was the perfect 21st-century reincarnation of the ‘80s Bill Murray archetype. With the strong supporting characters (Human robot Abed, giggly Shirley, and Chevy Chase’s obliviously un-PC Pierce) and a tight, bouncy script, the pilot was 22 minutes of sitcom perfection. Each week, however, the quality has dipped a little more. So here’s my philosophical question for the ages: If a show is not living up to its potential, but is still funnier than 85% of the other comedies out there, is it a failure or a success?
Last Thursday’s episode, about Jeff and Shirley’s bonding, Britta dating a wannabe hippie, and Annie’s psychology experiment, was a mess. Everybody was too amped up, with not enough payoff: Take the ubiquitous Ken Jeong’s Senor Chang, pressing his face up against Annie’s and kissing her forehead. This is a sign of a director who says “Just go crazy!” to his actors but shouldn’t have. (Jeong’s Chang has been an unrestrained problem since episode 2, when he did a freakout worthy of – and probably an homage to – Sam Kinison’s unbalanced Vietnam vet in Back to School. This made Jeong’s naked crime lord in The Hangover look restrained.)
In a show like this, it’s a fine line between manically funny and oh, come on. For example, I loved John Michael Higgins’ Dead Poets Society-esque teacher in episode 3. It was exaggerated, yes, but also a spot-on parody not only of the Robin Williams movie, but also of overly “passionate” professors who want to make you feel. He made sense in this world. But having Señor Chang (and John Oliver’s Duncan, for that matter) jump up and down like a petulant cartoon character was too much: all these two needed were six-shooters and they could form a Yosemite Sam tribute band. Same thing with Troy, who threw a foolishly overwrought freak-out at the end of the psychology experiment. Whatever happened to the simple effectiveness of the slow burn? This isn’t good writing, it’s just mania, the physical-comedy equivalent of a comedian who yells “F—!” in place of a punchline. Or of Dane Cook.
But when the actors actually deliver lines, as opposed to seizures, they can be really funny. Like in episode 3, when Britta saw Jeff wearing rainbow suspenders and told him, “You look like an ‘80s rapist.” That’s just a damn good joke. And Chevy Chase has been spot-on, rarely slipping into self-conscious Chevy-isms. He drops his tiny obliviously racist remarks, while being satisfied to toss little bits of physical shtick into the background, such as his recent hapless bout with a slice of pizza. (Granted, staying in the background might not be his choice, but I’m feeling big-hearted today and giving him credit.)
I have other concerns: I worry about the dominance of the Britta/Jeff flirtation. Plenty of stories could come out of the community-college experience without relying on a push-pull dance that can only go the way of most will-they-won’t-they comedies, which is to crap. But even with these worries, I still have hope that the minds that brought us that stellar pilot can do it again, week after week. It beats watching Hank. (And you know that as a Cheers fetishist, it kills me to use a Kelsey Grammer show as a punchline.)
What did you think of Community? I’m interested in hearing takes from people who just saw it for the first time, versus those who have seen all four episodes. Regular viewers like me might think the quality has dropped off, while newbies might have been thrilled with what they got. It’s the old “you don’t know what you’re missing” issue at work.
Next week’s assignment: It’s the 40th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and in my endless quest to figure out what comedy holds up today and what doesn’t, let’s see how the Brits make out. I’m gonna leave the assignment open, however: No specific movie, no specific episode: just watch some episodes of the TV show. (IFC – which will be airing a six-hour doc on the troupe’s history, Monty Python: Almost the Truth, all next week – is also airing MPFC episodes every night at 11:30pm, starting Sunday, Oct. 18. They’re also available on Amazon on Demand, and DVD.) As a huge Python acolyte in my teenage years, I always fantasized of the day when I would introduce my kids to them. But now I wonder: will the show seem hopelessly out of date, or are silly walks universal? We will discuss!
One last thing: Do you like people who are at least six months late to every trend? Then you’ll love me, because I’m now on twitter! Follow me: @EWJoshWolk. But for now, we discuss Community…
PHOTO CREDIT: Jardin Althaus/NBC