You’ll now have to wait a little longer than Oct. 19 to see the season 4 premiere of NBC’s Community (not cool, not cool, not cool), but you don’t have to wait another minute to read all about the upcoming action from the new men in charge, executive producers David Guarascio and Moses Port. The two showrunners — who created the short-lived CW comedy Aliens in America, served as exec producers on Just Shoot Me, and most recently worked as consulting producers on ABC’s Happy Endings — have a considerable challenge ahead of them: Replace ousted Community creator/mad comedy scientist Dan Harmon at the helm of his ambitious, idiosyncratic, self-reflexive, and obsessed-over cult comedy. EW asked Guarascio and Port (pre-postponement) to share their thoughts on joining America’s favorite community-college-set show under tricky circumstances and discuss their plan for the fourth and possibly final season (which most definitely involves Inspector Spacetime.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before taking this gig, how big of a Community fan were you, on a scale of one season to six seasons and a movie?
DAVID GUARASCIO: I would say four and a half seasons. I remember seeing the pilot and being like, “God, wow! This guy nailed it.” Always loved the cast. We were just big fans of the show. Part of the process of taking this job has been realizing how deep the fandom can really go. What we were not aware of was how loyal the fans have been, how instrumental they’ve been in keeping the show on the air. We were just like, “Hey, this is a really funny show that is awesome,” and would watch, but we did not re-watch stuff like a “six seasons and a movie” fan who’s watched each episode several times. So when we came on board, we went back and started our re-education, re-watching everything and reading scripts. Now we’re at six seasons and a movie. And that’s the thing about the show: the further you wade into it, the more obsessed you become with it, whether you’re a fan or someone who works on it.
MOSES PORT: Some of the biggest fans — the people who work on this show, the writers, the crew, the cast — are as obsessed with the show as any rabid fan out there. As David was saying, you drink the Kool-Aid and it tastes delicious.
Did you have any reservations about coming into a charged situation like this?
GUARASCIO: When Sony [the studio that co-produces Community] called us, honestly our first response was like, “Are you sure you don’t want Dan to do this? Because he seems really instrumental.” And we said no at first, a little bit with a heavy heart, and they said, “Let’s keep this dialogue going.” We went back and started doing some of our re-watching, and that’s when the next level of appreciation started to kick in. And also the next level of fear of taking the job. We ultimately felt like we did not want to be ruled by our fear. And as we went from that four and a half to six seasons and a movie as we were thinking about it, it just became this thing of, “This is too unbelievable a sandbox to not want to get in and play in it for a while.” The credit to Dan and everyone who’s worked on the show for the past three years is — I’m going to put all the metaphors into one, so watch this happen — they have planted the seeds and cultivated this magic garden that we don’t have to do the work of getting it to where it is now. All the fruits are hanging there and it’s like, “How do we not take this opportunity to work on this?” And so it was like, “Well, I’d rather fail at something this f—ing cool than another round of development, so let’s just go for it.”
PORT: I don’t think you can realize how intense this environment is unless you’re in it. Somebody set up a fake Twitter account for us. I don’t know that we expected something like that to happen.
Have you had any interaction with Dan?
GUARASCIO: No, we exchanged some emails when we first came on board that were really just us saying, “Your show’s awesome. We hope we don’t wreck it,” and him saying, “You won’t. Good luck. Just go for it.” And a lot of encouraging words from people who’d been here who weren’t anymore: “Just know that anything you think you can’t do, you can.”
Were you given any marching orders about opening the show up to a wider audience? Or has NBC accepted the fact that it’s just a great cult show?
GUARASCIO: I think that they’ve accepted that it’s a cult show. When we came on, we said to them, “Look, if we’re going to do this, there’s no mandate to turn it into anything else. That’s just not going to work.” This show is its own breed of animal, and to try to make it into something else would fail. Even as a business decision, why would you want to do that? You have this successful business model with the show the way it is, which came back to our question of: “Are you sure you want to get rid of Dan?”… We hope to grow an audience, but we are much more focused on wanting to please the people that have loved the show over the last three years. If we find new viewers, great, but our goal is to keep the people happy who’ve really cared about the show.
PORT: There were initial conversations like, “Here’s an opportunity. Are we going to switch it up? Are we going to broaden it?” And I think even from their perspective, they’re like, ‘Making the move, let’s not alienate anyone.” They were even wise enough to be like, “The show has gotten to where it is and continues to live and breathe because this group of people is so supportive.” These 13 episodes exist because the fans are so passionate.
GUARASCIO: Even given that, when we pitched our first batch of episodes, they just couldn’t help themselves to some degree: “Yeah, this is great…. It seems a little bit like more of the odd thing we used to do.” And one of the great things that Dan did over three years was tunnel through the mountain to establish the ground rule of: “On this show, we’re going to set up the rules of what we’re going do,” and he’s really good at not listening to people when he knew what he wanted to do. So that made it easier for us to be like, “Hey, we know you may not be digging this vibe yet, but this is really the way to do this.” And they said, “Okay, okay, if you feel strongly about it,” and I think it’s borne out well. They’ve actually said as much: “You were right. Glad you pushed through in doing these first episodes this way.”
Which elements of Community are you most interested in preserving? On the flip side, what did you feel needed to be downplayed or drawn out more?
GUARASCIO: I really can’t say that there’s anything we felt like: “A little less of that, a little more of that.” Because there’s an actual evolution of the show from season to season, it felt very organic to us that in the fourth year — which for some of the characters is their senior year — there will be a natural inclination for these characters to be thinking about change in their own lives, to be looking at their personal relationships with each other. That was a chance for us to grow those things a little bit. There’s a little more relationship stuff in season 1 and the beginning of season 2 that was good to go back to — so, not so much a new stamp as addressing some of those stories. And the show’s always done a good job of having this meta approach to itself and being aware of itself. There’s a big change going on in the show in that Dan is not here and we are, and it came together as an approach for the season of change. And not being afraid of it, because a lot of TV shows have looked at people in college and been like, “We have to make absolutely sure they’re here for the next eight years and they’re never gonna go anywhere.”
PORT: In terms of putting our own stamp on it, we were not involved in the first three years. So very much being fans of the show, we made the decision to check our egos at the door and be like, “Look, we are going to rely heavily on the people that are returning here,” so the voices that have been here before are heard loud and clear, and they are a part of everything. We definitely have listened as much as we’ve spoken during this process.
What else can fans expect from you guys this season that will feel different?
GUARASCIO: It comes back to that change being reflected in each character’s individual growth. The show has sort of danced around the notion of Jeff’s relationship with his father, who abandoned him when he was young, so we decided this year, “Let’s really face that head on.” [It] doesn’t just mean that single episode of making that decision and how that interaction will go down, but what does mean for Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) after that? When there’s this thing that’s been in your brain for so long and defined a lot of who you are, you’re going to be a slightly different person after you’ve faced that demon. And there’s a ripple effect to that. If Britta (Gillian Jacobs) has looked at Jeff as a guy who always has all these walls around him, the defining characteristic, and maybe that was a turnoff — well, when some of those walls start to come down, what does that mean to their relationship? And it’s in the same season when she and Troy are exploring things because at the same time, he’s coming into his own as a man even while he holds onto this great childlike enthusiasm in his relationship with Abed (Danny Pudi).
PORT: There’s a lot of talk of shippers on this show. Personally before I came into this, I was definitely a Britta and Jeff shipper. We’ll see Britta return a little bit to her strong feminist roots. It’s not just about the psychology. They’re small steps because ultimately Greendale has to be involved in the whole thing. Even though they’re going to have episodes outside of it, the school is as much a character as anything else.
GUARASCIO: Part of change is also coming to terms with what you can control and what you can’t. So in different ways, all of the characters are exploring that…. Annie (Alison Brie) is at a crossroads in her life… It started with Abed last year to some degree, and that character’s helping bring us into season 4, where everyone is going through the same thing. Is this show ending or is this a 13-episode order on the way to hopefully more episodes in the 5th season? We don’t know. There is something that’s out of our control, and something about that speaks to what we see the characters going through.
What was your first day like? How did you break the ice? Pillow fort party?
GUARASCIO: We sat down with everyone individually, got together for lunches, just tried to do some one-on-one time with all the members of the cast just to let them know: We understand if you have some anxiety. That does not offend us. It makes complete sense. I mean, they’re the ones who are really out there more than anyone else.
PORT: Our attitude is a little bit like: We’re stepdads and we’re not going to come in and say, “You have to call us Daddy from the first day.”
GUARASCIO: We also just wanted to let them know, the cast in particular, that we’re really going to rely on you to help keep the tone of the show what it’s been. So if there’s something that’s not feeling right to you, you can tell us, whether it’s a line or a story, we want to have that dialogue. We may not agree all the time, but you might be surprised how often you’re going to convince us that you deeply understand your own character. And it’s been a very important part of these first six episodes, really hearing them out about what feels right and what doesn’t.
Chevy Chase and Dan Harmon had a volatile relationship to say the least, and Chevy expressed some dissatisfaction with the show. What steps have you taken to resolve that?
GUARASCIO: The truth is we’ve had a very easy working relationship with Chevy, maybe just because it was so volatile before, there’s no fight left. (laughs) We sat down, had a real nice lunch. There’s a little bit of us just like that’s “It’s f—ing Chevy Chase! I can’t believe it.” And so it’s been really easy for us. He also says what he wants to say and does what he wants to do, and you just can’t control any of that aspect of it.
PORT: He’s still got some bark left to him, but look, I don’t think we’re gonna throw down with him. That has not happened. It’s all been pretty smooth sailing so far.
Has he expressed interest in doing something dramatic with Pierce or even killing him off?
PORT: When we had lunch with him, these were his words: “I’m getting up there in age. Is it possible that I had a stroke over the summer?” He approached it like, “Let’s use my age to an advantage.”
Community being so meta, how closely do you nod to the behind-the-scenes situation in the first few episodes?
PORT: We tried to own and write toward some of the fears that the audience might have and embrace those things. Some of it is much more obvious than others. But we were mindful of the situation.
GUARASCIO: And what was important to us is it plays into something the show has always done, which is being aware of itself, and it plays into our season-long theme: change. There’s change you control, there’s change you don’t, but that change in and of itself is not a bad thing. Even when you don’t expect it, it can lead to some really nice things and some important things. So that is definitely imbued throughout the first episode, particularly through the character of Abed who has been such a controlling force in the show. He essentially created Community in the sense of he brought this study group together as a way to interact and understand the world around him. So to be able to use the specificity of a character like that to explore the notion of change for these characters this year and the overall change in the show was a really fun way to approach the first episode.
Let’s talk about the first episode. We know that Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) stages a Hunger Games-like competition for enrollment in a class….
GUARASCIO: There is the ultimate Greendale [class] called The History of Ice Cream, where you’re just getting to eat ice cream and talk about ice cream. You get an easy A. It’s a class that everyone in the group has always wanted to be in. And lo and behold something goes wrong. The student records are hacked, which basically means someone has forged a bunch of index cards with the Dean’s handwriting. Now they’ve got way too many people to be in the class, and as opposed to doing it first-come, first-serve, like real ice cream, the Dean has set up an elaborate Gladiator/Hunger Games-style competition to see who can win entry into this class. And Jeff needs a history class to graduate when he wants to. And he also wants the group to take this class together. He is driven to overcome these obstacles the Dean has put in front of him to make sure that this group can stay together in this History of Ice Cream class.
PORT: You might think, Why is Jeff putting up with all this kind of stuff? One of the things we discover is that Jeff has taken a couple courses over the summer without the rest of the group knowing. So he is on track to graduate early.
GUARASCIO: Because senior year is a year of change, that’s a little difficult for everyone, but for Abed in particular. Change has always been hard for that character, and the crushing reality that “this all might end” really hits home with him in this first episode. He’s a guy who’s always used his imagination as both solace and defense, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, and he’s been encouraged by Britta: “Go to your happy place whenever you need to if things are getting stressful.” And for Abed, the act of imagination that he has may spiral him a little further away from reality.
PORT: For our character that views everything through the prism of television, it manages to inform where his happy place is as well.
Can you tease some future episodes?
GUARASCIO: A big episode for us early on is going to the Inspector Spacetime convention and seeing what that world is. When we first pitched it to the studio and network, they thought, “More Inspector Spacetime? We were going to ask you to not do any and now you want to go to a convention that’s all about Inspector Spacetime?” And [we’re] doing a story that really speaks to what’s going on in Troy (Donald Glover) and Britta’s relationship and Troy and Abed’s relationship. This is the first time Troy’s had a girlfriend, and what does that mean for these two guys who have done everything together?
PORT: Matt Lucas is in that episode. The world is divided into Inspector Spacetimes and Constable Reggies. Matt is another Inspector who is like-minded to Abed.
GUARASCIO: We also have episodes that the show has always done well with: What is the twisted world of the Greendale Community College experience? Troy and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) are in a class called Physical Education Education, which is really a class that teaches people to teach gym. And at the same time, the Dean is courting a new prospective student who is very wealthy and very lazy — like a young Pierce (Chase) — to fill the school’s coffers with money from library fines to taking double classes and not finishing them.
PORT: We’re going to Pierce’s mansion. He thinks it’s haunted by his father. This is an example where a wacky episode can be very personal because Jeff is also haunted by the ghost of his father. So those two stories influence one another.
GUARASCIO: [In another episode], the Germans challenge the notion that the study room belongs to our group only, and our group digs in World War II-style to fight back. But who they really are in that World War II story maybe is left to be determined.
PORT: History is basically storytelling, and it’s a matter of who’s telling the story. What’s great about this episode is we’ve been telling the story of the study group from their perspective for the longest time, and it’s the first time in the series we get the chance to flip the perspective on how they’re really perceived.
What can we expect from Malcolm McDowell, who’s guest-starring as the study group’s new history professor?
GUARASCIO: Very commanding presence who has a little bit of a chip on the shoulder about American exceptionalism that some people he thinks gets carried away with, including the study group, so he’s not fond of them. An aspect of which will be particularly highlighted in our Christmas episode.
GUARASCIO: Honestly, we just thought we could do better. (laughs) And we got Mr. Brolin, who was great to have here.
PORT: They actually look alike.
GUARASCIO: It was one of those things where we were talking about it in the room when Joel emailed, “What do you think about James Brolin?” and it was like, “Holy s—! We just said his name five minutes ago!” We sent him the script and got on the phone… Joel was so helpful in attacking that episode creatively, because we just didn’t want to do it in a way that felt too neat or too wrapped-up. Meeting your dad who abandoned you when you were a kid can be messy and dramatic, but we also wanted it to be funny, but we didn’t want it to be so funny that it’s stopped being messy and dramatic. We think we found a way to do both… There’s such a presence and this kind of teflon feel [that Brolin] brought to the role that is very reminiscent of Jeff. You want to be mad at him but can’t be at the same time.
PORT: He has an emotionally elusive quality, and he also has this exterior that you feel is as tough as Jeff’s is.
GUARASCIO: And then there will also be a little Thanksgiving at Shirley’s, where there may be a bit of a Shawshank homage sprinkled in.
Fans will want to know: What is one of the weirdest things in the new episodes that you’ve plotted out so far?
GUARASCIO: What would happen if there were an American version of Inspector Spacetime?
PORT: Chang (Ken Jeong) is naked and wet. And it’s ultimately a good thing.