'Community' creator Dan Harmon talks return
Community makes a triumphant return to NBC tonight at 8 p.m. with two things of interest: Back-to-back episodes and Dan Harmon back in the showrunner’s seat. (Okay, that’s technically three things.) How did it feel for Harmon (who’s also the co-creator of Adult Swim animated comedy Rick and Morty) to be reunited with his beloved, weirdo creation after a one-year exile? What high-concept high jinks is he planning for season 5? And how many more seasons (and a movie) of this community-college comedy does Harmon want to make? Those answers — and many others — are contained in the following Q&A.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, what was it like to walk back into the Community offices for the first time?
DAN HARMON: It was surreal, it was weightless, it was the strangest thing in the world. It was a place I thought I’d never see again. The flood of memories combined with the unprecedented internally imposed pressure kind of creates an equilibrium, because when something is equally terrifying and exhilarating, it suspends you emotionally. So I just sort of floated through the halls like a big, fat ghost.
This show has been your baby, and there’s so much of your comedy DNA in the show. What did that year away after the firing bring you? Perspective? New ideas? Other?
I had to cut the emotional cord for the sake of my sanity. I knew that no matter what I did, I was always going to be affected by a disconnection with the show. So I made the decision, healthy or unhealthy, to not do anything consciously to connect with it. I worked on my house and focused on other projects, tried really hard not to think about Community at all. I don’t know if it filled me with any energy that is necessarily helpful in season 5. The characters are kind of alive on their own, so coming back to them was less like me bringing anything from the outside back to them, and more like me just going back up into this attic where they had been stored and investigating the ways they had changed over that year and observing them and trying to think about what to tell them what to do next.
When you finally did get around to watching season 4, what struck you? And what did you want to differently this season?
What immediately stuck out was the obvious effort that was being put into emulating the things about the show that I assumed got me fired. So, I was very confused about that. I spent the greater portion of the first couple episodes going, “Then why did you fire me? I don’t understand any more. I don’t get it. At this point, I have to assume that you really just didn’t like the smell of me, because you certainly had no problem with the creative content, the tone of it, the approach to it.” So there was confusion there. I’ll never get straight answers as to why I was let go, I don’t think there are straight answers about why I was let go. That’s the thing that stuck out to me. It’s so odd that these guys were probably in Sony’s eyes hired to do something which wouldn’t necessarily have been unappealing, which is a very grounded show set in a community college about a group of unlikely family members sorting out their problems and having some laughs. So I thought, “I guess that’s what I’ll have to do for season 5 — at least for the first couple of episodes, we’ve got to get this thing re-grounded.”
Did season 4 feel like an alternative universe of Community or Community Lite to you?
If I start reaching for metaphors, this story is going to go from Entertainment Weekly to TMZ fast. [Laughs] I’ve tried to clarify how I felt about it to other people’s dismay and head-scratching. I have a personal relationship with the show and watching it in the hands of someone else was uncomfortable. That’s not a professional way to approach your work. You’re not supposed to be attached to these things — it’s an industry — but that’s the relationship that I had with this show. I watched it once and it was weird.
Was there a mission statement for season 5 to help re-ground it?
It was certainly regaining the audience’s trust, be they the mythical new viewer that we are always trying to get or the very real, loyal fan. We needed to thread the needle of rolling out a red carpet — wow, mixing a lot of metaphors — for both of those people. That just entailed focusing on the halls of Greendale again, which is ironic because that’s something that I spent season 3 actively pushing away from. I was always of the philosophy that we were running on a tank of gas that was unnecessarily finite by focusing on the community-college aspect of the show. That we had this great ensemble of characters who were real human beings who were aging and time was passing, and we were telling the four-year story of this guy getting his bachelor’s degree. However, the 10-year story had to do with these people — it was called Community, not Community College. That was my philosophy in season 3, which is why you see me systematically trying to wean the audience off pencils and lockers and tests and teachers and things like that, and focusing on the relationships and people moving in together and things like that. The irony is that because season 4 continued along that trajectory, and because now there’s been such turbulence creatively, that the only way to get things steady again is to do that show that Sony probably always wanted me to do, which is the community-college show. I definitely knew we had to get within those walls and walk those hallways and have everybody taking classes and interacting with each other within the context of a community college, because that was our safety zone and that was how we would get re-grounded.
What kinds of themes will this season explore?
There’s a heavy theme of human versus system. There’s lots of different characters going up against different kinds of systems and having their humanity tested in the face of something that isn’t human. Other than that, we introduce Jonathan Banks’ character, Buzz Hickey, who’s a criminology professor. I didn’t set out to do this but noticed we were doing it about halfway through the run; we kind of rub him as kind of a touchstone up against each of the characters. Each character has a story at some point with Buzz Hickey that teaches you more about the old characters that you love and slowly paints a picture of Hickey as you go.
How would you describe Buzz’s personality?
I wanted somebody who could occupy the same tribal slot as Pierce Hawthorne. The hapless Obi-Wan, the sometime father but often child. But I also knew that playing the game of trying to find a new Pierce would be a losing one. So this guy has the same amount of experience as Pierce did but from a completely different tax bracket, a completely different philosophy. Buzz Hickey is a blue-collar guy. He had free-love parents that didn’t provide for him in his early life and let him down, so back when his generation was becoming hippies, he was becoming a soldier and a cop. He’s all about practicality. He’s a man’s man in a way that Pierce Hawthorne probably only fantasized about being. He’s very hands-on and doesn’t believe in the idea of nuance psychologically. He goes with his gut and what works.
What concept episodes have you planned, animated or otherwise?
I can say there is an animated one. We have successfully kept it a secret what the genre of that animation is. Joel McHale’s character on Community and myself are from the same generation and therefore share a certain childhood of television animation, so it’s something that celebrates a specific brand of animation from that time… The budget is a little lower for various reasons. You’ve got to rebuild the sets; you’re only doing 13 so you can’t amortize costs as much. We had to be very shrewd about the crazy things that we did. We had to be crazy in a more diabolical way. So there’s one episode that you don’t see being conceptual until it’s too late. It sneaks up on you and about halfway through it, becomes something completely different, something that we would characterize in the old days as “Oh, one of those episodes of Community.” And in the realm of homage, there’s an homage to a more grounded type of movie that I love very much, which is the David Fincher-y psychological thriller, the trail of a madman, serial killer mythology. We delved into that to tell the story about a certain mythical figure that’s been stalking the halls of Greendale on and off for years. And there’s a big way that we celebrate Troy’s departure, which is sort of a cousin of Paintball, but with no paint. Or balls.
Speaking of Donald Glover… He only wanted to do a few episodes this season. How did that affect your plans?
It was a bummer and a surprise. Joel, [executive producer Chris] McKenna and I all agreed that while we loved Donald and didn’t want him to be chained to anything, it would have been great to know his plans to fly before all of our contracts were signed. [Laughs] But I don’t know how much it would have changed our plans or not. I’ll never know the answer to that question, because I don’t have a time machine. But I know that thinking about Community without Donald Glover is as terrifying for a person in the writer’s room as it in for someone out there waiting to watch season 5.
What can you say about Troy’s send-off?
It’s a heart-string puller, there was nothing we could do to avoid that. In fact, the episode is about trying to avoid that. It’s about when a goodbye is so powerful that we’d rather do anything but face it, the magical amount of psychosis we can engage in to try to avoid it. And in Abed’s case, that could mean a great deal. Abed calls for a special game to be played across the campus rather than say goodbye to Troy, and the world gets embroiled in it and it’s fun. That’ll be the fifth episode, I believe.
You have a string of cool guest stars. And Jonathan Banks will be in 11 episodes. Were these castings a ‘How do we fill the void?’ reaction to the departures of Chevy Chase and now Donald?
It happened kind of organically. We definitely wanted to avoid the idea of “Okay, there are two empty chairs so let’s fill each one of them with a replacement for Donald and Chevy, respectively, and keep going as if nothing is happening.” It was about embracing the fragmentation of what used to be a very core group. Now you’ve got your favorite members at the core but the world’s a little more hustle and bustle. So there was that creative approach to it. Our casting director, Juel Bestrop, is fantastic, and I think that out there something shifted from the days when Jason Biggs was turning down the role of the pizza guy in “Remedial Chaos Theory” to the day when we would just experimentally ask, “Vince Gilligan, would you like to play this part in the show?” and him saying yes. Somewhere between season 3 and 5, we must have acquired some tiny snowball of castability. [Laughs].
There seems to have been a warming between you and Chevy Chase more recently…
I would be the first person to say: I never hated the guy or hated working with him. His behavior was frustrating me at the end of the season 3 because I actually didn’t get a shot that I wanted. So I made a joke at a wrap party to vent some aggression and things spun out of control. But as soon as they did, he and I were doing what we always do, which is text dirty jokes to each other and leave silly voice mails. So he and I are still friends. It would be great to work with him again.
Is Bill Murray still the Holy Grail guest casting for you?
Absolutely. I’m not even sure what I would do — it’s probably best that I never step in the same room as him. I was just watching Scrooge and it occurred to me what a fantastic movie that is and what a genius that guy is. He’s really one of the most important comedic actors of our generation.
Who is else on your list?
There’s a backlog of people that I think who want to do it but are never available. Simon Pegg is hard to get over here. I want Richard Ayoade so badly to come back and not have to direct this time and tap into his resources as a performer. There are so many people that you feel like, ‘My god, it would be so great to work with the Will Ferrells and the Seth Rogens,” but it’s kind of just, ‘Well, yeah. Duh-doy.’
From the first trailer, it appears that Jeff is at a career crossroads, and returns from the legal world back to Greendale — but as a teacher. What story are you looking to tell with Jeff this year?
He’s run out of the option at his stage of pretending to be the guy who’s too cool for school. There’s a point in your life where I think you have to admit you are where you are because you want to be there — you choose to be there. And there’s a challenge to your ego that comes with that. Jeff is a little more beleaguered this season. I hate to sound too dark but he’s a beaten man in some respect. He became a good person at Greendale, and it crippled his career ambition. So now he is back in this cradle that simultaneously made him a better person but that he kind of resents for doing that. So, it’s an interesting dynamic. He’s pressed into the position of trying to keep this school afloat. We take the idea of Greendale as an institution just a hair more seriously than we’ve done in the past. We look at it sort of as our Dundler Mifflin, if you will: it’s a thing that’s real, that has stakes to it, that needs to be solvent or it can’t exist anymore. And Jeff, as a teacher, is put in charge of helping that happen and it’s a very frustrating position for him to be in because as you can imagine, Greendale’s got a lot of work that needs to be done to it.
If this is indeed the last season of Community, will we get any closure in the finale? And if not, how many more seasons do you see yourself making?
I have to want to make a million. That’s the only way I can continue to work on the show. It has to be the most important thing in the world. So I’ll make a million, but I also have to be completely comfortable with every single season being the last. So, as with every season, we attempt to walk that tightrope in the season finale.
Can you give a quick tease for each of the main characters?
Troy has a lot of questions of identity before he leaves…. Abed becomes more autonomous, starts exploring himself more. He actually has a relationship at a certain point. It’s probably hard to date Abed….. Annie (Alison Brie) gets back to her very driven, very capable, dedicated personality. She’s part sleuth, part politician, all Annie… Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) becomes more evolved as a businessperson. She’s shrewd, she’s calculating. We explore some of her passive aggression and how she manipulates people socially…. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) gets a little bit of an IQ boost. I’m as guilty as any previous handlers of her character of succumbing to the temptation to make her the butt of jokes simply because she doesn’t understand fundamental things about the world. Whereas the real Britta I think should be somebody who is handicapped by her tempestuous, passionate, political ideology…. The Dean (Jim Rash) — we cooled it on the costumes a bit, with a few noticeable exceptions. He’s incredibly funny this year as the bumbling, struggling, well-intended administrator of a school that’s sinking…. Chang (Ken Jeong) is out of his mind — clinically, comedically, dramatically out of his gourd. It’s become far too late to ask whether or not that should be the case or what that means to the group and now it’s time to just accept that that’s what he is and deal with the consequences.
How about a final cryptic hint about the new season?
As with every season before it, it’s either going to be the best or worst that you’ve ever seen. It’s a doozy. It’s 13 episodes, each episode is a little pearl and it’s from a new era of Community, which is the post–Dan Harmon-is-obsessed-with-whether-you like-the-show-or-not era. I’ve experienced enough feedback about whether or not I’m a good or bad person, washed my hands of that task and have hunkered down and tried to make what I thought was the best TV show in history.