'Community' lets loose at PaleyFest
Joel McHale, Chevy Chase and the 'Community' cast keep the audience laughing at a raucous Paley Festival session
I would love if I could tell you every moment of the "Community" panel at Paleyfest in detail. I'd love if I could run quote after hilarious quote by you. I'd love if I could explain in detail a lengthy story creator Dan Harmon told about how the character of Troy went from white in the original script to being played by African-American Donald Glover, a story that ranged all over the place from concepts of political correctness to the idea of race neutrality in network casting to his famous, not-picked-up pilot "Heat Vision and Jack," a story that went on for something like five minutes and was funny in every little twist and turn it took. Or I could tell you all about how Glover apparently has an improv character named "Black Comic E.T." But I can't.
I normally take pages and pages of notes at these things. I'm lucky if I can use half the stuff I write down, which often amounts to pages and pages of handwritten stuff. (No electronic note-taking for me!) But I got a page and a half of notes out of the "Community" session. It's not because it was a particularly bad session or anything. Indeed, it was one of the best Paley sessions I've ever attended. But I spent most of the session in complete stitches, overcome by laughter. I'm not someone who laughs at things very often, but "Community" is a show that can overcome me with constant laughs, and, as it turns out, seeing the cast and producers in person has much the same effect.
Also, I mean, I could tell you about Ken Jeong doing a pitch-perfect Short Round impression after it was suggested he and Chevy Chase star in a remake of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Or I could tell you about how Chase opened up the session by doing a rock-solid pratfall or how he ate up most of the early going by mocking everyone who was speaking just off-camera, keeping the audience in a constant roll of laughter. Or I could tell you about how Harmon and Glover ended up holding hands at one point. But none of that would be as funny as it was in person, and it would end up having a "You had to be there quality."
But mark my words. If you get a chance to see the creative folks who work on "Community" in person for some reason, run to see it. One of the reasons "Community" is one of the best new comedies in years is because it has that amazing cast, which doesn't have a single weak link. One of the real pleasures of watching a sitcom is seeing an ensemble cast come together, finding its chemistry and rhythms. And it's apparent from seeing these guys in person that the chemistry on set extends into real life, that they're always cutting over top of each other to one-up each other's jokes. Moderator John Young, who recaps the show for Entertainment Weekly, mostly lost control of the session early, and any attempts he made to bring it back on track were few and far between, but I (and the audience) didn't care. The pleasure of the session was seeing these guys (and Gillian Jacobs, who plays Britta) interact.
Sadly, not the entire cast was there. Danny Pudi (Abed), Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley) and Alison Brie (Annie) were all on set, filming an upcoming episode. This was too bad because the episode screened - "Physical Education," which airs Thursday night - was a great showcase for Pudi, and it would have been nice to get his insights into the inevitable "Does Abed have Asperger's?" question that almost closed out the evening, though Harmon did an able job of answering them. Still, the other five cast members - Chase, Jeong, Jacobs, Glover and series star Joel McHale - were all there, as were producers Harmon, Neil Goldman, Garrett Donovan, Russ Krasnoff, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Oftentimes, loading up a panel with this many producers can be disastrous, but the ever entertaining Harmon spoke most often, turning every question he was asked into a lengthy diatribe on the contents of his own brain, sitcom history or, ideally, both.
Still, the most fun here was watching the cast interact with each other. Though the individual cast members were filtered out among the producers (with only Jeong and Chase sitting next to each other way down at the end, where they mostly ran away with the show), the fact that they all enjoy each other's company and, in particular, enjoy messing with Harmon came across in abundantly clear fashion. Since "Physical Education" features lots and lots of Joel McHale in either skimpy clothing or the nude, there were plenty of questions about that, but there were also questions about how the cast members enjoy working with a legend like Chase, who was the center of much good-natured (and occasionally self-inflicted) ribbing about his age.
"Chevy is like Nolan Ryan in that he's still alive," McHale deadpanned. Then, he added, "And when Chevy goes, he's the funniest person on set. He throws the ball harder than anyone. And then he calls you a prick." (Chase calling the cast members overly nasty names for no reason on set proved the source of many funny anecdotes. "It's funny because it's unnecessary," Glover added.)
Once you got past the mockery, though, there was a lot of love between the actors and their producers. Chase even went so far as to suggest that the "Community" cast was, pound for pound, stronger than the cast he worked with in the early days of "Saturday Night Live." (Which, of course, is heady praise.) "Frankly, it takes a lot to make me laugh, and I laugh all the time," Chase said of his time on set.
While the interactions between cast members were a big part of the panel's appeal, listening to Harmon ramble on about the show he created and so obviously loves was a highlight as well. He created the series based on time he spent at Glendale Community College at the age of 32, when he went there because his girlfriend at the time was attending, and he wanted to try to save the relationship. Instead, he ended up watching that relationship unravel, even as he was acing biology. His good grades there prompted people from all walks of life to ask if they could study with him, an experience that led to the kernel of an idea of how community college is one of the few places where people of all ages will come together and have to forge connections.
"With community college, you can have a wide range in age and diversity," Donovan said.
The actors responded to Harmon's idea and script as well. Jacobs, in particular, was relieved that the girl she was asked to play wasn't some sort of bimbo.
"It really was the first time where I read a pilot script and was, like, 'OK, well, if I cut my brain in half, I can play this role,'" she said.
Harmon, adding to the lovefest, explained that he's grown more and more comfortable with letting the cast improvise around the scripts, based on just how good the actors are at finding new twists on lines and new jokes that build on the old ones. (Harmon pointed out one joke in the Troy and Abed closing credits gag from Thursday's episode that I won't spoil here but that was a total Glover improvisation.)
"Halfway through the season, I became acquainted with the fact that the best thing I could do for my show was write lukewarm crap and send it down to the set," Harmon said.
What's coming up on "Community"? Apparently, the episode the cast is filming right now involves Chase's character Pierce becoming convinced he's a wizard. We'll learn the sad, despairing backstory of Jeong's Senor Chang. And there's an episode that apparently broke the budget of the series but was also apparently worth it. When asked to describe it, Harmon would only say it was an attempt to do an action movie in 20 minutes. The cast was similarly excited for it to air.
"Any time I get to say, 'Get some, bitches!' in something, it's gonna be good," Glover said. "I don't care if it's a show or a family reunion."
The theater for the session was less full than the rooms were for "Modern Family" or "Lost," which is too bad, since the show is such a breath of fresh air. But the crowd was loud and rowdy and appreciative, having fallen in love with the characters almost as much as the actors and producers seem to have fallen in love with them. And as the session wound down, Harmon expounded on the show's philosophy and tone, how it can bounce from random weirdness to surprisingly poignant moments.
"If the show has a religion, it's probably, like, 'You know, you're probably fine like you are,'" he said. Later, he added, "One of the things I've decided I've figured out is that Greendale is a crazy place where crazy things can happen, ... but the people are real."
Maybe that's why the series has hit such a chord with its dedicated cult. Or maybe it just has because it's got a great cast and lots of laughs. And for those who went to the Paley session, all of that was readily apparent.
Some other thoughts:
*** Harmon's answer to that Asperger's question? He's not going to pin Abed down because in real life, you probably have friends where you wonder just what's going on in their heads. "In real life, it's not like an after-school special: ASPERGER'S! DEAL WITH IT!"
*** A fan's suggestion that McHale should succeed Chase in the role of Fletch led to yet another lengthy runner from the entire cast, but it all ended with Chase suggesting McHale would make a good Fletch because, well, one day Chase would die.
*** I promise not to do this for every session, but the applause-o-meter for the shows tonight seemed all skewed. "Glee" won again, but it sure sounded like the audience was also extremely excited to see promos for "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (understandable), "Cougar Town" (less so) and "Men of a Certain Age."
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