'Community' pride fills PaleyFest2011
If there's a way to possibly feel more ordinary and boring than that moment when you're confronted with a panel of absurdly charming and uproarious comedic actors, cracking jokes with lightning speed whilst holding a guffawing, worshipful audience in the palms of their hands, then I'd certainly like to know what that is.
Such was the case at Tuesday evening's PaleyFest2011, which was taking time out to celebrate the ratings-challenged but cult-certified NBC show "Community" at Beverly Hills' Saban Theater. The auditorium was packed to capacity with row upon row of beaming fans, laughing maniacally at every quip and plot reference thrown out by the members of the panel, which included showrunner Dan Harmon, executive producers Russ Krasnoff, Garrett Donovan and Joe & Anthony Russo (who have also each directed several episodes), and essentially every member of the cast whose names weren't Donald Glover or Alison Brie.
The ham-quotient was so high on that stage that I could positively feel the crackle of one-upmanship sparking through the air, to the point where even I began to feel like I should do something – anything – to compensate for my deplorable state of un-funniness. I also couldn't help but feel a bit for the Onion A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff, who as the panel's moderator was saddled with the unenviable task of attempting to reign in all the yuck-yuck-yuckiness to draw out some actual answers from the assembled talent (though he did a fine job of it).
This Thursday's upcoming episode (titled "Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy") was screened, and it didn't disappoint – though the distraction from a coterie of late-comers parading in front of me in the middle of the show caused me to miss what must have been an amazing joke considering that it received probably the biggest laugh of the night (note to tardies: next time, you might try taking the first few seats you can find instead of fumbling through multiple rows before finally settling in).
But I digress. The episode followed Senor Chang's attempts to prove to Shirley that he can be a responsible parent (mainly by sticking a pipe in his mouth, making vague pronouncements about the stock market and essentially kidnapping other people's children), as well as Britta's discovery that Troy and Danny's seemingly harmless new Eastern European friend in fact took gleeful part in the Bosnian genocide. It was a typically uproarious episode of the show that proved a huge hit with the Paley Center audience, and it featured some particularly outstanding moments from Glover (Troy), Ken Jeong (Senor Chang), and Jacobs (Britta), the latter of whom further showed off her quickly-evolving comedy chops with an especially memorable bit involving an unfortunate mash-up of the lyrics from two late '90s pop hits.
"Can the camera cut to Joel again? Because his shirt's the same color as the [background]", said the scruffy, sleepy-eyed Harmon from the stage at the beginning of the panel, in reference to star Joel McHale. "In his close-up, he could be a floating head."
The audience erupted into guffaws then as the camera pulled back to reveal that, indeed, McHale's light blue shirt blended almost perfectly into the similarly-colored backdrop on the stage. It was one moment among many that had the crowd bursting into fits of laughter, and I'll be damned if every single paying customer that showed up last night didn't get their money's worth (though the absence of both Glover and Brie was certainly felt).
First off, while Harmon vaguely indicated he was optimistic about the prospects for a third season (the show has a small but intensely loyal core fan base), he also admitted that he's lately been compensating for the constant threat of cancellation by packing every gimmick he can possibly think of into the current season. This strategy includes the addition of an upcoming episode in which the traditional concept of a "clip show" – those annoying filler episodes in the lives of many T.V. series which highlight memorable bits from earlier in the season – will be turned on its head.
"It's a fake clip show. That's what it is... When I was growing up the clip show was always part of the mythology of the sitcom", he told the adoring audience. "The only downside of a clip show is that you're watching recycled material, so of course we're not gonna do that because it's too easy. We're gonna kill ourselves. So we shot a bunch of shit you've never seen, from episodes that don't exist."
The episode, which according to the panel will literally feature 75 (!) "recaps", seemed to provide a particularly rewarding challenge for all involved.
"That was the only table read I've ever been in when after the read was over, the cast members stood up and applauded", recounted Jeong, as deadpan hilarious in person as he is on the show. "I went back home [afterwards] and I just [re-]read the script from front to back."
"When you guys watch the clip show, pay attention to stuff that's on the walls, pay attention to people that walk in the background", noted Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley), hinting at the intense amount of care taken by the crew to work as many jokes into the episode as possible. "It's rich with things that'll make you laugh."
Other things we can expect the rest of the season: Shirley (aka Senor Chang's baby mama) giving birth, and an evolution in the character of Pierce (Chevy Chase), whom Donovan admitted fans have been complaining about lately.
"We talk about it a lot... we get some feedback from the fans, and a theme out there after some of the recent episodes is that Pierce is getting too mean", he admitted. "But we definitely, down the road this season, we address that."
Chase, seeming to partially inhabit his on-screen character as he reclined back in his seat and acted the part of the old, seasoned grouch who can't even be bothered to watch his own show (I'm pretty sure he was kidding), made a point of (jokingly?) comparing his real-life persona to Pierce's:
"He just wants to really be accepted... he doesn't want to be left out. He has the emotional mind of a 13-year-old, ADHD, just about everything you could have. And I love playing a guy like that because it's so close to who I am. So when he's angry or hurt, it's an inappropriate taking-out on others. It's mean, and over-the-top. But there's really no learning curve, because he doesn't even know that there's a curve. He just is who he is. And I like playing that. Because in all my other work, I just play me", joked Chase, before adding, "Which is pretty much what I'm doing with Pierce, too."
Another treat fans can expect will be in the hour-long season finale, which will function as a "Sergio Leone" spaghetti western homage in the first half and then switch gears about 30 minutes in. "It finds a clever way of segueway-ing to another genre, halfway through an hour-long finale", explained Joe Russo.
It's this over-the-top, risk-taking nature of the show in its second season that has not only won over critics, but solidified the series' hardcore fan base. It's a strategy Harmon admitted is at least partially due to the constant aforementioned threat of cancellation.
"As sure as I was we were only gonna get one season, when we got a second season I was positive we only were gonna get two seasons", he said frankly. "So I made sure – this is for better or for worse – that I did everything I could ever possibly do second season. So if we do a third season, it's gonna be "bo-ring"! But the good news is, I'm really proud of this season. We did everything I could possibly think to do."
Harmon also credited what is generally seen as a superior second year to his team of writers – many of whom were sitting out in the audience – whom he somewhat begrudgingly pulled into the process when he began to realize he simply couldn't do it all by himself.
"The first season was very different from the second season in one fundamental regard, which is that first season I did not know how to work with anybody", he half-joked about his self-imposed seclusion in the show's first year. "I did this weird Howard Hughes thing in my pajamas at home, where I would rewrite every episode for two days, and people would be calling and going, 'we need the thing'. And I'd go, 'Why don't you shoot the one you got? Shoot the script you got! See you at the finish line, motherfucker! Show me all the blueprints!' It occurred to me... that we were spending a lot of money on a bunch of really talented people that were there to help me. And the second season, because of the exhaustion of doing the first season, basically I never did that again, which is why, for those of you who follow us on Twitter, you see all these references to these 'writer all-nighters', because... I dragged these poor ten people into that horrible dark process [with me]."
Jeong similarly praised the writing staff, in his case for giving him direction on when to pull back and when to go for broke with his insane character: "They basically tell me when to Chang it up or tone it down ... honestly, I just trust them. And the directors, like Joe and Anthony [Russo], where to turn it up and where not to. But it really is just... I found this season to be so creatively fulfilling because the characters have been established and thanks to you, we actually have people that care about the characters. And it gives the writers more freedom, and it gives the actors more confidence. So I found this season, in many ways – although everyone worked very hard – creatively it's been kind of effortless."
For her part, the leggy Jacobs – who had a bit of an awkward moment on stage when Chase jokingly (unintentionally?) suggested her character on the show wasn't funny – discussed the welcome transformation of her role from little Miss High and Mighty into the loathed princess of "buzzkill" – "I'd say that Britta is me minus therapy", she joked – that the character has lately become.
"I think my physicality is naturally humorous, because I'm a very awkward person, not a lot of grace", she said, comically stumbling over her words in the previous sentence as if to prove the point. "And [they] integrated that into the show! I'm really grateful for that. It's been really fun to go from the girl on the pedestal in the pilot to like 'you're the worst, please leave'. You know, people would prefer death to my presence. Yeah, it's a real dream come true!"
Joel McHale – a tall drink of water who was wearing a pair of quite possibly the most form-fitting black pants I've ever seen on a man outside a hipster neighborhood - also discussed the growing complexity of his own character Jeff Winger (indeed, one of the strengths of the show is in its ability to flesh out its characters in the realm of a half-hour yuck-fest), particularly as it pertains to his absent father – though he stopped short of seriously suggesting ("his father even might be [second season guest star] Levar Burton", he kidded), that we would become privy to the man's identity at any point in the near future. He referenced this insecurity in context of this season's hilarious "hospital episode", in which Pierce takes a serious beating from Jeff after treading all over the latter man's Daddy issues.
"That's where we really see Jeff's... where a lot of his insecurities come from, or his overcompensating with confidence comes from. That episode was really so much fun to act in. One, because I got to beat the shit out of Chevy", he joked. "Jeff's got a lot of issues that hopefully in season three [will be further addressed]... What's so great is that we're not like so many traditional sitcoms where Jeff has like an epiphany, or a character has an epiphany, and they're all different! He has stayed pretty much the same. Much like erosion, it takes a long time for people to change. So he definitely has admitted to the group that he loves them, and it's the first time ever. But as soon as you bring up these little trap doors in his life, like his father, watch out. Because he will beat you, as he did Pierce."
VanDerWerff also took care to ask the frequently hilarious Jim Rash, who stars as Greendale's eccentric Dean, whether viewers would ever have the pleasure of seeing a Pelton-centric episode.
"In my mind, I've been on many adventures", he joked. "Even if no one ever sees it, I'd love to see where he lives, in his dirty, dirty apartment. Dan and I actually joke that it's probably all blacklight. I feel like he's just being upfront about it, 'hey, look, it's dirty in here. I'm just being outright with you, okay?'... [but] it's been such a blessing... [with] Dan and the writers and everything just nurturing the world outside of just the study group. Because they affect the whole school. And to be able to revisit all these great characters, whether in a minimal capacity or a little bit larger now and then, it just expands more about their characters."
For those hardcore fans of you who happen to serve as one of the show's active Twitter followers, you can also be rest assured that Harmon (who admitted he checks the "Community" Twitter feed religiously during airtime) and the rest of the show's creative team are listening. The showrunner gave one anecdote highlighting this – in response to a pointed question from an audience member – that revolved around a truly random but hilarious Barenaked Ladies bit which worked its way into a recent episode. Despite the suggestion by many that the joke was actually a thinly-veiled jab at "Community"'s time-slot competitor "The Big Bang Theory" (whose theme song is performed by the group), Harmon staunchly refuted that, insisting it was merely a case of early-morning writer's room delirium.
"I'm so sorry to disappoint you guys, but I'm telling you that was not [what I intended]", he answered. "It was probably six in the morning, the writers were toast, we had worked all night, and somebody riffed that... it was the line, it was like: 'He listens to you'. 'Yeah, he also listens to Barenaked Ladies, go get their dumb asses to help you'. Then it just went on this run. I just had this axe to grind about how heavily people defend Barenaked Ladies. I didn't know that they did the theme for 'Big Bang Theory'. I remember seeing on Twitter... the most ardent supporters of the show, the champions, were the most insulting to me personally because they were going, 'no, there's no way that was random because it's too outdated a joke. Dan Harmon would never be that hack!'"
So that was the main thrust of it all... but here are a few more panel highlights to whet your whistle:
The cast's dream guest stars?
*** Yvette Nicole Brown: "I said from the beginning, if Shirley reconciles with her husband, I want the husband to be Malcolm Jamal-Warner [wish granted!], and I want her love interest to be Isaiah Mustafa... In addition to my black men, I would [also] love Sandra Bullock."
*** Ken Jeong: "Zach Galifianakis."
*** Chevy Chase: "I'd like Albert Brooks. None of [the audience] know[s] who the hell he is! They were all born when I was 28." [Later he also jokingly suggested Dr. Phil]
*** Gillian Jacobs: "Amy Sedaris I think would fit well into our madcap world of hilarity."
***Joel McHale: "Paul Giamatti would be great. No, I want like a Peter O'Toole. Someone who could come in, but he'd be like a janitor."
***Danny Pudi: "Bronson Pinchot."
Other T.V. comedies they're enjoying:
Garrett Donovan: "I'm still a big fan of the office, I think it's great."
Yvette Nicole Brown: "I'm a '30 Rock' girl."
Chevy Chase: "'60 Minutes'. 'Family Guy'."
Ken Jeong: "I like 'Parks and Rec'."
Joe Russo: " 'Eastbound and Down'."
Anthony Russo: "Don't watch T.V."
Gillian Jacobs: "'30 Rock'."
Danny Pudi: "'30 Rock'."
Joel McHale: "It's off the air now, but 'The Tyra Banks Show'."
Dan Harmon: "The hardest I laugh at a show that I'll watch the same episode over and over on Tivo and laugh out loud until I cry right now is the 'Ricky Gervais Show' on HBO."
Jim Rash: "'Charles in Charge', the first family. When they changed the family, I'm like 'I'm out!' I [also] love 'It's Always Sunny [in Philadelphia]'."
Russ Krasnoff: "'The Daily Show'."
Will we see Jeff Winger shirtless again?
*** [Jim Rash, interrupting] "This won't be as exciting, but they asked me, they said, 'next to Joel, we just feel like you're the second sexiest person [on the show]... [is there any] way you will show your midriff? So I jumped at the chance... I said 'you had me at 'we need'."
Other neat bits:
*** After being handed the microphone during the Q&A, one female audience member jumped up to proclaim: "POP-POP!"
*** Chevy Chase on the absence of Glover and Brie: "I just wanna say this, cause I don't know if it's been said, but we don't have two of the funniest and best here... [to the rest of the panel]... Wait, what's his name? Donald?"
*** Danny Pudi, on the show's "claymation" Christmas episode: "We got to go actually visit the studio and see them make the dolls and stuff, and it was really funny because one of the people that was making the dolls was like, 'it's very interesting to make an awkward-shaped body like [yours].'"
*** McHale on how Jeong copes with the giggles: "In one of the episodes coming up, where Ken sings to what could be his baby... he kept cracking himself up doing it. And if you show just that five minutes where he was trying to get through... what he does to counteract his laughing is to say: 'Cancer, dead babies, cancer, dead babies.'"
*** Harmon on Harmon: "I'm unhealthy. I was raised on T.V. and movies. So when I'm standing in the writer's room, I tend to talk in this sort of stained-glass mosaic of a bunch of crap that no one's seen before... they're like, "ok yeah, I saw 'Gremlins 2', but why are you borrowing from it?"