"Community" — which finally returns to its old NBC time slot on Thursday, March 15 at 8 p.m. — became the first show in the history of PaleyFest to be invited three years in a row, and it was easy to see why at Saturday night's panel, which I had the pleasure of moderating. The cast (minus Chevy Chase and Donald Glover), creator Dan Harmon and producers Neil Goldman, Garrett Donovan and Russ Krasnoff were smart and funny and overflowing with affection for each other and for the very loud, enthusiastic group of fans who came to the Saban Theatre for the event.
If you couldn't go to LA, or to the simulcast at the New York Paley Center (where I'm told fans came in costume and even built a blanket fort), or watch the live stream from your computers, the panel will be archived on Hulu starting March 15, and I have to assume it'll eventually turn up in the Paley Center's own online archives. Because I was moderating, I couldn't take notes on the event, but I can give you the highlights — including some fairly mild spoilers (in terms of the premises of a few upcoming episodes) — coming up just as soon as I Britta the whole thing...
* The group seemed relatively confident in their chances of returning. Krasnoff, the veteran of the bunch, said NBC loves the show and put their renewal odds at 63 percent, and Harmon said the struggles of "30 Rock" in the same time slot cut them some slack. “It’s really, really nice to go back to time slot that now can be known as a hazardous environment,” he explained.
At the same time, Harmon noted there was every bit the possibility that they've been off the air so long that the ratings will be even lower when they return. And Goldman warned everyone that they still need the fans to spread the word and "be loud," and that as much as they all love Twitter, it often feels like preaching to the converted.
* Things got weird while they were making so many episodes in a vacuum. Harmon said they'd had two and a half years of a constant "feedback loop" from the fans that helped inform much of what they did, and then that vanished when NBC took them off the air. He said upcoming episodes weren't necessarily better, or worse, but "different." One episode in particular — revolving around Abed and Annie spending time in their apartment's "Dreamatorium" together — is still freaking everyone out. Alison Brie said she and Danny Pudi had no idea what the episode was about as they were making it, Donovan said they only figured out what the story was when they were editing the episode, and Harmon speculated that it will either be the greatest or worst thing in the history of television. (This is also what he was apparently saying in the lead-up to the "My Dinner with Andre" homage episode, but said the popularity of that episode among fans only makes him more anxious about this one.)
* The crowd and the cast gave new Oscar winner Jim rash a standing ovation when he came on stage. Later, when I asked him about that big night, a stage manager walked out with the actual Oscar, and Rash proudly displayed it on the table in front of him. Joel McHale quipped that Rash's contribution to the script was writing all of the dialogue for George Clooney's comatose wife, and Yvette Nicole Brown praised Rash for how genuinely modest he had been throughout the awards season. Rash picked up the Oscar, said, "Well, this kind of negates what you just said," and pretended to hide it behind the table before quickly nudging it forward so everyone could still see it. Here's Rash with his very special trophy (which is still not engraved):
* The cast in general loves to goof around with each other, which can disrupt filming at times. Ken Jeong in particular is notorious among his co-stars for what they call "Chang-tongue," where he stares at them when the camera's not on him with his tongue lazily dangling out of his mouth (Brie and several others imitated it on stage) to get them to break. It usually works. Harmon said there's a lot of wasted time, but also major bursts of productivity on the set — which he said tended to come when Chase was in his trailer. Here, by the way, is what Chang-tongue looks like, as interpreted by Alison Brie:
* Jacobs loves the evolution of Britta into the worst person in the world, and that one of their last episodes before the hiatus turned "Britta'ed" into a verb for screwing everything up, which gave her the opportunity to see people tweet that "NBC Britta'ed it" by putting the show on hiatus. Later, when an audience member asked her to recreate the "Me so hungy" dance from "Remedial Chaos Theory," she briefly got confused and tried doing a gag from an episode that hasn't aired yet. One of the actors (I think it was McHale) called out, "No, you just Britta'ed it!" and eventually she did the right one.
* Brie and Brown went on a long, largely unexplained riff about Brie's obsessions with "Yvette's boobs" and how they have a "boob game," which led into a discussion of the various pairings within the study groups, particularly the ones the show doesn't use that often. Brown loved the Shirley/Jeff dynamic from the foosball episode (the first real story they'd shared since early in the first season) and said that four of the upcoming episodes put them in close proximity. Jacobs and Brie noted that they haven't worked together a whole lot in the past — with Jacobs joking that their fetish-friendly GQ photo shoot together should have made Britta/Annie into a regular thing — but that they've gotten more time together this season, and that their relationship is a bit more like sisters and a bit less like two women fighting over the same man.
* I asked Harmon about the idea that Abed is a sitcom character who knows he's a sitcom character, and he promised not to do a "St. Elsewhere"-style ending where you find out that the entire series has always been in his imagination, or end it with Pudi suddenly on an obvious sitcom set, or anything else. He then started discussing other series finales like "Quantum Leap" and "Men of a Certain Age," mainly so Jim Rash could act indignant that his weekend viewing marathons were ruined.
* In case you missed the story last night, Harmon announced that there will be three animated "Community" webisodes going up on Hulu and NBC.com on March 7, written by Dave Seger and Tom Kaufman, who handle a lot of the show's online content.
* As always at these events, many of the best moments came courtesy of the audience Q&A. A little girl wanted to know how old Abed was, and rather than dumbing down the answer for her, Harmon started talking about Schrodinger's cat and how they won't really know how old he is until it's mentioned in a script. (Though for her sake, he said Abed's probably a year or two older than troy and Annie.)
* Another fan brought up the "six seasons and a movie" line that fans took up as a rallying cry during the hiatus and asked what would, in fact, be in a movie if they made it to six seasons. Harmon said the best idea he had on that score was that the study group would get together in the sixth season premiere having been through some crazy experience during summer break that they all agreed to never talk about — though there would be clues, like maybe one of the characters wearing an eyepatch now — and that the movie would fill in the blanks on that misadventure.
* In terms of other upcoming episodes, we'll see guest appearances by Giancarlo Esposito, John Hodgman, Michael Ironside and the return of Rob Corddry, among others. (Plus Malcolm Jamal-Warner in the first episode back, which was screened before the panel.) There will be a "Law & Order"-themed episode (directed by Harmon's sometime writing partner Rob Schrab), another where the characters are playing a video game, and one episode featuring a Dean Pelton outfit — including a blindfold — that McHale said "might be the funniest thing that has ever happened in the history of the world."
* The last question of the night came from a very nervous young woman in a Greendale hoodie who said that Abed was her favorite character ever and requested a hug, and without blinking, Pudi leaped off stage, sprinted to hug her (she practically collapsed, she was overwhelmed), then sprinted back to the stage and did a Shatner-esque dive roll back to his seat.
* After, the cast and producers stayed for nearly a half hour signing posters and other memorabilia for fans who crowded the edge of the stage, with Brown and Pudi sharing the endurance title as the two who lasted the longest.
A very good time was had by all. There are also a bunch of pictures of the event (including one of me with the cast backstage) on the page where the panel was live-streamed (you have to keep scrolling down to make it load earlier entries with the pictures).
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org