Interview: 'Community' creator Dan Harmon
My summer of "Community" interviews continues. You've hopefully already seen my write-up of the "Community" panel at Comic-Con, as well as the video interview with Danny Pudi and Donald Glover and the Alison Brie interview. I have a couple more to go, including Yvette Nicole Brown, directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and one with Gillian Jacobs that I can't run until after a specific episode has aired, for reasons that will be clear at that time, but I wanted to finally post the conversation I had with creator Dan Harmon shortly after that Comic-Con panel. (Part of it will look familiar, since I excerpted the bit about John Oliver a few weeks back.)
Dan is the kind of guy who will give you a very thorough answer to each question you ask. This means I only got a handful in over the course of a half-hour interview, but it also means that you're getting a pretty exhaustive look inside the creative process of this show, as Dan explains exactly how the unexpected Jeff/Annie dynamic evolved from the pilot through the season-ending cliffhanger, the danger of trying to tell the audience who to like, the complicated process of making Britta funny, and more. If you're a fan of "Community" - and if you're not a fan, I strongly advise going to iTunes or Amazon and downloading a copy of the paintball episode ("Modern Warfare") or, if you don't have the cash to spare, going to Hulu and watching "Contemporary American Poultry" (which we discuss below), because this is just a fantastic comedy - hopefully this will give you better insight into how it became the show that it is.
I want to start with Jeff and Annie. What was that process for you like in terms of both watching the two of them work together, reading the reaction on the Internet, etc in writing that arc and coming to the place where you came in the finale?
To start from the beginning, I think that we always wanted to make sure that with everybody in the cast, no matter what combination you chose that there was a scenario in which it was possible that something could happen. And it wasn’t because we ever wanted anything to happen between anybody in particular, it was because I’m obsessed with safeguarding versatility. You know like proofing them against things like shelf-life and entropy, and I hate ending up in situations where you go, "Man, if I only I had ever done that." And yet I hate planning ahead because it makes bad stuff.
So it all begins with everybody needs to be possible with everybody else. I would say it started in Episode 101, which is right after the pilot, where Jeff comes into the room and he goes around the table and says "Milady," and she says "Milord," and... actually you know what? Even before that, in the pilot itself, when he says Annie’s driven and "we need driven people or the lights go out and the ice cream melts." There’s coverage we use of her where she gives him sort of a lingering look. The idea is that she’s flattered and put at peace by what he said, but there’s immediately a kind of puppy dog, school girl crush evident to me on that face. And then in 101, "Milady"/"Milord," these moments that they share together, I’m just speculating that the audience immediately started talking about it. Well, because they started talking about it, the writers talk about it and we talk about it. It's like we did with Britta - my philosophy was, "Let’s have them make out in the second episode and here’s why: because I don’t want people to make the mistake of thinking that we’re going to drive the show with sexual tension because there are other shows that do that. But we also don’t want to deny them that and ignore that. So shoot yourself in the foot in a heroic way where you have the people that are supposedly the romantic male and female leads, they’re going to kiss in episode 2 or episode 3."
So by the same token, with the debate episode, we built that story around the idea that those 2 were going to kiss in a way that it wouldn’t have to be a relationship. It could just be a kiss. And obviously doing that it made a quantum shift in the amount of the so-called 'shipping that was happening. That’s when I learned of the word "'shipping." That’s when I started to become really aware of the intense ownership that audiences feel over certain combinations of characters. And I talked to my girlfriend about it. She’s getting her PhD in Media Studies and she’s like, "Oh yeah, I’ve written papers on 'shipping," and I made my decisions about the kind of relationship I was going to keep with that sector of the audience in mind, and little rules. Like, I’ll never actually read the fan-fiction but I enjoy looking at the animated GIFs. I was just being aware of the fact that there’s a very intense sort of, "I think I was Annie in high school and I love Joel McHale" section of the audience, but it certainly does not represent the entire audience.
We started talking about the concept of "What if we did that?" sometime around there, but we didn’t take it very seriously because I would adamantly say, "Please guys, do not start talking about cliffhangers and season finales and things until we get to that point." And around 6 episodes from when it was time to actually write the finale, I think it was Garrett Donovan who really just laid out the entire plan. He said, "I say this is what you do: I say you bring back Slater. I say you create a love triangle between her, Jeff and Britta that is holy unsatisfying on all 3 corners. But interesting and that humanizes Britta because she will be the Aniston to Slater’s Jolie," which I always wanted with Slater. It was one of the many ways to try to make the audience in spite of themselves root for Britta: "Let’s do a finale where it seems like we’re playing this love triangle and then just out of left field let’s just try something like Britta goes to his apartment door and opens it up and Annie answers it and it's clear that she was having sex." Whatever.
But over time, it became what it became. That’s just a matter of developing the storyline but there was just a point when that concept got thrown out. It was almost like a Manhattan Project that Garrett had come up with. He'd bring it up and I'd go, "Well, as Harry Truman, let me just say if it gets any worse with the Japanese maybe we’ll need that or maybe we won’t or maybe my mood will shift." And there was a certain point where I got sold on it. I was like, "You know what? Yeah let’s actually do that." And not because it’s going to please everybody in the audience or polarize them because our show has a certain amount of awareness and everyone that watches it loves it. And I became convinced that what we really needed to do in our finale more than anything was create reasons to talk about the show over the summer. And I thought that that would be a great way to do it and so that’s when it became that real. So that’s the complete sort of map leading up to that finale.
Well I’m curious because I talked to Greg Daniels on both "Office" and "Parks and Rec" about this idea that he…
…about the idea of Jeff and Annie?
No, that he can do these great shows, these funny shows, but somehow he needs that little something extra. He needs that romance thing either to get NBC to push it more or to get people to be more aware of it. Was there any of that involved in the thinking here?
The Jeff/Annie thing is not an attempt to get NBC to promote it because they would have been promoting a spoiler. It wasn’t an attempt to get people to invest in the show because I don’t think of it as will they/won’t they? I think of it as another meteor to throw at a group of characters to prove, just as in "Star Trek," that no matter what happens to these people, they were meant to be together as a family and that they complete each other as a platonic group. But on the other hand, in a general sense, the reason why some of these meteors that we throw at these people will constantly consist of relationships between two of them is because that is part of what Greg Daniels is pointing out or actually dealing with: that’s a huge part of life. And you don’t have to drive your show with a soap opera element because part of our lives aren’t soap operas, but part of our lives are relationships - including mercurial ones and one-night stand ones and weird friends-with-benefit ones that last for years, on-and-off-again ones, ones that are passionate flings that last 3 weeks that we deal with the rest of our lives ones. If you have a wee-wee or a pee-pee, you just can’t escape the fact that some of them end up intertangling.
Regardless whether you’re talking about sexual tension or just friendship, what combination of all the different ones you’ve tried most surprised you by how effectively it worked?
I think Troy and Abed, right? I think the bromance between them as it’s being called.
There’s virtually none of them together in the pilot.
Right. Exactly. Yeah, none of them. The pilot’s the story of a lone wolf trying to avoid getting sucked in by a bunch of knuckleheads because his secret is he’s a hero at heart, and maybe he just knows it subconsciously but he can’t go near human crisis without dealing with it. And so he’s always been like a lone operator, and his life is very functional and he reaped a lot of rewards by keeping himself sequestered from the human Velcro in the rest of the world. And so the pilot is telling that story, because it’s a pilot.
And then immediately, the decision was to pair people up in different combinations, shake that jar and see who sticks - and whether or not they work, to not just respond to them working by going, "Okay, let’s stick with what works," but to then move on once again with a different combination to continue to see what’s going on. And the thing that caught me by the most surprise was the Troy/Abed combination because we just threw them together for the "Biblioteca" tag. I wrote that because I saw those two on a red carpet and somebody from E! or something just pimped them to do a rap about "Community," and one of them started beat-boxing and the other one started rapping and then they traded off and they kept the tempo and I was like, "That’s really fun. That’s something I used to do with my friends. Only so many people are good at it. That’s amazing that they’re both good at it and can do it. That means I can write something for them because I’m good at writing phonetic like things and this could be cool." But that was the only reason I put those two together on a couch and said, "Let’s do this."
Then the next time they weren’t in the tag together, everyone freaked out and said, "That is not fair." The fact that they immediately became Cheech and Chong, Bevis and Butthead and Ernie and Bert rolled into one, I did not predict that ever. I actually thought that Donald and Chevy, that Troy and Pierce were going to be a pair.
There’s a lot of them in the first couple of episodes.
Yeah. We’re trying to subtly push that on the audience and it was a huge lesson. It wasn’t like they were rejecting it and we weren’t pushing it hard, but it’s a lesson in how dangerous it is to think you’re going to control chemistry and pairings and stuff. The audience sort of chooses that stuff for
Now, I have blinders on because of what I write and the readers who elect to read me, but with both the Jeff and Britta chemistry and Britta as a character in general, it seemed like early on there was fair amount of negative reaction to both her alone and her with him.
And then that evolved and you started doing different things with her. What sort of stuff were you seeing both that Gillian was doing and that fans were saying about her?
Dan: I was seeing that whenever she was policing Jeff, it felt gross. It felt like she was all too convincing in the role of Jeff police. And the reason for that is probably I decided that she seems like more like a real person than any of these people. The other early results that came in were for all of my attempts to sell this character through the filter of TV, which wants everybody to be boiled down to "Well, this is the guy that loves scarves" and "This is the guy who was a hippie but now he’s a conservative," "This is the guy that’s allergic to shellfish but he’s Jewish," which, good for him. But the character of just the chick that I have a complex relationship with, the sort of indescribable, weird, self-contradictory, complicated, dragged and beaten, joyfully joyless, just hypocritical, hot, complicated girl. This character is hard to pitch and it’s hard to pitch to producers. It’s hard to pitch to your own writers and it’s hard to pitch to the audience.
And so for that reason, my attempts to combine that with a real simple cartoon Fat Albert function like, "Jeff stop doing that," that was a disservice I did to the character. Because all of a sudden she was really being set up. And one of the things that happens, you can clearly see the audience going, "Blech - she’s just bitching all the time. Fuck her." And then another thing I observed is factual testing, which a lot of writers hate but on "Community I received, early on, some very, very potent very simple messages when I opened my mind. And the biggest one being, "They like Jeff and Britta not as a relationship. They like Jeff, and they like Britta. And they like them because they’re the two normal people." And hearing that made me go, "Oh. So for me, the complex, "I love her, I hate her and dragged-and-beaten and all this stuff," it all comes through as normal. That’s the biggest success I’ve ever created on paper and I’ve been screwing it up by combining functionalities.
So we pulled her back and had her have her own problems. Like for instance, the football episode, which was actually written as the third but it aired I believe as the 5th or something. My first reaction was to have her start expressing the fact that women hate her, because I know people sympathize with people that are insecure and that have some kind of Kryptonite. I wanted to start to make her so-called weaknesses her strengths. And it’s always just as simple as somebody just framing it that way and telling a story about those weaknesses, because the only thing the audience hates is being told that someone ugly is handsome or being told that someone who’s a villain is a hero. And so they were hating me for telling them that someone they knew was real was some kind of useful, functional arch character with these really charismatic chemical uses in the ensemble.
So I pulled her back out of that relationship with Jeff to just let her have her own problems, and over time the easiest way to beat her up became to re-engage her with Jeff. But at a certain point the objective became to beat her up. And I say that as the God of that universe, like as if I’m talking about Job. The important thing became to make her suffer and to show people that she’s got it worse than they have it or maybe just as bad as they do. And that’s when you start to see these storylines like the cadaver story.
And things also were happening organically along the way. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen Gillian do was in Episode 115, which was "Romantic Expressionism," in which Annie dates Vaughn, and the cold open of that when she gives Annie a high-five because she wants to be cool and she tries to “turn it into a snake,” and she does this really awkward break-dance move and Annie’s reaction is to politely chuckle and walk away. And we hang on Britta who looks uncomfortable because her break-dancing move was hot. I thought that was the end of the journey for me. It was like, "Okay, we’ve done it now. We’ve created the comedic character out of an inherently non-sitcomy kind of archetype. The point of her character is that she does not belong in this. She can’t hold her own. She’s not double-taking and doing quick turns and she’s sort of awkward."
I don’t know how much you want to talk about next season but there’s a couple of things I’m curious about. Is the Anthropology professor going to be a character or is the idea that we’re just not going to bother with that class? And also, could you talk a little bit about the decision to make Chang no longer be their teacher and be a student and how he’s going to fit into this world?
The intention for quite awhile was to put them in a new class and to repeat the idea that although the classroom isn't central to the show, the study room is. It's like your "Star Trek" bridge or your "Cheers" bar. The fact that they are in a class needs to continue, but the teacher of that class could be anybody, that class could be anything. So I always very much wanted to get them into a completely different class. It's going to be more of a lecture hall environment. The teacher is going to be Betty White for the premiere. I'll go ahead and spoil this because it’s something I’m really excited about but for the Betty White character: she is suspended for her behavior in the Season 2 premiere, which mean she might come back at any time. And I would leave that up to Miss White pretty much. I want to see if she has a good time and wants to come back because I’m a big fan.
But in the meantime, I want to pull double-duty with that character and the person who’s filling in for her is going to be John Oliver, because he’s one of my favorite things about the first season, even though you never, ever got to see him. He's really one of the funniest guys I’ve ever worked with, and I wanted to see what it might be like just to see it if he in fact was the so-called "Chang," and Chang was in fact one of the students. Whether or not that makes Chang part of the study group and all that stuff, I won’t address, but I wanted to see John Oliver in front of our ensemble teaching some kind of class and the nice way to do it is that he’s filling in for suspended Betty White.
As for the decision to make Chang a student, that was just a matter of I don’t want people to get tired of anything and Ken Jeong is a really funny dude. And that position of teacher - a guy assigning homework and giving tests and being the ironically crazy authority figure - was good for exactly one season, in my opinion. Or maybe it would have been good for a season and half, but then you’d be locked into it and there would be a shelf life there and I wanted to keep moving. Ken is funny in very, very specific ways and is a very well received flavor in the show and I think that him as a student is going to create more opportunities for a memorable character. So I think we did enough with him standing in front of the class, teaching bad Spanish, being a bad teacher. I didn’t want to keep giving that to Ken.
Because it did seem like you sort of used him the way the Godzilla movies used the monster. He comes in periodically; he destroys things, he leaves before you get sick of him.
Right. Yeah, exactly. And I think he can do that as a student, too. We have some interesting plans for him as a student. He’s a unique character. Every actor is different. They can all get away with different things with the audience. Can you imagine if you pitched "crazy Chinese guy" just as an idea? You would be racist. As a white writer, if you pitched some of the things that Ken ends up doing with material, it would sound like you’re some kind of weird-thinking 50’s racist. But there’s nothing stereotypical about Ken’s character. Ken is a crazy person and as a comedian and his persona. They way that he gets laughs, it rides a very, very razor-thin line between resident crazy guy and fourth wall-breaing, because his performances are so unusual. But to me that’s part of what resonates him as a crazy guy. And so Ken, I feel like he’s a piece of the equipment, if I can speak crassly as a producer, that I’m getting 10% of the use I can get out of him. Not in terms of volume, but in terms of like comedy capability. Ken can be funny in 100% of X and we’ve shoehorned him into Y and he made that really funny and I want to pop him over into a more Ken Jeong-designed container; which is to say a more open container so he can be Ken Jeong.
You and I talk a lot about the reference humor on the show. What do you feel you learned about the way you employed it in the first season and how you might then apply it this year? Obviously, you’re doing a big "Apollo 13" episode.
Right, right. We have rules in the writers room about this that we sometimes break, frankly, but we try to chart our course by the rule that if it’s clearly just a reference that you’re doing something wrong. If it’s possible for you to understand without having seen the material, then that’s the only kind of reference humor you can do - and really specifically, if it’s entertaining whether you’ve seen the source material or not. I think that nobody thinks the chicken fingers episode is more a parody of "Goodfellas" than people who haven’t seen "Goodfellas," because they’re picking up, I think from other people, but also maybe from one or two of the things we did that "This is 'Goodfellas.'" And so I've seen things from people who go, "Man, I wish I had seen 'Goodfellas' so that I could enjoy this episode even more than I am." If I would engage those people I would say, "Hey, listen, you don’t need to see 'Goodfellas' to enjoy that episode. And you’d be surprised we’re not doing much from 'Goodfellas.' There’s a couple key things and then there’s many more things that are sort of like 'Goodfellas'/'Casino'/'Godfather,' but in general sort of a Mafia homage."
The same thing goes for the paintball episode. I remember people going, "Oh, man can we get a list of the references for paintball?" And I was like, "You know what? That wasn’t a reference-fest." So even though I don’t want to create the illusion that that’s what we do, it’s a special episode so because I know people are arguing, "Oh, is that a 'Predator' reference?," I’ll settle the argument. I’ll go, "You know what? I was thinking of 'Predator.' When I sat down to do it, it was like 4 things." It wasn’t that big a deal. There wasn’t that many references going on.
I can’t say what I learned except maybe that I think when Jeff says, “No paintballs, Hans” in the paint ball episode, when I watch that I go, "He didn’t need to say 'Hans.' Why did you have him say 'Hans'? It feels unnatural and it makes my mom go, 'Why is he calling her Hans?'" And it’s always subjective - you never know. Because every once in awhile the idea of saying "Hans" is like citing your references, because you don’t want to just rip something off. And I felt like at the time I wrote that I was just ripping off a moment from "Die Hard," and I didn’t want it to just be hacked and ripped off, I wanted to put a footnote on it saying "Die Hard." But if you haven’t seen "Die Hard," then he’s just saying "Hans," and he can’t say, "No paintballs - like in 'Die Hard'?" So unfortunately I haven’t learned anything yet. It’s a weird gunpowder to play with—reference humor. You can blow your foot off.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org