Mega 'Community' interview with Dan Harmon, part 2
Yesterday, I posted the first part of an extremely long interview I did with “Community” creator Dan Harmon about his return to the NBC comedy, saying goodbye to Donald Glover, making peace with Chevy Chase, and more. Now it’s time for part 2, where we get into more of the specific creative decisions that have driven season 5, why Chang remains the character Harmon struggles with most, letting Annie grow up, and how Harmon feels about the possibility of the phrase “six seasons and a movie” becoming a reality, among many Greendale-related topics.
The interview will conclude Monday with Harmon talking about his Adult Swim show “Rick & Morty” and what it’s like to be the creator of a low-rated network sitcom at a time when the networks are struggling to figure out the future of their business.
So when you set up the re-pilot, part of the point is that they’re all these huge failures despite their time together at Greendale. What was motivating that? Just to give them an excuse to still be around there?
Dan Harmon: We had a two-day conversation with the new writers which I didn’t want to speed up in spite of what we were up against. I said we’re gonna spend two days exhaustively exploring every single option that we have as fifth season “Community” writers. And we talked about everything no matter how absurd. First of all including Danny Pudi coming out of the cardboard Dreamatorium in his apartment at the beginning of season 5 and shaking it off and saying, “That was weird.” I mean, insane things like just finding out that the Greendale that we had seen for that year was actually some strange underground test facility. We just talked and talked and talked and had lots of fun talking about all these possibilities. And then after that two days expired, I said, “Okay, so we know every single possibility. So what do we think we really need to do? What is really our job?” And three minutes later, with absolutely no contention or debate in the room, the unanimous agreement was that what we needed to do was create a new pilot about the protagonist returning to his alma mater with whom he had a complex emotional relationship. We wanted to write a story that would hold up to the standard of a brand new television show being rolled out by NBC. And so we, yeah, we needed to retell the story we told in the first season pilot, because we knew the show was gonna continue to be about broken people. And so we needed to reestablish that they were broken. Not that they were particularly perfect at the end of the previous season, not that they had spent any time really becoming unflawed. But we really needed to create a situation in which Joel McHale could once again be put in the ironic position of rallying these people for dishonest reasons.
So we broke that story pretty quickly, and the embryo of 501 stayed intact. However, the outline for that story must have changed a thousand times. There was at one point a fully broken story about how the dean had summoned them all back because he had landed the school in financial jeopardy by taking grants from the federal government for a particle accelerator that he said Greendale had that didn’t exist. And that the Greendale Seven — the Greendale Six — needed to spend the episode creating a cardboard particle accelerator that they had to convince this visiting politician was actually functioning. We broke that one for a while. I got very gun shy right at the eleventh hour and thought that this thing was gonna be based on costumes and cardboard and it might feel to a conflicted fan or new viewer like this dead mouse which was being batted around the carpet by various cats and that it was always gonna be a dead mouse. And what we needed to do is bring the mouse back to life. And that had to be a more sublime job than the kidding in one direction or the other and that the cardboard had to go and the costumes had to go, and we really needed to just have them sit around that table and reestablish themselves as broken people so that Jeff could actually give them permission to destroy Greendale, have them give him the power to do it on their behalf. Have him walk away and make his own decision that he would stop all this business about trying to be a lawyer forever and find a new home at Greendale as a permanent member of its halls. And it turned into a relationship with the dean that was more like Hogan and Colonel Klink, you know, where they’re not quite on the same team but Jeff is always frustrated with the dean’s inability to make this place legitimate.
We haven’t gotten a lot of the dean so far, but you’ve definitely moved away from just putting him in funny dresses and crushing on Jeff. When he’s around, it’s for other things now.
Dan Harmon: Yeah. The dean makes a great authority figure for sitcom. He’s a new kind of archetype, so that’s his fundamental function. I mean, how many more costumes are you gonna put him in? We can get him back around that but (we enjoyed) just zooming in on him with a camera and revealing that in his head he’s hearing a soothing French acoustic guitar song about how Jeff won’t learn Excel. We wanted to reestablish that the dean is a very complex guy, and his complexity at one point started being expressed through these odd wardrobe choices. There were indications that there was something deeper at play in him. They eventually became, you know, the opposite of that. They became what they call a Flanderization. There’s nothing simpler than the guy who dresses up in funny costumes. (On “M*A*S*H”) Klinger started as a guy who was dressing up in costumes because of this really touching reason. He was wanted to get Section Eighted and get out of Korea because he wanted to survive. But after a while, it’s a guy just wearing a new dress.
Chris had a scene in 501 when Jeff storms back into the dean’s office. He’s getting dressed and saying he’s not decent. There’s a deleted moment from that. The dean was actually trying on a dress that had a musical note on it looking in a mirror and he says, “Pretty one-note, Craig.” And he takes it off. We had to lift it for time but also, if you’re gonna do away with the costumes for reasons of purity then why are you gonna do it through the fire hose of more “Community.” Let’s just let it go for a little bit.