If NBC's fall schedule had worked out as planned, "Community" fans would be 10 days away from seeing what the NBC comedy looks and sounds like without its creator, Dan Harmon, running things. Instead, on Monday, NBC opted to delay the fourth season, run by veteran sitcom producers Moses Port and David Guarascio, indefinitely.
After Harmon's contract wasn't renewed, I wrote that there's a very mixed history of shows trying to replicate a voice as distinctive as Harmon's when the creator quits or is fired. Because "Community" is so beloved by its small but loud fanbase, because Harmon was so active and public in his relationship with those fans, and because the show felt like no other comedy on television, the fans have been nervous at a minimum, outraged at a maximum, at the change in leadership.
Port and Guarascio have largely stayed out of the public eye since they took the job. Since attending the show's Comic-Con panel in July, they refrained from doing interviews until a recent round designed to promote the since-pushed October 19th premiere date.
I spoke with the duo yesterday about their thought process on stepping into this delicate situation, what they liked about "Community" before they took charge of it, and how they intend to continue what Harmon started in a way that will feel right to the fans.
Before this came up, were you viewers of "Community," and, if so, what did you as a neutral party think of it?
DAVID GUARASCIO: We were huge fans of "Community." As fans, when Sony called us to say, 'Listen, Dan is going to be off the show, and we'd like you guys to run it,' our first response was, 'Are you sure that's a good idea, not having Dan there?' We certainly associated him with the show. I think a lot of fans have. From there, we were hesitant about it. But as we started watching episodes, we landed in a place it's just a unique sandbox from a writer's perspective. There weren't a lot of shows where you could tell the kinds of stories you do on the show, and a cast as funny as any cast that's ever been on TV. WE thought it was a a once in the lifetime opportunity, and maybe we should just do it.
Was there any reticence based on the fact that guys who had worked under Dan had declined to take this job when it was offered to them?
DAVID GUARASCIO: We didn't know exactly what had happened before they called us. We didn't know who had turned it down prior. In that sense, it did not affect our decision in any way. We've spoken to some of those guys afterwards just to find out where their heads were at. We knew that we wanted to lean as heavily as possible on the people who have worked here, the writers and producers who are returning. We made a point of letting these people know we're not coming here because we want to change the show. We want to keep making the show we've been loving as fans for three years. This is not a change in direction, as far as we're concerned. This is, 'Let's continue the path that's been blazed in the first three years.'
In that respect, this is a show that had a very distinctive, idiosyncratic voice. How do you come in to that show in year four and find a way to replicate that voice and yet have it still feel like something you're writing as opposed to you just copying the things the people before you did?
MOSES PORT: The first thing is, I don't think we came in here being like, 'We need to put our stamp on it.' When we came in, we made the conscious decision that we're going to check our ego at the door. We love this show and want to do what's best for the show. That meant coming in and doing a lot of catch up about how things were done. We weren't coming in and saying, 'This is a new show right now.' We had long discussions with the writers who had been here before us about the way they write stories, the way they held stories, and we wanted to continue in that tradition.
DAVID GUARASCIO: Every year of every show is different from every year that preceded it. Even on "Community," season 2 is different from season 1 and season 3 from season 2. No matter who's running the show in season 4, that would be the case, as long as you're true to following the arc that the characters have been on previously. That's where we wanted to take the show, is where it's been. You can't copy it. Only Dan running the show can do what Dan would do. What we can do is take the information and the stories that have been told over the last three years, and think with our writing staff, and our fellow producers, and our cast — they're as important as anybody in breathing life into this show and making it something that's not just on a page but lives and breathes in the medium. In that sense, honestly, we couldn't really copy if we tried. But we can keep the spirit of the television show alive.
Before this became your job, when you were just fans of "Community," what in particular appealed to you about the show?
DAVID GUARASCIO: I often refer to the Dungeons and Dragons episode. There are so many distinct aspects to the show, and you're always able to find this unexpected drama and deep complicated stories and character arcs within the vein of this comedy that can be larger than life. That episode hit some of those dramatic points really beautifully, and felt like a hallmark of the show, as a fan.
MOSES PORT: Obviously, that paintball episode was the first thing. I remember seeing Troy's 21st birthday and the pen episode, and just being struck by how many different ways you can do the show and it can still feel like a "Community" episode.
Coming into a show that has the ability to do that — where "Community" and Greendale can be whatever you want them to be — has that been freeing for you? How did it feel when you first took over?
DAVID GUARASCIO: There is something a little intimidating about it, but ultimately, it's a little more exciting than anything. That's kind of the hard work that took place before we got here. Dan and others tunneled through mountains to make sure that this show told stories in a unique fashion. Setting those ground rules, that's taken place over the past three years. That was a hard battle to fight, and a hard course to maintain. That being said, we've certainly had to face our own share of (belief that) with the change, maybe there were some sense in some quarters, maybe when the show changed direction it could get a little broader. We made clear when we took the job that that was not going to be a goal of ours. If that happens, that's great. But what's kept the show going for the past three years is a really passionate audience. Particularly with the change in day and time, we felt it was more important to keep the show as unique as it was and satisfy those viewers rather than worry about broadening it to attract other people. That being said, if more people want to watch the show, that would be fantastic.
At Comic-Con and here, you've talked about how you're relying on Megan (Ganz) and Andy (Bobrow) and the other holdovers to steer you right when you go wrong. Were there times early on where you started coming up with an idea, and they said, 'No, no, no, that doesn't work. That's not something we do here.'?
DAVID GUARASCIO: Yeah. Frankly, that happens on every show. And we still rely on the writers who've been here before, and the cast. The cast has been very helpful in guiding the show as well to make sure that the tone and spirit is the same. I think it's always more of, as opposed to a "no no no," a dialogue and discussion than a hard-cast black and white thing.
MOSES PORT: All of it's subjective. You say we could rely on Megan and Andy, and Megan and Andy don't always agree. That's why it's all a dialogue and discussion.
DAVID GUARASCIO: In our episode where Jeff Winger meets his dad, Joel McHale was really helpful in making sure we were attacking that story in a way that was true to his character. That's probably not the way the show would have been handled previously, but I think given who we are and all the changes, that's a way that things are slightly different than they were before.
When you guys were at Comic-Con, you were throwing out all this audience bait: "Do you people like Inspector Spacetime? Yeah? Then how'd you like an episode at an Inspector Spacetime convention?" How cognizant are you guys of the fact that the fans are, at the very least, nervous about the show without Dan?
DAVID GUARASCIO: We're very aware of it. The show has such a good dialogue with its fans, through the writers, through Twitter accounts, just the way the Internet is. We can't help but know what people are thinking and feeling, and also afraid of at times. In that sense, we're in a unique place and time where fans can influence shows to a degree, and it's so easy to let people know what you're thinking. So we're definitely aware. We did make an Inspector Spacetime convention episode, and that's a good example of something that, at first, the network and the studio really didn't want us to do, to be honest with you. But we felt it could be a great "Community" episode, it could be something the fans would want — not just to use it as bait, but to tell good emotional stories with these characters at this particular time in their lives.
MOSES PORT: Eventually, though, when you're getting down to work, you do have to tune out everything and just get to the task at hand. Everyone wants to connect with the audience, but when you're writing scripts and producing episodes, there are too many creative decisions where you can't afford to sit back and wonder, 'Will the fans like this? Will the fans like that?' A lot of storytelling involves going with your gut on what you think is good or not.
DAVID GUARASCIO: Yeah, you're relying on your instinct and that of the people making the show with you.
When you got the job and realized, 'Hey, this is our show now,' what were your initial thoughts on what you wanted to do? Were there certain stories you wanted to tell with these characters? Were there any characters or combinations of characters you were particularly looking forward to writing?
DAVID GUARASCIO: This is not to belittle how much passion we have for the show, but we probably don't think of it as "our show." Having created our own TV shows, that have not been on the air as long as this one has, it's whoever created it, it's their show. Everyone else is helping take care of the magic garden they planted. One of the things that really informed our thinking is that the show has always done a good job of marking time. Each new season is a new school year, and coming into this year, it's going to be the senior year for some of the characters on the show. They're not necessarily planning on being at Greendale for eight years. Some of them, like Jeff Winger, are looking to get out of there as soon as possible. We wanted to approach it as if we weren't hiding from the end of the school year, so to speak. We wanted to lean into the fact that these people are seniors, and they're going to be feeling that the end is coming, and that's going to change not just how they're thinking of what's going to happen next to them, but how they're relating to each other. There's a maturity that comes with that that may affect some of the personal relationships on the show. We're doing a little more with that this year. Troy and Britta are more of a real couple now this year, and that has a domino effect on Jeff's character, and on Annie's character. When Jeff's going through some changes and meeting his dad this year, maybe that will perhaps have an inadvertent effect on his relationship with Britta while she's in a relationship with Troy. We want to mine some of those things that have been seeded over the last three years.
This is a show that's been living by the skin of its teeth for most of its run, but it's here in year four, moving to a new night and a new time. The characters are starting their senior year; do you have a tentative plan for what you want to do if it turns out the ratings on Friday are decent enough that it gets to keep going? Or is that just a bridge you'll cross over if that good news comes?
DAVID GUARASCIO: We have some tentative planning. The way we're looking at it is we want the last episode that airs this year, whether it's the 13th, the 22nd, the 17th — we could get more episodes, maybe nine more, maybe fewer, or it could be just 13 — to end the season the way they did last year, which could have worked as a great season finale and great series finale, while still knowing we have a plan, should we get to return for a season 5. That's going to be a hard course to navigate, but that's just a reality of the business. We just have to try to figure it out. We're looking forward. There's a lot of story discussions we have internally where we end up referencing season 5, whether or not there's going to be one.
In the premiere, there's a lot of talk about change, and Abed and other characters are fearing change. This is a show that's always been a self-aware show, dialoguing with itself, with its characters and its fans at the same time. Was the premiere designed in a way to say to the fans, 'Look, we know this is going to be different now. Dan's not here; hopefully, it's okay.'?
DAVID GUARASCIO: Yeah
MOSES PORT: Definitely.
DAVID GUARASCIO: And for us, we liked the way it worked in a meta way in dialoguing with the fans, but it also worked within the lives of the characters in the show itself. It makes sense they would be concerned about change coming into their fourth year of college. We didn't want to put it on there just to put it on. It felt integrated into the life of the show, but it absolutely was something we were aware of. And it was a dialogue we want to continue to have as the season goes along, to some degree. But it's the most in the first episode.
(At this point, we discussed a few specifics of the premiere that the producers wanted to keep secret; that section of the interview will appear with my review of the premiere. In the course of that discussion, though, Guarascio mentioned that the returning producers and actors on the show had the same trepidation about the two of them as the fans have, and that it was easier to reassure them because they got to work on the show together. Springing out of that, I asked…)
The fans didn't get to work on the show with you. At this point, what would you say to them to reassure them before they get to see your version of it?
DAVID GUARASCIO: I guess there really is nothing to say. The proof is in the pudding. We just hope people tune in and find it, whether it's Friday at 8:30 or on their DVR or on Hulu or however else people consume "Community." They do it so many different ways. We want you to check it out, really. Please just look at it and put on your critical thinking creative hat. We think if people are still open to loving the show, they're going to really like what we're doing.
MOSES PORT: Our first three episodes, we think are really strong. We're excited for everyone to see them.
DAVID GUARASCIO: We stopped trying after the first three.