Community: Creator Dan Harmon And Star Joel McHale Interviewed

Interview by Tara Bennett

How can it be that a television show featuring alternate reality episodes, an imagination room dubbed the Dreamatorium, Dungeons & Dragons role-playing, and a Doctor Who parody called Inspector Spacetime isn’t considered a genre show? That’s because Community , the US cult gem, is a sitcom that’s really a mash up of every genre that creator Dan Harmon decides to explore via his cast of non-traditional students attending Greendale Community College.

Now in its third season, Community could fairly be called the US cousin to Spaced , as the series explores whatever geeky terrain best brings out the worst in a study group of misfits led by Jeff Winger (Joel McHale). In fact, Community is SFX readers’ favourite non-genre show that they wish we would cover. Well, wish granted. We recently caught up with Community ’s creator Dan Harmon and Joel McHale to talk about why the show is so fan beloved yet ratings challenged and what’s coming in the final episodes of the season.

Community has been off the air since late last year but there’s been a groundswell of support from fans on Twitter, on Facebook and from critics. Did that keep everyone’s spirits up behind the scenes?

Joel McHale: “That was just so wonderful. The tremendous response really kept our show in the conversation and created even more of a conversation about the show. I hope that huge brush fire that the fans started spreads to other people and will catch them on fire and they will be burned by it.” [Laughs]

Dan Harmon: “It’s true. They say that if you lose one of your senses the others intensify. I mean our worst measurement has always been the Nielsen ratings so we’re eliminating that sense of our success. All of a sudden the only way to measure us was by the fanaticism of a global audience. And so all of a sudden it felt like there were more people watching our show than ever when we were off the air.”

You’ve said the second half of the season will get darker?

Dan Harmon: “I think when I said that this would be the darkest season, it was more of a prediction then anything. It turned out to be right because the show itself, in a med sense, suffered a cardiac arrest. But expressing darkness is just another way of worshiping the light.”
Joel McHale: “I don’t want to raise expectations but this is going to be the greatest second half of any television show in the history of the world.”

One of the best received episodes this season was the alternate reality episode, “Remedial Chaos Theory”. Did you have an idea that that topic and how you handled it would be such a home run?

Dan Harmon: “I didn’t know until the night it aired that that was going to be the favourite of the season. I thought there was an equal chance that people were going to wretch at it because it was a conceptual episode that mainly focused on people eating pizza. I’ll be the first to admit I never know what people are going to like and not like so that’s a big part of why the show is so awkwardly ambitious because it never trusts itself to stick with something that works. We’re going to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall like we always do but the one thing that I’ve always been able to rely upon is the audience’s love of the actors.”

Dan Harmon: “We’ve dreaded episodes that people have gone through the roof for. The Dungeons And Dragons episode was not a popular dance partner politically and there was a scramble to cut its throat in some of the halls of the corporate buildings because it was a nerdy topic.”

Joel McHale: “Dan is amazing. They weren’t even worried about the suicide, it was the nerdy stuff.” [Laughs]

Dan Harmon: “Yes, it was that we kept saying goblins. ‘Stop it, stop saying that word!’”

Is there a lot of pressure to reel in the weirdness of the show?

Dan Harmon: “Yes, constantly. More so from Sony – and in their defence, they are foremost experts at the syndication game. Their goal is to create packages of consistent juggernauts that they can sell worldwide. But everyone’s definition of a weird episode is whatever they don’t like.” [Laughs]

Joel McHale: “That conversation breaks down pretty quickly. When people say, ‘You’re only allowed to do five weird episodes this year,’ I say, ‘Name last year’s ten weird episodes.’ And then very quickly the subjectivity creeps in and everyone gets flummoxed and the conversation turns to rubble and they just say, ‘Look, just be less weird.”’”

What makes you happiest about how the show has evolved in three seasons?

Dan Harmon: “I’m most happy with the fact that it’s focused on the characters. The truth is the way that we get away with stuff is having handed some very basic archetypes to some incredibly talented versatile actors who are so consistent in their dimensionalising of these characters. You can just take them and put them in space suits; you can put them in a musical; you can make them pirates and it still stands. That makes me very proud and makes me feel like I've been a part of something, a successful rocket launch.”

Joel McHale: “When you get the new script it’s like opening a gift on Christmas morning. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be on a show where the same thing keeps happening. I’m sure there’s probably the network discussions on wanting to bring the show in but I think the fans would burn the place down if that happened. The creativity of the show is unmatched I think in television history. I really do believe that. I’m not kidding when I say that.”

Are you moving towards a dramatic event like you have in the past two seasons?

Joel McHale: “Yes, we have to come together as a group this year because of Chang. The group needs all hands on deck as we battle him.”

Community Season One is available on DVD in the UK

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