It's back-to-school time, and we're actually looking forward to it. Not because we wish our children would get out of the house, but because one of the new fall shows we're looking forward to starts tonight, and it's a school-based comedy called Community. Following a slightly evil lawyer who has to re-earn his law degree at a local community college, we meet a half-dozen of his fellow students of varying ages, as well some of the school's bizarre teaching staff. Joel McHale plays the main character, Jeff, and we got to talk to him and series creator Dan Harmon on a conference call as they discussed their experiences on the set. There will be a quiz later.
Joel, what was the appeal of this project for you?
Joel McHale: Oh, well, I read a lot of pilot scripts, and after reading Dan's script it was so head and shoulders above everything else that I was reading. First and foremost it was just incredibly funny and then it had really strong characters and a lot of heart. I read it on a plane on the way back from a standup gig, and I was sitting next to a guy who was watching What Happens in Vegas on his laptop, and he was getting mad at me because I was laughing out loud while I was reading this script. So I was interrupting his romantic comedy with Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher, and I thought that was pretty ironic.
Dan, can you talk about how your vision for the series actually came to life?
Dan Harmon: I come from a career path where I was doing robots, talking motorcycles, time travel kind of stuff. And I got tired and broke, and I just really, really, really wanted to find out what happens before I died if I actually hoisted my sails to the system's constant pleas for something a little more mainstream, instead of just fighting it and listening to that as some kind of death. I wanted to do a show that my mom would kind of be into, which sounds horrible to any comedy writer, but my mom liked a lot of really, really great stuff when I was a kid. And in fact she had so much respect for TV that it caused me to move to LA -- I had to try to impress her by controlling what comes over this magic box. And this is an attempt to do a classic show in a modern world. But the short, boring answer is I went to community college a couple years ago and I thought it'd be a good idea for a pitch, you know, when I ran out of robot stuff.
Joel, what's it like working with comedy legend Chevy Chase?
McHale: It's like working with Nolan Ryan. He's older than everybody, but when he throws the ball, he throws it harder than anyone and he can be -- you know, he's Chevy Chase. He can be incredibly funny.
Harmon: Unfortunately that's not actually a metaphor, Chevy just throws stuff on the set.
McHale: Yeah, he shows up with actual baseballs, which is distracting and not part of the script. And, yeah, it's so strange to be acting with a guy who I grew up [watching].
Do you get to improv at all with him, or do you stick pretty close to the script?
Harmon: Chevy actually makes up quite a bit of things. He tends to come up with lines that you can actually end scenes with sometimes, which I'm really impressed by. And Joel does it, Donald Glover does it. We have a really, really, really talented cast of people with a lot of improv chops.
McHale: Yeah, and it doesn't mean in any way at all that there's a shortage of incredible writing, because what Dan puts on paper is astonishing. And so it's like getting the best strawberries in the world and somebody goes, "Do you want whipped cream on it, too?" And so the cast is amazing and the writing is amazing. So I'm sure it will all come to a horrible end when I step in front of a bus.
Harmon: And when it comes to take-for-take and line-for-line, [Joel] feeds back directly into the dialogue, because he has his own style, and I try as hard as I can to capture it when I write his stuff, but to the extent that there's a need there, he loosens it up and comes up with the fantastic stuff.
Danny Pudi's Abed seems like he'll be a breakout character on the show.
Harmon: The moment Danny came in for the part, it was -- I don't know how to describe that stuff, because it always sound like a non-statement when you say, "I absolutely knew he was perfect for the part." You're just looking at the person that you know is going to be on the screen playing this character. And the audition process is absolutely grueling for a network comedy. It's got to be one of the most challenging things you've ever been asked to do while you simultaneously are supposed to be funny or quirky. And Danny just never blinked, much like the character, and would put on his little Chapstick before every audition, and then stand in the corner, and then launch into this character in a way that just made everybody go, "Well, there's no real discussion here. This is the guy." And it doesn't hurt that he's just so nice and so brilliant at improvising comedy when you need him to.
Do you have a favorite scene with him?
Harmon: He dresses as Batman for the Halloween episode, and we took him into a quiet room on the set while they were shooting other stuff, and I said "Danny, what if we just end this episode with you talking like Batman, you know, in the Christian Bale voice, like explaining things." And he's like, "What do you mean?" I said, "Look, just sort of talk for a while about the dichotomies of justice versus you know, anger, versus love, versus right and wrong and let your dichotomy get kind of tangled, you know how it is." And he just sort of did this thing that was -- there were tears streaming down my face. You know he's talking like this [in Batman voice]: "I've got to go because I'm Batman, and I can't be out there unless people are taking care of themselves. But you know I have to take care of them, too, and if I take care of them, they can't take care of themselves." And I'm not doing it any justice. He's just really, really funny.
What sort of plots will we see this season?
Harmon: We're going to find out why Abed's in community college, and what his wishes are as opposed to like what his father's wishes are, and Britta and Jeff are going to get entangled in that story. We're going to find out more about Troy and his past with Annie at the high school that they went to, and how that pertains to Troy's experiences at Greendale. He's a football star and the dean wants him to play on Greendale's team. So that's a story. Shirley and Jeff are going to have a brief, but intense, gossip-fueled relationship that is -- well, it's super-bonding for them. It's absolutely toxic for the rest of the world. We're going to see Chevy's character, Pierce, attempt to write a school song and get a glimpse into his creative process, including his dreams in which he's haunted by his fears of his mediocrity, personified by Jeff. And all kinds of other fun stuff. There'll be a Christmas episode that's going to be really, really great. And the Halloween episode we just finished shooting, it's really funny. I think that's a lot that I said.
Joel McHale: Dan, did you mention the "Carpe Diem" episode?
Harmon: There's a "Carpe Diem" teacher, a guy who's seen Dead Poets Society one too many times and fancies himself a kind of liberator of the human spirit. And at first, Jeff thinks that's kind of the ideal blow-off class, because you don't have to do any work, any book learning in that class. But the guy is so stringent about whether or not you seize the day, it turns out to be the toughest class Jeff ever took.
Joel McHale: John Michael Higgins [is the] "Carpe Diem" teacher, and I had a teacher like that in high school named Mr. Anslow. He would scream and yell, and his passion about history was unbelievable, and that is the only reason why I majored in history in college, because of his screaming at us. He would go, "Students, students, I'm waiting for the answer with bated breath!"
Dan, did you base any of your characters on old friends or professors?
Harmon: There's a lot of memories of people I went to high school with. You know, Annie specifically is a girl that I went to high school with, that was my port of departure. There was a friend of mine named Abed that I sort of started with for Abed. An ex-girlfriend had a father that Pierce is modeled after and things like that. It's all over the life span.
Joel, do you have more fun doing movies or TV?
McHale: I prefer what we're doing here, because the roles I had in those movies were pretty small. The Informant is premiering this week with Matt Damon, and that was a lot more satisfying as far as a movie experience, because my role was larger and I actually did something. But as far as, you know, really being able to sink my teeth into something that hopefully will [last] a long time, this is just off the charts.
Dan, what are the big differences between working on this show and working on The Sarah Silverman Show?
Harmon: Obviously, there's more money. But the crazy thing about it -- or maybe it's not crazy at all -- is the amount of creative support. I always thought that the higher up on the pyramid you got, the more machine-like everything would become. But the truth is, the higher you go up on the pyramid, the more everybody beneath you, everybody on the crew, everybody that does everything and everyone above you, everyone who is like representing the money and giving you notes and stuff, the more those people represent the top of their respective games. And so it becomes actually a more intense yet human-like process. You know, you have a network that's giving you notes, like, "Do you think these characters' sexuality is too on-the-nose during the scene?" instead of, "I didn't get the joke about the wine cork on Page 13." So it's more sophisticated, it feels like coming home, as if I could ever pretend to belong around here. It feels like the TV industry I always fantasized about.
Any college horror stories?
McHale: I woke up ten minutes after an Italian final started, and I have never run faster to a class. I was wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt and had bed head, and I ran into the class, and everyone burst out laughing, and I was so bad at Italian that I couldn't even curse them out in Italian. And it wasn't even worth it for me to go to the test, because I think I came close to failing it.
Dan, you used to write comic books with Rob Schrab -- have you ever considered comics as an outlet for your crazier ideas, like Javier Grillo-Marxauch did with The Middleman?
Harmon: You know, the Lonely Island guys and I -- you know, Jorma [Taccone] and Akiva [Schaffer] and Andy Samberg -- we talk every once in a while about doing exactly that with an idea that we had with Oni Press. But as you can imagine, there's things on front burners and things on side burners, and the odds of us all hooking up at the same time when we're totally available, it keeps getting pushed off.
Joel, do you have any fears of working with anyone after your time on The Soup? Do you foresee any potential problems if there was a certain guest star on Community?
McHale: Well we just covered a show called Into the Pride with David Salmoni and he lived with a den of lions or a pride of -- I don't know what you call it, but I do not want to work with lions. They are horribly dangerous, and anybody who does is stupid. Also, I'm [not] working with Tila Tequila if I'm not properly vaccinated.
Community airs tonight at 9:30/8:30C on NBC.
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