COMMUNITY Q&A: Exec Producers Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna Discuss Season 6 and the Show's Ultimate Fate
For Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna, Community is forever. Both executive producers returned to the show last season, a year after Harmon had been fired from the job, and at this point feel a duty to stick with the comedy as long as it's around. Given the show's knack for escaping cancellation (thanks to the tenacity of its studio, Sony Pictures Television), Community can't be counted out.
Harmon and McKenna took a break from cracking Season 6 storylines in the Community writers' room to talk about the show's March 17 launch on Yahoo Screen, how the show weathers cast changes, why they can now say "Jesus!" on camera and whether Chevy Chase is coming back. (OK, they tiptoed around that one). An edited version of that conversation follows.
Community has always been meta, but there's an episode in Season 6 where Jeff Winger points out that everyone around him is leaving—and that he fears being the last man standing at Greendale. This sounds a lot like you guys.
McKenna: He's made no qualms about saying he'll do the show until he drops dead.
Harmon: Joel or me? Joel and I are similar in that way. Both of us have other options; neither of us can turn down work of any kind. Least of all, Community. And obviously if Joel stays, I have to stay, because he got me my job back. It's funny, I hadn't thought about the meta-quotient on my part. But maybe it's the sudden realization that after being the guy that wasn't supposed to have a show, the guy whose show was supposed to be canceled, the guy who got fired from his own show and then the guy who got rehired on his own show, Season 6 does have this strange twist of "OK, I am the only thing that can go wrong now." It's my show and I can't be a rebel anymore, I'm going to be the last one here.
Dan, you're such a fixture that Yahoo even put you along side the actors in its teaser campaign.
Harmon: I don't like it. I don't think that when [fellow showrunners] Mike Schur or Shonda Rhimes see that stuff they suddenly like me more than they already did. I want to be respected by writers, and I don't think writers respect famous things. I think writers have a code that "You're doing something wrong if people can hear your name and your voice." It's obnoxious, I feel a little embarrassed by it.
McKenna: But showrunners are flirting with celebrity all the time now.
Harmon: The reason I do what I do is because when my mom was praising me she was calling me a "special, good writer, it's amazing you wrote this." But then my worst days were when my mom was yelling at me and calling me obnoxious and snotty. It was such a fine line. Oh great, I'm special. But you're special because you're obnoxious. When Yahoo goes, "OK, you go in there," five things happen in my brain at once. One goes, "no, don't," another is, "Don't be that guy who says no, stop being fake humble, that's dumb too."
Let's talk about Season 6. How would you describe the tone this year? Is there a thruline?
Harmon: We have been very much doing a season that is a sitcom set in a community college. It's character-driven.
McKenna: We had promised ourselves we were going to do that last year too—a back-to-basics Season 5. And then we had the curve ball of Donald [Glover] not coming back so we had to write in this epic goodbye.
Harmon: Hot lava got in our blood and it never left.
McKenna: With Hickey (Jonathan Banks), we ended up pairing him with every character as we went along, and we were really excited to explore that character last season. This year we have two brand new characters (Paget Brewster and Keith David), which the first two episodes are dedicated to setting up each of them. We were being hard on ourselves to really keep to that idea to let's have it be character based. What does it look like with these two new people sitting at the table with everybody, and how do we tell stories that are creating this new ensemble? That is more than what we had to do last year in some ways.
Tell me more about how the two new characters are introduced.
Harmon: Frankie (Brewster) has been hired by the dean to be the more professional, grounded version of what the Dean has been relying on them to do for a season or two: Save Greendale, turn it around, get it out of the crosshairs of society. She is a professional problem solver, not just somebody who's doing it because they love the school. In a slightly unconscious way she might be a metaphor for Yahoo, in the sense that she's an unusually professional presence in this asylum. She's the first character that we introduced to the Greendale universe whose driving force is she needs these things to make sense.
McKenna: Also metaphorically, we don't have anyone telling us what to do anymore, but there are characters in the premiere who see a new face and automatically assume it means villainy, an authority figure to rebel against. That's an element of our story because we just can't believe how awesome Yahoo has been. When does the other shoe drop?
Harmon: I've been waiting to lose a contact, then crawl through an air vent in Silicon Valley and catch the CEO of Yahoo eating a guinea pig like in the 1980s V movie.
McKenna: That window has shut; we knew we only had January to bring him back because of his obligations. It's hard to pin ourselves to one person like that.
What about Chevy Chase?
Harmon: His character is a hologram now. On one hand, holograms are such that if you bump a light switch they can come on.
McKenna: There could have been a lot of b-roll, cutting room floor.
What happened with Chevy claiming that he was invited to appear in Season 6?
Harmon: I saw that he said on Reddit that he was coming back for Season 6 and I saw that everyone assumed he was getting the season wrong. All I'll say is, if Chevy was approached about doing a cameo and he did spill it on Reddit, then he deserves everyone accusing him of being insane. Because it would be a fun surprise for him to come back that he would have spoiled on Reddit.
Any chance Donald could make a return cameo as Troy?
Harmon: That's too painful to go into. I feel like the relationship between Abed and Troy was so much more important to some people, including myself, than Jim and Pam, or Dave and Maddie, or Sam and Diane. And unlike those relationships, it ended in tragedy. So I can't make a joke about Donald walking through a scene. I just want him to come back. We're always approaching him in the sense that I'm always saying in interviews, "please come back Donald." I'll talk to him on the phone about life and stuff, and I don't want to be the guy who he stops calling so I don't push it. I want him back, but I don't think I would come back if I were him. If you look at his career, Donald has no scientific evidence that there's anything he cant do, so if I were him I would be trying to eat the moon at this point just to see if there was something I could fail at. And maybe after that, if I break my teeth on the moon, then I'll come back to Community.
I do feel if we do a movie, it does seem like a natural thing for him to return. We established he went off with LeVar Burton to go around the world, that it was a treacherous journey. We did plant an Easter egg that it's possible they were taken over by pirates in the Gulf of Mexico. It seems like movie territory.
Now that you've lost more of the original cast, it's becoming more noticeable that the ensemble has changed. How has that changed the show?
Harmon: Even when we did have everything that we now recognize as Community for three years in a row, i.e., the whole cast, I was always taking things that could have stayed the same and actively changing them. I'm always incredibly terrified of growing dependent on things that are not within your control. You can control if your show is well written, you can control how you're telling stories, you can control a million things, but you can't control actors' contracts and you can't control the weather. I get nervous when the show is perfect, but if Alison Brie gets a cold we're completely screwed. I always felt more comfortable than someone should about the idea that we're in season 6 and we have half of the cast that we started with. Because I always planned for that. You just deal with the reality.
McKenna: Luckily our reality is we are filling creative gaps with Paget Brewster and Keith David. We'd be telling a different story if they weren't as incredible as they are. Paget just plants herself right there in the premiere and holds her own. In episode two we introduce Keith David and he's just fantastic. They bring their own gifts, sensibility, talents, comedic voices to these characters that we were trying to figure out.
If the show returns for a seventh season, there's a good chance you'll lose even more of the cast. What happens then?
Harmon: There are two ways of looking at it. One way is we have been pared down to the absolute minimum. Alison Brie, if she needs to be unavailable for an extra hour a week, our show just deflates like a balloon across the room because we've lost Donald, we've lost Chevy, we've lost Yvette and we've got these amazing actors left but if we lose one muscle from one of them, that's it.
But the show itself is about people in transition that are lost and never know what's going on. It's a post-television, post-sitcom television sitcom. There is another way of looking at it: Once you've died this many times and come back to life, what are the rules? Is there such a thing as a bad version of Community, if we audition a bunch of new people and do some strange Law & Order spinoff using the same sets and sensibility? The answer is in the audience's mind. We can't make that decision. We will find out on March 17 how Community fits into pop culture now.
How did you first break the news to Joel and the cast about the show's revival?
Harmon: I thought the whole cast was back and they were coming to me last. So I said "no" when I heard the word Yahoo because I had never heard that word in association with television before. When you're in this intense relationship with something, an excuse to have it all be over sometimes is a really delightful release. I had grown accustomed to the fact that it made sense for Hulu to do the show, because they bought my house. It made sense to do a 6th season on Hulu and I was bracing myself, "I gotta do it or I'm the guy who canceled Community in an ironic twist of fate." So I was all ready for it.
Therefore, when it turned from Hulu to Yahoo I immediately said, "No way, that's ridiculous." Then 20 minutes later, [Yahoo chief marketing officer] Kathy Savitt called on the phone to just walk me through how she perceived Yahoo, how she perceived Community, how she perceived the potential of Community on Yahoo. She was talking to me in a tone that I could distinctly detect there was absolutely no hidden agenda. She did know what she didn't know and she was so invested. She was so aware of what Yahoo was in the zeitgeist of culture and how that could change or not change.
There was no way I could say no to this person. I would have spent the rest of my life wondering, seeing her name in the press and thinking, "What if I had joined forces with her? She might have a moon colony at some point. If I do a good enough of a show, maybe we get extra oxygen."
Beyond that I couldn't do it without Chris, which was a more painful thing. With Chris it's always, "I'll do it if you do it, no I'll do it if you do it." I can never tell if Chris is about to kill himself or if he wants to do it or if he'll just do it if I do it.
McKenna: There was, like Dan said, a bit of relief. There's pain and relief. When Dan got fired at the end of Season 3 and that was it, and we weren't coming back, it was really painful. I couldn't believe it. When we came back for Season 5, there was certain relief (in cancelation), we've been kicked around so much and now it's gone, time to move on. I had a lovely studio at Universal, I was supposed to be developing for them over the past couple of years and then Community got in the way last year. My feeling has always been if Dan is passionate about it, from the beginning, if you are in, then I am in. It's hard for me to say I'm not in when Dan is in. It's very hard to turn down my favorite show of all time.
Have you encountered any disconnect between Silicon Valley and Hollywood?
Harmon: So far, every way they don't get it makes them superior. I haven't seen them be embarrassed by their disconnect with TV. They're coming in because TV is changing so much. Everybody doing something different, whether it's Vince Gilligan or John Landgraf. Everyone who is bothering to do something different is getting rewarded for it. I was talking to the Overstock.com guys who are starting to make TV and they were asking me questions like, "Does each writer take a character?" They're getting ready to make TV and they know as much as my mom does. My mom is their customer base and they may end up making the next Orange is the New Black.
McKenna: They've been so incredibly supportive of the show. It's all about us being able to do what we want to do. They're happy to watch and have us do it.
Harmon: I don't think what we're experiencing right now is at all what is to come. I don't think it should be. Yahoo is treating us like royalty. Part of their big plan is to establish themselves as friends of the creative and bring this passionate audience on board. I feel like when I talk to them that none of us are lying and none of us are playing poker. But they're not Pollyanna, they're not babes in the woods. They're incredibly effective people. They've been running this company. They know how to multitask. They know how to run a meeting. You sit with them for a few minutes and 11 things get decided and then followed up on. That isn't the case in the world that I come from.
McKenna: They're bringing their skills and acumen at running giant, cutting edge companies and they're certainly not coming in and telling us how to do our show, They're saying, "Here is how to market your show and we're going to give you 13 different subsets of marketing teams that now are so excited about your show and are going to figure out ways to market your show." In terminology where you're nodding and pretending you understand.
How conscious are you of Yahoo as a boss?
Harmon: Standards and practices wise, we've been in an active state of simultaneous hyper-vigilance and denial. We realized that there isn't anyone who's going to tell us absolutely there are rules against something, therefore we've taken on a much more sensitive role of asking ourselves, "Is this appropriate or not?" On the other hand, there is going to be a noticeable loosening of the corset. It's not like the show becomes filthy, but there will be a couple of noticeable, really granular things
McKenna: It was like in the 1990s when you heard "bitch" on TV for the first time. It's not anything that extreme.
Can you give me an example of what you can now say on the show that you couldn't before?
Harmon: The fact is 99% of us will often say "Jesus!" as an expression of surprise. It's not something we consider profane.
McKenna: We're no longer saying "Jiminy Cricket!"
Harmon: I don't want my characters saying "shit," I think that would be weird. But I always found it odd that people couldn't utter that word on TV, that utterance that's so primal and not profane.
McKenna: I grew up in an extremely Catholic household, and I think I heard "Jesus Christ" used a way of expressing shock and dismay more than the F-word or "shit."
Is it easier or harder now to break a story for Community?
Harmon: Breaking of stories gets harder every year. It's a creative challenge to continue to keep characters that are this familiar going through experiences that challenge them every single week and then resolving them. It's difficult. I think me getting older makes it difficult.
McKenna: The sky's the limit in a lot of ways and we constantly try to keep this as character-based as possible. But then, idiots we are, we still have these ideas that are rocketing around in our heads. Usually that spells trouble for a lot of story breaking when we have a concept idea that we're still trying to land.
Do you guys ever sit around and say, "I can't believe we're getting away with this?"
Harmon: Absolutely, yeah. We're on our third or fourth week, table reading a script on Friday that shoots the following Monday. That's not the way to produce TV. Yahoo knows that. We're not fooling them. But they trust us.
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