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Joel McHale and Dan Harmon – It Takes a Community

COMMUNITY — “Advanced Gay” Episode 306 — Pictured: Joel McHale as Jeff — Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC

Joel McHale and Dan Harmon

It Takes a Community

by Jay S. Jacobs

After an extended winter break, the crazy students and faculty at Greendale Community College are back on campus – and you know what that means, new episodes of the cult fave must-see sitcom Community. 

A few days before the show returned with a rash of new spring and summer episodes, star Joel McHale and show creator Dan Harmon gave a conference call with media outlets to talk about the show’s return.  And just like the Wichita lineman, we were on the line for this chat.

Since we’ve seen the cast of Cougar Town do a major push to gain viewers doing things such as holding fan viewing parties and preventing spoilers and having lots of interviews, have you considered such extreme measures for Community?

Dan Harmon: No, we haven’t considered it.

Joel McHale: You’re looking at it right here because this is it. This is all we’re doing – this call.

Dan Harmon: Our way of trying to get people to watch the show is make the best show possible. I’m from Wisconsin, so I always feel a little nauseous about begging and trying to trick people into liking me. I’m obsessed with earning people’s attention, so I wouldn’t be the right guy to do it anyway. But I welcome NBC and Sony to promote the hell out of the show. I think they should definitely do that.

Joel McHale: I would like to get the budget from Kourtney and Kim for Community.

Dan Harmon

Do you think that Jim Rash at the Oscars mimicking Angelina Jolie will give the show a boost?

Dan Harmon: Yes, I think there’s a huge demographic out there looking to see Angelina Jolie get hers – I’m sure – no, as I’ve said there were 30 million people watching the Oscars with ratings like ours, if 1/10th of a percentage of them decided to Google Jim Rash out of curiosity, it could double our ratings. That’s probably one of the benefits of pulling a 1.4. Also, if someone’s cast us on the remote you know that could set things in a whole different direction too.

Joel McHale: Yeah, that one little leg move may make things go up.

Joel, you did make a NASA comparison at PaleyFest to getting viewers to watch Community. Would people be there when radio silence ended? How did you come up with such an interesting metaphor?

Joel McHale: Yes. No, I think… I mean obviously that was a joke, but with being taken off even though at the time seemed like a huge bummer, if anything it really shows the insane support for the show by the fans. That was just so wonderful. The tremendous response was just… I think it’s 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 will spread to other people and will catch them on fire and they will be burned by it.

Dan Harmon: It’s true like 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. So, all of a sudden it felt like there were more people watching our show than ever when we were off the air.

COMMUNITY — “Biology 101” Episode 301 — Pictured: Joel McHale as Jeff — Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC

Joel McHale: Yes. It was so weird because we used to read the ratings and they weren’t you know weren’t great, but it was so weird to see the ratings. But then at the time the show was on we would be a trending topic worldwide. And that to me showed the great sincerity in how the viewers and not watching young viewers [using] appointment viewing and in reality, that there’s a huge number of people that I think watch – or at least it makes me feel better – that watch the show not in a way that is traditional. Once they learn to measure that and quantify it and put a number on it and that can be shown to advertisers, I believe that is will be a…

Dan Harmon: Well they know how to measure the number. It’s easier to measure the numbers now more than ever now that you can actually you know count clicks and stuff. The problem is that you can’t sell that number to anybody that’s willing to pay money for it because you can’t guarantee those people will watch a Colgate ad.

Joel McHale: That’s true.

Dan, what do you think the Webisodes will bring to the show?

Dan Harmon: I don’t know. I think it was a nice methadone shot for people craving to hear those beautiful voices. I thought Tom Kaufman and Dave Seger did a great job capturing the voice of the characters on the page. Will it increase ratings? I don’t know. Like I said an earthquake could change our ratings, a basketball game changes our ratings. Everything changes your ratings when your audience is into the wits of the meter’s needle.

You guys have mentioned that it’s going to be a darker season this upcoming season and Joel even came on that little trailer even dumped a dead body. Is it going to get to that point to take the season in a different direction? I’m sure Dan you and the writers have a way to make even death funny somehow?

COMMUNITY — “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps!” Episode 305 — Pictured: (l-r) Donald Glover as Troy, Danny Pudi as Abed, Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley, Chevy Chase as Pierce, Alison Brie as Annie, Joel McHale as Jeff — Photo by: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Dan Harmon: Yes, well we did and that’s nothing new to sitcoms. I mean one of the funniest episodes of Mary Tyler Moore was when Chuckles the clown died. I think that death just like Christmas, birthdays, weddings, love, sex, jealously and all that stuff is as handy a tool for comedy because it’s something everyone speaks. We’re all scared of death; we all face it together, so you can get as big a laugh as you can get a tear out of a topic like that. 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 medi-sense suffered a cardiac arrest. And yes, that energy trickles into the writer’s room then when you’ve got a guy like me, who thrives on constant affirmation. A big spoiled baby who is so used to the show airing once a week and us getting that feedback and having that ego stroke. Me being deprived of that, we can translate that into a darkness that seeps into the second half of the season. But expressing darkness is just another way of worshiping the light. So, it’s all good, as they say in the hackie sack circle.

Joel McHale: If you look at one of the darkest episodes last year of “Dungeons and Dragons,” which was literally dealing with a guy who was giving away his stuff because he was going to commit suicide. Which I mean that the fact Dan that you did… that was basically like during the dunk contest that he did like a 780 in the air and slammed it with one hand and with the other hand he was taking a photo of himself with his cam phone. I mean just Dan and the writers can take those things and make them as you would say make them absolutely hilarious. And yes, there’s going to be a bunch of that stuff.

Dan Harmon: But let’s not raise our expectations, because also I was probably bummed out to be off the air.

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.

We’ve seen Jeff pretty much hook up with everyone at Greendale from students to teachers. Is he going to get serious with anyone?

Joel McHale: He’s going to hook up with Leonard. I’m going to get together with a flag team. Jeff’s romantic life in the second half of this season it’s not like a huge topic. There’s always stuff going on with Annie and Jeff, but….

COMMUNITY — “Football and Nocturnal Vigilantism” Episode 309 — Pictured: Joel McHale as Jeff — Photo by: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Dan Harmon: The focus is very much on the group for this season. The relationships between two people are sort of a subset of that. There may come a day when we’re in season five or six when if I get married or something and I start to find humor in monogamy maybe Jeff Winger will attempt another relationship. He hasn’t had one since he tried one with Slater [Lauren Stamile]. Romance in general, while an absolutely necessary component of story-telling because again like death and holidays and things, it’s a part of our lives, it’s a thing that we share. Not only do I think it’s dangerous for it to eclipse an ensemble comedy, I also even if I didn’t think it was dangerous I would still have to observe the fact that we just finished watching The Office nail it. I mean they did everything you could possibly do in terms of watching two people couple up and taking part in the joy of love blooming before our eyes week after week in a sitcom environment. So, what could I possibly do in a Greg Daniels contest against Greg Daniels? So, I go the other way and just I’m going to stay focused on the hilarity and joy and sadness of being a group of people.

Joel McHale: Yes, and we really do have to come together as a group this year because of Chang [Ken Jeong]. In the trailer they just ran you see the Chang poster being revealed and the group needs all hands on deck to battle him.

When you noticed the ratings for 30 Rock in the same time slot were as good or bad or worse than what you were getting, did you feel a little vindication that it wasn’t you guys as much as it might have been the time slot?

Dan Harmon: Of course. I mean I could be diplomatic and say, “What are you talking about?” But I have to stress, and this isn’t diplomacy, this is religion for me. I do not take pleasure in seeing… I did not like being put in the position where I was rooting for a fellow creative’s bad fortune at all. I think that there’s probably room for everybody to get entertained and to entertain, but at the same time yes obviously, numerically, scientifically, I was relieved to see that my suspicion that that environment temporally was a little bit hazardous to anybody who might step foot in it. American Idol is a juggernaut. It’s bigger than baseball and it only picks up in its appeal to people and its demand that you watch it live as time goes on. More so than Big Bang Theory, that thing just ate us alive, it’s a killer. Hats off to them for figuring out how to keep people watch live TV, in an era when you don’t have to. You’re a narrative show, people can just subscribe to it now. I watch Breaking Bad. I’ve never turned my dial to AMC. So that’s the bummer. It’s a monster, that show. People singing and people voting for the singing and there’s no stopping it. Because you can always watch 30 Rock later. You could watch it in your car on the way to the wedding – but if you get to the wedding and you didn’t watch American Idol you might as well not have watched it. You might as well never watch it. So, anyways, that was my big tangent on the genius of American Idol. But it’s a tough slot and I’ve always felt that way and I’ve always been proud to plant our feet there and take a kidney punch week after week. Always been ecstatic that we’re chosen to stand there with our bayonet and experience terror under this peacock banner that I’m so proud to stand under. That they would choose us to go into those front trenches and look at the whites of the enemy’s eyes… as long as there’s an understanding that that’s what the environment is. That it’s different from being in the back tents. I’ve felt like maybe now our 1.5 can be looked at with a little more than a frown.

COMMUNITY — “Contemporary Impressionists” Episode 310 — Pictured: Joel McHale as Jeff — Photo by: Neil Jacobs/NBC

Now that you know that unless something goes really wrong you’re going to be on through May – through the May sweeps. Now that you look back you know does the time off now seem like okay we weren’t like spread out? We didn’t have a bunch of repeats thrown in there. It’s just going to be a big intense shot of new episodes through May. And do you think that might work out a little bit better for the show?

Dan Harmon: Certainly. I mean that’s a very positive way of looking forward to this. There are negatives to throw in there. I don’t follow basketball but apparently, we have [March Madness] to contend with. We would have if we were in repeats or not. But yes, I think Big Bang Theory will have a lot of repeats going against original stuff by us. That can only help.

Joel McHale: CBS is actually pre-empting Big Bang for basketball, because they’re the NCAA station.

Dan Harmon: Oh, then I guess that’s just out of the frying pan and into the fire, right?

Joel McHale: Yes, but the great thing is that you know the groundswell is seemingly huge and I pray that that reflects in people watching it. I pray to God.

Dan Harmon: To answer your question, yes. I hope that that will be a positive factor. I also hope that things like all of our episodes being available on Hulu during the hiatus [is] lending itself to people emailing links to their friends and saying, “Look, that show I keep harping about at parties that you thought you’d catch up on one day. It’s off the air right now, all the episodes are right here. Get caught up.” I see tweets in forum posts from people who are just halfway through the first season during this hiatus and going, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I haven’t seen this show.” My naive hope is that there’s a million of those people joining us next week.

The Timeline episode was so acclaimed, got so much excitement, people watched it over and over. Are there any future episodes you can tease us about that sort of scratch a dirty itch like that?

Dan Harmon: It’s hard to say. I mean I didn’t know until the night it aired that that was going to be the favorite 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. And that 7/8 of the show didn’t exist. So, I’ll be the first to admit I never know what people are going to like and not like. That’s a big part of why the show is so awkwardly ambitious because it never trusts itself to stick with something that works. It never assumes that it knows it’s going to work. We’re going to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, like we always do. The one thing that I’ve always been able to rely upon is the audience’s love of the actors. Let’s face it we’re selling heads on a box and people fall in love with those heads. You’re going to get plenty of those people that you love.

Joel McHale: I know that studio is really excited about the Law and Order one, right Dan?

COMMUNITY — “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” Episode 312 — Pictured: (l-r) Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Charles Walker as Minister, Joel McHale as Jeff — Photo by: Lewis Jacobs/NBC