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Joel McHale and Jim Rash – Rebooting Community

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

COMMUNITY — “Repilot” Episode 501 — Pictured: (l-r) Joel McHale as Jeff, Jim Rash as Dean Pelton — (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)

Joel McHale and Jim Rash

Rebooting Community

by Jay S. Jacobs

When we last left Greendale Community College, anarchy reigned.  After a marginally successful flirtation with some new show runners following series creator Dan Harmon's being shown the door at the end of season three, Jeff Winger and his study group had graduated, the college was a wreck and the quirky series' reputation was somewhat tarnished, but far from ruined.

Sounds like time for a "re-piloting."

The first and most exciting shot across the Community bow was when NBC rehired Harmon and much of the original crew responsible for making the show such a cult favorite.  Harmon decided not to ignore last year's uneven-but-sporadically good story arc, instead he hit the reboot button on his mind and rethought the whole concept. 

The new season of Community starts three years after we left off (in Greendale years, it's been a matter of months in the real world).  Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has become an unsuccessful ambulance chaser and the rest of his study group (Gillian Jacobs, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Alison Brie and Yvette Nichole Brown) has settled into mind-numbing post-grad existences.  Winger returns to Greendale determined to bring it down legally, but thanks to the desperate need of the Dean (Jim Rash) he ends up taking a teaching position.  And his study group follows him back to the school... well, just because they have nothing better to do.

A couple of weeks before the fifth season premiere, we were one of a whole bunch of media outlets that called in to pick the brains of series stars Joel McHale and Jim Rash about the new era of Greendale, and also listen to them good-naturedly bicker about everything from Oscars to nudity to ankles to bake sales.

Jim Rash: Hello. Say hello, Joel.

Joel McHale: (in high-pitched voice) Hi. (normally) That’s how I talk in interviews on the phone because I don’t know how to behave. It’s like a radio play.

Jim Rash: (chuckles) Yeah. I’ll do the foley stuff.

Joel McHale: So I guess Jim and I will just do a little acting now?

Looking from the outside in has been a very surreal experience. I don’t know if there’s ever been a show with so many behind-the-scenes stories that are almost as fascinating as the actual storylines. What’s it been for you guys inside that bubble? Have there been moments you’ve sat back and said “This is crazy!” or has too much been made out of it?

Joel McHale: Jim, you go first.

Jim Rash: Oh, bless you. What a sweet, sweet gesture. (laughs) No, I think [it was] partly blown out of proportion, in the sense that I think we were that show that has been under the radar for so long in as far as ratings-wise and we’ve always been blessed to be able to come back. We never really know where we’re going. So I feel like in a weird way the drama kept us out there in the [public eye].

Joel McHale: Yes.

Jim Rash: What was that?

Joel McHale: I said “Yes.” I agree with you, Jim.

Jim Rash: Yes. Oh, thank you. That just sort of kept us out there. It was like our drama behind the stage was keeping Community on people’s minds outside of fans, I guess.

Joel McHale: And I would say that, especially this year with Dan [Harmon] back, the scripts have been so great that it becomes...  with all the things that have happened with the show, when the material’s so good you forget about that stuff. Last year was kind of the crazy year, but now that Dan is back it’s like the monarchy has been restored and things are as they should be. So in that sense, the sense of relief that I’ve had this year has been tremendous.

That being said, last season took a lot of hits. I actually thought it was pretty good. I’m wondering in reflection did it really feel like it was creatively missing something? Or do you think it took some unfair knocks?

Jim Rash: Well, I feel you can’t not have Dan’s mind, the creator’s mind, and not feel that there’s some kind of difference. I think that as great as a task that was before them and as great as these writers were that we’ve had over all of our seasons, the math’s fantastic. But Dan’s brain you can’t replicate and his vision.  I think it’s part of the whole staff to go into that vision and help service it. But without him you don’t really have your guide through that. There were so many things that were already created by the first three seasons: as far as the depth of the characters, the world, how things work, how it operates, how it can be both fantastical but at the same time character-grounded. Those things are all there. But without somebody who has this approach to make it so dense and deep with layers, it’s difficult. It’s a Herculean task that I certainly wouldn’t want to take on. But I think we did our best, you know?

Joel McHale: Yes and like a show like Breaking Bad or Arrested Development, you need where it comes from one place. That would be Dan or Mitch Hurwitz [for Arrested Development] or Vince Gilligan [for Breaking Bad]. There was some really good stuff last year, but it did not have the direction that the other seasons had.

You guys have got an absurd number of great guest stars for this new season. I’m curious first of all which of the bunch were the most fun to work with? But I’m also wondering if you ever felt that there were so many that it distracted from the core ensemble of the show?

Joel McHale: No, not at all. I would say it only supported it. And I think the guest stars, because Dan’s writing is so terrific, even though there are a lot of guest stars, he doesn’t fall into that trap at all - not even near the trap - of people using guest stars to make up for storytelling. All these guest stars only absolutely support and enhance it. Our guest stores are so creative, like Vince Gilligan and Mitch Hurwitz and Chris Elliot and Paul Williams.  I mean, talk about a crazy group of people, including Gina Gershon and the incredible, beautiful, lovely Brie Larson. I think it’s the most creative guest stars of the last... I don’t know, I’m going to go with the last 100 years of television.

Jim Rash: 100 years, Joel?

Joel McHale: I don’t care.

Jim Rash: That’s amazing. I would agree. I don’t need to add to that.

Do you have any particular favorites of the bunch to work with?

Jim Rash: Well, Joel has the most interaction with the largest bunch. What was yours?

Joel McHale: Yes, I will say it’s hard to choose a favorite. I didn’t get to work with Vince Gilligan, but they all really... and I’m not trying to be diplomatic here... I will say that Mitch Hurwitz made me - Mitch Hurwitz and Chris Elliot...

Leslie Schwartz (NBC Publicist): Walton Goggins.

Joel McHale: ...and excuse me, Walton Goggins, thank you, Leslie, geeze Louise. I mean, boy, it’s hard to [choose]. As you can see, I’m stammering, because it’s really hard. It’s like picking amongst your children.

Jim Rash: (laughs) It’s the Sophie’s Choice of guest stars, guys.

Joel McHale: So to answer your question: (mock angrily) No! I can’t pick one.

Jim Rash: Oh my god, Joel. You got so angry.

Joel McHale: (laughs) So pissed. I'm very sorry and I hope you can still enjoy your Christmas.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how they decided to deal with Pierce’s character this season. I thought the episode was really funny, but just wanted to get you guys’ take on that decision, how they decided to write his character off?

Joel McHale: Go ahead.

Jim Rash: Well, as far as why, with the departure of Chevy from the show, I think that was a way to service both how he affected the study group - the character of Pierce - and how they would move forward from this moment. I think that it’s always difficult when a transition period happens. Obviously, five episodes in with we deal with the transition of Troy [Donald Glover] leaving the school. I think it’s about passage of time. It’s the same thing as deciding that all the fourth season had happened the way it happened and then use the ramifications of the choices made there into the fifth season. It was approaching it from the growth of the characters and what it meant for them and the impact of a singular guy on the rest of them. Same thing that will be dealt with the Troy departure.

Joel McHale: Yes, I think from season four there was a lot of unanswered questions. Pierce’s departure was kind of abrupt and it needed to be addressed. It would have been easy for Dan to say everything was a dream upon his return. But the way he handled it was masterful. And it really answered all the questions that I think fans will have and had after it’s appeared. You’ve seen the whole thing, yes?

Yes, well the first three of the season. I’ve seen that whole episode, yes.

Joel McHale: Yes, I mean, the ending scene with Walton Goggins is one of the best scenes we’ve ever done, I think.

It’s so funny, right?

Joel McHale: Walton is so funny and it’s such an incredibly great reveal of how he died. I mean, when I read that, I mean, I stood up and screamed “Touchdown!” It just dealt with it so well. On top of that, you know, Dan called the first episode as a re-piloting as he calls it. The second episode is a re-establishing the ground-ness, I guess you could say, of the characters. So that episode is a bottle episode except for the tag scene. We learned so much about everybody through Pierce’s death. It was just perfectly run and perfectly executed. That episode - it just cooks, so I’m really excited for people to watch it at 8:30, January 2nd on NBC.

Leslie Schwartz: It’s actually 8:00.

Joel McHale: No, that one’s the second episode.

Leslie Schwartz: Oh yes, you’re right. I apologize.

Joel McHale: (teasing) Come on, do your job.

Leslie Schwartz: Sorry, sorry.

I was just going to ask you guys, we’ve talked a little bit about all the behind-the-scenes stuff but just personally, how does it feel to be in this season? Was there a point where you thought this would not be possible and you would not be back on-set and doing this show again?

Jim Rash: I feel like at the end of each year we have that little emotional “Will we be back?” process through our mind. But I think that this whole year felt like a gift. It felt like you were being handed material that was I would argue some of the best of all the seasons. I feel like the growth of this year for all the characters and for Community in general is pretty paramount. In the sense that we really went very far as far as hitting big epic episodes, but also really paying homage to these characters that we started with five years ago.

Joel McHale: As Jim just said it always seems like every season we don’t know if we’re coming back. If we don’t have that feeling then I don’t know what it would be like.

Jim Rash: It would feel weird. It would feel almost anti-Community if we were assured of anything.

Joel McHale: Yes, imagine if we were on The Big Bang Theory, where we like “We can do this until we’re 60 if we want.”

Joel, over the last four years you’ve seen Jeff really come to into his own as being a much more dimensional person. Last year we saw him leave Greendale and resolve issues with his father. With him coming back as a teacher I was wondering what Dan really wanted to accomplish in helping him to mature once more as a person. Also I was wondering how his relationship with the rest of the cast is affected with his new position of authority?

Joel McHale: All very good questions. I would say that this year, Jeff, now he’s a professor, is once again somewhat destabilized. His immaturities are exposed, a whole new set of them. There were a number of things that got taken care of last year. They’re not things that just get wrapped up. As in real life, people are able to overcome some things, but it’s not something like, “Well, that was done and now I’m fixed.” It’s more like you are constantly finding new things to fix and hopefully make that person healthier. But Jeff  has had years of selfishness. A bunch of that is exposed this year. And it was very fun to play. There’s no doubt, though, that he loves this study group. He has to really comes to terms with how he feels about the school ultimately. I think Dan just absolutely lays those things out well for Jeff to have to deal with. As an actor was really fun to deal with.

Jim, the Dean seemed extremely excited to see Jeff once more. I was wondering if you thought there were any plans for the two of them to develop and grow together as characters? What Dean’s growth might be for this season or how he might progress further into character?

Jim Rash: Well this year, much like the re-pilot theme, I think one of the things that we get back to a little bit with season five is that authority figure side of the Dean. Although he’s well-intentioned and makes huge mistakes, he does love the school. (laughs) I think he’s obviously giddy that Jeff is back, both as an entity but also in the idea of helping save the school, which is once again in jeopardy. And continues to be: I think it’s in a constant state of “in jeopardy.” This year definitely leads up to something big in the sense of the loss that the Dean would feel with the school not being around or these people not being around him. He has sort of folded into their family by force. Obviously the fascination with Jeff continues and will continue, I’m sure.

Joel McHale: Can you believe that?

Jim Rash: Yes. It’s still there. That’s actually, I think, a request of Joel, I think that Dan was not sure about it. Then Joel said “I really want the Dean to still be obsessed with Jeff.” I was like “I don't care. I can go either way.” Joel just keeps pushing that agenda.

Joel McHale: I will punch you...

Jim Rash: That’s correct, right Joel?

Joel McHale: I don’t know where you’re getting this. But it’s weird to me...

Jim Rash: I’m getting it from a place called “Reality.” It’s a file I have right here.

Joel McHale: Listen, it’s weird to me that you constantly were like, “I think the Dean needs to win an Oscar this year and he needs to show it to everyone.”

Jim Rash: (laughs) Hey, I’m just spitballing ideas, man.

Joel McHale: Oh, now you’re.... Okay, sure. The Dean makes an independent film that everybody sees.

Jim Rash: That didn’t go over well.

Joel McHale: Oh sure.

Jim Rash: It did not go over well. (laughs again) Anyway, I think it’s getting back to being an authority figure, to segue back to what I was saying.

Do you think the Dean is at his happiest when Jeff is around with him to obsess over? Or do you think there’s something, somewhere that he can progress in a life independent of Jeff Winger’s character?

Jim Rash: Well, I think involvement with Jeff and the study group is something that is where he’s at his happiest. To just be included. That just goes to speak to him as a person. He probably has a need there that is not fulfilled yet. Of course these unlucky few who decided on that study room table became the focus. In season three I even established that I told them about the fire before I told anybody else. By default, I am forcing my way into their family. So I think he is happiest when he is included, whether by his own doing or they actually let him in.

Jim, being that you are an Oscar winner, you’ve written one episode [of Community] before. But do you feel the urge to write more for the series?

Jim Rash: No. I mean, I had such a great time being allowed to write last year and was proud to be a part of at least the Community history. But, to be honest I’m already envious of the stuff we sat down to read this year. I feel like Dan’s brain, Chris McKenna’s brain and the brains that they have hired - I’m always in awe of that. I would probably do some bad imitation of it if I even attempted. So I enjoy the road they take us on. In other words, they don’t need my bald head.

Do you guys always stick to the script?

Joel McHale: Oh yes.

Jim Rash: For the most part, yes. I would say 99 point something percent of the time we’re just doing Dan’s and Chris’ and the writers’ words. Wouldn’t you say, Joel?

Joel McHale: Yes. There’s this weird thing where people, like, “Do you guys just kind of make it up as you go along?” I’m not sure why. I guess there’s a lot of that. But no, I mean, [it] is not an improvised comedy, and all the stuff that Dan is saying in every episode, they’re very deliberate parts of the train-track that is being laid down to get to the end of this season. I know this is going to sound really grandiose but it’s as specific as Shakespeare was with his words. There’s really nothing that’s left. There’s no excess. So, no, there’s not much improvising going on. But as you can see from the performances, they look like they’re improvised because the actors are so damn good.

Can you guys talk a little bit about the costumes or lack of costumes or unusual accessories in one of the first new episodes that we’ll see?

Jim Rash: Whoa.

Joel McHale: Have you seen any of the episodes yet?

I have.

Joel McHale: Okay.

Jim Rash: Well...

Joel McHale: Go ahead, Jim.

Jim Rash: You go, Joel.

Joel McHale: Well as you know I dress in