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September 2, 2015

Dan Harmon of 'Community' on Christmas Animation and the Second Season

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 21st 2010 3:00PM
The cast of 'Community' on NBCWhen you talk to 'Community' creator Dan Harmon, you have to expect to hear a certain amount of verbal gymnastics in his replies to your questions.

For instance, when our conversation turned to what he thought of one of his stars, Alison Brie, who does double-duty on 'Mad Men,' Harmon said this: "Alison is like this stem cell when it comes to the characters she can inhabit, which is a really cool thing." When I asked him about how the bromance between Abed (Danny Pudi) and Troy (Donald Glover) will be explored this season, he said, "I want to celebrate it and I want to challenge it, and I want to challenge it by celebrating it, and I want to celebrate it by challenging it."

Sometimes, you just have to let Harmon go on his verbal journeys, which leads to very long interviews. In fact, we spoke for almost an hour earlier this month about the upcoming second season (returning Thursday, September 23 at 8PM ET on NBC), including how he's going to explore the romantic entanglements from the season one finale, the stop-action animated Christmas episode he's planning, and what it'll be like to go head-to-head with the juggernaut known as 'The Big Bang Theory.'

What episode did you guys submit for the Emmys? Was it 'Modern Warfare?'
I believe it was 'Modern Warfare,' yeah. I know, at the very least, that I submitted that for Justin Lin's work. Because I just really felt that, if you really weighed that by any metric I could imagine, that was, that had to be the best directing in a comedy of the year, just because of the amount of tone juggling he had to do. There's dramatic elements of that show, there's comedic elements, and of course, there's action elements.

And he had to walk a tightrope and be incredibly resourceful on the fly so that he could squeeze that into a week. He worked with actors great, he, like all 'Community' directors, was given a final script piece by piece up to the day of the shooting, and yet he pulled it into this cohesive, wonderful thing. And I was, I'll be forever in his debt. And I did think that, in addition to Joel getting a nod for acting, that it was possible that Justin would catch the eye of the world for his comedic directing.

Were you disappointed that the show didn't get nominated?
No, no. I mean, they should come up with a new word that maybe show creators and little kids could use that's like, it's not "disappointed" because you know you're not entitled to anything, and yet you're just a little baby, so if you could have some chocolate, that would've been great. I mean, technically, that's disappointment, and yet, like a little kid that didn't mow the lawn, and hadn't paid his dues, I didn't... Disappointment has this connotation that's like, oh they should have done something. Nobody should've done anything.

Do I want Emmys? Yeah, I'll take every one you got. I'll even take ones I don't deserve. Just pull them up to my house, dump them on my lawn, I'll do stuff with them. But I was definitely not disappointed. Mostly because of, I still have all of this sort of fraud complex overflowing from having a primetime show. You know, that's a different form of Emmy for me, that I only just received a couple of months earlier. I'm still adjusting to that.

Talk to me next year. I'll give you lots of disappointment if we don't get nominated. I won't be wishy-washy about it, or diplomatic. If we don't get nominated for something next year, I'll slam my fist into the table and go, "I really, really set that as my goal, I really wanted to get an Emmy this year." Or nominated, just nominated.

Did it at least encourage you that they gave a lot of nominations and awards to first-timers and new shows, and that 'Modern Family' got best comedy?

Oh absolutely. Yeah, I do. I mean, for all the reasons you would expect. The Emmy still very much, it's not a predictable game. It's not a momentum game. It's simply every year is a fresh start for anybody that cares to get in the game. So for obvious reasons, that makes me happy.

When you first heard that 'The Big Bang Theory' was getting moved to Thursdays at 8... Well, first of all, before you give me your reaction, do you think the two shows have similar or different audiences?

Well, if I look at charts, then what I see is that it's around 30% of the people who say they watch my show, who happen to be answering that survey that day, wherever that took place, that 30% of them also say they watch 'The Big Bang Theory.' And when you're talking about giant groups of people, big waves of people, you're no longer talking about human beings, you're talking about charts, and you're talking about meteorological phenomenon.

And you can't, I mean, there's really only two modes. You can either talk about an individual person, or you can talk about these mysterious, non-human entities, these clouds of people that drift here, drift there, and in the case of 'Big Bang Theory' and 'Community,' overlap in certain places.

But as far as the individual, I have no idea, because I've never met a person and talked to them, that said, I love both shows, I'm really conflicted, I don't know which one I'm going to watch, but here's the thing I like about your show, and here's the thing I like about 'Big Bang Theory.' I haven't met that person yet. But I've been very busy. And as far as clouds of data are concerned, God only knows. I mean, who knows what's in that 30%. Like are there people...do they have a preference? Do they love both equally? Do they love them for the same reasons? I have no idea.

But just as far as the sensibility question, do you think they cater to people of a similar sensibility?
I'm sure that's the case. If I met somebody at a party tomorrow that said they loved both shows, I wouldn't throw a drink in their face and say, on behalf of either show, "I call you a hypocrite and a traitor, sir!" I can only imagine that yeah, absolutely. Because I call myself a nerd. I think there's a nerd love happening with both shows, you know. So that's about as basic as you can get.

When you first heard CBS was going to move 'Big Bang' to Thursdays at 8, what was your reaction? Did you have a sinking feeling? Did you just take it as a challenge?
It was exactly both. It was a sinking feeling that I took as a challenge. It was a confirmation that, even at this level, you'll always feel like an underdog. There's always something coming up that's going to demand your A game from you. And I got a perverse, kind of masochistic, martyr thrill out of it. I've always preferred to feel...underestimated and stuff.

And at the same time, I've done a lot of failing in my life, so I sort of, as soon as I heard that, my immediate reaction was, "of course. Of course." That makes perfect sense, you know, spiritually. In the video game of Dan Harmon's life, that was perfect timing. That's what's next. And I'm really excited about it. You know, I'm excited. I'm almost sort of equally excited about the prospects of unprecedented bludgeoning of me.

I mean, there's no scenario in which, "Holy cow! 'Community' got an 8 point rating! Who could have predicted that?" There is no scenario like that. But there is the scenario where we hold tight and it gets perceived as a great day for a show. There's no such thing as bad press, especially when the press is saying, hey look, 'Community's' hanging in there. That's, it's good to get our name out there, period. My kind of press numbers show that there's a lot of people that don't even know it exists.

What was your thought behind throwing big high-concept episodes like 'Warfare' or the 'Goodfellas' episode out there the first year of the show, when usually shows are just trying to establish themselves?

Well, that's precisely why I wanted to do it right away. Because traditionally, the profile of a show is, they gain traction with something that you grow reliant on, and then they let you down because they get bored with themselves and start screwing around conceptually, which the audience perceives as "oh, I thought this was my show."

I didn't want that kind of relationship to even start out of the gate. I want, and there's 250 million people in this country, and that means there's plenty of them to find that think the way you do and enjoy the kind of show you're going to enjoy. So the key is, first season, lay out your landscape. Like show the world, if I have it my way, this is the territory I'd like to explore. Anybody that's not comfortable with that, take a hike.

And the real hope is that nobody takes a hike, but because doing that is exciting, more people come than if you just play it safe and wait. It's a long way of saying, as I've said before, that I did not have enough faith in myself to execute some other guy's version of a good sitcom.

Now that people seen 'Modern Warfare,' and you've set the bar high in that regard, do you think people are expecting now, that kind of big, splashy episode or 2 or 3 every year? Are you guys now feeling like you're obligated to do that kind of episode, or is that just in your writing DNA like you mentioned?
It's both. I mean, I welcome the audience to raise their expectations. They should do what comes naturally to them. If they start counting on the show to make them really happy, then that's always a good sign. Because most of us, we don't react that way to TV that we don't like. We react that way to TV that we're evangelizing out there at parties. And it is in the DNA, because my job... There's a million people's jobs whose jobs are to figure out what the audience probably likes, based on other stuff that they watch and dials that they turn. I pay attention to that stuff, I let it cross my desk, but my real job is to punch a clock and then make this show that, if I was watching TV in Heaven, that's what would be on all the time. And in that show, there's a Paintball every 6 episodes.

Are you still on track to do that stop action Christmas episode you were thinking of?
We are on track to do that. I had to write it immediately, because of how long it takes to put one of those together. So I'm actually, that's why I missed the Emmys. I was staying up all night writing it out with Dino Stamatopoulos.

So that's going to be the Christmas episode?
Yeah, Christmas episode.

So it's going to be very much kind of like Rudolph or some of those similar kind of specials that we see, right? Is it the entire episode?
Yeah, it'll certainly evoke those feelings. I'm not gonna do... I feel like it's been done to death, the actual homage, the actual spoof to the period stuff. I think we've seen that. And we've also seen amazing, we've seen 'Coraline' now, we've seen... there's a whole new generation that's only familiar with (those specials) through spoof. They know, oh that looks like that MadTV sketch. So I don't need to be a fly on that fruit.

Because all you really have to do is do it stop action and it'll immediately bring up those feelings that anybody watching it, that's like, it's a great Christmas medium. So we're not actually going to be parodying a '60s style or anything like that. My goal, I say with a humble smirk, is to make a new timeless classic. Whether you're a fan of the show or not, just a half-hour of TV you want to watch at Christmas.

But the fact that you and Dino are writing it, I imagine it's going to be a bit off-kilter a little bit.
(laughs) Yeah, I mean, we had to make sure of that, because there has to be a reason why we're doing it. And it has to fit into the canon of the show. As you can imagine, that's not easy when you're doing a stop action show. On one end of the spectrum, why would you just make a regular 'Community' episode animated, if nothing unusual happens and if it lends itself to animation? And on the other end of the spectrum, if they're going to fly around in jetpacks and fight werewolves, then it has to not fit into the show. It never actually happened. And you don't want to... then what's the point? So somewhere in the middle there, as with Paintball, you find reasons that this episode is special that still exist within the reality of the show and the timeline of the show.

What other kinds of episodes like that can you talk about that you're thinking of doing this year?

Well, within the first 6, which I think is the most crucial time for us because that's when you guys are either going to be saying you succeeded or failed, we've got, you know, I'm sending them to "outer space," and the Halloween episode is going to be tremendous. And there's that Christmas one.

Is the outer space episode going to be the Halloween episode?
No, no, those are 2 different ones. Within the first 6, we're doing a kind of, what I refer to as an 'Apollo 13' homage. It's not really that simple. I mean, I don't do direct like "OK we're doing this movie." It's just more like 'Apollo 13'-like stuff, space camp kind of thing. It's an outer space drama homage.

What's the Halloween episode?
The Halloween episode it going to be directed by Anthony Hemingway, who people are... he's done a lot of 'True Blood' and he's a really cool, talented guy that I'm hoping can emerge from the shadow cast by Justin Lin with a Halloween episode that's not just going to imitate the one we did last year. Last year we did a great Halloween episode that was a fun romp, and there was a party, and Annie dressed as Batman, and it was a truly great episode.

And it's tough, because I want every Halloween episode to be great. I don't want every Halloween episode to try to imitate the one before it. But I don't want to be a refusenik and say well, we're not doing that again. So this Halloween episode is hopefully more of what you liked last year, and then an entirely new layer that will be brought. I'm going to not spoil that one.

So by saying that's the guy who directed 'True Blood,' is that the kind of feel we're thinking about?
Well, I mean, I think of 'Ghostbusters' and I think of 'Abbot & Costello vs. Frankenstein,' I think of movies where there were comedic elements and horror elements mixed together successfully, where you were sometimes a little startled and very scared and unsettled, but because Bill Murray was in it, or Abbot & Costello, you felt safe and you felt amused.

And letting those liquids swirl together the way they often do, the way they actually kind of timelessly do as in a scary campfire story, it's like your Scoutmaster was scaring the crap out of you, but then you immediately start giggling. That's the hope that Anthony will bring some actual genuine horror to the mix to strike this balance that I want to strike.

Any other guest stars you can mention, besides Betty White? Who else can we expect to see guesting in the first set of episodes that you can mention?
We've got, I mean, John Oliver we have for more episodes than we had last year, which I'm thrilled about. And I'm trying to think, I don't think we have any actual... there's up in the air these kind of like, if this person's available, waiting to hear back from them, but for us, it has to be on a script basis. It has to be like well, is there a role here that suits a guest star, and do we have someone that we like that's interested in the show, kind of thing. All those variables come together pretty slowly. But I think Drew Carey will be playing the head of Jeff's old law firm, and Rob Corddry will be playing an old friend of his from his lawyer days.

Skinny Drew Carey, yeah, it's going to be interesting.
Yeah, skinny, unsettlingly skinny Drew Carey.

Who has expressed interest in doing the show that you'd really want to work into a story if you could?
You know, I just for my own nerdy, selfish reasons, I would love for Simon Pegg to be involved in any capacity. Just because I just recently watched the first season of 'Spaced' on DVD, and I just, I was embarrassed that I hadn't seen it 10 years earlier. And I just, putting that together with 'Shawn of the Dead,' and 'Hot Fuzz' and stuff like made me, it just sort of multiplied my fan-dom of that guy that already existed by like 5 or 8, which became legitimate man-crush creepy territory.

And so I would just abuse the fact that I had a show and kind of use it as an opportunity to get to have lunch with him or something. But other than that, I mean, he will never express interest in doing the show, but my dream is Bill Murray, just for similar reasons times 1000. I just want to be near him in an elevator or something before I die. But who has expressed interest? You know, everybody always expresses interest if you run into them anywhere in L.A. Anybody that works on the show... No one ever says, hell no, I don't want to ever do that show. Everyone always says yes.

You can have Bill Murray replace Chevy for an episode.
I want them to go round 2. I want to watch them either reprise their 'Caddyshack' love or roll around in the mud and see who survives. Either way, I'll just eat some popcorn and watch.

As hot as Betty White has been this year, how easy or tough was it to get her for the season premiere? And are you on track to get her for more episodes?

It was, yeah. I mean, you'd have to talk to people in different departments to see how close I am to getting her for more episodes. But she really blew my mind on the set. I don't know why I should have been surprised. I guess because usually when you meet legendary people, you're catching them at a time far after they've had to prove themselves, and therefore you're not catching them at the time when the fireworks are flying but they're just sort of coasting.

Betty White, like she might as well have just been some 16-year old actor coming in for her first big part with all these talents that she just wanted to use to make a funny show that she liked. And it was startling to me, and inspiring, and intimidating, and I just thought to myself, if she doesn't stick around, it's not going to be my fault. So I tried to put that ball in motion, like let's make this more...let's see if we can get this character back in the future.

How tough was it to get her, knowing she's in high demand right now?
Oh I think, you know, in all honesty, that was strings pulled from on high. She did Saturday Night Live, and she, Jeff Zucker like basically did something at the top of Mount Olympus, above the cloudline that I have no idea how he did it. But he got her amenable to the concept.

How tough was it last year to deal with that kind of romantic tension, sexual tension balance between Britta and Jeff?
Uh, it was the least tough thing ever. I think that the chemistry of that relationship is its absolute lack of chemistry. I think that it reminds a lot of people of some of the footnote sidebar relationships that they've had, that ironically end up forming the backbone of your romantic life.

They're both at an equally petty time of their lives, and they both have very, very similar overlapping blank spaces that they need to grow into. And it makes them closer to siblings than soulmates, which makes keeping them apart as easy as getting them together. I mean, that's the magic of a relationship like that.

So this season we're going to see more of that, kind of that together/apart type of thing, or more friendship thing? What's the vibe we're going to get this season from those 2 characters?
Well, you know, the nice thing about it is that I don't have to plan in advance. I can wait and see. Because the premiere has to deal with those romantic loose ends, basically, I then get back to the business of doing sort of, you know, family comedy, modular adventures, A stories B stories and things.

All I know is that one thing that I've learned is that it's not, romance is not something that you... it's not an A story or a B story, it's part of the backdrop, it's part of the atmosphere. And yet because it's such a pervasive part of the atmosphere, it's the whole story. The actors have their chemistry, the stories bring those to the fore, and a good writer, I think, strikes a balance between paying attention to those energies and being a slave to them. It kind of like, you just, you have to be a fan of your own show. Talk to other fans of your show and feel stuff out. Then compartmentalize the part of your brain that wants to see stuff happen from the part that is actually allowed to make them happen. With romance, you gotta be humble and careful.

Did you see this chemistry building between Joel's and Alison's characters (Jeff and Annie) and that's why you addressed that in the finale? Was there ever consideration that their age difference, you know, their characters' age difference might get in the way of that?
Yes and yes. There's a shot in the pilot, it's a reaction shot from Alison's character. Jeff is going around the table explaining why each character is a hero in their own right, and he says, "Annie's driven, and what would we do without driven people... the lights would go out and the ice cream would melt." And the reaction shot that we chose, there's an unmistakable energy coming off of it that I immediately identified as a schoolgirl crush. And I always thought of that as a possibility, even before we cast the roles. And so that was in the way back of the head. Also, immediately in the way back of the head, as forbidden fruit, as a bad idea, as a very markedly bad idea.

When you finally decided to hook Annie and Jeff up though, did you think people were going to be kind of getting a little "ick" feeling after that kiss?
Yeah. I thought about roughly half the audience was going to get an ick feeling. I know when I watch it, I feel panic. Because I put myself in the situation and I feel, I get this sort of sickly, sinking feeling of like, "Oh my God, what have I done?" Because obviously I'm not identifying with Alison's character, I'm identifying with the guy doing the kissing. And I'm thinking, when I watch that scene, I'm thinking oh boy, here we go. And it's not romantic. It's dangerous. It's electric, but it's like lethal. And for a variety of reasons, there's nothing but mixed feelings going on out there.

I think you could maybe find one demographic, let's just say some hypothetical high school girl who only draws hearts in her notebook all day with Jeff and Annie's names in them who hasn't lived long enough to know the heartbreak and stuff, and just loves Joel McHale, and is thinking like, well this is a fantasy, this is great, this is fantastic. And I think that's a great thing that there's a group of people that look at that and feel that way, while another group of people can look at the exact same scene and go, "oh crap."

And I wanted desperately to create a reason for the show to be talked about at least 3 days (after) the final episode. I wanted to try to create conversation about the show, to last. I wanted to get people at least part way across the canyon of the season lull.

Anything you want to talk about for the other characters?
Well, just that I'd like to get to know all of them a lot more. I'd like to get more details about where they were coming from, and where they think they're going, and why that has brought them to Greendale. I think that would be the job of any 2nd season. But I'm especially excited about it because I sort of almost purposefully withheld that stuff from the first season because I was too busy going "Hey, look, we can be a show, we can be a show," in an environment that was not conducive to people just going hey, I think I'll be a TV show. It's like yeah, you and everybody else.

So we started doing a tap dance, keeping the camera on the campus, just like doing these episodes that were like hey, look, there's nothing here to indicate we're not in season 5. We're a TV show, so keep watching. And in that regard, kind of, we did not constantly sell these characters to people and go well, here's the cool thing about this person. They feel this way about that, and 20 years ago, they did this, and it was like... I'm looking forward to the luxury of being able to pepper stuff with that now. I'm especially interested in learning more about Britta.

I would hope so! Any fun things that Danny's going be doing? Are we going to see Abed referencing any other major pop culture that we haven't seen him reference already?
That currently is in the hands of a certain competing studio. There's a property that they own, that I'm hoping they will give us extra generous permission to use for our Halloween episode. If you, when you're watching the Halloween episode, and you are blown away by Danny and Donald's costumes, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you're not blown away, but you're just tickled by them, then City Hall won again.

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I love this show! Dean I am sad you didn't love it! I think the paintball episode was hilarious. Thanks for the link for where to buy airsoft accessories. I will have to check it out. (http://doba.com)

December 20 2011 at 3:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You know I tried to watch this show especially the paintball episode as I am a paintball and airsoft enthusiast. but in all honesty i do not get the humor of the show and i usually like anything Chevy Chase is in. It was great to see them going after each other with paintball guns. I have been buying all my stuff from airsplat.com for years now. And I just though that every one should know the best place to get it. http://www.airsplat.com/Categories/Paintball.htm

September 29 2010 at 2:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hey, great interview. I can't wait for Community's sophomore year!

September 21 2010 at 11:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So they are going 'The Nanny'-way with an animated Christmas episode.

September 21 2010 at 4:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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