Dan Harmon Talks About the 'Community' Christmas Episode, Conceptual Stories, and 'Dungeons & Dragons'
by Joel Keller, posted Dec 8th 2010 3:00PM
The last time I spoke to 'Community' creator Dan Harmon in September, he had already written the script for the stop-action-animated Christmas episode that is set to air Thursday at 8:00PM on NBC. While he had an idea of how long doing a stop-action animation on an episode would take, he had no idea how truly involved the process is.
"One thing that I didn't anticipate was that every shot was an effects shot," he told me earlier this week. "Post-productively there's stuff you have to do. If a character jumps up in the air and clicks his heels, you're rotoscoping things out that are helping that person stay in the air while they're jumping in the air, and I thought that was fascinating."
Even as late as Monday, there were still some effects and music left to insert. But even in rough cut form, the episode is not only one of the best of the season, it shows quite well how Abed (Danny Pudi) sees the nutty world of Greendale Community College, as the entire episode is a product of his unconscious.
Speaking of Abed, Harmon also mentioned that this week they are shooting an episode where the gang plays the classic role-playing game 'Dungeons & Dragons,' with Abed (natch) as the Dungeon Master. More on both episodes after the jump.
On what he decided the characters would look like once they entered Abed's Winter Wonderland: "We just kind of riffed on that stuff. We kind of went back and forth on a couple of things. Like should Britta be a ballerina for the sake of irony, and in that case what would Annie be? And then we finally just settled on that this is Abed's unconscious and you should just go with your first instinct and let your unconscious be Abed's unconscious in this case.
"Abed sees Jeff [who is portrayed as a Jeff-in-the-box] as a big talking head with limited practical functionality, and he sees Pierce [portrayed as a teddy bear] as maybe deserving of more love than he gets, and sees Troy as a soldier, and sees Britta [who's portrayed as a robot] as a malfunctioning device, and sees Annie [portrayed as a ballerina] as a creature of grace, and sees Shirley as a big baby who feels entitled to the Christmas of her choosing."
On the slow process of doing stop-action animation: "(The animators are) incredibly dedicated people who practice this sadly dying craft of moving these little fingers and heads one frame per frame every day. They watch weeklies instead of dailies in this process, and I remember them celebrating because they got four minutes done in a week."
On the moment during the making of the Christmas episode that blew him away: "I took a photo of the characters sitting at the study room table. It was the study room set that really blew my mind when I saw some of the puppets sitting there. Our study room is like our 'Cheers' bar or our 'Star Trek' bridge, it's a woumb of comfort. So seeing that done in miniature and seeing the characters sitting around it in their little wooden chairs, it really... it just blew my mind.
"The idea that you, going into your second season to have this chance to feel like you're working on a classic TV show, so classic that now you're experimenting with looking at the characters through a different lens, it's just incredibly self-indulgent and satisfying."
On the upcoming 'Dungeons & Dragons' episode: "It couldn't be less pricey. They're sitting at a table playing 'Dungeons & Dragons' for the entire episode. I love it, the actors love it. Sony has high hopes for this show in terms of accessibility, and they made me promise that this episode woudn't be a nerd-fest, and I'm just giggling because I disaapoint them so much sometimes.
"Yeah, (the Dungeon Master) is Abed. There's some things you do because you don't want to be that predictable but then there's other things that if you didn't do them you'd be shooting yourself in the foot, like if Abed was sitting there playing and Troy was the Dungeon Master. It wouldn't work.
"Chevy's character (Pierce) is kind of the villain of the episode, he definitely steals the episode."
On doing conceptual vs. non-conceptual episodes: "Between seasons, I remember saying to you that we had to come out swinging and see how many of these things would be too much to do. And the answer is the amount that makes you run out of money. Another answer would be the amount that makes the audience stop believing that the characters are real. Now I feel like I'm starting to get an accurate measurement of how much is too much in terms of so-called conceptual episodes. And also getting better and getting more permission creatively to make sure that in its own right even the non-conceptual epsidoes have something conceptual about them that can keep me entertained.
"This most recent episode where they all go out drinking, to me that is a conceptual episode, because the concept is what if they're off Greendale the entire episode, what if they all got s--tfaced, what if the episode took a dark turn, all kinds of things that are narratively little games that i play with the template of the show and see what works and what doesn't".
On why the drinking episode is considered by audiences to be one of the most "normal" ones of the season: "The audience's definition of normal is when they feel like the characters on the TV are real. And the audience's definition of conceptual is when they start to not feel that way, when they're conscious of the fact that the show is a show. And that's a good definition to go by, that's the metric that we should be using.
"The key is to try, when we're doing something that's going to constantly remind you that you're watching a tv show... the paintball episode is a perfect example because that worked. That's a huge constant reminder that you're watching a TV show because there's a stylized thing happening. So the writers made this very smart decision that "we've got to do this extreme thing on the characters' side," i.e. Jeff has sex with Britta. In a truly conceptual episode you have to be balancing it inside with that ballast. And, I knew at the time that no one would look at last week's like it's a conceptual episode. They might look at it as tonally a shift or something different.
"What I'm learning over time is that the show can get more and more real and find other ways to entertain myself that the audience doesn't have to feel clobbered by."
On why the zombie episode may have been a step too far: "But then you have this other crazy conversation where you go: OK, you wake up the next morning after the events of the paintball episode and you look in the newspaper, and it says 'Local community college has paintball game that gets out of control" That's what the headline would say. "Someone built a fire in the cafeteria, someone set off a paint bomb in the study room." And you would go "eh, wow, weird," and you'd keep reading your newspaper.
"With the events of the Halloween episode, you'd read it in the paper the next day and you'd check the paper to make sure it's not The Onion, like this is a joke paper. There's a whole new definition of conceptual vs. non-conceptual: What is causing your suspension of disbelief to wobble at all.
"I don't think we'll ever go quite that far again, because I found a boundary there and I started feeling my nose bleed... because you can see at the end, I said 'Well, they all forget; they don't remember,' because I don't want characters in my universe arguing about who hurt whose feelings last night, and then someone says, 'Hey, remember when we found out the millitary was keeping a horrible rage virus from the American public?' (laughs) And we all just stop arguing about who took the remote control. I don't want to have that bell rung if it can't be unrung. So I safeguarded it with amnesia, and I don't know if I want to go that deep out there again."
On whether he thinks staying at 8PM on Thursdays was a vote of confidence from NBC: "I very much do. I'd be a fool to see it as a vote of "you're the new 'Office'" for sure, because then they'd move us to later. But I do see it as their acknowledgment, and they do say so and I believe them, that we hold the line there in a way that is remarkable considering the competition that is continually being moved there, and that they're very proud of us and that our performance is well-noted.
"I do see it as a vote of... a strange form of confidence... the kind of confidence that Texas had at the Alamo." (laughs)
On his guest wishlist: "I'd love for Kevin Corrigan to come back and reprise his role [from the conspiracy episode]. I'd love for Betty White to come back."
On some of the stories we'll see in the season's second half: "There's an episode where Pierce has a little bit of a clinical problem and he starts to spiral out of control and finally address that. And there's a larger seasonal sort of soap opera thing we're going to tackle.
"By and large, I want to stay modular. When you're on the bubble as they say your job is to not serialize and not take yourself too seriously, continue to keep your lemonade stand clean and keep your lemonade fresh and free of seeds. It's only our business to anybody that happens to wander along and is thirsty is going to get the best glass of lemonade, no matter when they do it. It's not going to say "to be continued" and it's not going to say "previously on..." It's just going to be a good glass of lemonade. We're hunkering down and breaking interesting stories that pit these characters together in interesting ways."
'Community' airs Thursdays at 8PM ET on NBC.
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