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Cult Interview

'Community' Dan Harmon Q&A: 'Our fans influence the show'

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Dan Harmon

© PA Images

The first season of Community finally hits UK stores in a complete DVD boxset next week, so to celebrate we got series creator Dan Harmon on the phone for an interview!

Community follows Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a smooth-talking lawyer who is disbarred when it's discovered that he falsified his bachelor's degree.

Forced to attend the sub-par Greendale Community College, Jeff soon finds himself part of a unique study group, along with the likes of straight-laced teen Annie (Mad Men's Alison Brie) and buffoonish business tycoon Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase).

In our exclusive interview below, Dan tells us what inspired the sitcom, how the show's obsessive fanbase have influenced the series and why he's always working to get Alison Brie in an animated GIF file!

What were some of the shows that inspired you in creating Community?
"Emotionally, shows like Cheers and Taxi were classic sitcoms when I was growing up. They seemed to give the audience a fair amount of credit, in spite of being television and hitting the spot.

"In terms of actual content, when I knew that I was going to be pitching an NBC show, I sat down and watched a lot of 30 Rock to try to refresh myself on what the comedic sensibilities of the time were, cos I'm normally out of touch!

Joel McHale
"So I watched a lot of 30 Rock and The Office and emulated their comedic timing, which I was pleased to see was a sort of post-Simpsons sense of comedic timing. And Arrested Development - those were two shows that I watched a lot before I was writing in TV. So I guess those count as big inspirations.

"The Simpsons [inspired me] in a variety of ways, in terms of the timing of the jokes, the attempt to be crisp and fast while still having characters be believable, and the patient growing of a world from the centre outward."

The show and its characters have changed a lot since the pilot. Were you keen for everything to evolve naturally?
"Yeah, definitely. When I was writing the pilot, I knew the characters had to be two-dimensional because it's a 20-minute format, so they therefore had to be cast with actors who would be able to take those characters over and start providing them with dimension.

"In the instance of Alison Brie's Annie character, she started off as a knock-off of Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick character in [1999 film] Election and took it from there. Six episodes into the first season, I was starting to get inspired by Alison's performances to realise more things biographically about her character. Then there's this back-and-forth [dialogue] that happens between the writers and the actors."

Back in season one, the first paintball episode ('Modern Warfare') was a massive success. How did that influence Community going forward?
"Well, it was a massive critical success, and yet another abysmal ratings failure! The way that it affected the show going forward was that we gave up all attempts to be anything but a critical darling.

"For a while, in the first season, there was a struggle to avoid being the new Arrested Development which in the States is the totem of a show that's 'too good for TV' - the audience is too small, people love it and then it gets cancelled after a short run. Nobody wants that, because all it does is waste a bunch of their money.

The cast of 'Community'
"So in our first season, we wanted to try to still be smart, still be funny and yet be appealing to everyone and their mother. By the end of that season, I was feeling like we probably weren't going to be back for a second season, and so things started to get a little crazier! And as they got crazier, we started getting something that we weren't getting before - recognition.

"We didn't get a larger audience that was measurable by the Nielsen system, but now we were getting good reviews, so for the second season, I continued with that philosophy. [But] I will always try to entertain everybody in the world - I'm not an elitist when it comes to entertainment."

Why do you think shows like Community and Arrested Development are critically acclaimed but don't get the best ratings?
"Well, the average person comes home from work really tired, and just wants to flip through channels until they land on the thing that's the least objectionable to them. They're not looking for their new favourite TV show because they know that that search will take forever and they'll go to bed unhappy.

Pierce in Community
"So they don't regard the television as an appliance that's supposed to spiritually satisfy them, they regard it as a thing that's supposed to comfort them and be a little stupid. It's not because they're stupid, it's because that's what TV has given them all their lives and it's hard to go out and do the work of finding a show.

"Slow and steady wins the race. If you have a show that can stay on the air long enough, people will tend to get addicted to it like cigarettes. Hopefully your audience will [then] build. There's only a very small percentage of the population that has so much free energy in their brain that they're actively seeking out a television show that you're supposed to taste as if it's a gourmet meal! Most people are just hungry."

Community does have a strong cult following - has that filtered into the way you make the show?
"Absolutely, because it's the way I experience television too. We're all very cross-platform now - we spend more time on our laptops than [we do watching] our actual TVs. We follow the creators of the shows that we like on Twitter, we read gossip about the shows on the internet, we have arguments with other fans on forums, the fans take screenshots of the show and they add poetry to them!

"Some people keep blogs… angrily saying things they don't like about the show, other people praising things that they love. And all of it is something that, six or eight years ago, could have been looked at as an erosion of the television medium. But I think it's a way to keep these characters alive and give them more dimension.

Abed from Community
"In my mind, the show definitely caters to a mind that enjoys scouring something over, picking up details and obsessing over it. It never suggests to you that you would be stupid for wasting your time on it.

"So the episodes sometimes are a little bit complicated, because 60% of the people are watching it on DVR, so they can hit the back button and hear a joke twice. There's a pacing that's allowable for this generation of viewer.

"I [also] do try many times a season to put Alison [Brie] in a situation, wardrobe-wise, that I know is going to end up as an animated GIF file! I observe that stuff and the way people are consuming it, because I'm a nerd too and I love to obsess about my favourite TV shows."

Community has always had great guest stars like John Goodman. Do you still have any dream guest stars?
"Well the big dream would be for Bill Murray to play Jeff Winger's father and I'm resigned to believing that can't possibly happen, but I keep pushing the storyline that involves Jeff finding his father and interacting with him, in the hope that some miracle will happen!

Bill Murray
"[But] I don't think too heavily about guest stars. I've been trying to get [Daily Show star] John Hodgman on the show for a while, and it's hard to co-ordinate schedules."

If you ever made a Community spinoff, what would it involve?
"If I was going to do that, the most logical thing to me would be to have the characters that represent the study group graduate and move on with their lives, and have that show still be called Community.

"But I'd have Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) and Ken Jeong stay at Greendale, and possibly Chevy Chase too. And then have new characters in a new study group, or [it could] focus on the faculty of Greendale. That would be a weird kind of backwards spinoff. But that would only happen if our show was the Law & Order of sitcoms - and it ain't! Nobody's watching!"

You could always do 'Troy and Abed in the Morning' as a real talk show...
"That's a fine idea, yeah! This third season, we're having Annie move in with Troy and Abed in their apartment, and it's very clear how easy it would be to just do [that show].

"If you gave me a multi-camera sitcom with Alison Brie, Donald Glover and Danny Pudi, that would be the easiest and most profitable job in the world. It would be fantastic. A spinoff of those guys living together would be great."

What do you think are the chances of Community returning for a fourth season?
"Oh, no idea. It's always 50 / 50 in my mind, because all of the factors just make it random to me. You'd have to ask the men in the dark rooms what the real factors were. The factors that I don't know about are syndication potential, and I know that, in this modern age, the thing that actually ends up working for us is online viewership - streaming and things.

Britta from Community
"Netflix and Hulu have become the new buyers of television, and we are big in those markets. We are big with a very young, upscale demographic that watches their TV on their wristwatches, their laptops and their shoelaces!

"They don't get counted in the Nielsen [ratings] but they're getting counted as downloads. So if there's enough money to be made in those markets, we could actually continue to be around for a while, having abysmal Nielsen ratings, making people scratch their heads!"

Community is better known in the US than in the UK - why should UK viewers get into the show?
"You'll get to have the satisfaction of being one of six fans of something, that'll be great! We spell the word 'colour' funny - we leave out the 'U' so if you turn on the subtitles, you might get a giggle!

"I don't know - I think the best pitch I could say is if you like your Simon Pegg / Edgar Wright stuff, if you like Spaced - which I got to see for the first time after I'd done the first season of Community - there's a very shared mindset there.

"Those guys were way ahead of us. They were doing their thing in '99 and I saw it between our first two seasons, and was blown away. But I do feel a kinship there, so if you are a Brit that likes that stuff, I think you might like our stuff.

"You know what? It takes 20 minutes and it's free. So do it, or I'll throw more tea in the harbour!"

Community: The Complete First Season is out on DVD on November 14.

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