David Issacs—the legendary writer/producer of television masterworks Cheers, The Simpsons and The Tracy Ullman Show—has maintained that one of the keys to comedy is “frustration and unfulfilled promises set against opposing aspirations.” Which pretty much sums up my recent visit to the set of NBC sitcom Community. My aspirations were simple: Observe and try to blend in best as possible. Instead, I wound up being as conspicuous as a streaker on the strip.
At first, though, everything was fine. I arrived early to Paramount Studios in Hollywood on a dreary, drizzling morning and made my way to Studio 32 where Community is shot, the same historic spot where Citizen Kane, Chinatown and King Kong (not the good one but rather the regrettable 1976 version) were filmed.
If you haven’t tuned in yet, Community is one of the strongest comedies on TV, the story of seven eclectic misfits at a community college. It’s simultaneously high and low brow, reflects the sacred and profane, features complex characters both insensitive and compassionate—and it consistently surprises. Mystery and spontaneity are valued by creator Dan Harmon, and it shows in the way he communicates with his actors. Asked about his character’s sexual orientation, Jim Rash, who plays Dean Pelton, says, “I don’t know, really. Harmon tells me ‘why know?’ It’s more exciting that way.”
Harmon’s enthusiasm for Greendale Community College and its cast of eccentrics is contagious: Everyone on set appears passionate about their part in executing the show, which is pretty amazing considering that nearly 250 people work on Community. Particularly impressive is the art department’s attention to nuance—every prop, flyer and vending-machine item is a subtle gag: paintball splotches left over from last season’s “Modern Warfare” episode, a flyer for a multicultural group touting “arguably hot international students,” the packs of condoms and pregnancy tests filling the first two slots in the snack machine .
“On other shows,” says Gillian Jacobs, who plays Britta, “they might not invest the time into all these details … It’d probably just be gibberish. It’s really amazing how much thought goes into everything.” With the effort put into every facet of the show’s production, the cast and crew have become a harmonious group working in near-perfect sync. Even supporting players Charley Koontz, Dino Stamatopoulos and Danielle Kaplowitz (respectively, Fat Neil, Star-Burns and Vicki) describe the atmosphere at Community as “family.”
“It’s great to be a part of such a talented and dedicated group of people,” says Kaplowitz. “Plus it’s my favorite show on TV,” adds Koontz “How cool is it that we get to work here?”
While the cast rehearses, just about everyone on set goofs around, playing word-association games, quoting each other’s lines—having fun with the material. “A lot of the fun is just us being ourselves and having a good time, messing around,” says Danny Pudi, who plays the affable and earnest Abed, of the boisterous on-set environment. “[The writers] capture what’s happening, and then we get these moments in the scripts that reflect those unexpected incidents. So we’re proud of all that messing around; it’s good source material.”
Only Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley, is less than antic this afternoon, as her character’s pregnancy and the requisite uncomfortable costume has her in a more reserved if still amiable mood Shirley’s impending child birth—and the mystery of whether the father is ex-husband Andre (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) or the over-the-top Señor Chang (Ken Jeong)—has been a focal point for the show this season. Today, the cast is rehearsing the moment when Shirley’s water breaks. Soon, it seems, the “Knocked-Up-Whodunit” will be resolved. It’s a surprisingly transparent set, perhaps because everyone is proud of the work they’re doing on Community—they’re more than happy to show it off.
When the interview process began in the Greendale Community College cafeteria, Brown—still sporting the prego suit—joined me first, and gushed about the chance to work with Malcolm Jamal-Warner. “I put together a list of people I’d like Andre to be played by,” she says, “and [Warner] was the top. [Dan Harmon] said to me ‘You can’t order humans,’ but sometimes a request pays off.”
A couple of interviews in, I begin to feel more at home and welcomed on the set. Perhaps a bit too comfortable too soon, I make my way back to the Anthropology Classroom set, and discretely attempt to snap some photos as the crew sets up lights and coordinates camera moves. Squatting between a wall and a false doorway, I’m panning and focusing my lens around the room when suddenly the entrancingly beautiful actress Allison Brie—who plays Annie on Community and Trudie on Mad Men—is heading straight toward me with Joel McHale, who plays Jeff, the unlikely leader of the Community gang, in tow. Flustered, I try to jump out of the way, only to fall over and nearly smack into her knees with the camera. “This guy’s tryin’ to get up your skirt, Alison—be careful,” McHale quips. “Yeah, Jeez,” she says, hopefully teasing. “No, I was… it was just…” I stammer. But it’s too late. I’m branded a perverted jackass. This gaffe makes my next interview, with Brie of all people, a little unnerving, to say the least. I try to move forward nonchalantly, asking her about the spontaneous word games played on set. “Ninety percent of the games come from nonsense and inside jokes from the scripts we just repeat to ourselves to make each other laugh,” says Brie. “We just have too much fun here.”
Next up, Donald Glover—whose portrayal of the naive Troy is consistently hilarious and brilliant—sits down with me between takes despite having a head cold. “I like your shirt,” he says. “That’s the only reason I’m gonna talk to you.” (Thank you “Corporate Zombie” Threadless shirt!) Glover—whose group Derrick Comedy, with its movie Mystery Team, is one of the most sidesplitting, fresh new voices in comedy—is as quick as he is sharp, in stark contrast to his Troy persona. Of course when I mention Mystery Team, I get tongue tied and accidentally confuse it with the much less fresh 1999 Ben Stiller vehicle Mystery Men. Throughout our exchange, I manage no less than three malapropisms in a paltry three minutes. I ask Glover, former staff writer on another successful NBC show, 30 Rock, how he transitioned from writer to performer.
“It made me realize the importance of communication between [performer and writer] and to not be afraid to ask questions and find out exactly what the writer intends in a scene.” Glover is quick and convivial, jumping easily between talk of theory and practice and imitations of others, from Tracy Morgan to Macy Gray. So how does someone, born only two days before me achieve such comedic heights while I struggle to get a courtesy laugh from my own parents? Glover contemplates this for a moment before saying, “Well, you just have to do it. Stick to what you think is funny and hopefully someone else will find it funny, too. You have…” And just at the moment I’m about to receive the secret of comedy genius, Glover is called back to set, with a promise of picking up our conversation later.
I slunk back to my post along the false wall as I’m informed my next interview is ready: “Chevy has a few minutes before his next set-up if you want to chat with him.” Shit, Chevy Chase? Now? Given the churlish legend’s notorious reputation, the day’s earlier humiliations might seem like a pleasant dream.
“So you’re recording this?” he says immediately.
“No, I take notes in shorthand; its easier for me than transcribing a tape later on.”
“Well, how are you going to make sure you’re quoting me correctly?”
“Um, well, I take pretty meticulous shorthand. And I’ll do my due diligence, Sir.”
“Eh, its alright. Even Time magazine misquotes all the time.”
I try to move on by ingratiating myself to him, asking him about his physical-comedic prowess and how he tailors it to fit his character, Pierce, on Community. “Physical comedy,” Chase says, “is really about the appearance of being in control.” As such, Chase’s Pierce is imbued with the control one might have if one “lost a good part of [their] brain” and thus appears to be several steps behind everyone else. Physical comedy is more than just falling on your ass, he explains: “The minutiae is just as physical … a look or a reaction can be powerful physical comedy.” For example, he reminds, consider the comparative physicality of the subtle hand gestures Chase used in his SNL commercial parody for the anti-arthritic Triopenin (pronounced “try-openin’”).
When Chase is done with me, I return to set, trying to make sense of the day and lamenting that this visit would probably ruin my career (not to mention any long shot with Allison Brie). But I find temporary solace in something McHale had said earlier—“Life is messy. There are no clean answers.” Of course he was referring to the show and its plot complications, but this nugget of wisdom rings true and meaningful.
As I’m packing up to leave, I overhear a conversation between the episode’s Director, Jay Chandrasekhar (of Super Troopers fame), and Chevy regarding sit-coms and criticism. “I hate critics,” Chase says. They’re do-nothing assholes. I never watched sit-coms. Now I’m on one. Guess that’s God’s way of saying ‘You’re a worm!’” Chandrasekhar motions to me. “You wanna weigh in on this one?” Feeling the thin ice underfoot, I attempt the diplomatic route. “Oh, I’m no Critic,” I say, “I’m an Appreciator.
“See,” says Chevy, “I already like you more than I did a minute ago.” He said goodbye, wished me luck, and told me to go fuck myself. But I can’t be sure about that last part; I’m probably misquoting him.