EXCLUSIVE: Dan Harmon Talks Community
Community creator Dan Harmon discusses the Community Season 2 DVD, the upcoming third season, paintball, and much more.
Writer Dan Harmon certainly had an intriguing career before creating my favorite comedy on TV, Community. From big-screen movies such as Monster House to co-creating TV shows such as The Sarah Silverman Program, Acceptable TV and Channel 101, and even writing for The Academy Awards, Dan Harmon has proven he is a man of many diverse talents. He created the fantastic series Community based off his own experiences at Glendale Community College in Los Angeles, an idea which spawned one of the funniest and smartest shows on television today. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Dan Harmon to promote both Community: The Complete Second Season DVD release, which hits the shelves on September 6, and Season 3 of Community, which debuts on Thursday, September 22 at 8 PM ET on NBC. Here's what he had to say below.
I'm a huge fan of the show, and I've been watching since Day One. It's been a lot of fun and I can't wait for Season Three.
Dan Harmon: Thank you, man.
I read that the show originally stemmed from your own experiences at Glendale Community College and the group you became a part of. I was curious how many characters really stemmed from that actual study group, and how many were completely fictionalized?
Dan Harmon: Well, the sad answer is that none of the characters really stemmed from the study group that I was in. At Glendale, it was just two guys who cornered me during a smoke break who said they wanted to study with me. The characters on Community are more culled from amalgams of people I've known, ex-girlfriends and relatives and classmates, things from the past.
Can you talk about the aspects of these characters you really wanted to stand out. In some ways, they are are a very unique group, but in other aspects, they are also characters we have seen before. They come together in a very unique way, though, so can you talk a bit about formulating these characters?
Dan Harmon: Well, yeah, that was the entire goal, to create a group in which no two of them pulling up in a car would make you think anything else than, 'Oh, man, somebody must have gotten a flat tire.' These people don't belong together. Something happened here, there is some story here, 'Why is this person with that person?' With the possible exception of Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs), who kind of cut a similar silhouette, everybody else in that group, there's a dynamism to any pair you can generate. The other aspect of assembling the group that I knew was important was creating a staircase of ages, so that, in any way you needed to, you could create a family dynamic. That's not limited to saying, 'Oh, he's the old guy, so he's the father of the group.' Obviously, Pierce (Chevy Chase) has yet to be the father of the group, in any capacity. He's often more the youngest child, but he could be the father of the group, in certain circumstances. Sometimes Britta is the unwilling mother, sometimes she's the skanky sister, sometimes she's the baby sister. Sometimes Annie (Alison Brie) is the mother. Sometimes Annie's the big sister to Britta. More often than not, Jeff is the unwilling father to all of them, but sometimes he's the petty little kid, throwing tantrums and stuff. I knew that would be more possible if the characters had a span of ages. There were very few of them you could just lump together, the exception being Annie and Troy (Donald Glover, who went to high school together.
There are obviously limitations in setting a show like this at a community college, just because of how long people attend community college. Did you have that in the back of your mind, when you were crafting the first season, maybe some long-term plan for the show?
Dan Harmon: Well, only to the extent that it's the only reason why I didn't name it Community College. I knew that, on the off chance that we made it to a fifth season, we'd want the possibility of moving beyond that little world where they all met. But, mostly, when you're working in network TV, you put on blinders, you do everything you can to get your pilot ordered. If your pilot is ordered, you do everything you can to get it picked up for series, and, if so, you spend those first nine episodes doing everything you can to get the rest, and so on. It's not until now, coming into our third season, that we inherit the mantle of having to think responsibly about the long-term. You are getting a nod from the network, in a third season, that there is a potential you could go for a little while, and what are you going to do if you do. I've always been having those conversations with the writers, the entire time. There is always that five percent of the brain dedicated to the bigger picture. We increase that each season, and this season, we've spent a lot of time talking about the fourth and fifth season.
I was talking to Danny (Pudi) earlier about these little aspects of the show that really seem to blow up unexpectedly, like the tags at the end, Troy and Abed In the Morning, things like that. Are you constantly surprised at which aspects seem to take off with the Community fanbase?
Dan Harmon: Sometimes. There are times where we have deliberately designed them to be that way and they don't really take off at all. More often, if you have some guy named Magnitude come into a party and say, 'Pop pop,' you know that either, ironically or not, people are going to hook into that (Laughs). I think the biggest surprise was Annie's Boobs, the monkey. It really was just a joke. I was writing that episode, thinking, 'What would Troy wish for, if he could have anything, that you could maybe drum up around Greendale as a favor?' It seemed like a guy like Troy would think that monkey's are really cool. Like he says, 'It's an animal that looks like a dude.' Then it was like, 'Well, what would he name him?' Those were all just jokes. I never thought that this thing would be on the cover of the Second Season DVD, poking his head out from the corner (Laughs).
The paintball episode in the first season really exploded as well. Are you at the point now where you know that you have to end each season with a paintball episode, or at least have a paintball episode in there? Is it challenging to try and keep upping the ante from both those amazing episodes?
Dan Harmon: It's not that big of a challenge, because I don't actually feel the requirement to do it. I feel like our audience is small enough (Laughs) that I can assume their sophisticated, because, how can you be an audience that small and be stupid? I think our audience trusts us enough that, if we go a whole season and don't do a paintball episode, they're going to know that we must have thought it would be tired, and we could not come up with an idea that didn't seem totally hacked to them, and forced. I didn't know, for a long time, on the second season, that we were going to do another one, because it was hard to tell. Half of your brain says you have to do another one, and then the other half of your brain says, if you that side of your brain says you have to do one, then you have to not do one. Then the other half says, well if that side says you have to not do one, then you absolutely have to do one. It bounced back and forth and we ended up doing one because we had to not do one. This year, we may or may not do one. I just yesterday came up with a concept that, I think, would make a third one really cool. So, we'll see.
Will it be a two-parter like last year?
Dan Harmon: No, I don't think so. I think it was a mistake to make those our finale. I think our audience prefers it if we do a more human finale. I think we nailed it the first season, when paintball was right before the end, triggering the grand finale.
Can you talk a bit about the cast evolving, and, with this being the third season, how much of a comfort level there is with the cast? Are you more of a well-oiled machine now?
Dan Harmon: Yeah, definitely, because I hardly have to go to set now, because our actors have such a handle on these characters. Our actors live with these characters. There's plenty of reason to walk someone through a joke, saying, 'Well, i think it would be funny if you did it like this.' When it comes to comedy engineering, you can definitely have a conversation with an actor on whether or not a joke lands right. But, what you can't do in a third season is say, 'Well, I think your character is probably thinking this or that,' because now the character is the actor, and vice versa, and they know everything. They're almost directing themselves and, in Donald (Glover)'s case, almost writing for themselves.
With the timeslot that you have now, you had The Big Bang Theory moving to Thursday nights last year, and now Charlie's Angels this year. Do you feel the need to keep upping the ante, because of the competition? Do you feel that new competition every year in your time slot?
Dan Harmon: Yeah, it's just the way it is. It doesn't really affect the way we approach things creatively. It's something that affects my anxiety every day, and it helps me to approach each episode as if it's my last (Laughs). But, other than that, it's not like we go, 'Oh, we better put a dog in our show, because The Big Bang Theory has a dog.' We don't do anything like that.
Dan Harmon: Yes.
We also saw a bit of a musical thing and I also noticed we saw Jeff a little disheveled there. Does that all come into play in the premiere, or longer down the line?
Dan Harmon: It does come into play in the premiere. Everything you see in that commercial is from the first episode.
Is there anything you can say about the story of this season premiere? It almost seems as if Jeff has this homeless vibe.
Dan Harmon: Well, it's about the Pierce story, about Pierce getting kicked out of the group, or rather quitting the group. I don't know. There's not much more I can say about it. I don't want to spoil it.
It seems that John will be more of a recurring character this season. Do you know how many episodes he's locked in for this season?
Dan Harmon: It's six to eight (episodes). He's in there a lot, yeah. Eight is a lot of episodes of TV. Yeah, he will be a formidable force.
I believe you're currently on episode five right now. Are there any other notable guest stars you either have locked in, or that you're hoping to get for this season?
Dan Harmon: Well, Martin Starr from Party Down, did an episode. He'll be in the second episode. Let's see, there is Michael K. Williams, there's John Goodman, but there's nobody else that I can think of right now.
What would you like to say to fans of the show about why they should tune in for Season 3 and pick up the Second Season DVD?
Dan Harmon: Well, because it's the best show on TV, hands down, and if you don't believe me, just look at how few people are watching it. I promise you that when we're writing it, the foremost question on our mind is, 'How can we not insult the viewer? How can we make it worth buying each season on DVD and how can we make it worth tuning into every week?' That is our top priority. It's not about fooling people and it's not about getting away with anything. It's about satisfying the viewer on an equal level. That's my honest pitch for the show.
Awesome. Well, that's about all I have for you, Dan. Thanks so much for talking to me. I'm a really big fan of the show.
Dan Harmon: Oh, cool. Thank you so much.
You can watch Dan Harmon's brilliant comedy series Community when it returns to the NBC lineup on Thursday, September 22 at 8 PM ET. You can also pick up Community: The Complete Second Season on DVD shelves everywhere starting on September 6.