Dedicated fans packed the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills Tuesday night to hear the cast and creators of NBC’s Community talk about everything from upcoming episodes to improvisation to the doll-making process for the stop-motion Christmas special.
“One of the people who made the dolls [told me] ‘It’s difficult to make an awkward-shaped body like you!’” recalled Danny Pudi, who plays Abed.
Now in its second season, Community is an ensemble comedy about students attending Greendale College, what could easily be the worst community college in America. Led by Joel McHale as the disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger, the show centers around the members of his study group as they stumble toward graduation, share relationship woes and survive the occasional paintball war and zombie apocalypse.
Part of the ongoing William S. Paley Festival for Television, the night began with an homage to the roots of cast member Chevy Chase. The audience cheered as video was shown of the classic “Word Association” sketch from Saturday Night Live, in which Chase and the late Richard Pryor one-up each other in a game of racial slurs.
Community creator Dan Harmon, the driving force behind Channel 101 and The Sarah Silverman Program, then came onstage to thank the moderator, The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff. PaleyFest attendees cheered again as they watched a screening of Thursday’s episode. We won’t spoil it here, but suffice to say the episode involves Jeff and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) butting heads about Chang’s (Ken Jeong) suitability as a father while Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed square off against Britta (Gillian Jacobs) over her latest male conquest (guest star Enver Gjokaj of Dollhouse).
As the episode finished, VanDerWerff introduced executive producers Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Garrett Donovan and Russ Krasnoff, and nearly the entire cast of Community. Even the staff writers were present, waving from the audience as Harmon singled them out.
It was obvious the actors are just as comfortable with each other in real life as their characters are on the show. Pudi and McHale made grand sweeping entrances, with Pudi repeatedly giving the crowd a big thumbs up. Chase tangled himself in his microphone while Jeong surreptitiously put his arm around Chase and grinned at the audience.
Kicking off the discussion, Harmon said the remainder of Season 2 will see Shirley give birth, while Abed will finally get to answer the age-old question: Who’s the boss on Who’s The Boss?
Talking about the show’s themed episodes, Brown told the audience that, to get ready for the Apollo 13-inspired “Basic Rocket Science,” the cast went to Pudi’s house and watched the movie.
“I was not invited!” said actor Jim Rash, doing his best Dean Pelton pout as the audience laughed.
In a slightly more serious vein, VanDerWerff wanted to know whether Chase and the producers are concerned about Pierce being pushed too far into becoming an irredeemable villain.
“The character Pierce is worried,” Chase replied. “He just wants to be accepted, he doesn’t want to be left out. He has the emotional mind of a 13-year-old. I love playing a guy like that.”
“We talk about it a lot,” Donovan admitted. “Definitely down the road in this season we address that.”
“I get one fan letter a week now, and I used to get 2,000. So they need to address that,” Chase added as the audience cracked up.
Physical comedy ruled the next line of questioning as VanDerWerff commented on Jeong’s tendency to play aggressive beats for laughs.
“What?!” Jeong screamed, making faces at the moderator. Settling down, he answered that much of the aggressive comedy comes from the scripts. He also praised the show’s fans.
“It’s so creatively fulfilling because, thanks to you [the audience], we have people who care about these characters, and it gives the writers more freedom and the actors more confidence,” he said.
Jacobs also explained that, despite her sight gags, she is not a physical comedian. “My physicality is naturally humorous because I am a very awkward person,” she said. “I dance and people laugh!”
Mention of the Rankin/Bass-inspired Christmas special had the audience applauding the fan-favorite episode for a full minute. Pudi said he watched the episode, which dealt with Abed’s abandonment by his mother, with his real family on Christmas.
“It’s a very sweet episode,” he said. “It’s looking for the meaning of Christmas and it’s a journey that allows Abed to move on and accept that his mom is with a new family now.”
A fake fart from Chase punctuated Pudi’s thoughtful answer. “Chase always farts at the perfect time!” Jeong laughed.
Touching on his character’s “stud” status, McHale said he’s aware of the constant speculation and arguments among fans over which female character Jeff should ultimately end up with. “Thank God people make videos of us and put music to them and post it on YouTube,” he joked.
“In Jeff’s mind he’s always like, ‘Well, this one’s pretty good but, hey, look at that one!” McHale said of his female co-stars. “It’s like a wonderful dessert selection.”
Harmon also revealed his desire to do an episode from the point of view of Greendale’s Dean Pelton.
“That’s the episode I want to do, where we set up all these stories, like Troy decides to grow a mustache and Shirley decides she’s going to watch what she eats and Jeff is talking about ski classes, whatever, and the Dean walks in and tells them what’s going on, but then the camera follows him,” Harmon said.
“I really want to see where he lives, his dirty, dirty apartment,” Rash added. “Dan and I joke it’s probably all black lights.”
The producers touched upon what to expect in the future, revealing plans for a Sergio Leone homage in the season finale, which guest stars Josh Holloway from Lost. After a fumble on Harmon’s part led to him mentioning the “Memory” episode, the creator explained it’s actually a fake clip show.
“For me growing up, clip shows were part of the mythology of sitcoms, reflecting on the series and using all recycled material,” Harmon said. “But we weren’t going to do that, so we killed ourselves and shot a bunch of scenes you’ve never seen for episodes that don’t exist.”
VanDerWerff asked the panelists whether they’re hopeful for a third season.
“No,” Chase joked.
When the floor was opened for questions, the fans quickly proved as willing to joke around as the cast. One of the first audience members to get the microphone jumped to her feet and shouted “Pop-Pop!” quoting Magnitude, a popular supporting character. The cast and producers cracked up, adding that Magnitude will show up again soon.
Another audience member wanted to know how much of each episode was improvised
“It increases more with each episode as people get more comfortable,” Harmon said. Citing Glover as one of the biggest improvisers, he continued, “You know you can write a crappy joke for Donald and he’ll make it funnier and improvise something else.”
But Glover isn’t the only actor who likes impromptu jokes. “LeVar Burton’s ‘More fish for Kunta!’ line was improvised,” Harmon said, referring to the tag for the recent documentary episode.
Another audience member asked how social media and fan response influences the writing of the show.
“Twitter is remarkable,” Donovan said. “It’s changing a lot — never before have you been able to air a show and get a real-time response.”
“If Nielsen ratings were the only indication that I was doing a good job, I would have hung it up a long time ago,” Harmon said. “But you watch the Twitter feeds and its mainly people quoting their favorite stuff.”
Everyone onstage weighed in on the question of what characters have changed the most from the show’s inception.
“Troy started out as a jock but now he’s a lot more Donald, a lot more into the arts,” Donovan said.
Jacobs said she thought her own character has changed tremendously, from Jeff’s love interest in Season 1 to “the one who ruins things, who people would rather die than have a conversation with.”
With the night drawing to a close, there was still one burning question left on everyone’s mind.
“Are we going to see Jeff Winger shirtless again?” asked an audience member, triggering the biggest cheer of the night. McHale promised that in an upcoming episode fans would see the stomach of the sexiest character on Community — the Dean.
“Next to Joel they said ‘We feel that you’re the second sexiest person, so will you show your midriff?’ and I jumped at the chance,” Rash joked. He patted his stomach and the audience applauded.
Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that a third-season renewal was announced during the panel. Spinoff regrets the error.