The latest high-concept episode of Community sees the cast transplanted into the animated world of G.I. Joe -- not a G.I. Joe pastiche, but the actual landscape and characters of the cartoon that ran for much of the 1980s and early '90s, officially licensed from Hasbro. It's the latest in the NBC comedy’s long string of highly touted high-concept episodes, but like the ones that came before it -- involving disparate entities including paintball, zombies, chicken fingers, evil doppelgängers, 8-bit video games and, in the Dan Harmon-less fourth season, puppets -- the goal is to tell an actual story behind the spectacle.
"We were able to dip into that world and pay loving homage to it, but also tell a real Community story the whole time," executive producer Chris McKenna, who returned for the show's current fifth season, told Spinoff Online last week before the Community PaleyFest event in Hollywood. "You're not just doing a sketch. We take on the style for a specific reason that's playing out in the real world."
In tonight's mostly animated episode, titled "G.I. Jeff" and directed by Scud the Disposable Assassin creator Rob Schrab and written by Dino "Starburns" Stamatopoulos, the main characters all adapt Joe-esque identities -- Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is "Wingman," Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is "Buzzkill," Abed (Danny Pudi) is "Fourth Wall," Annie (Alison Brie) is "Tight Ship" and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is "Three Kids."
For as over the top as the episode seems, Harmon said at PaleyFest that the story is actually about "age and dying."
"Dan and I, we just never learn," McKenna said. "We like to say that we're going to work smarter not harder, we're not going to come up with a concept first and then try to wedge a story into it. Then inevitably we'll go, 'Oh, we're going to do a Dungeons & Dragons sequel' and then we bash our heads against the wall for a while trying to figure out what that story is."
"There are times when we just go, 'Oh, we love Coen Brothers movies. Let's do our Indiana Jones. Let's do our National Treasure,’” he continued. "If we can get to those places organically, it's usually when the show is at its best."
For the cast, the episode was not only the latest stylistic challenge, but also a break from appearing on camera, other than live-action scenes that bookend the episode.
"It's really fun when you do voice work, because you don't have to do your hair and makeup, and I don't have to wear heels," Jacobs told Spinoff. "So I really like that part of it a lot."
"I think it looks so cool," she continued. "I used to watch those videos on, like, eBaum's World a million years ago. 'I'm a computer! Stop all the downloading!' That was my only real frame of reference for G.I. Joe cartoons. But I really liked those, so I was excited."
"I grew up in the '80s, and I remember G.I. Joe," added Jim Rash, whose Dean Pelton becomes a Cobra officer in the episode. "The drawings from the animatics look fantastic. I can't wait to see it."
For Pudi, it was both a way to revisit something he was a fan of as a kid -- that was also a bit of a forbidden fruit.
"My mom didn't let me watch it, but my friends watched it,” he recalled. “I had to go over my friend Jeff's house to watch."
"I got to see some of the animators at work, which is incredible," he continued. "It's another element of our show, which is like, 'We get to do this, too?' I'm always surprised. I think it's a great episode, and super-funny."
Like McKenna, Schrab and Stamatopoulos didn’t participate in Community ‘s four season following Harmon's firing in 2012, making the "G.I. Jeff" episode something that wouldn’t have existed as it does without the series creator's return.
"It's like night and day, because the show was much different, and not as good last year," McHale told Spinoff of the differences between seasons 4 and 5. "We were all there, but it was an echo of what we were doing.
"To have Dan back, it has been the restoration of the monarchy. We needed it. We needed the leadership and the guidance, and we needed his massive brain and creativity. It's everything that you probably think. He created the show, so it was very important that he be there."
"G.I. Jeff" marks the third-to-last episode of Community Season 5, before a two-part finale that brings things back to the physical world of Greendale Community College. While it remains to be seen what's next -- the cast and fans seem optimistic about yet another unlikely renewal, bringing things closer to the once far-fetched rallying cry of "six seasons and a movie" -- the final episodes of the season appear to return to more grounded territory, with the Dean, Abed and Annie teaming up to combat the latest threat to Greendale's existence.
"The show has no template at this point, because Harmon's brain ping-pongs around," McKenna said. "The show can wear so many different hats. It can do a hot lava episode one week, and a movie about trying to get a bulletin board hung the next. That's what i love about the show. Ultimately, it is the same show. It's these characters. Sometimes the framework around it gets a bit skewed."
Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.