After nine months, and one especially cruel false alarm, Community finally returns to NBC tonight for its highly anticipated fourth season. Considering everything that has occurred behind the scenes – doubts about renewal, the firing of creator Dan Harmon, the abrupt departure of Chevy Chase – many fans may have doubted they'd see the Greendale Community College study group again.
However, that disbelief is nothing compared to what stars Joel McHale and Jim Rash experienced when they walked on set with veteran actor Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange).
“He’s tremendous,” McHale told a group of journalists on the set of Community. “He plays our history professor, and he sounds like he has a checkered past and he might not be the happiest person in the world.” Rash labeled McDowell’s character as “a little manic-depressive.”
“I couldn’t believe I was shooting with him,” McHale added.
“I don’t think he could,” Rash said. “Malcolm pulled me aside and said, ‘Is this the best Joel can do?’”
“He pulled you aside and said that?” McHale asked skeptically.
“Yeah, he said, ‘Jim, you and I get each other because we’re classically trained actors,’” Rash deadpanned.
“Really, that’s funny because he came to me and said, ‘I just called Jim Moby and he cried like a baby. I’m going to call him Steven Soderbergh now!’” McHale shot back.
McDowell isn’t the only special guest this season, as fans will finally meet Jeff Winger’s deadbeat dad, played by veteran actor James Brolin.
“It was fantastic. James Brolin took pity on us and accepted being on the show,” McHale joked. “I don’t want to give out too many details, but he dies.”
“But he also pulled me aside and said, ‘That’s the best Joel can do?’” Rash said, leaning over to interrupt McHale.
“You never were in the same room with him!” McHale replied. “You weren’t even there!”
“I was there, I was watching you shoot and he said, ‘Can I speak to you, favorite person?’ That’s what he said, ‘Favorite person,’” Rash said.
“I feel like you are being pulled aside by a lot of people that I am working with that are making fun of me,” McHale said as Rash shrugged.
McHale praised Brolin’s on-set demeanor, calling the actor “very generous.”
“It’s rare that you hear stories of, ‘What’s it like to work with that guy? Awful!’ But it really is one of those things where he was great,” he said. “You always hear people gushing about that stuff but I really enjoyed him.”
“That sort of sounds like you mean it. You said ‘Great’ like 10 times,” Rash scoffed.
Past seasons have seen McHale’s character go from sarcastic loner to a reluctant friend and member of the study group while Rash’s Dean went from recurring gag to a main character, as well as one of Jeff’s most aggressive (and oddly dressed) admirers.
“He’s got a lot of outfits, that hasn’t changed,” Rash said. “He’s still pining after Jeff, that hasn’t changed. I think if anything, it feels like starting the next year.”
McHale, however, disagreed. “The Dean has really been diminished in a lot of ways,” he said.
Rash joked, “This feels like the fracture in our friendship has destroyed us onscreen.”
Despite the fake glares, McHale and Rash proclaimed themselves lucky to be working together for the past four years, completely immersed in the lives of their onscreen characters.
“The truth is when you’re blessed and lucky enough to be on a show that can go and allow you to go for years the voices are pretty defined,” Rash said. “I think that with the changes there will obviously be differences but I think at it’s core the map was already there.”
“We all know our characters -- he’s still trying to find Jeff, but the rest of us, we get it,” he added, gesturing to McHale.
Rash, who won an Academy Award last year with Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon for their adapted screenplay of The Descendants, also wrote this season’s 10th episode, “Basic Human Anatomy,” a spoof on body-switching a la Freaky Friday.
“It mainly centers on Troy and Abed,” he said. “It is a sort of play on a body-switching world. It’s very Greendale in the sense it’s warped but there’s a lot of heart and it comes to some resolutions on some key things that play out over the season.”
“It definitely made the table read a little more challenging because I obviously wrote myself stuff, but to sit there and hear it out loud and as the writer you’re going, ‘Oof, fix that,’ or ‘Oh, good!’ Or, ‘Ugh, Joel,’” Rash continued with a laugh.
“Well, whenever I walk on set with him, it’s like, ‘Time to save another piece of dialogue,’ McHale retorted.
“I just wrote words on a napkin and said, let’s see what happens! And then the napkin got wet,” Rash confessed, shaking his head.
The most important part of the fourth season for both men, however, was the upcoming Dean outfits.
“We have our little Hunger Deans outfit that starts in the beginning,” Rash said. However, his favorite Community costume remains the one he wore in the Season 2 Halloween episode, “Epidemiology.” “I think, for me, I always really appreciated how much they went to make the Lady Gaga thing happen. It’s years ago now, but the fact that that jacket was made, it’s pretty amazing.”
“What was the hardest outfit to get into?” McHale asked.
“I don’t remember,” Rash replied. “What’s your favorite nice suit they put you in that you can probably keep after all this is said and done?”
“Any of the Dolce & Gabbanas, really,” McHale said, leaning back in his chair.
The two also reminisced over their favorite Jeff and Dean moment from this season.
“I just come into his office at one point and I go, ‘Dean, I need you,’” McHale said.
“And I just go, ‘It’s happening,’” Rash finished as McHale laughed.
Rash told reporters the Dean’s attitude toward Jeff this season could be summed up in one word: aggressive.
“The Dean is very more aggressive this year as far as trying to push the line and see if it will happen, which has been a joy to make [Jeff] uncomfortable,” Rash said.
“There’s a lot of me slapping his hands off me,” McHale added.
Although both have other projects – McHale’s hosting duties on The Soup, stand-up appearances and occasional acting roles, and Rash’s screenwriting and improv – they said Community gives them something they can’t get anywhere else.
“I always dreamt of being on a really well-written comedy, and I really feel like it is, so I enjoy it here,” McHale said. “I’m proud of the show, I really do want it to go the distance -- we’ll see if that happens.”
“I think this show has always been for me, outside of the other things we do in our lives, this sort of fun playground,” Rash offered. “It really is one of those things where you trusted this whole group because the writers knew what you were capable of, and you explored and you heightened these characters and you evolved; it was always constantly evolving and challenging both ourselves and the audience. I think that’s a testament to a good show.”
“Hopefully, it will keep going,” McHale said.
Just as the interview seemed destined to end on a somber note, McHale began riffing on where Rash kept his Oscar on set.
“I keep it in the hallway, not too showy,” Rash said with a shrug.
“But there is a soundtrack,” McHale added.
Community returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.