The Community panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego began with someone in an Iron Man costume pretending to fly onto the stage while making whoosh and whirring sound effects from within the suit. As the faux-Iron Man "landed" he raised his arm and pretended to fire out of his hand while still making sound effects. He then started spinning around on stage. At this point, Community cast members Jim Rash and Danny Pudi ran on stage and started removing pieces of "armor," revealing Community creator Dan Harmon, who was fired as showrunner by Sony Studios after season three last year and subsequently rehired in June to take over as showrunner for the upcoming fifth season.
"It is good to be back!" shouted Harmon as the audience erupted with cheers. "Oh, you missed me? I missed you, too! I am billionaire playboy and creator Dan Harmon."
As the applause receded, Harmon continued the homage to Tony Stark's opening speech in Iron Man 2. "Before we bring everybody out, I just want to say something. I'm not going to say that television is going to enjoy it's longest period of quality in years because of me. I'm not saying that. It's not about me. I'm not saying that like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of unemployment with new powers, I have created a machine that eats pain and craps joy! I'm not saying that Uncle Sony can sit back and sip on a tall glass of syndication money because the people in this room gave us five seasons. It's not about us. It's about legacy. It's about what we leave behind. It's about six seasons and a movie!"
As the audience cheered some more, Harmon concluded. "So what I am saying, if I'm saying anything at all -- is welcome back to Community!"
It was a fitting intro to the Community panel, upgraded from the Indigo Ballroom across the street from the San Diego Convention Center where it was featured for three years, to the 4000-seat Ballroom 20 last year, to the massive 6500-seat Hall H for 2013.
A short black-and-white video presentation followed with Joel McHale (Jeff Winger) portraying Dan Harmon's father from the great beyond talking about the secret to achieving six seasons and a movie. It starts with tweeting about Community to everybody you know. "For every 40 million watching Community from around the world, the odds increase that one of them will live in Iowa and have a Nielsen box," said McHale. "It all starts here with season five of Community. Speaking of the future, here's a man who is an above-average bowler and couldn't make Web Soup work. Ladies and gentlemen: Chris Hardwick."
Hardwick, moderator for the event, then came on stage. "Joel is right. I killed G4. But the main difference is, one of us is here at Comic-Con right now," he said. "Oh shit."
Hardwick then introduced the panel. Joining Harmon on stage were cast members Jim Rash (Dean Pelton), Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley Bennett), Danny Pudi (Abed Nadir), Alison Brie (Annie Edison), Gillian Jacobs (Britta Perry), and Ken Jeong (Ben Chang), as well as producer Chris McKenna.
According to Harmon, his return as showrunner means there will be "new levels of anxiety that will no doubt trickle into the show. Nobody wants to not fail more than me at this point. I really, really have to make these 13 [fifth season episodes] count. I don't consider them to be the last 13. I'm going to do everything I can to get us a sixth season."
However, Harmon wasn't thinking about what the next season would be during the last year. He mentioned that he did have plans for a season four when he was working on season three, but that the "actual" season four shot his plans "out the window."
"This is a whole new thing," said Harmon. "We have to re-ground, re-establish these characters, get back to the emotional basics and then have the most fun we can have."
Harmon said there will be an animated episode this year, but other than that, he doesn't want to over-plan, and wants to get back to the feel of the show's first two seasons. "If I made mistakes in season three, it had a lot to do with over-planning -- thinking about the finale during shooting of the first episode."
Jacobs said she has never felt secure about the show's future. "But then, I've never had steady employment before this show either," she said. "This steady anxiety and looming cancellation is my new reality."
Pudi thanked the fans and said he's shocked the show is still here and says as he walks around San Diego, he sees people in Inspector Spacetime outfits and 8-bit T-shirts. "I get to connect with people all over the place now in the strangest possible ways," he said.
Jeong said he was in Toronto promoting Hangover 3 and "got way more Chang [shout-outs] than Chow [Jeong's character from the "Hangover" franchise] than I ever had before. It was amazing."
Brie said she loves playing Annie and has enjoyed watching her evolve into a more mature human being "and then devolve into one who's maybe not as mature, and maybe that will turn back around," she said. "I'm just excited to see what Dan is going to do."
Brown did her annual thank you to the fans and then named one fan in particular who was the first Shirley cosplayer she ever met.
Harmon discussed the writer's room and how process will shift this year as compared to other seasons. Since the staff is limited to only 13 episodes, they plan to break all of the stories first, and they already roughly know what those 13 stories are going to be. There will be a mixture of high-concept episodes and "normal" episodes. The early episodes will just be about the characters.
McKenna said his favorite part of the show was going from being a fan to getting to work on it. However, the episode he can rewatch over and over again is the "Dungeons and Dragons"-themed episode. Harmon mentioned there was a spot on the Season 5 episode whiteboard that says "D&D2," a statement that garnered massive applause from the audience.
One of the biggest surprises was an appearance during the audience Q&A by Dino Stamatopoulos, who plays Alex "Star-Burns" Osborn on Community, which made the audience (and the panel) very excited. "I have about thirty questions," he started as the audience laughed. "What do you guys fucking smoke when you write these shows?" Stamatopoulos also plugged an ashcan comic he sold at Comic-Con, and his new Fox animated show High School USA. He then left as the audience cheered. Later on, Harmon received a text from Stamatopoulos, which said he told the crowd the wrong corner to meet him at to buy his comic. Harmon read out a new corner address, which got a big laugh.
One of the topics Harmon addressed was his harsh comments regarding season four and whether he plans to to undo that happened in season four as the show enters its fifth season. Harmon said he will not undo season four -- he will keep following the trajectory.
"When I said that naughty stuff, I was talking about my own experience watching it in the filter of my podcast," said Harmon. "When I do Community, I'm making this show to adjust for the despicable person I am, and I make a valentine for people. Community is never going to hurt you. I probably am -- maybe in a car. I apologize to any fans I may have hurt with those comments. A fan of 'Community' does not have to be a fan of Dan Harmon, and vice-versa. I am a creepy jerk."
The fifth season of Community debuts on NBC later this year.