For the past two seasons, drama behind-the-scenes of "Community" has caused more buzz than the comedy onscreen. Fighting between creator Dan Harmon, NBC and actor Chevy Chase resulted in Harmon's departure before Season 4.
Costars Joel McHale and Jim Rash say things are looking up now that Harmon has returned for Season 5, premiering with back-to-back episodes at 7 p.m. Jan. 2 on NBC.
"The monarchy has been restored and things are as they should be," McHale said during a conference call with reporters in December.
Harmon's restoration isn't the only change this season. Chase and his character, Pierce Hawthorne, are gone, and partway through the season Donald Glover, who plays Troy Barnes, will leave.
The changes opened up new story possibilities for the students and teachers at Greendale Community College, McHale and Rash say, adding that they are excited for fans to watch the new season.
"This whole year felt like a gift. It felt like you were being handed material that was, I would argue, some of the best of all the seasons," Rash said. "I feel like the growth of this year for all the characters and for ‘Community' in general is pretty paramount in the sense that we really went very far … hitting big sort of epic episodes, but also really paying homage to these characters."
One thing that doesn't change in the new season is the fascination, er, desire, Rash's character, Dean Pelton, feels for McHale's Jeff Winger. Pelton hires recent grad Winger as a teacher in an effort to help save Greendale from closing.
"That's actually, I think, a request of Joel, I think that Dan was not sure about it," Rash joked. "And then Joel said, ‘I really want the Dean to still be obsessed with Jeff.' And I was like ‘I can go either way.' And Joel just keeps pushing that agenda."
McHale and Rash talked more about the drama, the comedy, guest stars and costars, all while harassing each other. Here's an edited transcript of the call.
I don't know if there's ever been a show with so many behind-the-scenes stories that are almost as fascinating as the actual storylines. What's it been for you guys?
Joel McHale: Jim, you go first.
Jim Rash: Oh, bless you. What a sweet, sweet gesture. No, I think partly blown out of proportion, in the sense that I think we just sort of—we were that show that has been sort of under the radar for so long in as far as ratings-wise and, you know, we've always been blessed to be able to come back. And I think I we never really know where we're going. So I feel like, in a weird way, the drama sort of kept us out there ... It was sort of like our drama behind the stage was sort of keeping "Community" sort of on people's minds outside of fans, I guess.
JM: I would say that, especially this year with Dan back, ... with all the things that have happened with the show, when the material's so good you kind of forget about that stuff.
Last season took a lot of hits. In reflection did it really feel like it was creatively missing something? Or do you think it kind of took some unfair knocks?
JR: You can't not have Dan's mind and the creator's mind and not feel that there's some kind of difference ... Without him you don't really have your sort of guide through that. And so, while there were so many things that were already created by the first three seasons as far as the depth of the characters, the world, how things work, how it operates, how it can be both fantastical but at the same time character-grounded, those things are all there. But without somebody who has this sort of approach to make it so dense and deep with layers, it's difficult. It's a Herculean task that I certainly wouldn't want to take on. But I think we did our best, you know?
JM: A show like "Breaking Bad" or "Arrested Development," you need that kind of "where it comes from" one place—that would be Dan or Mitch Hurwitz or Vince Gillgan. And there was some really good stuff last year but it did not have the direction that the other seasons had.
You guys have got an absurd number of great guest stars for this new season. Who was the most fun to work with and did you ever feel that there were so many that it kind of distracted from the core ensemble?
JM: No, not at all. I would say it only supported it. And I think the guest stars, because Dan's writing is so terrific, even though there are a lot of guest stars, he doesn't fall into that trap of ... people start using guest stars to make up for storytelling. All these guest stars only absolutely support and enhance it. Our guest stars are so creative, like Vince Gilligan and Mitch Hurwitz and Chris Elliot and Paul Williams. Talk about a crazy group of people, includuing Gina Gershon and the incredible, beautiful, lovely Bree Larson. ... I think it's the most creative guest stars of the last, I don't know, I'm going to go with the last 100 years of television.
JR: 100 years, Joel?
JM: I don't care.
JR: That's amazing.
JR: I would agree. I don't need to add to that.
Do you have any particular favorites of the bunch to work with?
JR: Well, Gilligan has the most probably interaction with the largest bunch. What was yours?
JM: I will say it's hard to choose a favorite. ... I'm not trying to be diplomatic here. ... It's like picking amongst your children.
JR: It's the "Sophie's Choice" of guest stars, guys.
JM: So to answer your question, no, I can't pick one.
JR: Oh my God, Joel. You got so angry.
JM: So pissed.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how they decided to deal with Pierce's character this season.
JR: With the departure of Chevy from the show, I think that was a way to sort of service both how he affected the study group—the character of Pierce—and how they would move forward from this moment. I think that it's always difficult when a transition period happens. Obviously, five episodes in we deal with the transition of Troy leaving the school.
But I think it's about passage of time and it's the same thing as deciding that all the fourth season had happened the way it happened and then use the ramifications of the choices made there into the fifth season. So I think it was sort of approaching it from the growth of the characters and what it meant for them and the impact of a singular guy on the rest of them. Same thing that will be dealt with the Troy departure.
JM: Yes, I think from season four there were a lot of unanswered questions. And Pierce's departure was kind of abrupt and it needed to be addressed. And it would have been easy for Dan to say everything was a dream upon his return. But the way he handled it was masterful. And it really answered all the questions that I think fans would have and had after it's appeared.
The ending scene with Walton Goggins is one of the best scenes we've ever done, I think. Walton is so funny and it's such an incredibly great reveal of how he died. When I read that, I stood up and screamed "Touchdown!" And it just dealt with it so well. And on top of that, Dan called the first episode as a repiloting as he calls it, and I think the second episode is a re-establishing the grounds-ness, I guess you could say, of the characters.
And so that episode is a bottle episode except for the tag scene and I just think we learned so much about everybody through Pierce's death and it was just perfectly run and perfectly executed. And that episode, it just cooks, so I'm really excited for people to watch it at 8:30, January 2nd on NBC.
Was there a point where you thought this season would not be possible?
JR: At the end of each year we have that little emotional "Will we be back?" process ...
JM: It always seems like every season we don't know if we're coming back. And if we don't have that feeling then I don't know what it would be like.
JR: It would feel weird. It would feel almost anti-"Community" if we were assured of anything.
JM: Imagine if we were on "The Big Bang Theory," where we were like, "We can do this until we're 60 if we want."
Joel, we've seen Jeff really come to into his own as being a much more dimensional person. And last year especially we saw him leave Greendale and resolve issues with his father. With him coming back as a teacher, what did Dan want to accomplish in helping him to mature? And how is his relationship with the rest of the cast affected with his new position of sort of authority?
JM: All very good questions. I would say that this year, Jeff, now he's a professor, he is once again somewhat destabilized. And his immaturities are exposed, a whole new set of them. And I think there was a number of things that kind of got taken care of last year and those things—they're not things that just get kind of wrapped up.
People in real life are able to overcome some things, but it's not something like, "Well, that was done and now I'm fixed." It's more like you are constantly finding new kind of things to fix and hopefully make that person healthier. But Jeff's had years of selfishness. And a bunch of that, I think, is exposed this year. And it was very fun to play.
There's no doubt, though, that he loves this study group. And he has to really come to terms with how he feels about the school ultimately. And I think Dan just absolutely lays those things out well for Jeff to have to deal with and as an actor was really fun to deal with.
Does Jeff have a similar trajectory to Chang from the first season?
JM: You respect Chang as a teacher in the first season? ... Then you're an insane person. ... He was out of his mind as a teacher. ... You really like abuse. ... I would say no. Chang is is referenced a couple times. He's like "Maybe I'm just insane and out of mind." Still, I would say that it's a completely different path and Jeff has all sorts of insecurities and deficiencies from building up walls around him from trying to act cool and be cool and always overconfident. I'd say he's on a completely different path, I would say.
Joel, I was wondering what was more fun to play, the student or the teacher?
JM: Boy, it's neither and both at the same time, because they both are really fun to play. I got to do really fun things as a teacher, but as a student—if you had said to me that you're going to be in a zombie apocalypse and get to play kind of a Bruce Willis action star while you're on half-hour sitcom I would say that you're probably high.
But with the teacher, as we've been saying this season kind of we re-establish ourselves as characters. And then things go nuts. And it was fun every day, so I cannot make a distinction.
In the promos the Dean seemed extremely excited to see Jeff once more. Did you think there were any plans for the two of them to develop and grow together as characters and what Dean's growth might be for this season or how he might progress further into character?
JR: Well I think this year, much like the repilot sort of thing, I think one of the things that we get back to a little bit with season five is that authority figure side of the Dean. Although he's well-intentioned and makes huge mistakes, he does love the school. So I think he's obviously giddy that Jeff is back, both as an entity but also in the idea of helping save the school, which is once again in jeopardy. And continues to be: I think it's in a constant state of ‘in jeopardy.'
And this year definitely leads up to sort of something big in the sense of what the loss that the Dean would feel with the school not being around or these people not being around him, which he has sort of folded into their family by force. Obviously the fascination with Jeff continues and will continue, I'm sure.
JM: Yes, you're not going to—can you believe that?
JR: Yes. It's still there. That's actually, I think, a request of Joel, I think that Dan was not sure about it. And then Joel said, "I really want the Dean to still be obsessed with Jeff." And I was like "I can go either way." And Joel just keeps pushing that agenda.
JM: I will punch you...
JR: That's correct, right Joel?
JM: I don't know where you're getting this. But it's weird to me...
JR: I'm getting it from a place called "Reality." It's a file I have right here.
JM: Listen, it's weird to me that you constantly were like, "I think the Dean needs to win an Oscar this year and he needs to show it to everyone."
JR: Hey, I'm just spitballing ideas, man.
JM: Oh, now you're—yes, OK, sure. The Dean makes an independent film that everybody sees ...
JR: That didn't go over well. ... Anyway, I think it's getting back to being an authority figure, to segue back to what I was saying.
Do you think the Dean is at his happiest when Jeff is around with him to obsess over? Or do you think there's something, somewhere that he can progress in a life independent of Jeff Winger's character?
JR: Well, I think involvement with Jeff and the study group is something that is where he's at his happiest, to just be included. And I think that just goes to speak to him as a person. I think that he probably has a need there that is not fulfilled yet.
And of course these unlucky few who decided on that study room table became sort of the focus. In season three I even established that I told them about the fire before I told anybody else. ... I am forcing my way into their family. So I think he is happiest when he is included, whether by his own doing or they actually let him in.
With the departure of Chevy and the reduced role of Donald Glover, has the chemistry kind of changed between the cast? Has Dan Harmon's return as showrunner sort of offset that burden?
JR: … If anything, it always opens up new doors when something happens like the death of someone or the departure of someone. It only helps to sort of explore what happens when that happens to Jeff's character and, you know, Britta and all these characters? So I feel like that's always sort of a wealth of great change for a series.
JM: Yes, and Dan doesn't shy away from those things and he never has. Just like when Britta and Jeff had the "Will they? Won't they?" And Dan goes "Oh they will, and they have been for a year." It's the same way with, you know, Pierce's departure. His death--and people die in real life. And people have to deal with it.
JR: Wait, what?
JM: OK Jim, they don't just go to a happy place where their body is put into a closet for a while and then they come back later.
JR: You are lying. We all become cartoons.
JM: OK, I'm just making this up then. ... Dan will just go headlong into those things. And I'll talk about Jonathan Banks here for a minute. Jonathan Banks' presence in this show is just absolutely, out-of-this-world tremendous. ... Not only is he such an incredible actor, he is really funny. It's just a whole different, wonderful vibe. ... His character just sings through this thing. And I didn't mention him with the guest stars, because I count him as a series regular than a guest star.
The series has had some classic sort of theme episodes: the paintball episode, the video game episode, the "Law and Order" episode. Can we look forward to any of those this year?
JR: Well, you definitely get some this year. I mean, as far as sort of the fantastical side and the school being overtaken with a genre, so to speak, without losing its characters. ... We hit upon some David Fincher worlds and we do all types of stuff.
JM: There's another D&D episode. ... There is an homage to "Logan's Run." I don't know if I can say that, but I'm saying it. And I don't know what's going to happen if I do. And then we do a shot-by-shot redo of the movie—what is it, it's that "Blue is the Grayest Color" or whatever it is? Very sexual.
JR: Yes. It's like our own "50 Shades." It's just a lot of nudity. A lot of pixilation.
JM: We also are doing a live "Sound of Music."
JR: Oh, I wish.
You've released some really cool holidays in the past. I know you're debuting in the mid-season this year. Can we expect to see any holiday episodes?
JM: Yes, there's an Arbor Day...
JR: We're hitting all the big ones: Easter...
JM: Yes, National Secretary's Day, bring your kid to work day...
JR: May Day play day.
JM: Yes. Then we celebrate all the Slovenian holidays.
JR: Which I was surprised how fun they were.
JM: Fun and I didn't realize that you could have two holidays a day. And in that country they have over 380.
JR: I know, like let's move there. In the seriousness, no. We tried to stay on our calendar this year. Isn't that right, Joel?
JM: Yes. And, you know, last year there was a ton of holidays and so you'll see as Dan said, it's a repiloting of the show and a re-establishing of the characters. "Community" lives because the characters are I believe incredibly grounded. And then that means that when that happens that the world can go crazy...
Did the cast have anything to do with Dan's return? Did you guys send him baked goods, camp out at his house? How did you get him to come back?
JR: Pretty much all of that, right?
JR: I mean, the bake sale went really well.
JM: Yes, it was a very good bake sale. I make a macaroon that will slay you.
JR: Oh my, you'll die when you eat these.
JM: No, I mean, there was nothing I particularly laid out. I should have gotten him a beard trimmer.
JR: I think, you know, we, you know - certainly Joel probably was paramount in starting these conversations, you know, towards the end of last season I would say. You know, and sort of imagining a world where everyone—the whole team, and that meant some crew people as well that had moved to another show for season four and are now back with us. So it really was not just a repilot but we were putting the family back together.
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