'Community' Boss Dan Harmon on Ratings Jump, Time Slot Challenges and Deliberate Character Shifts (Q&A)

Community Dan Harmon - H 2012
NBC; Getty Images

Community Dan Harmon - H 2012

NBC's cult comedy Community made a splash when it returned after three months off the air. If ratings continue to remain in the range, does this mean more Greendale?

Last week's return episode garnered a 2.2 rating in the adults 18-49 demographic (and 4.8 million viewers overall). The numbers were so out of the ordinary for the Joel McHale-led series that Community creator Dan Harmon tweeted "WHAT THE HELL MY EYEBALLS DON'T EVEN RECOGNIZE THESE NUMBERS" the morning numbers were released.

As Harmon tells it, the ratings surge was crucial to the future of the show, which averaged a 1.6 rating and 3.67 million in the first 10 episodes of season 3 -- and there was more than one factor that he attributed it to, citing NBC marketing, social media and endless interviews/content leading up to the March 15 episode.

"Season 1 we were an experiment, the new kid; season 2 we were this problem that someone was inheriting; season 3 we were going to be that again and then we were pulled off the air," Harmon told The Hollywood Reporter. "What we saw over that hiatus was NBC treating us like, 'Yea! This is one of our shows!,' so then you’re watching The Voice and you see a commercial for us, that was a huge, huge difference."

In a candid interview with THR conducted at WonderCon, Harmon addressed the show's season high ratings, ponders how that could be sustained, his remarks about the 8 p.m. time slot and deliberate character shifts on Community.

The Hollywood Reporter: Community returned last week with great ratings (4.8 million viewers, 2.2 rating in adults 18-49) ..

Dan Harmon: In Community terms.

THR: It was back to season 1 numbers ..

Harmon: Yea, when we were behind The Office at 9:30.

THR: You expressed some surprise on Twitter. What can you attribute the ratings jump to?

Harmon: I wish it was one factor so we could isolate it, bottle it and wear it around our necks like you do a bottle, but I think there’s so many things that happened. Joel McHale was out there pounding the pavement, NBC did an unprecedented promotional push. NBC has always been patient with us. That was the first time I felt like they were proud of us. Season 1 we were an experiment, the new kid; season 2 we were this problem that someone was inheriting; season 3 we were going to be that again and then we were pulled off the air. What we saw over that hiatus was NBC treating us like, “Yea! This is one of our shows!,” so then you’re watching The Voice and you see a commercial for us, that was a huge, huge difference. That experiment had never been conducted before so I would love to see that repeated. Like I said, Joel, myself and [executive producer] Neil Goldman were all over Twitter doing lots of interviews. Everybody did everything; the only bad thing about that is the dust settles, you get a 2.2 and now you’re like, “How did I do that? What pants was I wearing? What did I eat for breakfast?”

THR: How do you sustain it?

Harmon: My job is to keep making as good a show as possible. That’s the really dangerous thing is when you start asking yourself, “What did I do onscreen?,” to make the numbers happen? I think I’ll continue to follow my little heart. I think the fans should never feel like they have to keep the show alive on life support, but they should continue to allow themselves to be excited enough about it that they’re always talking about it because somebody said something to someone during this hiatus that translated to somebody with a Nielsen box watching the show. That’s where the battle is won, oddly enough. You never know, it’s like a social disease. You know that the person you’re talking to isn’t going to change the ratings but you don’t know if they [go and] say to three people at a party, “I started watching this Community thing,” so your job is just to pass the infection on.

THR: There’s also that notion that people will follow good TV no matter where it sits on the schedule. Prior to the return, you’ve mentioned that the 8 p.m. time slot was an issue, with 30 Rock also not generating higher ratings ..

Harmon: Eight o’clock is hard no matter what network you’re on because people have to make a decision to sit down and start watching TV. Every other time slot is a time slot that happens after someone’s watching something else. We’re outside the eco-system at eight o’clock. I’m not complaining about that at all because Friends was on at eight o’clock. And you said, once you have an audience, you have an audience. The eight o’clock time slot is a vicious, savage jungle that I’m happy to call home. I enjoy it there. I think it licenses us to be a little weird. If we were at 9:30, do we have to be more like The Office? It can cut the other way, it could be, “Ok, now you’re in the 'catbird’ seat, so now you owe us a normal show.” That would be bad.

THR: Can you speak to Pierce's character shift this year compared to season 2?

Harmon: I gave up trying to make him a totally dimensional character because my version of a dimensional Pierce is a pretty loathsome character that the audience was having trouble swallowing with the group hanging out with him. You can see that in the "Dungeons and Dragons" episode. He would have been the Daffy Duck of the group or the girl with the skunk hair from the Archie comics -- almost a villain amidst the friends. People didn’t like it. “Why are they hanging out with him?” I can’t answer that question. “Why do you like your grandpa?," that would have been my answer. Third season I was like, “Just make him [National Lampoon's] Clark Griswold." I’m not going to put energy into a character that people aren’t going to like the dark version of him.

THR: So that was a reaction?

Harmon: Just getting bored with that experiment because that wasn’t going to pay off. With Britta, I was allowed by the audience, I was rewarded for doing a lot of experimentation. Going to a dark place with her, going to an awkward place and Gillian [Jacobs] as an actor was like “Lets do it!” so it’s like “Oh I’m an idiot? I’m drooling? I’m completely loathed by the rest of the group?” and the audience responded with “Oh, I love Britta now!” That was an example of it working. You’ve seen me try that with the Shirley character, you’ve seen me try it with the Pierce character and with both cases I [was] met with a resistance. With Shirley, her being friends with Jeff, that’s the way I saved that character. You’ll see more of it the second half of this season. It’s something I stumbled into in the middle of the season and you’ll see she’s less Ned Flanders, less Christianity being the thing that defines her. For a while I was like, "how do I answer that question?" Something that immediately started paying dividends was putting her next to Jeff. She became a confidante to him and all of a sudden, something about Jeff makes Shirley a real person.

THR: Each season presents their own challenges. What were the challenges for you this year?

Harmon: The challenges are all outside stuff. It’s all stuff that has nothing to do with creative; it’s like looking at the numbers and why is it that every week the story doesn’t change. That gets to me in a way that the writers always tell me shouldn’t. Politically, we’re an orphan at a nice orphanage that gives you three hot meals a day, but there’s always a new orphan master every week. It’s like “Oh, the orphan got sold to a German bank” and it’s like well what does that mean? And it’s like, “Oh they don’t want you to wear red hats anymore” and it’s like “alright.” It’s that kind of crap that no one cares about, that's always the challenge this season.

THR: What can you tell us about the future of Jeff-Annie and Jeff-Britta?

Harmon: Jeff and Annie, they’re not going to make out at the end of the season.

THR: Like in season 1 ..

Harmon: The relationships, they are what they are, they happen in the pocket of the stories. It’s like the smoking man in The X-Files. There’s no episode dedicated to those two hooking up or not hooking up. It’s just a constant sort of thing that happens in the show.

THR: And Jeff and Britta, same thing?

Harmon: And Troy and Britta, and Annie and Abed, and Pierce and Chang. At one point, in a very uncomfortable moment, a chipmunk and a chihuahua. I think it’ll make TV history, but we’re still dealing with S&P on that.

Community airs at 8 p.m. on NBC.