7:00am PT by Danielle Turchiano
Dan Harmon Talks 'Community' Cast Shake-Ups, Changes for Yahoo and a Future Beyond Season 6
Dan Harmon is no stranger to change.
In six seasons of his college-set comedy Community, he's been fired and rehired and has seen his fair share of cast departures for NBC's former Joel McHale starrer. That change continues March 17, when the cult hit makes its debut on Yahoo Screen, though he says the transition from broadcast network to streaming platform won't affect Community's content.
"The philosophy for season six was really to make it have a season-one feel," Harmon tells The Hollywood Reporter. "In season one, we really tried to get outside one of the five days of the week for the episode so the show would feel like you were in reality and not some Saved by the Bell lockdown. As episodes went on and my unprofessionalism kept us late with scripts, that was the first thing to go though. So this year we are getting outside more, but it's the same Community fans have come to know and love. We didn't want to all of a sudden start changing things just because we could — like 'Oh, we're on the Internet now. We can curse; we can make 15-minute longer episodes; we can go crazy!' "
THR sat down with Harmon to discuss the structure of creating Community for a smaller screen and repiloting yet again, introducing new faces to the series, expanding beloved characters and relationships and how he views the future of the show beyond this year.
See more 'Community' Season 6 Trailer
Season five said goodbye to a few study-group members and gained some new people around the table. Season six is doing the same with the exit of Yvette Nicole Brown and additions, including Paget Brewster, among others. What went into the decision to bring in two new characters rather than just let the study group live on as it had been, albeit smaller?
I didn't want to create the feeling that one by one they're all falling away by just keeping it down to the people that were left. On the other hand, everyone knows that there's no replacing the people that leave our show. Chevy [Chase] is a legend; Donald [Glover] is a blessing from God; and Yvette was an emotional anchor to the show. Once she leaves, you have to resign yourself to the show's tonality changing because I'm not going to create another wholesome mother character. So you don't want to replace these people, but at the same time, you don't want these chairs to be empty. My philosophy was, "Let's pretend this is professional sports and let's do the above board, admirable thing, and let's just bring in some pros." We have brought in people who — when they're onscreen, everybody knows they know what they're doing, and there's no question about why we hired them or what we're trying to do. We brought them in to catch and throw these balls so we can score touchdowns.
That being said, Brewster previously guest-starred as another character, so with the show's history of embracing meta moments, will there be a reference to her new character of Frankie looking so familiar?
As much as the fans always say, "Oh you should do this; you have to do that," I find that there's a dot-connecting mentality that ends with the dots being connected; it doesn't actually end with any pleasure for anybody. We do a small acknowledgement for those that remember that Paget was the IT lady; there is a small wink. But I don't want to alienate any new viewers, so I can't have a frame of the show spending energy on something that's technically an inside joke. It has to also be layered in as a real joke. So there's a reference that if you're in the know, you'll get: "OK, a layer of that joke is because she also played the IT lady." People tweet me all of the time and say, "So Keith David is going to be on the show. Does that mean that Abed [Danny Pudi] is going to recognize him from The Cape?" I'm both proud and ashamed to tell you that it never crossed my mind. I don't know what kind of satisfaction ends at the end of that strange, dot-connecting rainbow.
How did you structure the sixth season in terms of storylines revolving on still trying to "Save Greendale" vs. moving character relationships forward and incorporating some of the more thematic episodes?
Frankie coming in, she's an actual authoritative figure who's being paid by Greendale to help follow through on the saving of it in a real way, so that's what makes her character unique. She's not used to the amount of nonsense that the school represents. So the saving of Greendale does continue, and it makes progress. We get to see a semi-successful Greendale emerge in season six and the consequences of that success. There are all of the strange Freud complexes and self-loathing and self-sabotage that abused children will engage in when they're finally given a warm bowl of soup and unconditional love. But it's a blend, I think, approaching Greg Daniels' The Office or Parks and Recreation in that the workplace is Greendale, so the workplace is being used as a plot motivator. For instance, convicted felons are being allowed to attend Greendale on these iPad robots. But the more important thing is what does that bring out in Jeff [McHale]? And more than ever this season, it's a show about people and their relationships.
If you actively, definitively save Greendale, is that the end of the show? How did you approach ending the season's arc when you still aren't quite sure if a season finale is a series finale?
I'm going to continue to view it as an open-ended thing. My philosophy is at the expense of one clever finale that turns out to be the actual ending of the whole series, if you give that dream up and resign yourself to being yanked off the stage mid-dance, then you can really focus on how well you're dancing. I think a good dancer dances like they're never going to stop, and I will just leave it to the hook to yank us off. I'm not ending this season with the school exploding or everyone dropping out or aliens attacking. We've seen great shows and great finales, but ultimately does it change the fact that the cancelation of a show is a loss? It doesn't. I mean, your best friend dying after telling you he's going to die— does that make his death less tragic than if he just walked across the street with two coffees and gets hit by a bus? (Laughs.) So I'm going for the two coffees and a bus. When this show is over, I will be in the middle of a great idea.
Are you approaching cast changes in a similarly open-ended way when you look at the future of the show right now?
I would be really interested in an experiment of taking advantage of these beautiful sets and this amazing crew and letting Greendale have a life of its own in almost a kind of Law & Order thing — just have a show that's about the faculty of a community college. Grab John Michael Higgins and John Oliver, when he becomes available, grab just six or seven undiscovered people and yeah, continue to do a show set in Greendale. I would be really down for that experiment. I can't account for how sad that would make the audience! (Laughs.) It's always easy to create new characters; you know, there's nothing easier than having somebody empty their pockets on the counter and then write a list of random things in their pocket. That's how we dimensionalize these characters, and now that they've been dimensionalized, it gets increasingly difficult.
Let's talk about Jeff and Annie (Alison Brie) for a minute. At the end of the fifth season, he acknowledged how much he cared about her, so is the exploration of their relationship — even if not romantic — a big part of how you constructed season six?
I'm very precious and anxious about the romantic stuff. Annie herself is the whole ballgame that has to kind of be played in that you're watching a young woman go from being a little backpacking school girl to being an actual woman, and just watching that happen changes everything. I honestly wonder sometimes if the grown-up version of Annie is remotely attracted to Jeff. But I'm more focused at the moment on passing the Bechdel test with our female characters. There's a lot of dimensionalization and celebration of what makes Britta, [Gillian Jacobs] Britta and what makes Annie, Annie. When two characters run across the room and start making out with each other, it will be as much a surprise to me as it is to you! It will be an impulsive, passionate decision.
Looking at the season as a whole, how did your process and schedule change in the writers room for season six without worrying about the notes and deadlines of a broadcast network?
I think two things happen over time with a showrunner. One is that they gain loyalty from younger writers, so you have, "Oh Dan knows what he's doing; he's doing it for the sixth year in a row; let's just wait until he tells us what he wants," which is another way of murdering me because I don't know what I'm doing! I am surrounded by really brilliant, very funny geniuses right now who arguably have their hands tied by their respect for me. That would have changed even if we had stayed on NBC. But then you add to that that the boss isn't yelling at me anymore, and I have nothing to complain about when I go into the writers room except for my own life and whether or not I'm funny, so it's a whole different ballgame. It is more like a Manson ranch now than it ever was!
Season five, we hired a lot of young, brilliant writers because we were starting the game late and had to take a lateral approach to our staffing, and so we ended up hiring a lot of really great undiscovered talent, and we brought them back for season six. So we're like this little platoon, but the rules of the platoon are "Well, Uncle Dan knows what he's doing!" Even though he doesn't know what he's doing! So, the big question behind that question is "Is me doing whatever I want going to make for the best TV ever or a completely unremarkable disaster?" I'm proud and ashamed to say as a guy from Wisconsin, I have no idea yet!
Community premieres on Yahoo Screen on March 17.