Q & A: Jim Rash Talks Writing His First Episode of ‘Community’
If you have an Oscar-winning screenwriter as an actor on your show, why wouldn’t you ask that actor to pitch you a few ideas?
That’s exactly what happened with Jim Rash. After winning an Oscar for The Descendants (which he shares with his co-writer, Nat Faxon), Community producers asked Rash if he had any story ideas he’d like to pitch. He pitched a few, one landed and now we have tonight’s episode, “Basic Human Anatomy”.
Rash said even though the script came out to about 30 pages, it doesn’t “decrease the challenge,” he said. But, since he’s lived with the characters for so long, he knows their voices which made it “fun.”
In the interview, Rash talks about writing the episode, writing dialogue for himself, the behind the scenes turmoil of the firing of Dan Harmon and if he was cool with the cast changing his words.
Community airs on Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC We’ve gotten to know these characters so well over the last four years, and you’ve gotten to know them, working alongside the actors as an actor. But writing this wedding episode, what was the one that was for you the most fun or personally satisfying?
Jim Rash: Well it’s hard, because they’re all fun to sort of write for. I mean, you know, it’s always fun to write Jeff Winger’s stuff. Because you know he pretty much just hates everything. And he’s a great person just to sort of shut people down. So he’s a great character to write for the pace of scenes, because he’s sort of usually the person who’s moving it along.
But I mean this particular episode obviously I just had so much fun, because I knew that Donald was going to be playing, you know, Abed – that it was fun just to write what, you know, Abed’s thought process is, you know, in understanding what’s happening, you know or like how Abed would process all these things.
So it was sort of like a challenge sort of to write sort of his brain and then, you know, subsequently obviously to write Troyisms is fun as well. So it’s sort of hard. Because of the style of this particular episode it was more of getting into Troy and Abed’s brains and then having this sort of conundrum to figure out for the actors who’s in which body, you know, quote unquote in their bodies.
So that was sort of the fun of it, you know, for me.
Was writing an episode something that you’ve wanted to do?
Jim Rash: I guess the discussion to possibly write was actually before this season. It just sort of came up in talks sort of during our hiatus, you know. And I – they just were curious if I had any interest. And I absolutely did if it worked out and there was, you know, a slot, you know, as far as in, you know, the order and stuff.
So they sort of end up having this sort of open area where they were looking for another episode. And so they – I went up and ended up pitching a couple of different ideas, and then we obviously landed on the one that we did.
Since you wrote it, was the table read or shooting process differed and how did it feel seeing what you created come to fruition?
Jim Rash: Yes, I mean it’s weird you know, because whenever you’re at a table read – and anything that I’ve written or had a part of it’s, – you know, you’re trying to also be an actor at the same time that you’re listening to the script and trying to do both at the same time.
And I – it was such a really a sort of a dream come true to be able to write on a show that obviously I’ve been a part of but more importantly have been, you know, my own sort of fan of — you know, a fan of Dan’s vision, a fan of our writers from beginning to end, jealous of our writers from beginning to end, you know, and sort of how their brains have worked and sort of guided Dan’s initial vision and what the show has sort of evolved from year to year.
So all those things that was sort of like a scary challenge really, you know, to be able to have the opportunity but also not want to let the show down by any means. And then, you know, from table read to getting to shoot and working with our director at the time Beth McCarthy-Miller and sitting side by side with her.
And she was so giving as a director to allow me to chime in, you know, and then also such a great guide, you know, for the script that had a lot of sort of heart in it, you know, and sort of an important – sort of a thing Community has always done which is balance the sort of absurd and fun and with real emotion for the characters and what they’re going through. So it really was a dream come true. Excuse me.
You’re used to writing screenplays for feature films and movies. What did you find was the biggest difference between writing for the big screen and writing for a television show?
Jim Rash: Well, you know, first much – the page count’s not too bad.
Trying to crank out 120 compared to, you know, upwards of 30 a little plus isn’t always nice. But it’s not – it doesn’t really decrease the challenge. You know, it’s – I think, you know, this was so different, because I’m so familiar with the voices having been around and also so familiar with the actors being friends and knowing, you know, not just not they excel at everything but also knowing what they excel at so well when they know their characters so completely.
And so writing one of these was a completely different thing in that sense. It was not making it easier by any means, but there was a great map that’s sort of been laid out, you know, for four years. And whereas this – a screenplay even though writing Descendants, you know, there’s wonderful map by, you know, Kaui Hart Hemmings and you’re writing from a book. And then writing from original you’re sort of like creating from the ground up and which composes all sorts of new challenges.
You know, it’s sort of like writing a pilot, you know, in a world that you’re just inventing that’s just starting as opposed to a world that’s existed for four years and has all these great rich textures to work off of. So it really depends on, you know, where it’s starting. So I mean the difference for me would be, you know, specifically with the difference for writing Community and writing a whole you know movie.
But – and it’s a lot faster. That’s for sure. Television moves a lot quicker pace. So you don’t afford that time to sort of sit there and obsess. You have to sort of just keep moving, you know.
How was it to write dialogue for your own character? Was it fairly easy since you know him this well?
Jim Rash: Yes, I know that is sort of weird and then of course I’ve took my shirt off. So that’s sort of gross too. I did many gross things. But I – keeping myself (unintelligible) – don’t know.
It was – this was sort of fun, because even though they didn’t technically, – you know, I think the writing about Dean believing he had a moment of switching bodies with Jeff was more just for him to feel that sort of bravado or what he’s always, you know, probably secretly wanted which he articulated by being inside of Jeff in such a way — quote unquote.
But that was sort of fun, because it was in a way a slightly different, you know, a voice for The Dean even though it’s very much clearly his impersonation of what he believes Jeff to be like or idolize in that sense.
But, you know, I think, you know, I’ve written pilots, you know, with my writing partner Matt Saxon. And we’ve written – we’ve developed, you know, shows that were for ourselves that didn’t go past like a pilot script phase or something.
So it’s certainly always been a dream to write for myself, for my voice.
And although The Dean is a character that is not like me or probably what we were writing when we were writing for our voices or whatever. But it’s obviously something that I have in four years incorporated a lot of just probably my own mannerisms and stuff like that, which I think is inherent with anybody who takes on a part for that long.
So I think there’s something that you sort of – it’s fun to get a chance to write for yourself and do some things that you love to do or that you find that’s your point of view and what you find funny. And so with The Dean even though I know him based on Dan’s sort of guidance and creation, you know, I still understand that and enjoy writing his voice, you know. Long answer for that, but you get it.
What do you think makes for a great episode of Community, and how do those theories sort of inform what you wrote and how you wrote it?
Jim Rash: For me, my favorite episodes of community are the ones that really do balance something that’s sort of in a way heightened and absurd that only Community – it’s Community’s version of what can happen. And Dan’s created a world where these things can happen. You know, where we can have these paintball episodes. And we can, you know, go to quote unquote space, you know, in our own real context.
But yet there is always a way of moving the character forward. There was always a nugget — at the very least — that gave us some insight into one of them or pushed an emotional journey for them forward.
And so for me I just – this device of Freaky Friday allowed an opportunity to, one, explore a friendship even deeper, because I think one of the many great relationships that have been created over the four years are that of Troy and Abed, you know.
And then you also have this, you know, sort of sped along, you know, relationship between Troy and Britta. And since we came into the fourth season with it it had progressed. As Britta had said it’s progressed regressed or whatever. And both of them are interesting places. And all these characters are.
So I think what Community’s done well is sort of see that while they love each other they’re each trying to figure out what their next sort of chapter is. And I think for Troy specifically to have this moment of acknowledging that he’s probably not ready for this, you know, but that he loves, you know, her so much and all of them so much. It’s a great way to like to do something insane and weird and a choice he makes.
Yet understand why he made that choice and get to write the sort of heartfelt understanding of who Troy is, and who Jeff is for understanding that, and who Britta is for understanding that, and for Abed for being a friend who commits to a bit to the point of, you know, almost inadvertently helping just based on the idea that he knew that he was supposed to do something he just didn’t know what it was.
So I guess for me long story short would be that a Community episode had a balance that the heart and the absurd, you know.
I think we all knew going into this season with Dan’s departure that, you know, that it was going to be tough for a show that’s so engaged with fans, that you know, the fan reactions might be a little mixed to a new version of the show which we’ve seen.
Behind the scenes, how did you guys deal with what happened – the firing of Dan Harmon? And how do you see the show going forward?
Jim Rash: Yes, I mean, you know, I think we all knew going into it that, you know, it was going to be – and inherently no matter what it was going to be different, you know, because we also knew that in small – in a small essence of each year was different, you know.
Because it was sort of a community by design that you with each year we evolved and each (unintelligible) the show, you know, the tone that show even though knew what it was at its core and heart it was able to play with from styles to, you know, a very campus-based episode that was just character driven, you know, to bottle episode, you know, all these like the bottle episode that kind of stuff.
And so I think going into this we knew that we obviously had a bunch of new writers plus some writers who had been with us for at least a couple of seasons. And so it really was a learning curve. And that’s going to be. And we knew it was going to be. And I think for us it was sort of the pressure to be able to be a little bit more vocal sometimes like I’m not quite sure that my character or that character, you know, that this feels right. And they were always open to this dialogue as we sort of went along that learning curve.
And I do think the show has to sort of you know hopefully another season go forward and continue to sort of just find its slightly different thing if that’s what’s going to be. But my hope would be that learning curve keeps going in the direction of understanding completely the show, you know, so that we can in a way get – and I think we did as we got more into the season more things started to click and understand. And the writers who were great, you know, along with the older writers finding a place to sort of get their Community episodes made, you know — that kind of thing.
When you’re doing this, what’s your schedule? Because you’re acting on the show… but are you going home and working on the script at night and weekends? And also how long of a lead time did you get to write the script?
Jim Rash: Well I chose not to have a life. That was part one — be committed to it. But yes, you know, like I said earlier it’s fast, you know, as far as like, you know, I think I went in two weeks before prior to probably the what would be the table read or around the table read to start pitching some ideas and then sort of flushing out those and breaking that story with the writers. And then, you know, it was pretty fast, you know.
I usually just sort of for this particular one just sort of intense cranks over the weekend, you know, so that, you know, I’d have more time to hone. Because I think the main thing is, you know, the faster you go the more chances you can have more time to sort of, you know, rewrite and hone for that table read, you know. So I knew that at least getting a draft as fast as possible.
So it goes pretty fast. But you know sometimes the fun of it is just knowing that you have a cut off. You know, whether it’s self-imposed or not I like to go, “all right I have to go get this done by you know, Monday.”
So there’s no other choice. And then you just decide, “Okay I won’t go outside.” So it’s fast.
When you guys were actually filming the episode, did the cast ever want to change a line or had some suggestions for you?
Jim Rash: Oh, yes. Absolutely. You know, because I think, you know, everyone’s going to – you’re going to do your best, but there’s always going to be something that might, you know, they might find a better way in or have an option or improvise a better plot into a scene, absolutely.
I think it’s – at that point it’s – I don’t need to be like a militant about any of my precious words. They don’t need to be. And I think even with the director it’s sort of like a – sort of becomes more community in that sense. Plus the other fact when I was in the scene, you know, that sort of was a great to have to use more as a guiding post. Because you know, for anything else you’re sort of sitting with her behind a monitor watching them and chiming in if you have something that you want to get or try another take with a different version or a new line that, you know, might work better.
But so it really is – you sort of have to wear both hats. And so when I was doing Dean and stuff I was able to like sort of take a step back and let her guide what we got. You know, that kind of thing.