Dan Harmon is the creator and show runner of one of the best, smartest and wackiest comedies on TV, Community.
The show was yanked off NBC’s schedule and put on hiatus but when it returned last week, it came roaring back. Dan told me and several others in a roundtable interview at WonderCon that he thinks the spike in numbers has to do with the show’s “vocal fanbase,” the episodes arriving on HULU and Joel McHale. “I think that Joel McHale was out there like crazy. I saw more of Joel McHale that week than I had ever seen, and he’s on my show,” he said.
Whatever it was, I’m glad the show is back!
I talked to Dan about the dark side of season 3, the mystery of the jump in ratings and if he thinks they’ll be a season 4.
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Community airs on Thursdays at 8/7c on NBCI am very fascinated by your embryo approach. I was wondering, I know you do an embryo per episode but is there an embryo for each season for each character as well?
Dan Harmon: This year there was, that was the experiment this year. I don’t know if it paid dividends compared to the second season. I will take stock at the end of everything.
The experiment at the beginning of this season, and part of it was motivated by politics because there was a new chairman coming in at NBC and he didn’t know whether or not he was going to keep the show around, so I had to sit down and pitch him an entire season of Community at the top of the year. And the way I did that, and I had to get this show off their weirdness radar too, so I had to make it sound like the show was going to be about people and that there was a plan and anything I could to do to make them feel comfortable politically.
I had also watched The Wire between seasons two and three, and I think the things people were complaining about the show from the second season, whereas I come from the Channel 101 world, so I look at modularity of episodes as being a superior craftsmanship. If anyone can pick one pearl off a necklace and enjoy it, that’s better than serialization which I think is a crutch and it’s the first thing you grab when you’re drowning. I didn’t see the audience perceiving it that way. I just saw people going. “Oh it’s inconsistent. Every episode is different. It’s like a sketch show, that’s why it well never get over this rating.” So it’s like okay, let’s test that theory, let’s do a show, let’s create these arcs like Chang’s rise to power and things like that that you will see unfolding, and let’s step them out. So I I did. Each character has a circle this year. Some of them fell to the wayside. Once we got pulled off the air everything went to hell as far as plans and stuff. I was like well if you guys aren’t going to follow through with your story of us being on the air, I am certainly not going to do the episode about the guy meeting his father or whatever, screw it. So we started doing weird stuff.
I think fourth season, when we get a fourth season, I’m going to go back to a season two approach, which is to follow my bliss, follow the writer’s laughter and not be afraid to change things at the drop of a hat. Always look at the episodes as a whole before writing the next one, like being six episodes ahead of the audience, but no more than that. That’s just my feeling right now.
You’re saying fourth season, so you’re confident of the fourth season?
Dan Harmon: Yeah, I think we’ll get at least half of a fourth season, because now with the Comedy Central deal, and this is outside of my jurisdiction, I am not a businessman, but from what I understand of television, when you have a third season sitcom that is generating revenue per episode, then it’s the practical decision to bring it back for enough episodes to make it syndicatable on a larger scale. Which it will be at 88 episodes, so that would be a fourth season pick up for 13. I think that’s the smart thing to do. That being said, if we lay a fart next week, if we get a .2 rating, you know, everything’s a coin toss, but that could happen too.
The show is on a grand scale, sometimes, like the paintball episode. And then it’s also “Seinfeldian” in a way, in which it’s very intimate. How do you know it’s time to put them back in the room around the table and kind of balance?
Dan Harmon: I assume by default that’s what the show should be, is them being around the table being people. And then, I know that no matter how much I resist it and no matter how much pressure is put on me from above and no matter what I try to do, those other ones will happen. So, it’s sort of like, how do you decide how much chocolate cake you are going to eat, the answer is you try as hard as you can to eat nothing but coleslaw, and you know that you’ll eat the average of one chocolate cake per week. And then you have weird pigouts when you get depressed and then you wake up with chocolate all over your face and crying.
Can you talk about the ups and downside of having such a vocal fanbase?
Dan Harmon: The only downside that I can see is that factor where I know as a TV viewer that I don’t like people telling me what to do. So, that’s what evangelizing fans do, they’re out there doing their work. I suppose there are people they are pushing away, but that’s like saying that the downside of eating salad is that you’re wearing your teeth down. I mean, it’s like you have to choose something to eat. We have to have people out there telling people to watch the show.
That’s not really a downside, it’s the only downside you will see, like when people write about it and stuff. But that’s just them expressing their individuality and going like, “Well I’m not going to watch this show because I don’t like the vociferous fan base.”
I think we all remember the Chuck thing unfolding, where it was like they literally, the fans saved the show, and owned it, like they had a piece of it. And then we sort of watched in some bemusement and some horror as like that same animal started to go, “Oh we don’t like the storyline you’re doing now,” and it’s like what do you do as a creator when the people that saved your show start saying that stuff? I don’t ever want to be in that position, not because I’m arrogant or monomaniacal but because I know that’s not what the audience wants. You don’t get on a roller coaster and have a steering wheel put in your hand. If you do, it’s a fake one like the Indiana Jones ride that stops working, like, “Oh my God!” That’s part of the ride. The audience wants to be voyeuristic and they want to believe the people are real. They love being able to say what they like to other fans and even me, but there is a difference between that and the other end of the spectrum which is some improv show where you’re asking for suggestions and then going, “Okay, this episodes going to be about a teacup and a plumber.” No one wants to watch that, they wouldn’t feel like they were watching something.
Do you have any idea of why the numbers jumped? Was it the fans or the people who liked it and know it’s back on. Obviously, everyone’s been analyzing those numbers, right?
Dan Harmon: I think it was probably like eight different things. I think that Joel McHale was out there like crazy. I saw more of Joel McHale that week than I had ever seen, and he’s on my show. I think obviously the foundational one is like the cardiac arrest of your dad makes you remember your dad more. Like you remember every fishing trip and you’re at the hospital when visiting hours start, you know, after he’s out of surgery. You are not going to be late for that. Everyone who was going to watch our show for the next 12 weeks watched it that night, so that’s a huge factor.
The HULU banking of episodes with sales of our 60 episode, like body of work, where you can click on it during hiatus and catch up on it and also evangelize it by emailing that link to other people, I think that was a huge thing. That was a lot like how iTunes helped The Office turn their numbers around and how DVD sales helped Arrested Development and The Family Guy. With us, I think it’s HULU, I think that’s the post TV era. Our story is going to have a lot to do with HULU.
Dan Harmon: Yeah, there was Jim Rash winning the Oscar. Thirty million people watched the Oscars, if a hand full of them found out about our show because of that.