Warning: This article contains storyline and character spoilers from this week’s episode of Community.
When we chat with creator Dan Harmon about this week’s Community, “Intro to Recycled Cinema” (guest starring Steve Guttenberg), it starts off silly, but quickly dips into deeper waters. Harmon talks about some of the reasons behind the “legendary” problems with the show and how it’s connected to his spiritual and artistic journey. To some, it might sound pretentious, but part of the reason the show resonates so deeply with its fans is that they recognize there’s something underneath the jokes that drives it.
Shakespearean scholars label some of the Bard’s works as “problem plays”: They have the structure of comedies, but they tackle prickly subjects and don’t always end happily. As elements of Community become more autobiographical, the show often reveals depths beyond the obvious laughs that demand the viewer’s attention.
First off: What’s with the green billiard ball?
I don’t know. [Laughs.] It’s just a random thing. [Laughs.] I don’t know. It’s just a billiard ball that Elroy found in his Winnebago and he’s been fascinated with it and carrying it around in his pocket ever since. I like stuff like that. I prefer to go 90 degrees than to either actively defy an expectation or follow one. I like to just take a left turn and get lost.
Does this episode accurately depict your time at Channel 101 [the monthly, five-minute short film festival he co-created with director Rob Schrab]?
Yeah, sure. We were trying to capture the Channel 101 sensibility with the production-within-a-production. Definitely, there were a lot of times when you’re just running with a camera and making it up as you go.
Do you miss that sort of fluidity, or are you glad to have a budget now?
I definitely miss it; all of the problems that are legendary with Community are a result of me learning to make things that way and enjoying things that way. I don’t respect myself enough to believe that if I have a million years to come up with the perfect idea, that it’s going to better than the one I’m forced to come up with in the moment. I don’t believe that perfectionism is a virtue; I think it’s ego getting in the way of an inherently spiritual act, which is just opening yourself up and being a vessel for something bigger than you. That is what an artist is supposed to do. So I force myself into these situations where we work last-minute and I do get better results that way and I enjoy it that way.
Working with a 250-member crew, you get more polished results, but I always compare it to riding a glacier instead of a bicycle. You’re not even supposed to be riding this thing, but yeah, it can make a lake.
Did you have a tough time making the movie-within-a-movie look not produced?
I kinda handed that one off to the director. Victor Nelli really took that and ran with it. If it’s good, it’s to his credit; if it’s bad, it’s his fault. He was handed that script literally one day before he got to start shooting it, so it’s really his interpretation across the board of what that looked like
It’s different from what mine would have been, if I had time to nitpick it. His is more immersive. He covered the walls with tinfoil to the point that actually you can’t recognize some of the rooms at Greendale. I would have kept it more Little Rascals. So that you can look around and go, “Oh, I know what room they’re in. I know what hallway they’re in. I know what object that is.” He used lightning effects and set dressing that actually really brought you more into an actual sci-fi epic, which I thought was also a different, equally positive way to go.
Earlier in the conversation, we were talking about which characters came from real life (the real-life Abed appeared in Episode 5 alongside the TV version, playing a janitor), and Harmon offered this:
Steve Guttenberg was supposed to play Steve Guttenberg, but he didn’t want to. He had just played himself on Party Down. I think his fear was, Oh, I don’t want to become that guy that’s like Adam West or something where I’m an icon and I’m only playing myself when you see me. I want to keep my hat in the ring as an actor that can play characters.
So we got the short end of that stick because he did a great job of playing himself on something right before we called him. I wanted the joke to be that the reason he was living in Colorado was that he had a diving accident on the set of Cocoon, that Ron Howard kept making him go down too deep. That’s why he has a nitrogen disorder in his blood.
He was a lot of fun, and he was very, very sweet and nice. He was really blown away by our cast and crew, kept talking about how much fun he was having and how cool we all were. It was really amazing to have Mahoney from Police Academy saying that stuff to me. It was kind of a dream come true.
And the incredible thing was that when Guttenberg was on set, there was a series of coincidences. Bobcat Goldthwait comes by because he had directed an episode, so he had some post work to do on a previous episode. And then Tim Kazurinsky dropped by! I think that Bobcat was going to have lunch with Kazurinsky, but I also think that Kazurinsky was just there for some other random reason. So there were three original Police Academy cast members all on the same set at the same time, and everybody was taking pictures with them.
Community is released every Tuesday on Yahoo Screen.