No comedy since "Arrested Development" has handled a turbulent run with as much quirky wit as "Community." The NBC series about the eccentric members of a Greendale Community College study group has navigated critical acclaim and floundering ratings; epic gaps midseason and between seasons; and passionate superfans who took to the cyberstreets with gusto. Who can forget the trending Twitter hashtags #SaveCommunity, #SixSeasonsAndAMovie, and #OccupyNBC when the series was on the bubble mid-Season 3? There was even a fan-fueled flash mob outside Rockefeller Center during the "Occupy NBC" movement.
Not to mention the exodus of crew (creator Dan Harmon, executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, and writer/producer Chris McKenna left after Season 3) and superstar Chevy Chase, who had a much-publicized feud with Harmon before eventually leaving the comedy.
But the show must go on! Now a Harmon-less Season 4 is under way (after a nearly yearlong break), but will there be a Season 5? Will there be another iconic movie-based episode? Will there be, er, puppets?
The cast (Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, Danny Pudi, Alison Brie, Jim Rash) and executive producers (Russ Krasnoff, David Guarascio, Moses Port, Tristram Shapeero, Andy Bobrow) gathered at PaleyFest 2013 to answer these questions and more, as well as sing and dance. Here are the spoilers and revelations shared by the panel.
1. Jeff, I am your father
Happy belated Thanksgiving! (NBC repeatedly delayed the show's return.) There's an important episode coming up Thursday night, according to McHale -- who plays "Community's" lead role, Jeff Winger -- and it's all about the evolution of Jeff. He finally meets his dad, and it's going to be intense. Who's playing the dad? James Brolin! (Too bad McHale was joking when he said Barbra Streisand was cast as his mom.)
It also has massive implications for wannabe psychologist Britta Perry, played by Gillian Jacobs. She's always wanted to tackle Jeff's daddy issues head on, so as Jacobs said, "This is a feather in her cap."
2. Britta and Troy: Are they doomed?
The panel seemed to agree that Britta is about the worst fit ever for Troy Barnes (played by Donald Glover). But are they doomed? Well, the panel wouldn't give fans a straight answer ("Why would we tell you what's coming up? Watch it live!" Jacobs said), but Guarascio said fans should not make any assumptions and that this couples' demise is not a forgone conclusion. It's time for the "resurrection of Britta," which might lead to something unexpected, he said.
3. Jim Rash goes behind the camera and gets freaky
Oscar winner Jim Rash, who plays Dean Pelton, took his mad skills behind the camera for a "Freaky Friday"-inspired Season 4 episode he wrote with Danny Pudi, who plays Abed Nadir. And McHale is stoked about it!
Rash shared some heartfelt words, saying that the experience was humbling and he was honored to "maintain a vision that the creator [Harmon] gave us." The episode will feature "Freaky Friday"-esque body switching and some awesome impressions by Glover, said Pudi and McHale.
4. Finally, an origin story
Ever wonder where, how, and why the study group originated? Get ready to find out. The origin story will be from Abed's perspective and take on a superhero twist, said Guarascio, because in the eyes of the producers, these characters are superheroes (aww). Not to mention that comic books are natural fit for a "Community" episode, which has taken on numerous pop-culture phenomena. Also, according to Guarascio, Annie's boobs are part of the origin story, so there's that, too.
5. Brolin is in, but who are the other guest stars?
Get ready for special appearances by comedian/actor Adam Devine ("Workaholics") and often-villainous English actor Malcolm McDowell ("A Clockwork Orange"), who's apparently restrained at some point this season.
McHale and Rash launched into a whole exchange-turned-roast of each other based on McDowell's privately voiced opinion of each actor (or so they said). Does he think McHale is a blank page and always will be? Does he think Rash is Moby? Probably not, but it was still hilarious.
6. Will there be a Season 5?
Unfortunately, the panel does not yet know, but ratings are steady this season, so there's hope. Pudi said the cast probably finds out this kind of breaking news last: "We don't find out anything until a tweet announces it." And Joel gave a big shout-out to the fans: "Without the fans, we wouldn't be here." He then offered to give every fan $5 -- not a bad deal.
7. If there is a Season 5, will Fred Willard be the new Chevy Chase?
Before the panel discussion, the gang did a table read of Episode 401, titled "History 101," and Fred Willard surprised the cast by playing the role of Pierce Hawthorne, Chase's character. (Chase left the series after filming most Season 4 episodes.)
Can fans expect to see more Willard down the road if there's a Season 5? "They did it on 'Roseanne' with Becky," an exec was heard saying.
8. What's the deal with Shirley's bag?
An audience member wanted to know if fans would ever learn the origin story behind Shirley's purse, and Brown was willing to dish. The truth is that Shirley's bag on the show is her bag in real life. "I switch everything," she said.
Brown also revealed that fans will finally see the inside of Shirley's house and that it's worth bracing yourself for, as it's covered in "really weird wallpaper and a lot of gingham." We'll also learn more about why Shirley is the way that she is, and how her in-laws helped form her personality.
9. Is the show just too different with a new showrunner?
Guarascio tackled a question that's being raised more frequently now that Season 4 is in full swing: What about the fans who say it's not the same show without Harmon.
Guarascio said that all the producers were fans before, and then joked, "So obviously we knew we're going to fail. Once we accepted that, we knew it was going to be OK."
Ultimately, though, he admitted that the initial heart and soul of the show are the people who are creating it, i.e. the cast. While they lost one major creative talent, he said of Harmon, we have all these others, who are the spirit and life of the show. We rely on them on to keep us on track, Guarascio continued, and they know the show. It was an asset to lean on them. And he insisted that the show has always been true to its voice, and Harmon made "Community's" nutty storylines possible, and now the whole cast and crew are reaping the benefits.
10. The big reveal: A Muppet-like puppet episode
Brown had announced that there was an epic episode to top all others (even her marriage to Malcolm-Jamal Warner), but she thought that there was no way she could divulge it. But it was revealed courtesy of a sneak-peek clip at the end of the panel discussion -- a musical episode with puppets that represent every cast member!
The puppets were even brought out to the cast members on panel, and naturally all hell broke loose with Alison Brie's puppet of Annie Edison feeling herself up, and Pudi and Brown's puppets getting frisky with each other. And let's not forget that we learned something very important about Pudi: He really doesn't know how to work a puppet.
"Community" airs Thursdays at 8 PM on NBC.