Say what you will about Dan Harmon, and people have said plenty since his firing a few months ago, but the creator of Community can deliver a wonderfully candid interview. Or tweet, or blog post, or, in this case, reddit AMA. For the uninitiated "AMA" stands for "ask me anything," and it’s a chance for celebrities (whether stars of screen, captains of industry, or leading scientists) to converse with the increasingly large reddit community.
Harmon took to the, well, he took to his keyboard, with a bottle of vodka and an energy drink, to answer as many questions as he could in the couple of hours he was online. In normal circumstances, most questions might revolve around wanting to know the most intimate details of his recent departure from his series, but most of the discussion involved positive reflection on Community, as well as brief glimpses into his intended plans. There were also a lot of "what he saids" when someone other than the writer stepped in as a know-it-all and answered the question.
Harmon was also very gracious whenever talk of the upcoming fourth season was brought to the forefront and, thankfully, a lot of questions were directed at what the future had in store for him, rather than the show he had to leave behind. Here are some highlights from “I am Dan Harmon, creator of Community, writer of Monster House, and Executive Producer of the upcoming Charlie Kaufman Stop Motion Animated Feature Anomalisa, ask me anything!”
How was the placement of the 7 study group members at the table decided? Did the actors pick their characters’ own seats?
This would be a great question for the Russo Brothers, who directed the pilot and chose the blocking. There may have been very specific needs created by the pilot’s story -- for instance, Pierce is hitting on Shirley, seems he needed to be next to her, and Annie and Shirley have major tension that probably dictated they be adjacent. The neat thing is how Troy and Abed ended up sitting next to each other even though we had absolutely no idea Troy and Abed would become BFFs -- which you can see from watching the first five or six episodes.
What’s the storyline you never got to do on Community that you most regret?
The one that immediately leaps to mind is that I wanted Richard Ayoade (director of the “Dinner with Andre” episode) to return, this time on camera, as an oversea friend of Abed’s that he met in an Inspector Spacetime forum (or subreddit). I just couldn’t resist the meta-liciousness of seeing Ayoade and Pudi on screen together, and the non-meta, perfectly standard sitcom-liciousness of giving Abed a friend of whom Troy would have good reason to be jealous. I will say, though, that we explored many of the aspects of Troy and Abed’s relationship in the “Civil War” episode that we would’ve explored in an episode like that. Still, it would have been pretty fun.
Being a group of well-informed reporters, one of the redditors participating noted that an almost identical storyline is being plotted for Season 4, with Matt Lucas stepping into a role similar to the one envisioned for Richard Ayoade. I, like the debate that ensued, would much prefer seeing Ayoade in the role, but I would also rather have Harmon behind the wheel, so let’s stick with the cards we’ve been dealt.
As a follow up, how much are you allowed to reveal about your original vision for the future of the show?
I don’t know if this is good news or bad news but I tried not to think too far ahead too specifically. I knew that we had to generally get the audience used to the idea that Greendale, the campus itself, was NOT NECESSARILY INSTRUMENTAL to the long term viability of the show. That’s why we did episodes like “Remedial Chaos” and Annie’s Move and Abed as Batman, that’s why we moved Annie into Abed and Troy’s apartment and put Shirley and Pierce in business together…because the simple fact, to me, was that as much as we loved Greendale, we had to “complete” the story of Jeff Winger getting his four year degree. You can actually see one my “fourth season” ideas getting bumped up into the end of season three, because Jeff Winger has to decide, at the end of season three, that even though he’s endured Greendale for the express purpose of getting his old life back, in the end, he has to choose Greendale over his old life, because Greendale has made him a better person. The fact that it happened at the end of season three is because at the time of writing the script, I had a sneaking suspicion that either the show or its creator would not be back for season four.
After a few softball queries, like what was his favorite episode (“Dungeons and Dragons”) and what one was his favorite to shoot (“the first season paintball”), his answer to What would you say is the best thirty seconds (or so) of any episode is worth reading in full…
My mind goes to the moment Jeff drags Pierce out of the study room in the Dungeons and Dragons episode. And Abed is standing there watching. And Jeff is absolutely livid because Fat Neil’s actual LIFE is at stake, and he shouts at a man twice his age as if he’s the father and Pierce is the child, which is true in that moment. “What is your PROBLEM?!” “I don’t like being excluded, Jeff, do you?!” Chevy’s best performance in all three seasons. And the coup de grace, Jeff’s incredibly simple response: “YES!” If someone had showed me that moment three years earlier and said, “you’re going to make this show, you’re going to write this scene,” I would have been very excited and proud of myself. It felt like we had achieved something worthy of the NBC that had raised me.
And, of course, if his favorite moments are going to be discussed, fans also wanted to know about a few regrets, like if there are any episodes you wish you hadn’t done?
That’s an oddly tough question because the reason I’d wish we hadn’t done it would be because it was forgettable. So I probably forgot it. I wish we had been able to do the “Shirley gives birth” episode BETTER. I think it could have been better. The director was working with half a script, we were way behind schedule, etc. I wish Pierce’s pill addiction could have paid off better. I wish we could have used John Goodman to better effect. I wish Jon Oliver was in season 3. I don’t know if there’s an episode that I’d consider an all-out tragedy that I’d go back in time and stop from existing. You have episodes like the Mock U.N. episode, where the U.N. episode itself is kind of underwhelming and culminates in a literal fart, but it STILL has its charms because of the actors…and in that same episode, you have one of the coolest things we’ve ever done, which is Britta and Chang in an inside-out execution of a romantic comedy template without the romance. I don’t know, man. I love my babies, I love them all, I love the chubby ones, the skinny ones, the ones that are great at math but mean to women and the ones that write beautiful sonnets but have drinking problems. I love them all.
Soon after the missed opportunities were left on the table, the questions about how much of Harmon will be in the fourth season returned.
Do you know if the new showrunners are allowed to use any of those ideas? I guess my main question is, does anyone still working on the show know what your original goal for season 4 was and plan to honor it?
I’m sure there’s lots of things we talked about over three years that will be useable by the new guys. And yes, it’s their property to use if that’s the case. One thing I’m sure will happen in season 4 is Jeff will meet his Dad, because we were going to do it in season 3 but then one of the NBC execs started saying “just make sure Jeff meeting his Dad isn’t a dark story,” and I didn’t want to write one of the series’ most important stories under that hex, so I said, “let’s just punt that story to season 4.” And we ended season 3 with Jeff googling his Dad, so…!
When Jeff’s Dad was brought up, instantly the conversation turned in that direction, with fans wondering if Harmon had made a shortlist for potential actors to play William Winger. Once again, before the creator could chime in, another commenter answered "Bill Murray," which prompted another "What he said” from Harmon. Funnily enough, the conversation briefly jumped to twitter with a follow-up asking if Jeff was the son of Murray’s character John Winger in Stripes. Always with the meta! Although, I do think he was pulling that dude’s leg. Then came a really great question:
Will you watch the new episodes?
I’m going to wait a few episodes, maybe the whole season, and see how other people react. If people love it, then I’ll be able to safely watch it with an open, friendly heart, because the whole point is whatever makes the audience happy. If they say it’s good, it’s good, and I can watch it and even say it’s good. But I’m not going to be part of any campaign to convince anyone -- me or others -- of anything, good or bad. I’ve received a lot of advice from a lot of creatives that in a situation like this, it’s best for everyone on all sides that I make a clean break and not look back. I’ll be one of the very last people you hear weighing in on New Community. It’s the most practical, healthy decision I can make for its audience. Here’s an important related question: DO I HOPE IT’S GOOD? The honest answer is yes… don’t underestimate the extent to which: #1) the actors are fantastic and own their characters, which are what you truly love and #2) Andy Bobrow and Matt Murray and Megan Ganz and a slew of talented writers are working over there. It could be fine. It could be BETTER WITHOUT ME.
All the various hooplas with Chevy Chase were obviously a hot topic, and Harmon addressed them all with honestly and humor, exactly what you’d expect from the guy who created Community.
Did NBC make you cast Chevy Chase, or was it something you intended to do from the start?
Sony made us. I’m not saying it was the wrong decision ultimately, but the honest answer to the question is that Pierce was literally the only role for which nobody else was considered after the actor we cast put his hat in the ring. Even McHale had to “test” against two other great guys. The short list of people I wanted to see about playing Pierce: Fred Willard, John Cleese, Patrick Stewart. That’s a juicy role, man, there’s a LOT of brilliant old dudes out there, but in the end, Sony felt (accurately) that Chase was a household name. And I remember Krasnoff saying to me, “listen, you make the decision on your pilot that gets you a series order. You take these things one step at a time.” And there was wisdom there. Vile wisdom, but it’s a vile industry. And I think the writers and Chevy ended up creating an unforgettable character.
In Season 2, Pierce turned into a villain of sorts. Was this a reflection of how you and the other writers felt about Chevy Chase or a coincidence?
It wasn’t a reflection of how we felt about Chevy, it was a reflection of how we felt Chevy would be best used. I adapted all the characters to the actors as we went on -- Annie was nothing more than a Tracy Flick ripoff on paper, but by episode 6 of season one, Alison Brie and the writers had evolved the character, using Alison’s flavors. I don’t see Clark Griswold when I look at Chevy, and I certainly don’t hear Fletch when I’m listening to someone tell me how much like Fletch they are. As I’ve said, I think his best performance was in the Dungeons and Dragons episode. I think what makes Pierce -- and Chevy -- heroic is their unwillingness to surrender. There’s a voice inside of us screaming I DON’T WANT TO DIE, I DON’T WANT TO BE IGNORED, I DON’T WANT TO FADE AWAY, IT’S NOT FAIR IT’S NOT FAIR IT’S NOT FAIR. Pierce, in his best moments, channels that voice, for the sake of all of us, so that we don’t have to say these petty things. Much like Eric Cartman or Archie Bunker. It was a failed experiment that we back off of at a certain point because it felt like fans were wondering why anyone would ever hang out with such a monster.
The rumour mill says that Chevy Chase walked off set at the end of filming for Season 3 because he refused to do something. What did he refuse to do?
He refused to do the “tag” for the “Digital Estate Planning episode” (the 8 bit video game episode). In the scripted tag, Abed comes to Pierce with the thumb drive he took, and says “Pierce, I’ve been able to adjust some of the code for your Dad’s video game and I’ve made a version I think you might like better.” He puts the thumb drive into a laptop in front of Pierce. We cut to the laptop screen, where we see Pierce’s avatar on a front lawn with the giant floating head of Cornelius. Every time Pierce presses the space bar, his avatar throws a baseball to his father’s head, which gives him a thousand points and a “great job, son!” Pierce presses the space bar a few times, pauses, then leans over and embraces Abed and we fade to black. When Adam Countee pitched that tag, tears instantly rolled down my cheeks, and in point of fact, my eyes are getting watery describing it to you. It was the most important part of the episode and possibly one of the most important moments of the season. I was very upset to hear that it wasn’t shot because someone didn’t feel like shooting it, especially since it was literally the last day of shooting, which meant we’d never be able to pick it up. I regret nothing about how upset I got. My job was to care about my show.
Why did he refuse to do it?
The answer I heard from the people on set was that he didn’t think it was funny. After he realized how upset I was about it, he said things in voicemails like “there was no script” (untrue) and “I have a weird relationship with the name Cornelius” (dumb, he had no dialogue in the tag). The real answer, I believe, is that he wanted to go home because he was tired. He probably didn’t realize he was permanently damaging the episode by doing so because he often walked off set and then we would just pick up his shots later in the week. But this was the final shot of the season. The sets came down after he walked away. So this was the one time in three years that his personality caused unfixable damage to something I really held valuable.
What are you going to do now that you aren’t doing Community?
I co-created (with Justin Roiland) a 22 minute animated pilot for Adult Swim called Rick and Morty. It’s been delivered and it’s great, and it should get an episode order soon. Fingers crossed, all signs are good. I have also just signed blind deals to write comedy pilots for FOX and CBS, and I’m doing a lot of remodeling on my home. Oh, and I’m doing a KICKSTARTER FOR A STOP MOTION FILM written by CHARLIE freaking KAUFMAN to which you should pledge.
Did you write the finale of S3 as if it could have been a series finale?
"Yes, it symbolizes me leaving the show. I didn’t know for sure I was going to but I had a feeling I might have to.”
That seems like a good a place as any to leave the summary. Head over to Dan Harmon’s AMA to catch the rest, and remember that next week, Wednesday August 29 at 3:00 p.m. ET, we get to do this all again with Dino "Starburns" Stamatopoulos. Oh, and my favorite line from the whole thing was, “I’m with the love of my life, which means most of my fantasies involve her with other people, because I absolutely hate myself.”
Community returns for Season 4 on Friday, October 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.