When Community returned with new episodes last week, with a surprise 2.2 key demo rating and 4.9 million viewers beating out NCAA Basketball and taking a big chunk out of American Idol’s share. Those were increases of 47% and 36% from the last time Dan Harmon’s quirky comedy aired with a new episode on December 8. Part of that was due to The Big Bang Theory being off because of college b-ball, but more impressive was that during its half hour, Community slugged out Fox’s little singing show. Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley), Gillian Jacobs (Britta) and Ken Jeong (Chang) along with Harmon and producers visited Wondercon 2012 in Anaheim for their opportunity to meet fans and press in person to talk about Season 3, to thank them on the victory, and rally everyone for the home stretch.
“I was definitely moved by it,” Jeong said. “At the end of the day the fans are the ultimate deciders for what we do. They’re really our bosses when you think about it. I felt so much outpouring of love. For them to miss the show so much and to feel it… trust me whenever we do the show we’re doing it for them. The fans have spoken and the love we have for the fans and the love the fans have for the show is so palpable. We’re all really humbled by it.”
The ratings boost were such a relief, one small win (the first of many, hopefully) for what has been months of online campaigning and public stunts to help convince NBC into securing a fourth season for Community. One stunt that stuck out in Jacobs’ mind was when a large group of fans wore black felt goatees outside the Rockefeller Center singing songs from past episodes.
“That was pretty amazing.” Jacobs recalled. “The fact that they organized themselves and tweeted advertisers that were airing during our final episodes before we were pulled–we’re really appreciative. I feel like TV fans were saying ‘We saw what happened to Arrested Development, we saw what happened to Firefly, we will not let it happen to Community!’
While no one wanted to see Community in limbo these past few months, Jeong found a positive spin on the break and believed in the long run it will do the show some good.
“Everyone comes back more grateful whether you’re a part of the show, making the show, or watching the show; if anything this has become more positive for us. The relationship between the show and the fans has been even closer because of this.”
Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts
In the mid-season return, Shirley remarries her ex-husband Andre (Malcolm Jamal-Warner) while trying to convince Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) that he should fill up the empty spot in the cafeteria with her sandwich business, funded by Pierce (Chevy Chase). But one of the biggest revelations we found out was that Shirley’s high-pitched squeaky voice is actually her sexy voice.
“I never knew three years later we’d find out all the times I’ve been doing that voice I’ve been flirting with someone,” Brown said. “It’s very disturbing she’s talked to her kids like that, she’s talked to Annie and Britta like that. I think she talked to the priest that married her like that. There’s a lot of instances where she’s done that voice so it was very shocking to find out that’s her sexy voice.”
The second big revelation is that Britta came from a long line of domestic mothers and wives and that she carries those same skills of domestication while planning Shirley’s wedding.
“It’s so great, right?” Jacobs “You just see a woman in conflict with herself. She can put together a floral arrangement like nobody’s business and she wants none of it. I love that about her. It makes total sense. There are still parts of her that are a mystery to me and I always like when we get to peel back the onion a little bit more and learn a little piece of the character’s history.”
While some cast members are in the dark about their character, Brown shared how the writers can pull attributes and traits from the actors at times but that she hopes she doesn’t resemble Shirley too much.
“They are all a little crazy. So I wouldn’t want to say, ‘Yeah all of that is me’. Maybe my Christianity informs her but even that is to the Nth degree because Shirley’s very judgmental and I’m not. So there are some things that Shirley has said that I cringed at because it’s not the way God is and it’s not the way Christians are supposed to be, but I know it’s made bigger for comedic effect. Shirley’s very rageful. She’s violent. She slept with Chang [laughter] She’s doing things that I’m hoping are nothing like me, so I’m going to say very little.”
Getting The Joke
The show has been often considered too weird by the mainstream but Jeong doesn’t think that at all. He believes that the scripts are smart, so much so that he doesn’t feel the need to improvise like he does in some of the films he’s worked on. He simply has to just read the words because the writers know Chang better than he does.
“I improved a bit as a teacher in the first season but I could do it because it was in monologue form. But once I was a student and Chang really integrated in school, it was like, ‘why improvise?’ There’s nothing I can come up with that would A) be funnier or B) be as relevant to the stories.”
In addition to the writing, Jeong felt there was something else that make the show special. “The specificity of tone is really inspiring. It’s hard to have a unique tone in television. First you have to be brilliant enough to have that tone, and then to carry out and execute that tone.”
When asked whether or not Jacob prefers the stories where she gets to flesh out her character or just be a part of a sillier bit, she said the two are inseparable.
“In our show you can’t have one without the other,” said Jacobs. “Community is where high concept and character meet. If you didn’t like the characters or care about them, you wouldn’t get as excited for the high concept episodes. I wouldn’t feel like it is as unique as it is in the landscape of TV.”
But in striving to be distinct, the creative process can have its drawbacks, like in the much-raved about episode 304, “Remedial Chaos Theory” where the show played out like a cross between Groundhog Day and The Butterfly Effect, the same scene played out six different ways in six alternate realities. It was one of Season 3’s high marks.
“We felt like we were losing our minds,” Jacobs said. “We completely lost track. It took us so long to finish it. Up until the week it aired we were shooting bits and pieces, insert shots, trolls, pies–It was so complex! Even though that took place in Troy and Abed’s apartment I felt like that one nearly broke us.”
The Stretch Run
All three actors were relatively tight-lipped about the remaining episodes of the season but Jacobs said that the finale, which has already been shot is “epic.” Jeong did say that we will start this week his favorite Chang arc of the series, when “Chang rises.”
Harmon has stated that the final episodes of Season 3 are going to be dark but Jacobs felt that the first half was just as dark. “Jeff killing Pierce’s father? Full of dark. The sort of Heart of Darkness episode with the Dean is making the commercial where he’s naked at the end of it smearing soot all over himself?”
“Dan has always said this was going to be the dark season and then we got pulled for a bit. We’re a very Meta show. The Meta gods decree that we get pulled off the air in our darkest season. I still think it’s a funny show even when we have terrible things happen.”
Brown revealed that she will be paired up with Chase’s Pierce and McHale’s Jeff for much of this stretch and admitted that the cast and crew were upset when word of a Law and Order episode got leaked because that was one they were most excited about so she respectfully declined to say anything about it except that in the table read, the L&O trademark “chung-chung” was written into the script and everyone wanted to be the one to make the sound.
Keep Watching Live
“We know that most of our fans watch online,” Brown explained. “I knew for sure that our fans weren’t being monitored by Nielsen because I used to be on a show called Drake and Josh, which had great numbers. I could not walk outside without a kid or their parent recognizing me from Drake and Josh. Community is Drake and Josh times 10, times 30. So I knew there was no way that this many people are recognizing me everyday and they’re not watching.
“They’re watching, they’re just not being counted. That being said, I kind of thought the same millions that have been watching, uncounted, will watch again and we’ll get our 1.3 or 1.5 (rating) and it’ll be a fun ride. Somehow they told ten friends or they found their way to some place where a Nielsen box was. There they were and it was glorious. I did not expect that.”
Even though the future is still uncertain, Brown admitted to being pessimistic prior to last week’s numbers, she felt that Community had run its course; that it was a nice experiment and hopefully the fans enjoyed it. But after the numbers came out, all that has changed.
“It has given us all a renewed hope that we might be able to pull this out. If our fans show up again, for the next couple weeks, I know Big Bang Theory is a formidable opponent and American Idol is a huge juggernaut, I get it, they’re great shows, but if our fans just give two or three more weeks and show NBC that there is a fan base that will tune in live we really got a good shot, I think.”
Photos taken by Lucky Bronson