It's fair to say Community has made headlines.
From Chevy Chase's abrupt departure in November to its delayed return (originally set for an Oct. 19 premiere), NBC's half-hour comedy has been through it all. For new showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio, who took over from ousted creator Dan Harmon, it was a steep hill to climb. Would Community keep with the quirky sense of humor that had differentiated itself from the rest of the pack? Would they attempt to broaden the comedy to reach a more mainstream audience?
"Our goal was to keep Community, Community," Guarascio told The Hollywood Reporter while the pair wrapped up post-production on season four episodes. NBC entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt reaffirmed the duo's sentiments, that Community is still the same show -- albeit through different filters. "I don't know that I'm the Community expert, but I think you're going to see relatively the same show that you have seen before," Greenblatt said in early January. "There is a little bit more heart built in to it, but we didn't fundamentally change it."
As the season's 13 episodes start rolling out, beginning at 8 p.m. Thursday, chatter about Community's future rests on how the modestly-rated series will perform in the ratings. "I'm always hopeful for a show to continue. We co-own it and I'd love nothing more than to see it continue," Greenblatt said at the time. It may be the slog of editing that's seeping in but Port and Guarascio were highly optimistic that the show would be back, citing stability in NBC's aging comedy block as a major reason.
"It might be the fumes in the edit bay but I'm feeling very confident about a season five," Guarascio joked. "NBC is losing a couple of comedies this year with The Office and 30 Rock and it's nice to have some consistency when you're putting together your fall schedule. I think we fit in nicely that way, knowing we have a loyal fanbase who is going to be excited about the show. We think there's a business model to make the show work at NBC. But if not, we're ready to do it some place else."
In a chat with THR, Port and Guarascio spoke candidly about why they believe the Community audience is growing, why they prefer the Netflix release model and the most challenging part of taking over someone else's show.
The Hollywood Reporter: This must be odd to be in a holding pattern since production wrapped months ago, right?
David Guarascio: We're finishing up post-production now. I think with the premiere happening so late and having finished shooting all the episodes, it basically makes us wish we could just release all of the episodes at once.
THR: Like Netflix did with House of Cards?
Guarascio: Exactly! It seems like a great way to do it as far as we're concerned, because we want everyone -- we're proud of the whole season -- to consume it all at once. It's the best way to tell stories, especially on this show. But, we're not going to do that. We're going to [release them] one at a time.
THR: So you lean more toward the Netflix model instead of the traditional TV rules?
Guarascio: There's something satisfying about it. Obviously, it's never going to happen for network TV and our ultimate goal is to stay on NBC for as long as possible, but creatively speaking, there's something satisfying about saying, "Here they all are! Go eat them all up over your weekend!"
Moses Port: The truth is as a consumer the way we watch TV, we're going into Netflix and Apple TV, you discover a new show and you've got the whole season all at once. It's strange to make people wait for it, especially when there's something about every episode that you really like and you want to be able to pick and choose in their order. It's frustrating.
THR: If Community premiered in-season, this would be a different story. Do you prefer to have everything in the can before the show makes it to air?
Guarascio: The one drawback of waiting this year was, because the show has gone through a lot of change, it would’ve been nice to be on the air while we were shooting just so you get that validation for what you’re doing while you’re doing it. It makes it a little less of an existential crisis, wondering how people are going to respond. It would’ve been nice to [know here's] the people who like us and the people who don’t, and getting that part over with so we can keep on going about doing our work.
Port: Especially on this show, where the cast and the writers have such an open dialogue with the fans, to not have the episodes airing while you’re working on it, I’m sure was anxiety-producing. It wasn’t for us; we’ve been through it before. This is that rare show that's like a small, close community, or as David would call it, a Communiverse, where everyone’s talking before and after the show. It feels like we’re putting on a small play for each other, or for [the fans]. So it was strange not to have that feedback.
THR: Recently Glen Mazzara spoke candidly about his exit from The Walking Dead, saying that it's never easy to do take over someone else's show. Since you guys took over from Dan Harmon, what was the biggest challenge you faced, jumping into an established world that had a specific tone and an incredibly vocal fanbase?
Guarascio: The biggest challenge was not wanting to let people down. We were fans of the show first and we didn’t want to see it change. When the studio first asked us to do this, we were like, "Why don’t you want Dan to keep doing it?" That was our fan reaction to it. From that standpoint, there was this new pressure of not wanting to feel like you’ve left it. At the same time, you have to accept that it’s going to be different just because only Dan can make Dan episodes, but we can still make Community episodes. The fans are amazing; they helped keep the show alive for years. We want to do right by them.
THR: Obviously you don’t know what’s going through Dan's mind and what he’s thinking. Did you find, as the show went on, that things started to lean toward your own comedic sensibilities or ideas of what’s funny and what might work?
Guarascio: No, certainly not consciously at any point. The only conscious thing we did, along with all the writer-producers on the show, is to try and maintain the voice of the show. Granted, a lot of the people still working the show helped inform that voice -– people who wrote for the show, people who direct episodes, all the actors. All those elements being consistent, we relied on them heavily, probably more so than in the past because we needed to. It’s what the situation called for. We had an open dialogue with the cast; if something wasn't feeling right to them, wasn't feeling in the spirit of what the show has been, we took it into deep consideration and also made changes because it's what the situation called for.
Port: In some ways, the fact that we were new to the show helped in that way. It was pretty early on in the season that we stopped asking the question, "What would Dan do?" You start doing that, you’ll never answer that question proudly, and it just became, what’s the Community story? What does Community do? We stopped trying to guess what he would do and tried to do the best Community stories we could. Looking back on it, every season has been different from the one that preceded it anyway, so in that way, it’s very consistent.
THR: You didn’t feel you had to put your stamp on the season?
Guarascio: Putting our stamp on it was not a goal. Our goal was to keep Community, Community, and I do think because Dan left, there was maybe some expectation in part from the network and the studio, "Oh, maybe they can try this." There were a lot of creative battles previously. Our first episode, they really didn’t want us to do because they felt like it was too consistent with what the show had done in the past. [Laughs] Well now, we know we’re doing exactly the right thing! We stood our ground and made sure that we did it. I think ultimately they saw where we were coming from but we did have to -- and we didn't expect it at first -- have to fight harder to keep the show consistent with what it's been than we felt we were going to have to.
PN: Were there conversations with NBC about broadening Community for a more mainstream audience?
Port: NBC, at least in my opinion, they know what Community is. The executives there respect it and love it. I can’t speak to if we’ll be around next season or the season after, but they all know what it is and they seem to want to do Community the best way possible. There was very little coming from NBC that was, "We need to change it."
Guarascio: But on a more day-to-day basis, there was an instinct to say, they didn’t want us to do the first episode of season four. They did not want us to do the Inspector Spacetime episode. There are conversations you have like that that [give you the sense that] they do [want to] try to maybe broaden it a little bit. I think what’s going to make Community get a bigger audience is the fact that we keep making episodes because the more people that get to experience it, the more people like it. I don’t think it’ll be so niche if it could keep going.
THR: Beyond this season?
Guarascio: A lot of people didn't watch The Wire when it was on HBO the first time. A lot of people found it later. Community is like that show, where over time, the audience will grow because more people will come across it and try it out.
THR: Chevy Chase's departure was a big deal when news broke last November. When did his exit become a very real possibility?
Port: That all happened quickly and towards the end of the season. The truth is, Chevy is in most of the episodes. He's in 11 or 12 of them. He's in the finale. His character is well-served throughout this season. This is nothing new. Characters leave other shows as well. There was nothing we were not able to do because he left. (In a recent interview with Howard Stern's SiriusXM show, Joel McHale recalled near-fights on set with Chase. McHale shared that "when I would try [to cheer him up], he would just try to fight me, physically fight me.")
THR: How would you describe the closing of Pierce's arc?
Port: His ending seems like one of the inevitable conclusions for that character. Chevy had a really good season.
THR: Have you taken into account fan reaction or opinions on what they want to see or not want to see in the new season?
Guarascio: We made a pretty wise decision early on to put our heads in the sand in terms of scouring the Internet for comments. [Laughs] While fan reaction is something we think about while we're in the writers' room, it happens subconsciously. It's not driving decisions from moment to moment. Everyone who's working on the show is a fan, so you're inevitably answering your own question.
Port: There are definitely going to be a lot of fans who will have an open mind, a lot of fans who will be happy Community's back and there are going to be fans out there that no matter what we do they're going to be unhappy about it. It's an elusive endgame to try to figure out what they want.
THR: What can we expect in season four?
Guarascio: More of an overarching theme for the season, both in terms of what the characters are going through and with the show, is that this is the year of change and that it's something that happens in our lives. It's inevitable, you can't stop it and sometimes it happens when you've gotten used to or comfortable in where you are. Maybe that's the best time for it to happen, that's certainly the most challenging. It made sense linking up some of the characters who were toward the end of their college career -- they're all on different tracks -- but it was a good prism for which we looked through the whole season.
THR: Any specific situations you can tease?
Port: The search for Jeff Winger's father is played out and we see Pierce's house.
Guarascio: The resurrection and redemption of Chang is a season-long arc. On the relationship front, some of the characters are taking steps forward into real relationships. Troy and Britta are going to explore that and that has a ripple effect on everyone else, maybe not in the way you're used to seeing on other shows but we're certainly tracking a little bit of that this year.
Community returns for season four at 8 p.m. Thursday on NBC.
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