A chat with Yvette Nicole Brown, Gillian Jacobs, Ken Jeong and creator Dan Harmon of “Community”

America loves an underdog; cult TV fans only love underdogs. So it’s no wonder that suddenly almost everyone seems to love “Community.”

TV’s backhanded salute to two-year colleges comes by its underdog status honestly. Seemingly cursed with underwhelming ratings despite wide acclaim, it was put on indefinite hiatus late last year after an outstanding musical episode gleefully spoofing “Glee.” Hollywood naysayers to the contrary, there was clearly plenty of life left in the highly imaginative, frequently surreal show set at Colorado’s fictional Greendale Community College, a sort of academic “Green Acres” where normal logic is permanently suspended.

The show, which airs Thursday at 8:00/7:00 central and is also viewable via Hulu and NBC.com, returned in mid-March to a surprise — extremely healthy Nielsen numbers (2.2/7 in the advertiser beloved 18-49 demo). The credit, the show’s makers agree, goes largely to the intense activist fan base.

“Community” stars comic Joel McHale (“The Soup”) and an outstanding ensemble cast with an ethnic makeup that, shockingly, actually resembles a typical suburban community college. Aside from the three cast members we spoke to, the show also features gifted former “3o Rock” writer and actor Donald Glover, Daniel Pudi, Alison Brie (aka Trudy Campbell of “Mad Men“), and some guy named Chevy Chase. Speaking of Mr. Chase, just as the original version of this piece was posted, the Bullz-Eye staffed noticed a burgeoning net-storm over what sure sounds like a pretty ugly altercation between Chase and executive producer Dan Harmon with possibly inevitable repercussions that we can only guess at.

Nevertheless, spirits were high one sunny Sunday afternoon in Anaheim just a couple of weeks back at the 2012 edition of WonderCon as a bunch of mostly fannish writers met with just a few of the very talented people behind “Community.” Yvette Nicole Brown plays the outspoken, devoutly religious, and disarmingly maternal Shirley Bennett; Gillian Jacobs is high-strung former anarchist Britta Perry; and “The Hangover” heavy and former real-life practicing M.D. Ken Jeong inhabits the role of Spanish teacher turned security guard Señor Ben Chang. Also present was affable seemingly affable creator and showrunner Dan Harmon. As befits a production that blends real intelligence with anything-for-a-laugh energy, everyone had something interesting to say to a table full of committed fans and this enthusiastic “Community” newbie.

Yvette Nicole Brown on the good ratings news.

2.2 is massive…for us that’s like the stratosphere. You could say, “Oh, we’re so fabulous.” No. The fans are fabulous. This is 100 percent flash mobs, black goatees, Subway sandwich buys. They really blanketed NBC and Twitter with their love for the show. I think it made people who had never heard of us go, “Huh. Let’s see what this is.” I’m praying they come back next week.

Creator Dan Harmon on the surprisingly good ratings for the show’s return episode.

I never thought our ratings made sense when they were as low as they were, but now I don’t think that these make sense. It was like a 50 percent increase or something. It was insane. I don’t know who got a Nielsen box or whose cat stepped on the remote. I hope that we can keep it up.

Ken Jeong on the show’s perceived near-cancellation.

The events that have transpired since December have only brought the show and the fans even closer. We have even more love out of it. In hindsight, this has all been such a blessing. You really get to feel the love right now.

Gillian Jacobs on the the role of improvisation on “Community.”

I would say that there’s a lot of goofing around. There’s not a lot of actual improv with the lines. Maybe two percent of what you see in the show is improv. It’s scripted; we try very hard to get it word perfect. It’s just a lot of us making up stupid songs. Stupid raps… We quote the show to each other and we become obsessed with certain lines and repeat them. Lines that probably nobody else cares or remembers, we repeat daily. It’s like jokes on joke on jokes on jokes and we can’t even remember the origin of them anymore.

Yvette Nicole Brown on the persistent level of strangeness on “Community.”

We’re so used to it. We get one, like the episode that we came back to — “Oh, it’s just a wedding? We’re just in the study room having a wedding?” It’s almost like we’re let down now. There are no major explosions or car chases. We kind of are getting used to “anything goes.” It makes you a more capable actor because you have to be prepared. Maybe you’re doing a musical this week. Maybe you’re doing a “Law & Order” episode. You have to be prepared to slip into any of those shoes at any given time.

Ken Jeong on the initial reveal of Ben Chang’s torrid relationship with the lovely Veronica, a mannequin leg, in “Competitive Ecology” from Season 3.

I just couldn’t stop laughing before we started shooting. I told [director Anthony Russo], “I don’t know if you guys remember but, Season 1, I actually had a hot Spanish wife. Now, Chang’s actually happier with the mannequin leg.” It’s a good thing — and I, as an actor, am happier. You go from a beautiful wife to get even more love out of a mannequin leg.

Dan Harmon on whether he thinks “Community” ever gets just a little bit too absurd.

Yeah. You could see where I went over the line, in my opinion, with the zombie episode on Halloween ["Epidemiology" from Season 2]. I still did the episode, but you could see that, at the end, I gave everyone amnesia. That was me saying that I felt like I was going too far.

The litmus test I learned from that episode, that I still use, is that I picture the events in the episode being described in a newspaper article. If the newspaper article makes national news because it’s so insane, like, “Zombie Outbreak at a Community College”… then I think that that might transcend the boundaries that make us feel comfortable in a workaday sitcom. We want those people to be our family. We want to hear them argue about credit cards and remote controls. We don’t want them to be able to say, every subsequent episode, “Why are we arguing about this? We were zombies. We were zombies!”

Gillian Jacobs on her memorable not-quite-musical anti-star performance during the climax of the Glee-ful “Regional Holiday Music.”

I just knew I needed to make a fool of myself. It was great because they had an audience of extras sitting there, so I had people to humiliate myself in front of, in addition to my cast mates who are used to me humiliating myself. It’s about as vulnerable as it gets, frankly, to be dancing around in a brown unitard singing off-key with really spastic movements.

Yvette Nicole Brown on the show’s introduction of Shirley’s long absent no-longer-ex-husband, Andre, played by Gen-X sitcom legend Malcolm Jamal Warner.

Before Malcolm was cast as Andre, Shirley said all these horrible things about Andre. He was the worst person ever, right? Once Malcolm was cast, it immediately rehabilitated Andre. Andre started to be the coolest, the kindest, the most suave, right? Even before you [i.e., the fans] saw the episode, just hearing he was cast, it was like “Andre’s okay with us,” which was genius of the writers. But the thing that got me about it is, once you saw the way they interacted you started to understand. “Oh, this guy isn’t perfect. He does have some selfish issues. He is a little delusional.” He’s got a stereo business in 2012! “iPods are not going [away], what are you doing?!”

Dan Harmon on mining comedy from the edges of acceptable discourse.

You have to understand that, in a writer’s room, you can say anything you want. You have to. We were talking about, “Is there anything you can’t do?” And I said, “From the hip, you can’t do Columbine — that doesn’t work in a sitcom.” Then, we started talking about, “How would you do it?” The answer was with paintball. That turned into an action movie parody [Season One's "Modern Warfare"] that made everybody happy. There are a lot of thought experiments like that, and in future episodes you’ll see our treatment of those sort of forbidden topics.

Ken Jeong on his character trajectory as Ben Chang.

This season has been my favorite Chang arc of the series. It really is. When Dan told me I would be a security guard before we started filming, he didn’t have to say anything. I was just crying laughing. I said, “I know exactly where this is going and this is really, really good.” I could see it because [for Chang] it combines the authority of Season 1 with the patheticness of Season 2. You have pathetic authority in the third season. It’s been heaven.

Gillian Jacobs on possible romantic tension between Britta and Troy (Donald Glover).

This group gets so confused. I don’t really know if any of them should be together. They’re not very mature. I don’t think that any of them, besides Shirley, have ever really been in a successful relationship — and she was divorced when we first met her. I definitely love that it’s a show were there can be tension going every which way. I’ll grab Danny’s arm in one episode and it’s like, “Abed and Britta!” In “Paintball II,” at the end of the second season, it’s like, “Annie and Abed!” or “Jeff and Britta!” or “Annie and Britta!” [Journos laugh.] It can go in any direction on our show and you don’t want to mess with the magic. The magic is the tension.

Yvette Nicole Brown on Shirley’s current storyline, where she is attempting to start a campus sandwich shop — if she and sneaky millionaire Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) can somehow displace the Subway shop currently occupying the space.

I think it’s really good that Shirley is doing something for herself. For the longest time she’s been Andre’s wife, she’s been [her three sons'] mother, she’s been the mother hen of the study group. She hasn’t really had a chance to shine in that way. Everything that’s been discovered about her has been things that she’s embarrassed about. She lost her consciousness during the zombie apocalypse and apparently slept with the worst person ever [i.e., Ben Chang]. She’s pregnant, right? She goes to this bar and all of this history of her being an alcoholic is out there and everybody’s making fun of her. Every time something comes up about her, it’s embarrassing. I kind of like where the arc is going to go, where she’s going to get to be a little bit more heroic in her own life, in her own eyes, and not be a victim and not be a villain.

Dan Harmon on the roots of “Community.”

I went to a community college, that’s where I got the idea for the pitch, but it had nothing to do with the quality of the school. Actually, it was kind of the opposite. I felt like the community college environment was the healthiest that I had been in for most of my life because it was a little more human and honest compared to the culture that we’ve evolved into where you know the people next door to you the least. You’re the most suspicious that they’re racists or pedophiles and you’re the least suspicious of people that you don’t even know, like celebrities and 13-year-old girls on the Internet.

It was Glendale Community College in California. I go there about twice a year to do Q&As, but mostly to remind them that, I promise, Greendale is not based on Glendale. “Hogan’s Heroes” couldn’t be in a properly run prison camp. Greendale has to be an underdog.

Ken Jeong on his acting process in relationship to portraying Ben Chang.

I think the worst thing to do, for me as an actor, is to over-analyze anything. This is a show; this is fiction; this is fun; this is acting. This is all I ever want to do with my life. I was a doctor before I did this and now I’m playing someone completely insane. It’s heaven. It’s the ultimate compliment when people come up to me and say, “I can’t believe you were a doctor.” For them to be shocked that I have a wife and two daughters [is flattering]. People are truly, truly incredulous.

Gillian Jacobs on bearing the brunt of to the show’s recurring, “Britta, you’re the worst” running gag/meme.

I really liked it because I felt like it gave her a really defined role in the group. I love that Britta always fights against it. You see moments where she gets sad, but a lot of the time she’s really defiant and will just push back against it really hard. She’s not defeated by it… She’s very stubborn and I really love that about her, and I love that she’s so often a hypocrite.

Yvette Nicole Brown on how much of Shirley she sees in herself.

Do you guys think I’m like Shirley? What do you think? No? I’ll say this. When I got the first script, the pilot, I saw Shirley calling someone “pumpkin” and “sweetie.” I call everybody “pumpkin” and “sweetie.” I was like, “This is written for me!” I am a Christian like she’s a Christian. The difference is that Shirley is way more judgmental than I am. I believe that Christians are supposed to love, not judge. We come from different positions there.

I think Shirley, at her core, loves people and I do love people. At this point, it’s hard to say what is me and what is her. I’m not as violent. I am not as full of rage. And I do not use a Miss Piggy voice to seduce people. That revelation was scary because she talks to her kids like that, she’s talked to Annie and Britta like that… I’m [thinking] “she’s been flirting with everybody!”

Ken Jeong on eventually perhaps playing more normal, or even out and out dramatic, roles.

My first movie role was “Knocked Up” where I played a doctor. That was actually a dramatic role within a comedy. Judd Apatow, the director, hired me on the basis of my medical background, [he] didn’t know about my comedy background. There are definitely upcoming projects I’m attached to that I’ll be doing something more dramatic or different… Honestly, [however] I’m happy to work. I’m so grateful and to work on the best sitcom on television is just such a bonus. These are all my friends. We’re family.

Note: If you enjoyed this piece, you might also want to take a look back all the way to the long ago days of 2009 when “Community” was new and our own Will Harris got up close and personal with the cast. More wonderment and hilarity can be obtained right here.

  

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