Community Service: Humour and Friendship in TV’s Community

CommunityCommunity is an unusual show.  It’s part The Breakfast Club, part Friends and part one of those curious conversations you have with a pop culture obsessed weirdo.  Created by Dan Harmon, Community first aired in 2009 on NBC and is currently nearing the end of its second season.  In March 2011, Community was renewed for a third season to air in 2012.

There isn’t an easy way to describe Community, but here goes:  Take a group of seven completely different students at Greendale Community College, put them in a study group and let them at first begrudgingly associate with each other, and then eventually become close friends.  Populate the college with an assortment of weird and often unlikeable side characters, add a couple of love stories, a few morality tales, some downright bizarre scenarios and generous helping of popular culture in-jokes and meta-humour and you start to get an idea of what Community is all about.

The series started slowly.  Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a smarmy lawyer is forced to enrol community college after it’s discovered he’s been working with an unofficial degree from Columbia. The country, not the university.  In order to get to know (read: sleep with) Brita (Gillian Jacobs), a left wing, outspoken student from his Spanish class, Jeff pretends he hosts a Spanish study group.  And then he ends up doing just that.  Other members of the group include Troy (Donald Glover), a has-been high school football hero; Annie (Alison Brie), a former high school high achiever ruined by an addiction to Adderall; Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), a middle aged, single mother and devout Christian; Pierce (Chevy Chase) a racist, sexist and generally offensive wealthy former businessman; and Abed (Danny Pudi), an awkward film student who sees the world through pop culture references.

Community castThe writing in the beginning of the show was ordinary, the characters were flat, and the jokes were obvious.  Even veteran comedian, Chevy Chase couldn’t muster enough interest to expect this series to last more than a season.  There wasn’t a precise turning point for Community, but it was somewhere around the middle of the first season that the show started to improve remarkably. The characters grow more familiar and more rounded, perhaps as the actors themselves started to feel more comfortable in their roles.  The jokes became fresher, arguably as a result of them getting simply weirder and with a greater focus on self referential meta-humour.  A range of side characters started to become regular features and develop their own nuances, peppering the show with unexpected amusement. Two of the most prominent, and most amusing side characters are Senor Chang (Ken Jeong) the belligerent, acidic Chinese Spanish teacher who at first displays a great loathing of everyone, later reveals he is desperate to be accepted into the group; and Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) Greendale’s homosexual, comically camp though in gross self-denial Dean who is desperate to see Greendale accepted as a regular university.  And so Community moved on from being just another sit-com, to developing and working with its own brand of comedy.  In this sense, Community works in much in the same way as TV comedy successes Scrubs (2002-2010) and Arrested Development (2003-2006) in that they too featured an unusual dynamic of characters and an innovative style of humour.   Community is also made by Arrested Development writers and directors, Joe and Anthony Russo.

Danny Pudi as Abed NadirThe strength of Community’s style of humour, and arguably the strength of the entire show lies in the character of Abed.  Abed is the innocent, the character who, thanks to his oddball view of the world and sensitive self awareness is able to provide the clearest perspective and most relevant answer to problems the characters encounter.  Abed, as the popular culture geek is also key to the show’s wealth of pop culture in-jokes and references, a crucial source of the show’s humour which wouldn’t be possible without him.  At times, these are one line jokes of no real relevance to the rest of the plot. Other times they are a central feature in an episode, like for instance in “The Science of Illusion” (Season 1, Episode 20) after Abed’s cable TV breaks down he follows Shirley and Annie in their new jobs on campus security as though he were watching a cop show, making observations and drawing parallels with the genre.  In other instances, an entire episode can revolve around a popular culture reference, such as in “Cooperative Calligraphy” (Season 2, Episode 8). This episode takes place with only the core cast of characters and is set entirely on a single, central set with the bare minimum of effects, props and general production expense.  In television culture, this style of episode is referred to as a ‘bottle episode’, and throughout the episode Abed constantly refers to the scenario being played out as the group’s ‘bottle episode’, satirising the show though a style of self referential meta-humour.   Another example of meta-humour occurs in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (Season 2, Episode 11) where Abed begins to see the world in stop motion animation, with the entire episode made in the same stop motion animated style.  In other instances, popular culture references revolve around a single reference to a specific text.  In “Messianic Myths and Ancient People” (Season 2, Episode 5) Abed attempts to make a film about Jesus for Shirley. His entire project and as a result, the entire episode turns into a complex parody of Charlie Kaufmann’s self referential film Synecdoche New York (2008).  Abed briefly mentions the movie and without this the parody would be completely lost to anyone unfamiliar with Kaufman’s film.  Similarly in “Critical Film Studies” (Season 2, Episode 19) where Jeff’s plans for a surprise Pulp Fiction (1994) theme party for Abed are ruined by Abed’s own secret plan to play out My Dinner with Andre (1981) over dinner with the unsuspecting Jeff.  These episodes and their humour simply would not be possible without Abed to both make and explain the jokes. Considering the extent to which Community relies on this style of humour, it can be concluded the entire show would not be possible without the character of Abed.

Aside from its heavy reliance on pop culture references and meta-humour, Community does offer more conventional elements familiar to a variety of shows.  A strong bond within a group of friends occurs in a number of different shows such as Friends (1994-2004) and also How I Met Your Mother (2005- ), however unlike these examples Community represents a much more diverse group.  African Americans, Palestinian, Chinese, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, Community portrays a diverse range of races, cultures and social groups.  This is one of the show’s central goals. In Community, community college is meant to be the equalising element for these disparate groups who, despite their differences manage to get along and become important parts of each other’s lives.  In this way, Community is similar to John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985), a film in which a group of students, each representing different social groups in the school bond in detention breaking down the social barriers that had previously kept them apart.  The question, however, remains why if community college is meant to be the great equaliser, is good looking, white, thirty something, middle class male, Jeff Winger the group’s unofficial leader?   There is also an element of racial stereotyping at work in Community. The show does often draw attention to this, which is perhaps its way of subverting its own racial stereotyping.  Like most sit-coms, Community also has a romantic element. A will-they-or-won’t-they-end-up-together dynamic propels Jeff and Brita’s relationship, although unusually it continues to operate even after they did sleep together.  A number of love stories come and go throughout the series, however none are sustained.  This is because the relationship of the group is the core of the show.  Friends, not relationships are the most important thing in Greendale, the community keeps Community continuing.

Community works because it’s different.  As a show, it is not without its weaknesses, but those are overshadowed by its unique and considerable strengths.  With its unexpected success, one wonders how many Community imitations might appear in the coming years.

 

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Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.
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