Class is now back in session at Greendale Community College with the fourth season of NBC’s “Community” having premiered last Thursday (or on October 19, depending on your point of view.) Not everyone is registered this semester, however, with series creator Dan Harmon removed as showrunner last May and David Guarascio and Moses Port (“Just Shoot Me”) stepping in as co-showrunners and executive producers.
This weekend also saw the launch of the world’s first completely fan-organized “Community” convention. Held at Los Angeles City College (used for exterior shots in the show’s first season), CommuniCon was the brainchild of fan Gillian Morshedi and immediately sold the venue into maximum occupancy with 400 fans visiting from all over the world.
Although it was easy to imagine tension between Harmon-only devotees and those eager to embrace the Harmon-less fourth season tearing the place apart like a showdown between blanket stackers and pillow packers, “Community” fandom spent the weekend embracing the totality of the show, playing trivia with the current staff of writers, showing off “Community”-inspired artwork and cosplaying as all sorts of characters from the show’s entire run.
Harmon himself was quick to counter any gossip as launched a 90-minute, rap-heavy conversational panel, “Dan Harmon and a Microphone.”
“I didn’t watch on Thursday,” he told the crowd. “…I didn’t watch because I’m the last person who should be watching. I’m the last person that anybody wants to hear from. All I could do is f–k things up, pardon my French. It’s just the logical thing for me to do for myself. For everybody. For all of you. What if I loved it? What if I hated it? What could screw things up more than me speaking about it in the mix of all this turmoil and confusion that we’re all feeling?”
Among the weekend surprises for fans was the unnanounced appearance of stars Gillian Jacobs and Yvette Nicole Brown, both of whom graciously signed autographs and took pictures with fans. Last fall, ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to visit the set of the show’s fourth season where both talents discussed the changes moving into their first Harmon-less year.
“It doesn’t really feel that different” says Brown. “That’s not to diminish Dan Harmon, who was the heart and soul of the show. We, of course, feel the loss of Dan, but as far as coming in at 5:30 and doing hair and makeup, it feels the same. We’re seeing most of the same people.”
“We put in such long hours and are with each other for long,” echoes Joel McHale. “For the first three years, we didn’t see a ton of the writers. They were always writing and Dan was always directing the writers. It was like we were always there. Our crew was always together forever. In that sense, it didn’t change much at all.”
In the writers room, however, the situation was a bit different. Past and present writers Megan Ganz, Steve Basilone, Andy Bobrow, Chris McKenna launched CommuniCon with their own panel, admitting that it’s a very delicate balance trying to maintain the community of “Community.”
“We put out a promo and thought it was really cool and that the fans would love it,” grimaces Ganz. “Then we went to YouTube and read the comments. They were like, ‘Clearly this is a totally different show!’ It was two minutes long! Two f–ing minutes long …Not to totally let us off the hook, but you’re going to get criticism either way. You’re either too close to the original show and then you’re trying too hard or you go a different way and it’s not the show everybody loves. When we were together and when we had all the writers together in the third season, the show was literally whatever we could come up with every week. Now, all of a sudden, you’re writing to the reaction instead of writing to whatever episode you genuinely want to see next.”
Another major challenge moving into season four is the lack of direct interaction that the writers can have with fans. Because of the abbreviated 13-episode season and the delay of the premiere, production has already wrapped.
“Once the show started airing, we had this relationship with the audience, the fans,” McKenna explains. “It could turn into a dialogue. We could react to things that fans were reacting to.”
“We’re missing that third part of our little group,” Brown says on set. “The audience telling us what they think. It’s our writers writing, us making it and then our audience telling us ‘Yay!’ or ‘Boo!’ We found in the middle of last season that it’s hard not having the fan opinions. I’m the one who, right when every show is airing, goes to look at the hashtags and see what people are saying.”
“Changnesia,” laughs Ganz about one of the plotlines set up in the fourth season premiere. “If people don’t think that’s funny, I have some bad news for you.”
Season four continues this Thursday with “Paranormal Parentage.” Originally conceived as the season’s Halloween episode, the show will air on Valentine’s Day instead and is one of several holiday-themed episodes somewhat out-of-sync due to the season’s delay. After that, things get very meta with February 21′s “Conventions of Space and Time,” actually bringing the Greendale Seven to an “Inspector Spacetime” convention with special guest stars Tricia Helfer and Matt Lucas.
“It was so cool what they did with the set and to see Abed in his element,” says Alison Brie.
“[Tricia Helfer] was terrific and I love ‘Battlestar Galactica,’” adds McHale, then joking, “…I kept asking people if they could see her. Which she began to find insulting.”
Future season four guest stars also include Malcolm McDowell as a Greendale professor and James Brolin as Jeff’s long-lost father.
“[He] was terrific,” says McHale. “Just great. A good, good guy. So sweet. Really professional and funny… I wish I had as much hair as he has now.”
The season will also feature a script by series-regular-turned-Academy Award-winning-screenwriter Jim Rash.
“I felt confident because I had been on the show long enough to know their characters and, as actors, I felt like I really knew the things they did well and the things that they will nail and surprise even me,” says Rash. “That part of it felt comfortable, but also neurotic, of course, and freaked out because you put yourself out there with this episode and all eyes are on you. How dare you think that you could possibly do this?”
“He brought the Oscar with him to set!” jokes McHale. “…A lot of times I would say, ‘Jim, I don’t really understand why Jeff would say this line’ and he would just hold up the Oscar and go, ‘Does this answer your question? Good. No notes.”
Although the fourth season’s premiere ratings are a very positive sign, the future of “Community” is one that belongs wholly to the fans.
“When I pitched the show, I was pitching a very meta story about an *sshole that learned to love strangers,” says Harmon. “I knew it was meta at the time, but I had no idea how meta it was going to get… I was pitching a story about a guy who, like me, had gone to community college and had, at one point, been invited to be part of a study group that he didn’t want to be a part of, because he had nothing to gain from it. …I think the most important thing you can know is that you want to be a part of all the other individuals. You dont want to be alone. Theres a personality disorder for every single thing you can name under the sun. There are people who put entire jars of peanut butter up their butt and there are people who are sexually attracted to cats. But there is no one who wants to be alone.
Thankfully for Harmon, there’s no better proof of not being alone than a room packed with hundreds of fans who, through the course of the weekend, shared jokes, artwork and, during a fan testimonal panel, quite a few tears about what the series has meant to them.
“I may regret this,” Harmon smiled on the future of CommuniCon, “But I’ll come to every one, swear to god… Who am I kidding? If eight people have a Troy costume contest in their living room, I’ll be there.”
Check out our CommuniCon gallery by clicking here and watch Andulka Wilkes and Evan Koehne’s Six Seasons and a Movie – A Community Art Show short documentary in its entirety in the player below: