Anyone who knows me well knows I have a rather complicated relationship to comedy. I absolutely adore it from a steady diet of “A&E’s An Evening at the Improv” and the early days of Comedy Central when all they had was recycled footage from HBO specials and “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Consequently, I hate comedy.
See, I told you it was complicated.
I have a very specific and difficult taste for laughs. Case in point: I love Airplane, but I hate The 40 Year Old Virgin. I find Role Models to be a remarkable film, but I’m ambivalent toward the upcoming Knights of Badassdom. A large part of what keeps the Yakmala! group going year after year is the humor we find in engaging in bad movies. I suppose I should thank MST3K for that.
Because of my intense love/hate thing for comedy, I generally avoid sitcoms. Justin had to sit me down and show me the “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh” episode of “Party Down” before I got it. Similarly, he had to sit me down and show me the recent Paintball episode of “Community” before I was willing to give the show a chance. Keep in mind the humor of Joel McHale is in my wheelhouse and it still took me two full seasons to give it a shot. This is just how much my passion for comedy can blind me to funny things.
The Setup: McHale plays Jeff, a suspended lawyer who must go to a community college and earn a bachelor’s degree. He forms a study group to get closer to Britta who —
Y’know what, that’s the boring part. Going back to the pilot, I was surprised how hard the creators worked to get the group together. Yeah, it happens in a flash, but the bulk of the episode is concerned with why Jeff would continue to work with the sham he created to get closer to Britta.
Much like “The Office (US),” the pilot offers the slowest and un-funniest moments to be found on the show. On the commentary track, creator Dan Harmon points out that the show started to gel by the sixth episode. I don’t think he’s wrong and this is the key to single-camera comedies: once the cast and writers have synced up and learned each others’ rhythms, things get good.
This is certainly true of “Community.” The broad types we begin with become more specific and Chevy Chase gets to be weirder. The show also become fascinated by its own setting with remarkable speed. On “The Office (US),” it took a long time for Scranton to become a character in its own right with recurring characters outside of the Dunder-Mifflin set. Within six episodes, Greendale Community College is a world of its own with recurring faces like “Star Burns” and the Dean’s inferiority complex and ambiguous sexuality.
It’s that sort of rapid-fire approach that makes the show watchable. Jokes come fast and constant. Not everything has to land because it’s pitched to different sensibilities. While the mostly 80s pop-culture references are an obvious hook, smaller character bits often deliver the biggest guffaws from me. Britta’s inability to understand going to the bathroom in packs and Shirley’s gossip addiction are examples.
The show also allows itself to do macro-joked built into the construction of the episode. In “Environmental Science” all the story threads collide in a montage tracked to Abed and Troy’s rendition of “Somewhere Out There.” From the season 2 episodes I’ve seen, this freedom with the format grows (leading to a full-on recreation of My Dinner With Andre) and that keeps things fresh. The restriction of format eventually killed “The Office (US)” for me as Michael and Dwight became broader and more cartoonish.
“Community,” meanwhile, has the latitude to have characters play broad and cartoonish, but turn things around and get closer to reality within the span of a scene. Since Greendale starts as a world addled by pop-culture, it has a lot more flexibility than most broadcast sitcoms. This can be seen in the show’s paintball episodes which become pastiches of “Dawn of Dead” and Spaghetti westerns respectively. I never thought that looseness of format would work on a network show, but in this combination, it’s perfect.
I think the show’s greatest strength, at least from watching the first ten episodes of season one, is its willingness to play the characters as unlikable. While Jeff and Pierce are consistently unpleasant, Shirley, Britta, Annie, and Troy have all had their moments of off-putting traits. Only Abed has been spared that so far, but as he becomes a better rounded character, I’m sure the cracks will appear. And while the show occasionally earns its way to a heartfelt conclusion, it often allows the character to keep their selfish, petty, flaws. I’ve always wanted a comedy to be bold and avoid the obvious character arc … at least within the span of a 23 minute episode.
Also, I’m joining Louis and Justin in the Alison Brie Booster Brigade. While Annie hasn’t had too many episodes dedicated to her thus far, I just watched an episode where she lets her hair down and I can officially say “I get it.”
I suppose contained within the show is the seeds of derailment. Watching just about every comedy I love lose steam, it isn’t hard to see this getting crushed under the weight of the network’s obsessive need for a 100+ episodes. I know some people go to community college forever, but that’s just asking a lot. There’s only one format that has ever proved so resistant to change that it only left the air because it became too expensive to make.
So, hopefully “Community” will give me three to four season of consistent laughs before I pretend it was cancelled … just like when “The Office (US)” went off the air after Jim asked Pam out at the end of year three.