It's the first day of October and a sweltering 108 degrees on the Paramount lot, where NBC's fan favorite sitcom Community films. And yet, meeting for a coffee near the show's soundstage, new executive producers Moses Port and David Guarascio aren't breaking a sweat.
Community has already shot half of its 13 episodes for fall, and Port and Guarascio have mapped out a scenario on how to end the show in case this is the end of the line. But they don't think they'll need to implement that plan just yet.
"I think we're going to get more," Port says of the show's episodic order. Adds Guarascio: NBC "has seen some cuts [of the first few episodes] now, and our fingers are crossed. This is what is called a massive jinx. Basically telling you with a recording device that I'm just about 100 percent sure that we're going to get more episodes."
At the very least, a few extra episodes would give Community enough half-hours to be sold into syndication. If NBC likes what it sees, a fifth season also isn't out of the question. Maybe "six seasons and a movie" isn't so far-fetched after all.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Community was originally scheduled to return on Friday, Oct. 19, but in a late-minute switcheroo, NBC suddenly decided to hold both Community and Friday night lead-in Whitney until later in the season. That's an admission that the network hadn't had a chance to properly promote its new Friday night comedy block, as well as a sign that it may want to employ both shows to fill holes elsewhere on its schedule (perhaps Wednesdays, where newcomers Animal Practice and Guys With Kids have struggled).
Of course, there's an even larger question looming: How will fans react to Community in its post-Dan Harmon era form?
Harmon, who created the comedy and guided it through three seasons, was shown the door this spring. Sony Pictures TV, the studio behind the show, then approached Port and Guarascio — who were consulting on ABC's Happy Endings — about taking over as Community's new showrunners.
They said no. And then they said no again. "Look, it's a tough situation to walk into," Port says. "We are fans of the show. No. 1, we were like, 'Can this work without Dan?' And we were also like, 'Wow, I can't believe Dan is not going to be there.'"
Taking over an established show entering its fourth season is a thankless job. Taking over an established show after its creator — worshipped by rabid fans and seen as its heart and soul — is fired, with no guarantee the show won't be canceled anyway? That's like stepping into a field of landmines, only to be met with gunfire if you miraculously make it through. "Going into the fourth year of any show, do you really want to do that?" Port remembers thinking. "You've told a lot of stories by that time."
Some of the logical candidates to replace Harmon had already left to move on to other things: Executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan had signed a deal with 20th Century Fox TV and were starting work on Fox's Ben and Kate (which they later departed). Community veteran Chris McKenna, who earned an Emmy nomination this year for his episode "Remedial Chaos Theory," had moved on to Fox's The Mindy Project. NBC and Sony had already decided to remove Harmon from the show (he retains "created by" and "executive consultant" credits, and is still a profit participant on Community), but their Plan 'B' options were fading fast. The studio then made Port and Guarascio a deal they couldn't refuse.
"I think ultimately everything that seemed scary about it was also the reason why we wanted to do it," Guarascio says. "It just seemed like a fun kind of challenge. And the truth is, there really aren't many shows like this, and you don't know if you're ever going to get to work on them or not. It was, 'Well, if we don't do this now we may never get a similar chance.' So we closed our eyes, dived in feet first and just have as much fun with it as possible. And cover our ears 75% of the time."
The switch was still fresh in July, when Guarascio and Port joined the Community cast on stage for Comic-Con — so fresh, that most cast members hadn't even met their new showrunners until that day. No one knew what to expect, including some Sony execs, who feared a fan uprising. But the audience still welcomed the show with cheers. Port and Guarascio reassured the crowd that everything was going to be "OK," and then smartly turned it over to the series' stars.
Nonetheless, Harmon's May exit shocked fans of the show, which just days earlier had scored a surprise last-minute renewal for season 4. They took to social media to express their displeasure, and Harmon addressed the fans in a blog post detailing what went down. The Harmon firing also came as a bit of a surprise to the Community actors, who had just seen him days earlier while recording commentary tracks for the show's Season 3 DVD. "It was kind of weird, a bit like a death in the family, because it was so sudden and we had no idea," says Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays gung-ho moralist Shirley.
Joel McHale, who stars as Jeff Winger, the narcissistic ex-lawyer with daddy issues, remembers being given talking points on how to respond to the show's regime change. "It was good times," he says sarcastically. "I'd be asked, 'How do you feel about Dan being fired,' and you'd have to go, 'Fire is useful for staying warm.' With everything that had gone down with Chevy [Chase] and Dan and all that, it was more drama."
McHale feared that the show would turn "normal" once Harmon was pushed out. "My worry is the ambition of the show would die. That needs to stay intact," he says. "I think the show's uniqueness and the fact that the critics like it are what keep it distinct." Adds Brown: "You can't help but know that if a voice is taken away that there will be some things that will be different. It can't be his voice, he's not here. But he did an amazing job of laying the foundation of who these crazy people are."
Port and Guarascio are well aware that fans will be watching closely to see if Community misses a step, but say they've taken pains to keep the show's DNA intact. "Most of the hard work of creating this universe is done," Guarascio says. "The magic garden has been planted and cared for (by Harmon) for three years. And Dan tunneled through mountains to make sure the show was done the way he wanted it to be done. That does make it easier."
Port and Guarascio reached out to Harmon to see if he would write the Community finale — should this season be the last for the show. But Harmon opted to pass. "He was very gracious and said thanks and just wished us the best of luck," Guarascio says.
Instead, the new showrunners have leaned on returning writers (including Andy Bobrow, Megan Ganz, Maggie Bandur, Annie Mebane and Steve Basilone) to keep a sense of continuity on the show. Port and Guarascio say they've also looked to the Community cast to make sure this year's scripts remain true to their characters. Oscar-winning writer Jim Rash, who plays Dean Pelton on Community, is even penning an episode.
"We rely on them probably more than Dan ever had to or needed to, because we're looking to them to make sure that we're keeping the sensibility of the show right," says Guarascio, noting that McHale is a bit of a real-life Jeff Winger, serving as a bit of a leader and bringing the cast's concerns to the producers. "The tone of the show is informed not just by the writing but by every other aspect. There's this incredible infrastructure of people that love the show and are passionate about it, and are going to make sure that it continues to be good."
Port and Guarascio already knew McHale, who starred in their busted NBC pilot The IT Crowd. Over the summer the new showrunners sat down one-by-one over lunch with the rest of the Community cast to take their temperature. "It's understandable that there would be a little bit of anxiety, because it's a big change," Guarascio says. "They're the ones on screen, so they're the most vulnerable in the change, after the fans. That process is ongoing, of still getting to know them."
Brown says she appreciated the outreach. "They didn't have to meet with any of us to see what we thought about things, but they did that," she says. "This whole season so far has been very collaborative.
"The heart of the show is intact," Brown adds. "I don't think I knew for sure that it was going to be OK until Comic-Con, because I hadn't met the guys, and I kind of get a feel for people, their spirits, and they seemed like really decent human beings. I believe that they want to make the same show... And we know that if we're a little out to the left or to the right that critics and fans will right the ship. If we're not there yet I hope they give us time to tweak some things and get it to where it needs to be."
This season opens with a fantastical episode that climbs into Abed's (Danny Pudi) psyche; another episode visits an "Inspector Spacetime" convention, with guest stars Matt Lucas and Tricia Helfer. Jeff finally confronts his daddy issues as we meet his father (James Brolin) in the show's Thanksgiving episode, while Malcolm McDowell plays the group's history teacher. Among this season's pairings, Troy and Shirley get to spend some time together. Then there's the issue of how to incorporate Chang (Ken Jeong) back in the mix after he attempted to destroy the group.
Guarascio and Port say the network and studio weren't big fans at first of doing an "Inspector Spacetime"-themed episode. "Their first reaction was, 'We don't want to go to Inspecticon.' But we really felt like we had a great story to tell," Guarascio says. NBC and Sony came around after seeing what a huge reaction the idea got at Comic-Con. Episodes like that might also reassure fans that Community isn't changing its tone in an attempt to go more "broad."
"We don't approach it that way," Guarascio says. "For the first batch of stories we pitched to the network and studio, we wanted to be absolutely sure that they said, 'This feels a little too much like where the show has been.' Then we knew we were on to something. I think ultimately they've come around into seeing things the same way."
Says Port: "The show exists because of those rabid fans. First and foremost, you want to appeal to them. In truth, I don't know how you would even go about making the show more broad in appeal." The duo says they're especially excited to work on a show where underneath the big comedy is a roster of well-defined characters with a lot of pathos. "I think it's great when you can get to those moments, and sometimes they're surprisingly dark moments," Guarascio says. "That you can get there in a comedy is just genius."
McHale is satisfied. "If anyone accuses us of not going for it, then they're blind."
With the future of Community still uncertain, the show's cast is eyeing their futures. Donald Glover is developing an NBC sitcom based on his life, while McHale recently signed deals at Comcast and Sony to remain as host on E!'s The Soup while developing new TV projects. Brown says she's eyeing Dec. 7, the last day of production, to plot her next move. "This is my No. 1 thing," McHale says of Community. "[But] you've got to always be moving forward."
Right now, having produced most of season 4 so far in a vacuum, the Community cast and crew are focused on the show's return (and obviously now, its disappointing delay) — and what this year might bring. "We're in that weird netherworld of not having aired yet and we're getting into October," Guarascio says. "So we're really looking forward to getting on the air and over that hump. Hopefully it brings more episodes, and we're setting things up so there can be a season five." As Abed might say, that would be "cool cool cool."