SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't watched the Season 5 premiere of Community yet, do not read any further.
The return of Community executive producer Dan Harmon to the series he created — and then was fired from — was a shock enough. But fans of the show were in for another surprise Thursday night, as another exiled Community member made a brief return: Former co-star Chevy Chase.
In the Season 5 premiere, Chase's cantankerous Pierce Hawthorne shows up as a hologram in order to talk some sense into Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), who has tricked his pals into helping him take down Greendale Community College. The run-in with Pierce triggers a change of heart in Winger, who ultimately decides to help save Greendale from within as a new professor.
Chase famously departed Community at the end of Season 4 after expressing his unhappiness with the show, having once even called his participation a "big mistake." But Chase has also discussed his fondness of the show's cast, and although he and Harmon have had well-publicized run-ins, both the actor and producer have also said reports of a feud have been overblown.
Harmon tells TV Guide Magazine that he wanted to bring Chase back in a cameo, but that Chase's exit agreement with Sony Pictures Television, which produces Community, prevented the actor from actually setting foot on stage. That's why Harmon came up with the idea of bringing Pierce back as a hologram.
"It was a question of, how do you include somebody that people want to see again that has actually been contractually bound not to be on set?" Harmon says. "We definitely needed something to turn Jeff as he was walking away with the power to end Greendale and end everything in his hand. It seemed appropriate that this would be a moment that Pierce, when he was still on the show, would have been a help. It was certainly the role he fulfilled in the original pilot. He was the first turning point in Jeff becoming a part of that family."
Harmon says he became determined to bring back Pierce in order to block Jeff's path. "I started with that image in my head of a blue Obi-Wan ghost of Chevy Chase. Why would that happen? How is that possible? And then you realize that Pierce is a millionaire and he has a history with the campus. So we thought, 'Maybe this is a way around this contract thing, the terms of his departure with the studio. Maybe we can get around that by shooting him separately in a goliath stage with Chevy-proof walls."
Sony gave its blessing, and Community shot Chase on a different stage with a motion control camera.
Asked if things were cool between him and Chase, Harmon calls the comedian "hilarious and one of a kind and a consummate soloist. He's somebody who, like me, doesn't deal well with people telling him what to do. Nobody appreciated that more than me and nobody had to deal with that more than me."
Harmon points out that he has worked with Chase longer than any TV other producer has worked with the Saturday Night Live alum. "We were very similar. And we still joke around on the phone with each other. People see in interviews him saying bad stuff about the show, but I just laugh and he always laughs."
News of a feud really took off after Harmon played some of Chase's angry voice mail messages at a comedy show. But Harmon says Chase "laughed during the whole voice mail thing. The part of the nice thing about these personalities and his part and my part is they come with relatively thick, resilient skin.
"He left that voice mail in a passionate mode and I played it for people in a passionate mode. The bigger picture is two guys who really, desperately know that they are nothing without people laughing at them. [We] really respect and appreciate each other for that fact."
The question remains, why was there wording in Chevy's exit that barred him from returning to the Community stage? Is that unusual that he can't even return to visit? "You'd have to talk to lawyers about that, I don't know," Harmon says. "That's what I was told, that it was a legal thing, it's a contract thing. I wasn't here when he left, so I don't know how that works. Talk to the suits, they love doing interviews, right?"