"Six seasons and a movie" almost didn't happen. As June drew to a close, time was running out to save Community, which NBC had canceled in May. Talks to move the comedy to streaming service Hulu were falling apart, the deal options to keep the show's cast intact expired at the end of the month, and much of the crew and key writers had already moved on to new jobs. Even the comedy's offices on the studio lot had been taken over by a new series: Grace and Frankie, Netflix's upcoming sitcom starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
"When a show is canceled, it's usually canceled," says Sony Pictures Television programming president Zack Van Amburg, whose company produces Community. But Sony has earned a reputation for not giving up on its series. When FX lost interest in Damages, Sony found a new home for the Glenn Close drama at DirecTV. The production company also convinced CBS to revive the cop drama Unforgettable and to keep renewing Rules of Engagement. It even got Fox to bring back the Christian Slater comedy Breaking In after initially yanking it from the schedule. Sony even negotiated a deal with USA Network last year to bring back Happy Endings until a last-minute snag pulled the plug.
"You try not to take no for an answer," Van Amburg says. In the Sony war room, execs continued to call NBC until it was clear the Peacock network wouldn't even entertain the idea of bringing it back. Cable networks like Comedy Central and USA were approached, but passed on it, and an attempt to make it work on Sony's own streaming service, Crackle, failed. Hulu seemed like the best shot for Community's revival. When news leaked that the Hulu talks were over, hope began to fade for fans of the Greendale gang.
Nonetheless, with a built-in rabid fan base, Community seemed like an obvious pickup for an outlet eager to get into the scripted business. That's where Yahoo came in.
Yahoo made a strong play for the show, enough to keep its $2 million-an-episode budget intact. It took a weekend of frenzied dealmaking, but a pickup was announced on June 30, with just hours to spare before the cast became free agents. "They moved at a rocket pace," Van Amburg says of Yahoo. "I was really surprised at how fast and aggressive they were."
For Yahoo, the Community acquisition comes as the Internet service prepares to launch its own original scripted shows. Yahoo has already announced series from Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks) and Mike Tollin (Smallville) for next year. Community will give Yahoo an audience to promote those new shows.
The stay of execution is yet another twist in the history of the cult sitcom. Through its five seasons on NBC, Community was always on the brink of cancellation, it was yanked off the schedule numerous times, and the show weathered the firing and rehiring of creator Dan Harmon. "Community is magic," says Chris McKenna, who executive produces with Harmon. "You can never guess what is going to happen. It's a cosmic joke at this point. Holy moly, Sony. The fact they made this happen is remarkable."
Here's everything you need to know about Community's arrival this fall on Yahoo.
Who will be back? Joel McHale (who plays Jeff Winger), the unofficial cast ringleader, got on board early. "If we were doing this at the Pasadena Playhouse, Joel would be there," McKenna says. "I don't think there's a bigger fan of the show." Jim Rash, who plays Dean Pelton, is on a year-to-year contract but is also expected to sign on. The rest of the main cast (which includes Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi and Ken Jeong) should also return, though some could request an early exit the way Donald Glover (Troy) did last season. But last season's recurring stars are busy: John Oliver (Professor Duncan) has his HBO talk show and won't return, while Jonathan Banks (Professor Hickey) is shooting AMC's Better Call Saul (but could make a guest appearance). Asks McKenna: "Do we try to bring in a new cast member to fill out the group?" Meanwhile, several key writers have moved on to other projects, including Andy Bobrow, who's now on Fox's Will Forte comedy Last Man on Earth, and Erik Sommers, now working on NBC's new sitcom Marry Me.
How will fans watch it on Yahoo? Viewers must download the free Yahoo Screen app in order to watch. "Our current model continues to be advertiser-supported," says Yahoo's chief marketing officer Kathy Savitt. "There's no fee to get to the screen." While Yahoo plans to upload every episode of the new Feig and Tollin shows at once, a la Netflix's model, Community will be released on a weekly basis. "We want to start delivering episodes as soon as possible," Savitt says. "As soon as Dan Harmon feels ready, we will release those episodically. It's also an audience that has been waiting week-to-week to watch, so they're used to the television format." Yahoo has the exclusive deal, which means there won't be a second window for the show elsewhere.
Will the show look different? The budget's the same as last season, so nothing has to change. McKenna says he and Harmon must still figure out the storylines for next season, but he expects Community to look and feel like the same show. "My instinct is, let's do good old Community," he says. "Classic Community." McKenna says he felt the show was always "barely tolerated" by NBC, and that Yahoo at least "knows what they're buying, what they're getting."
Community has always been known for experimenting with the form, such as last season's animated episode, and Savitt says she's expecting more of that next season. "It's my hope that Yahoo becomes a true creative laboratory for Dan," she says. "We hope to give him the support and promotion he needs to build on his audience and also expand on his canvas to tell his story."
Is this finally the last season? Clearly, one should never bet against Community. But the actors' six-year deals expire after this year, making it tougher to bring them all back. "The promise that we've made to each other and the fans is we're getting the six seasons," Van Amburg says. McKenna says he and Harmon will have to decide if they (once again) write a season finale that could double as a series ender. "Trying to plan stuff out for the show has always been tough," he says. But a Community movie, directed by either Justin Lin or Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, all of whom have directed episodes of the series, seems even more likely now. "I personally have had those conversations," Van Amburg says. What about a spin-off? "We always joke about it," McKenna says. "Someone is forming a detective agency — two or three of these characters!"
When does production begin? Yahoo is promising a launch sometime in the fall, so things will have to get moving soon. McKenna says the writers room will open at the end of August, with filming resuming some time after that. "Dan is still finishing up [his Adult Swim series] Rick and Morty, and I have a few things I'm doing too."
Why didn't Hulu work out? The streaming service carries Community reruns, making it the likely home for originals. But budgets, as they often do, got in the way. "The reality is, I think they looked at it, they were already paying a lot of money for the off-network version, and to add a giant fee on top of that started to make less sense for them," Van Amburg says. Sony would have had to help augment the show's budget — or Community would have had to slash its costs. Neither idea was ideal, which made going with Yahoo an easy decision.
Did NBC have one last opportunity to take Community back? Yes, and NBC's Universal Television will remain with the show as a co-producer. But bringing the show back to NBC was a non-starter. "[NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt didn't need to hear from me again why NBC should pick up Community," Van Amburg says. "That was clearly a decision that was not going to change. After my eighth phone call with Bob he had exercised his last refusal right." Van Amburg says that he also pitched a revival of Pan Am to Greenblatt, who stopped that conversation quickly.
Will the Community gang be back at Comic-Con this summer? Yes — thanks to TV Guide Magazine. Harmon, McKenna and much of the cast will be at Comic-Con International in San Diego on Thursday, July 24, at 2:15 p.m. in Ballroom 20 to participate in our panel "Greendale Forever: TV Guide Magazine's Tribute to Community." Pop pop!