‘Community’: Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Gillian Jacobs & Megan Ganz Roundtable
Community’s female stars—and one of its writers—sit down for a roundtable discussion about being a woman in comedy, the show’s legacy, slut shaming, and more. Tears are shed!
Fans of NBC’s Community—the wildly inventive yet criminally unwatched critical darling, now in its third season—were shocked when the network unceremoniously placed it on an indeterminate hiatus. Those same loyal viewers turned to Twitter hashtags, flash mobs, and original pieces of artwork (depicting the Greendale gang alternately as Batman villains, X-Men, Star Wars characters, and even Calvin and Hobbes), all in an effort to keep the adventures of a group of disparate community-college students alive.
Last week, NBC finally gave the Dan Harmon–created comedy a return date of March 15, when it will retake its old haunt of 8 p.m. on Thursdays for 12 episodes that had been produced while the show’s fate was still unknown.
On the final night of shooting for Season 3, The Daily Beast visited the set of Community to sit at the study-room table, its surface marred from ax blows, for a roundtable discussion with its female stars—Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Gillian Jacobs—and one of its female writers, Megan Ganz, for a discussion about being a woman in comedy, the “dark night of the soul” ahead, and the Bridesmaids effect, among other topics. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion, which ended in tears for more than one of its participants.
Given the uncertainty about this season and the hiatus, what does it feel like having produced these episodes in a vacuum?
Gillian Jacobs: It’s weird.
Alison Brie: It has freed us up in a lot of ways. Once the initial reaction wore off, there was some sense of reckless abandon: we’ll just do whatever we want. People might not see this anyway. So, we just have our fun.
Megan Ganz: But also, in terms of the schedule, it didn’t change at all. Not on a day-to-day basis.
Yvette Nicole Brown: The fact that we were on hiatus didn’t even register for me, aside from the initial shock of finding out on Twitter. Because I found out on Twitter.
Jacobs: One thing that is different: there’s almost a dialogue between us and the viewers. Christmas was such a high because we had like nine trending topics that night on Twitter for the episode. That was our last chance to watch it at the same time. We haven’t seen any of the episodes that we’ve shot past that point. We’ve been doing these interviews and are struggling to remember the episodes. They ask, “So, what can we look forward to?” We’re like, “Uh …”
Ganz: Especially for the writing. It’s like that dialogue you’re talking about, we’re just working in a void. Christmas was the last time that the audience spoke back to us and was like, this is what we like.
Brown: Does that color how you guys write?
Ganz: Well, yeah. We’re not listening to everything they say. But in terms of when they like the same things that we like, we know we’re pursuing the right avenues. Obviously, Dan [Harmon] has a very clear vision. But it is hard to operate in a total vacuum.
Brown: So these may be the purest Community episodes ever.
Ganz: I don’t know. We got bumped off the schedule. It has registered on the show. I think there’s a weight.
Brie: There’s a darkness.
Jacobs: But I feel like that was evident in the first couple episodes of this season as well.
Brown: It’s definitely our darkest season.
Jacobs: Yeah. According to Dan Harmon’s story circle, this is the dark night of the soul.
Ganz: This is where everyone makes their decisions and atones with their fathers. Troy and Abed, their relationship comes to a fork. It’s perfect for two seasons, and then they have to deal with the things that are different about them. Then Season 4 is like spring and everything is new. People have adjusted to their environments and they’re ready to move on with the next phase.
Brie: It’s just reanalyzing: wait, why are we friends? There’s a great Annie and Abed episode where it’s like, why are we friends?
Ganz: I’ve been loving those episodes of [Annie, Abed, and Troy] living in the apartment. It just becomes Friends in a great way. It’s just like, oh, I could watch these people hang out. Like in Episode 304. You didn’t even notice that they didn’t have anything to do with the school for that day.
There’s a sense of diversity on Community. Not just in terms of ethnicity and religion but also gender. What is it like being on a show that doesn’t set your characters up as sort of sex object, the girlfriend, the wife, but it actually creates three-dimensional characters for you to embody?
Jacobs: A friend of mine wrote a script, a feminist romantic comedy. She had a feminist scholar consult on it. My friend said, “Oh, my friend Gillian read it and really loved it.” She goes, “Gillian Jacobs, you mean: Britta Perry, feminist icon?” That gives me a lot of pride that women really identify with Britta. The thing that is unique about her is that she is never the subject of slut shaming. Like, she’s one of the only female characters that doesn’t ever get punished for having an active sex life.
Ganz: She is also proud of it and doesn’t ever use it to her advantage. I mean, in some ways: a gym bag full of nickels. But you can tell she’s just having experiences.
Jacobs: She’s a flawed, well-rounded, principled person who makes mistakes but is not pigeonholed as the slut, even though she and Jeff are the most sexually active people in the group. Because if implied inferences in the script are correct, I’ve slept with most of the men at Greendale.
Brown: As a black actor, it’s refreshing that I’m not playing the “sassy black woman.” It’s something that Dan Harmon was cognizant of from the beginning. It is something that I’m always cognizant of. Every woman on the planet has sass and smart-ass qualities in them, but it seems sometimes only black women are defined by it. Shirley is a fully formed woman that had a sassy moment. Her natural set point, if anything, is rage. That’s her natural set point, suppressed rage, which comes out as kindness and trying to keep everything tight.
Ganz: In Episode 308, we had that thing about Shirley not wanting to get the “sassy note.” You had said to me that that had happened to you once.
Brown: Female friends that are in my tribe, black girls, we all have stories about that. We find interesting ways to make [directors] tell us to be sassy because they know that it’s racist. I say, “Can you show me how to do that?” They don’t want to do a black version of sassy, so then they move on.
Brie: You could say the same thing too about Danny [Pudi] and Abed. I mean you know Danny’s played four or five Sanjays.
Brown: It’s ridiculous.
Brie: Even still he’ll get called in for auditions and they’ll be like, “Can you do the accent?” We get to do different things in every episode, and it’s not just about gender or race. It’s about having well-rounded characters and a wide range of adventures so that we’re just never playing the same thing.
Brown: That’s what’s great about the show in general. Around [the study-room] table, you have a racist, a feminist, a black chick. There are all different types of people here, but we all keep coming back to the table.
Ganz: The same thing that drives Dan away from your typical sitcom storylines is the same thing that drives him away from making any one character a stereotype, because it’s just too easy.
Brie: It’s boring. As a viewer, that’s bothersome because you’re just like, “Who actually says that?”
Jacobs: I remember when I first graduated from college and was still auditioning for high-school parts. I was horrified at the way high-school girls were portrayed as these sexual manipulators who were like constantly seducing everyone.
Ganz: The male perspective.
Jacobs: It was really disturbing to me, because I was innocent and not engaging in any of that kind of behavior in high school. But even the girl that was the most confident, prettiest girl in my high school was not like some Lolita like a bat out of hell.
Brie: Seducing her teachers.
Ganz: They just remove all awkwardness from the teen experience. It’s an awkward time. You’re not this sexual dynamo.
Brie: Which I think has been the journey of Annie.
Jacobs: Annie’s the romantic of the group. But we’re watching that from trying not to sexualize her in Season 1 to—
Ganz: “Boop-be-doop-be-doop Sex.”
Jacobs: And also trying personas on. OK. Maybe that’s not me. Or trying this relationship. That whole journey—
Brie: The awkward adventurer that everyone has to be.
Ganz: That song too was supposed to be a satire of the way that those Santa Baby songs infantilize women’s sexuality. Of course, it’s Alison Brie doing it, so it’s going to be sexy.
Brie: It was funny to see people’s reactions to that on Twitter: I’m not sure if I’m aroused or put off.
Ganz: But that’s the thing. We’re so used to that sexualization of women being an infantilized sexualization. In that song she gets dumber as the song goes on. Having you like crawl around on the ground and stuff, there’s a definite message there.
Brie: By the end she’s not even saying the words.
Ganz: Yeah. Just that baby-doll voice. [In Episode 310], we were using each character to bring in the next character and using the easiest ways. For Pierce, the way to his heart is to talk about the fact that he’s a baby boomer. For Shirley, it’s a bunch of adorable children not knowing anything about Jesus and desperately asking her for help. With Jeff, it’s this pull with Annie: it pulls him near, but it also is the thing that puts him off, like with the bubblegum lip gloss. Truly, Annie should wait until she comes into her own in order for that relationship to go anywhere. I think she is going through her darkest hour this year.
There is a sizable female contingent to the writers’ room on Community that includes you, Megan, and Annie Mebane and Maggie Bandur. How does this change the dynamic in terms of the writing process, and what is it like for the actors as well to have that female-voice perspective in the mix?
Ganz: Do you guys notice that?
Brown: Yeah. We notice. We sure do.
Jacobs: We definitely notice. It’s hard for us to tell when we get a script at a table read who wrote what line or who pitched what joke. But you always just have this feeling that there are women—smart, articulate, funny women—in the room advocating for these female characters.
Ganz: You wouldn’t be able to pull anything apart. It’s not like women work on the women types of storylines. We don’t just come in every day and say, “I think Troy and Britta should kiss.” Everybody works on every storyline. It’s the same reason that it’s good to have women in the room, and the same reason it’s good to have men and ethnicities represented and older people and younger people. If you find a story that everybody likes and everybody relates to in some way, then you know you have a good story. But if you’re telling a story and all the women are going, “I’m checked out of this, I just don’t really care,” then you’re going to have some problems.
Why do you think that audiences are embracing funny women right now? Is it the Bridesmaids effect, or women coming into their own in a male-dominated industry?
Brown: I grew up watching Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence, who were just genius, so it’s kind of hard for me to believe that people are just realizing that women are funny now. What I love most about the Bridesmaids phenomenon is that all those women were on that billboard. Each of them are well defined in the movie, and not stereotypes. That’s what we do here. Not just the women, but all of us on the show. I think what’s changing now is that more women are in positions of power. With your Tina Feys and Kristen Wiigs, you have more women in the driver’s seat. They know what we really are. The ladies in the Community writers’ office, they know who we really are.
Ganz: There have always been funny women. But in some ways, it takes a while for there to be women who were watching women on television for years and then grow up and think, “I could do funny stuff.” I grew up watching I Love Lucy. She was doing funny stuff.
Brown: It’s the same for minorities, too. Until we get black writers in writing rooms and as studio executives, it’s going to be a while before people of color get to have the breakout that the Bridesmaids have had. It’s not that someone of another gender or race couldn’t write these words, but if you don’t have the experience, what you think I would say and what I would say are two different things.
Ganz: Even socially, too. When women are seen on TV being crass or funny or making jokes or undercutting someone, then you feel it’s socially acceptable for a woman to do that. More women are growing up feeling, “I can speak my mind and say what I want.” For me, I was maybe 15 before I started being like, “I’m just going to start saying things out loud. Why can’t I say what I think?”
Brown: You find your voice.
It seems all the more apparent that there is a generational gap, with Chevy Chase coming from an older, more male-centric comedy generation. When a co-worker makes rape jokes at the expense of his female co-workers, such as Chevy did at a Paley Festival panel for the show, how do you react to that?
Brie: I mean, at a certain point you’ve got to just laugh it off, because Chevy’s Chevy.
Ganz: His bits are from a different time.
Brie: There’s a communication barrier, or maybe a generational gap in terms of comedy. A lot of crass comedy is accepted. Some people just don’t know how to word it the right way.
Brown: Or know their room. You’ve got to know your room.
Jacobs: We all dish it back to him as hard as he gives it to us. That’s been shocking to him too. He thinks I have a really dirty mouth, and he’s shocked that I have a really dirty mouth. But I do have a dirty mouth.
Ganz: There was a time when women in male writers' rooms had to be twice as crass as they were because they had to prove they could hang with the guys. Then things have shifted. Now it’s like you’re respected for your own particular voice. I don’t do blue humor ever. In fact, I’m probably on the prudish end of things.
Brown: Oh, well, hello.
Ganz: Even fart jokes and stuff. I’m just not into gross humor. Perhaps he was from a time where you had to break through that barrier of, “I can hang with you. I’m not worried about offending you,” and then hopefully they stop doing it.
Brown: Or maybe he was from a time when women weren’t empowered enough to speak up. I’m glad that we’re in a time now where if you are offended or upset by something someone says, you feel empowered to say, “That’s not right.” Maybe he comes from a generation where he could say things like that and no one would ever say anything back to him. God bless is all I have to say.
If Community isn’t renewed and this is your last day on set ever, what will you take away from this experience and what will you miss the most?
Jacobs: I’m going to cry. It so far exceeded my expectations of what the show would be. This is one of the best pilots I’ve ever read, so already my expectations were high. Then shooting the pilot—
[Jacobs begins to cry.]
Brown: Oh, it’s OK, Stinkers. She’s such a pretty crier. My God, she’s a pretty crier.
Jacobs: I’ve never worked with a group of people that have impressed me so consistently on such a daily basis. I feel like given the nature of this show, we’ve been thrown everything from an action movie to a noir to My Dinner With Andre. Everybody rose to it every single week. The writing and the creativity and the scope and the ambition of the show has been—
[Jacobs’s sobbing becomes ragged.]
Brown: Oh, well. I can’t sit here and not hug you.
[Brown and Brie embrace Jacobs.]
Ganz: It’s so cool to see you guys do stuff and then watch it in the room and then go, “Oh, my God, they can do that.” For instance, Britta does a weird physical bit and then all of a sudden Gillian as a physical actress becomes hilarious. So then you start writing towards that. Then the character starts owning that, and then that ends up becoming part of the whole plotline.
Brown: And she’s still lovable.
Ganz: I love her. “Let her sing her awkward song.” It doesn’t feel like a hollow moment.
I never thought any show could pull off an entire episode about a missing pen. There must be a fear that whatever is next might not be as gonzo or genius as Community.
Brown: Nothing’s ever been done like this before.
Ganz: Particularly my episodes. Every one that I’ve done is a total [departure]. I did a bottle episode and then I was writing a mockumentary the next time. For somebody who loves puzzles, this has been the best possible experience.
Brown: Whether we come back or not, whatever happens, this will be a show that will be studied. There are people studying Community. The totality of this show, people will look back and go, they really did change every week.
Jacobs: Yeah. For all the people that have only heard about our show—it’s spoofs, it’s pop culture, it’s genre—they’re missing the fact that these are different, new characters on television that people have grown to love. So even when we do an episode which is set in the apartment and there’s no obvious spoof or takeoff, people still want to watch it because they love and care about these characters.
[Brie begins to cry.]
Brown: Oh, Stinker, what’s happening? Oh, my girls. Oh, my little pumpkins.
Brie: This is so cliché for the women-of-Community interview. “Then they all cried.”
Jacobs: And they got their periods simultaneously!
Regardless of what happens in May, we can dream about six seasons and a movie.
Ganz: Twelve seasons and a theme park.
Jacobs: Thirty seasons and a porno. Yeah, even our porno got pulled. It did.
Brown: What happened with that?
Jacobs: No one participating in it had ever seen our show. They had a Spanish bodybuilder playing Abed.