Community showrunner Dan Harmon’s enemy is consistency. It’s his creative syphilis, and when it takes hold—that is, when things start getting too damn cozy—his first instinct is to burn it down, and start anew.
“If there’s too much of a good thing I’ll end up undercutting it,” says Harmon. “I’m the guy that decided after a first year of using Ken Jeong perfectly as a crazy Spanish teacher, the last thing we should do is have him come back and be their Spanish teacher, because god forbid we become Welcome Back, Kotter. I’ll do things like that self-destructively just because I feel like I’m not supposed to stagnate.”
The combative creator of Community has good reason to be paranoid. For years, Harmon and his revered sitcom have been trapped by their NBC overlords, who have treated the cult show like their own personal gimp. They placed the series on indefinite hiatus in the middle of its third season; callously fired Harmon prior to Season 4; reduced the episodes per season to 13; and, in true Steve Jobs fashion, brought Harmon back into the fold for the fifth. If that weren’t enough, each year the show was always one of the last to get renewed. It was as an annual ritual of TV brass taking it out back, forcing it on its knees, and pulling the trigger—only to have the gun jam.
In May 2014, NBC finally put the Greendale Human Beings out of their misery and canceled Community. “To tell you the truth, I was very relieved,” recalls Harmon. “When Community was canceled, it had been the longest relationship with anything that I’d ever had—including my now-wife, Erin. I’d never had a job that lasted for that long, and I’d never loved anything for that long. So I thought, ‘Who am I?’”
Yes, Harmon was in the throes of an existential crisis. For years, he’d been trapped in an abusive relationship, even developing what seems like a mild case of Stockholm syndrome.
“It’s pretty fun to have a bad guy,” he says. “To be the redheaded stepchild of NBC every Thursday night at 8 o’clock, taking kidney punches from The Big Bang Theory, smiling through it, and saying, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ was an identity. That was a religion you could be proud of. We could never be the bad guy because we were always going to be the underdog.”
But then he was free. When rumors began swirling late last summer that Sony Pictures Television was shopping the show to Hulu and Showtime, Harmon’s initially instinct was, “No. Count me out.” Then he read his name in stories carrying that quote, and had a change of heart. When the Hulu deal fell through at the 11th hour, right before the actors’ contracts were set to expire, Sony miraculously found a last-minute home for the show at Yahoo Screen, the nascent streaming service of Yahoo. A 40-minute phone call with Kathy Savitt, CMO of Yahoo, piqued his interest further. She was no “old world suit” like the NBC dinosaurs, but a content-savvy marketer. Harmon was in.
“I still work for NBCUniversal on The Soup, but the culture is completely different,” says star Joel McHale. “Yahoo is absolutely excited about the show, and that’s a brand new feeling we’ve never had. The fact that I’m talking from a hotel that Yahoo rented like a movie junket has never happened before on this scale. Our pickup was always last minute, and it was always, ‘You’re lucky that you’re being picked up.’ I know we were getting pretty decent numbers when you look across the board at the ratings for comedies on that network.”
The Community cancellation was especially surreal for McHale considering it happened just one week after he grilled President Obama as the host the 2014 White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama even made a crack about his character on the show, Jeff Winger, calling his character a “self-obsessed narcissist.”
“I think I’m probably the only person whose character on television was said out loud and commented on by the President of the United States, and then the next week canceled. I broke some record there,” says McHale.
On March 17, the sixth season premiere of Community will, against all odds, debut on Yahoo. It’s the first of 13 episodes that will be released every Tuesday night. And the premiere, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), sees the gang back at Greendale Community College and squaring off against Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster), a hard-nosed college consultant who was installed following a rooftop collapse, and is determined to restore order.
And the cast of the show has gotten considerably lighter over the years, with stars Chevy Chase, Donald Glover, and Yvette Nicole Brown all departing for various reasons. While Yvette and Chevy may return this season, don’t hold out hope for Donald.
“I can certainly say no Donald, and with Chevy, sometimes he will just wander onto the sets of any production looking for food and people to yell at, so he can’t be ruled out!” says Harmon, adding, “I’ve always been chatting with Chevy in texts about the possibility of a little cameo.”
When Community’s future was in doubt, its rallying cry became “six seasons and a movie”—an in-joke mocking NBC’s The Cape that went viral. So now that the sixth season is upon us, what about that movie?
“With the movie, I want it to be organic,” says Harmon. “I want Season 6 to be so tremendous that it’s a no-brainer to throw a small amount of money to a small theatrical release that can do nothing but astound us with how profitable it can be.”
Though things seem to be going smoothly with Yahoo, Harmon is someone who’s thrived on embracing the chaos of reinvention. And of course, when things seem too good to be true, that’s when his doubt sets in.
“I privately feel like Yahoo is treating this show so well that in their minds it has to be temporary,” he says. “Their strategy must be, ‘Let’s bring Community onboard as this land bridge and we can parade people across its corpse onto our new original content, and once they’re there, we can drop this old network behemoth.’”He pauses, realizing he’s gone to a pretty dark place. “But hey, I don’t really know how they feel. The important thing is they let us do what we want, and they don’t think they know the future. I don’t have anyone else to blame if this season sucks.”