Being a fan of Community can be a torturous experience: jerked around through all of the little-NBC-show-that-could’s almost-cancellations, eleventh-hour renewals, cast departures, creator departures, and constant state of instability. Try being one of the show’s stars.
For the past four years Gillian Jacobs has played Britta Perry, the opinionated foil to Joel McHale’s smarmy Jeff Winger in their study group of wayward adults at Greendale Community College. That means that Jacobs has weathered the show’s many vertigo-inducing highs and lows: debuting as a critical darling in 2009, producing genius episodes that rank among the best of post-2000 comedy, nearly being canceled four times, being renewed at the very last minute four times, losing show creator Dan Harmon, getting back show creator Dan Harmon, working alongside guest stars like Betty White, suffering through Chevy Chase’s public and controversial exit, and over 80 episodes of comedy in between it all.
An unusually turbulent run for a sitcom? Sure. But Jacobs wouldn’t change a thing.
Proving that there will in fact be three things still living after the nuclear holocaust—cockroaches, Cher, and, apparently, Community—the show returns Jan. 2 for its fifth season. It’s a fresh slate for the series. Titled “Repilot,” the premiere relaunches the series with a new narrative, so that anyone who’s ever heard “you really should start watching Community” can join in without feeling (too) lost.
Ahead of the premiere we called up Jacobs to celebrate the show’s fifth chance, preview the new season, analyze the Internet’s obsession with her feet, and talk about that one time she got some serious side-eye from the leader of the Dominican Communist Party.
Community, as much as so many people adore it, has had such a complicated run. What did you think when they brought up this idea of the “repilot” to you?
I thought it was brilliant! It’s such a good way to address everything that’s gone on with the show itself and deal with losses in the cast and changes that happened over the course of season five. And sort of reboot the show, almost. But it’s still really the same show. I think we’ve done some of our best episodes this year, so I’m excited for people to see it.
I really can’t think of any other show that has had a run like Community has had, with questions constantly looming over every season of whether it will be its last, let’s reboot it, and all of that. What’s it like being a part of such an unusual experience, as far as TV series’ runs go?
Well, you start off thinking you’re on a show just like everyone else on TV is on a show. And then at a certain point you realize that’s not the case. I think we all sort of, just like the characters at Greendale, developed an underdog mentality. I think people counted us out as a show so many of times like people count the characters out all the time. The show itself is always fighting for survival. So I feel like we have a similar attitude as the characters: we will fight to the death for the show. Reports of our demise are always exaggerated, because we’re still here!
Ha! Yes, you’re still here.
We’re still here! So many shows have come and gone since we premiered in 2009. A very long list of cancelled shows. So you truly never know. I think there’s a sort of satisfaction in defying people’s expectations. When people give you that pitying look of “aw, you’re show is canceled, huh?” and we get to be like, “Not yet!”
But has there ever been a time in all of these seasons of uncertainty that you thought this really was it? That the show was over and there was no hope of it coming back?
Not really. Maybe I’m just a naïve fool. There’s just something about this show. There’s a spirit to it that I don’t think has been ready to go. I know I’m part of a large corporate structure that doesn’t necessarily care about things like spirit, but I do feel like something really does keep pushing us forward, no matter how hard it gets. I’ve never given up hope entirely. I’ve gotten nervous. So nervous. But I never thought it was truly over.
You mentioned things getting hard. What was the hardest part of all this: the near-cancellations, Dan Harmon leaving, the Chevy Chase stuff? What’s been the hardest part? I swear we’ll talk about fun things next.
(Laughs) It’s OK! I think losing Dan was the hardest part. He’s the dad of the show. He created it. It’s his brain child, his heart, his soul, his spirit. So to lose that person was really difficult.
So on the flip side, what’s been the most surreal part of this wild run?
I think the fact that I’m on the TV show that I’m really proud of. And that it’s turned into something that’s not just a TV show for a lot of people. It actually has meaning for them, and they feel it makes their week better. They care about it enough to organize a fan art show and conventions for the show. That’s the amazing thing about it, when you meet the people who love the show so dearly and fought for its survival and have been so creative and original in expressing their love of the show.
What’s been the strangest experience you’ve had with a fan? I mean, they’re pretty passionate…
Someone got a tattoo of all of us in 8-bit form. Almost the entire length of his forearm is covered in a tattoo of all of us from the 8-bit episode.
Oh wow. What did you think when you saw that?
That he loves this show more than I do. I would not get that tattoo. I mean you can’t really understand, I guess. Obviously it means something to him; otherwise he wouldn’t brand himself with us forever. I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything that much.
If you were to get a tattoo of a show or piece of pop culture like this guy did with Community, what would you get?
I’m trying to think of something that’s already legitimate that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by in 30 years. Maybe Charlie Chaplin or something. I’m trying to think of something as classic as it gets.
Another reason I like this idea of the repilot is that it gives people who have heard over the years that they should be watching Community sort of permission to just tune-in late in its run because it’s starting on this fresh slate. Is there a series that you ever joined in several seasons in like this?
Hmm…gosh, I’m sure there has been one. I don’t know if I came to it that late, but I remember caving after being told, “You have to watch this show, 30 Rock.” I think it was still in its first season, but I didn’t start watching it right away. I just became obsessed and watched all the episodes I missed. That’s not that far in, but I felt like such a dummy for not watching.
There’s a monologue that Jeff has in “Repilot” where he’s sort of burning and roasting the rest of the study group. He tells Britta that she started as an anarchist and she’s become an airhead. Do you agree with that summation of her character arc?
I think that these people have all deviated from their original—well Britta never really had a plan. So she came up with a profession that she wanted to do. But I do think that you see in this season that she is not the graffiti-spraying, barn-burning anarchist that she wanted to be or used to be. But I think everybody’s image of themselves is always different from what they actually are. So the way Jeff saw himself maybe wasn’t all that accurate, either. Maybe he wasn’t the greatest lawyer in the world before he lost his license and had to go to Greendale. I think everyone’s slightly deluded about themselves, but as a whole I think these characters have grown so much from their time at Greendale.
A fun part of the first episode of the new season was hearing all the weird jobs that everyone has had since they graduated. What’s the weirdest one you had before you landed Community?
I never had a strange one. I was basically a nanny, but that wasn’t strange, really. I’ve had weird, weird acting jobs. Low-budget filmmaking where you find yourself in really bizarre places.
What was the weirdest one?
Oh gosh. So many. I shot a movie where they didn’t have money to have trailers so they rented the offices of the Dominican Communist Party in Manhattan, like on 160-something Street. So that was where we had hair and makeup and wardrobe and the production offices and everything. Despite the fact that we had paid them for a couple of weeks, none of the Communist guys left. They would still come in for work every day and sit around. The whole place was purple and gold, because that’s their colors, I guess? They put me in the party leader’s office, and it was really weird.
At least you got the big party leader’s office, right?
Well, then—apparently they hadn’t OK’d that with him. So he found out about it and was upset and had them tear down the wall between his office and the conference room, which was not very big. So I came in after we had a day off and it was just one big, long room. I was on one end and the rest of the guys were on the other end sitting on a dining room table and staring at me. So in the end I didn’t really have his office...
I’m sure it’s not the most comforting thing in the world to know that you had annoyed the leader of a Communist party.
I know. It was a little unsettling. The whole thing. But we got through OK.
Before I let you go I have to bring up one weird thing that comes up when I research you. When I Google your name…
The first thing that comes up…
Yes! What is that?
You know, people are into actresses’ feet. It’s not just me. There’s a lot of actresses that you just type in their name and feet comes up. I don’t know what it is, but yeah. I knew what you were gonna say. Yeah, feet! There’s websites that are just women’s feet.
Do you think yours are particularly nice?
No! (Laughs) I’m glad they’re good enough that someone’s interested in them. I’d rather than that the alternative. Better than “hideous feet.”