Talkin' Shop: A Q&A With Community's Dan Harmon

by Ethan Alter September 6, 2011
Community Q&A With Dan Harmon

It's something of a cliché to say that comedy writers are serious about being funny. But like so many clichés, it's based in truth, particularly in the case of Community creator Dan Harmon. The 38-year-old writer has an in-depth knowledge of sitcom mechanics and can opine about story structure and the art of constructing innovative gags with impressive ease. In fact, a conversation with Harmon is a little taking a course at his fictional community college, Greendale... just with fewer wacky supporting characters. In a typically candid interview, Harmon spoke with us about which Season 2 episodes he's most (and least) satisfied with and whether the show will make it to its senior year.

TWoP: After a relatively contained first year, Community's universe noticeably expanded during Season 2. How did you lay the groundwork for that change?

Dan Harmon: There were certain precautions I took in the first season because I figured that would be a goal if we continued. For instance, I kept the camera on campus for all of the first season, which wasn't easy because a lot of times when you're breaking a story, it's too easy to write "That night at that person's apartment" or "In the car on the way to school." During the first season, I had to continually say to the writers that we could never go off campus, because that way in the second season, it'll feel like [The Simpsons'] Springfield is springing up. It'll feel like the show is blossoming outwards.

TWoP: How much input do the actors generally have on how their characters will grow and evolve?

Harmon: Believe it or not, the primary medium of exchange between the actors and the writers is the screen. There's always a writer on set while they're shooting, helping them with any of the jokes that they're executing. But in terms of character development, that comes from the writers sitting and watching the TV show as well as outtakes and dailies. That way, we see how Alison Brie is truly funny in her own way and we start to write towards that as opposed to some sort of preconceived notion of her being Reese Witherspoon's character from Election. And slowly but surely, it becomes more and more Alison Brie's style of being funny that dominates Annie's character. In the old days, before we were really busy shooting the first few episodes, there were conversations I'd have with the actors. If they're allergic to cheese, then their character is allergic to cheese; if they have a weird relationship with their mother than so does their character. But these days, even though they are our other half, we don't see each other -- we barely connect. The writers stay in this stinky room about 100 yards from the stages where they're shooting and the actors are sealed up in that hotbox doing their work. We communicate with each other through scripts and the final product. Fortunately there's this mutual love going on there where the actors consider themselves to be very lucky to be on a show with scripts like this and the writers are communicating that with these tools, these actors who can do so many things and who are so well loved by the audience.

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