Here’s a fun thought exercise. Imagine starting a new job with these caveats: The person who previously held your position is the one who invented the company’s product, underwhelming demand presented a continual threat against said product, the shareholders had fired your predecessor partly for just this reason, yet those who did demand the product were hypervocal in support of its inventor. It’s a situation that was not at all hypothetical for Moses Port and David Guarascio, the new showrunners of the NBC sitcom, Community.
After a long public struggle between the show’s very hands-on creator, Dan Harmon, and network brass, Harmon was unceremoniously cut loose last spring. The fate of the show was unknown. Quicker than you can say Inspector Spacetime, though, the powers that be chose two TV veterans, whose recent single-camera comedy had not been picked up for a series, to take over the reins on Community: Port and Guarascio.
The show, which enters its fourth season on February 7, is about the adventures of a group of varied misfits at an unusual community college called Greendale. The setting is apt, however, because the new principals had to learn very quickly how to handle the unusual task of filling a void left by the show’s creator, while contending with a wildly devoted fan base. Guarascio and Port spoke with Co.Create about the challenges of taking over someone else’s labor of love without losing your mind.
“We weren’t creating any artwork to give to the cast, but we were watching episodes,” Guarascio says about his and Port’s level of fandom before joining the show.
It no doubt helped their rapport with the cast and the writers that Port and Guarascio weren’t only familiar with the show from doing research, but from having already been fans themselves. Still, there was a world of difference between them and the show’s rabid fanbase, ever ready to storm the Internet with cries of “Six seasons and a movie!” when the show is threatened with cancellation. While Guarascio and Port were excited about joining a show they enjoyed, they understood, and respected, how the show had become so enjoyable in the first place.
“The truth is, we weren’t sure at first,” Port says. “Like a lot of people, we were big fans of the show. But like a lot of people, we also thought that it seemed tough to do without Dan and we just weren’t sure.”
Although the new showrunners were familiar with the material, after they accepted their positions, they decided to watch it again in a different way. They embarked on the extreme kind of marathon viewing sessions quickly becoming status quo for Generation Netflix with an eye toward internalizing the show’s pulsating rhythms.
“You go back and rewatch things and read them at the same time,” Port says. “You’re starting with a script first, and what you see on the page may seem different on the screen, and you’re sort of finding what those differences are, and what leads to what.”
Performing forensics taught the two all about where the show had already been and prepared them to plot the trajectory of where it should go. The third season ended with some finality–Ken Jeong’s Chang was far away, and star Joel McHale’s Jeff seemed as though perhaps he’d reached the end of his journey. Now, Guarascio and Port had to worry about writing themselves out of a corner. While they could learn a lot about where Harmon had intended Community to go from obsessively watching the show, they could learn even more from those who’d worked on it.
“Unlike working on a new show where you’re dictating the terms and saying what the characters are and what the backstory is, this was definitely a situation where you check your ego at the door,” Guarascio says.
For the first couple of weeks, he and Port did more listening than talking. They wanted to hear as much as they could from the people who’d been around for years and who knew the voice of the show. They strove to learn as much as they could about what the past few seasons had been like, what processes were in place, and how certain storylines were arrived at or avoided.
“It was an open door kind of thing,” Guarascio says. “There was a dialogue all year long. We were lucky to have that, and lucky that they were willing to help us.
When embarking on a new episode, a sitcom’s writing staff’s first task is to break the story. Before any jokes are cracked or any witty banter is exchanged, the assembled have to plot out all the beats of an episode, taking it from a rough idea to a detailed outline. One of the first things the new showrunners had to do upon arrival was break open the process of how this was done on Community.
“Dan had a very specific methodology that he used for breaking stories,” Port says. “He would put a circle on the greaseboard and call it a story circle. It’s sort of tracking a story through the circle, reading certain different points in story structure, like Crossing the Threshold and Meeting the Goddess.
“It’s [writer and mythologist] Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey,” Guarascio adds, “and I think it’s the first time I’d ever heard of it happening with a sitcom.”
Although a lot of Campbell’s ideas on storytelling are intuitive to any seasoned television writer, they provide a mechanism for creating story structure that can be helpful no matter the circumstances. It was Harmon’s intent to keep the show moving with this level of precision, and it was something his successors decided to work into their own process.
“Dan viewed every episode as a little mini-movie. Each one had that structure—even though we always had commercial breaks where you’re supposed to have commercial breaks,” Guarascino says. “We had six or seven returning writers, and we wanted to keep their storytelling intact. We didn’t want Community to change, and this was obviously one of the things that made Community Community.”
The decision to leave Community relatively unchanged was not obvious. On the one hand, there was the temptation to course-correct and figure out what could get more ratings. Ultimately, though, the duo worked to maintain the show’s fervent fanbase by delivering what they’d come to expect.
“We wanted to make sure that tonally the show was consistent,” Port says. “Every show changes. There’s something about making 22 episodes and then just erasing your brain for a few months. You come back and the show is different again. Season 1 is different from Season 2, which is different from Season 3. Season 4 would have been different, too. But we wanted to maintain that consistency and the voice of the characters.”
This continuity will extend beyond the tone of the show and the playful way Abed and Troy talk to each other (when they’re not fighting) and carry over into other hallmarks of the show. Some of the more celebrated returning motifs are the show’s self-referential commentary (Harmon was known to incorporate Community criticism into snippets of dialogue, the real life of the show and that of its characters mirroring each other) and frequent forays into theme episodes, such as the third season’s Law & Order fever dream.
“We usually think of the story first and what the characters are going through and sometimes you naturally say, ‘Oh, there’s this film that’s kind of playing into what we’re talking about that we can use to tell our story,'” Guarascio says. “The last thing we wanted, though, was to do a theme episode just to do it. We want it to be earned, because that’s one of the things the show did so well.”
While the new showrunners opted to work from the Dan Harmon playbook, they couldn’t help but deviate a little. One thing they did differently was mine the rich resource of the show’s actors, who know their characters as well as anybody involved, for ideas.
“We relied on the cast a lot to help us, and that was probably different than how it was before,” Port says. “We wanted their feedback. It could be as little as a line here and there to a story they have a question about. We wanted to know, ‘What’s feeling organic to you? What isn’t? Let’s talk about it if it isn’t.'”
Fans of the show frequently had opinions on what was and wasn’t working, and Harmon was known to interact with them about it online. This was a tradition that Guarascio and Port could not see themselves continuing. Some of their writers have sizable online presences and hoards of Twitter-followers, so the new bosses decided to let them be the conduit, rather than follow a precedent set by the show’s creator. Of course that wasn’t enough to stop one such fan from starting a fake Twitter account in their honor, confusing many.
As much as Guarascio and Port had going against them when they started—low ratings, an unenviable Friday nighttime slot, a vocally unhappy Chevy Chase (who has since announced that this will be his final season), high expectations—the two were dealt a final indignity last October. Mere days before the show was set to premiere, NBC announced it was putting Community on hiatus until February. It was a harsh blow to morale, but not without its bright side.
“It would have been nice to have the show on the air while we were making it. I think it would have relaxed everyone a little bit. Everyone’s a little nervous about how the show will be received because everyone cares about it deeply,” Port says. “On the bright side, we’re on a better night, and we’re coming at a time of year that maybe we’ll be a little extra appreciated.”
It’s this resilient attitude, the kind often displayed by Alison Brie’s plucky Annie on the show, that helps leaders keep their crews in good spirits in times of doubt.
“The absence of Dan is a huge thing for the show. If you change that ingredient, it’s going to be different,” Guarascio says. “That being said, there are so many other ingredients that are there to help make sure we still keep making Community episodes. They might not be Dan Harmon Community episodes, but we think they will still be Community episodes.”