Q&A'Community' show runners don't expect fans to call them 'daddy'
By Yvonne Villareal, Los Angeles Times
Moses Port and David Guarascio are a few hundred feet away from the "Community" sound stage at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles on a recent morning. With production starting later in the afternoon, they have managed to find time to ponder something other than the Greendale Community College universe.
Will they be carving pumpkins this year as Halloween approaches?
It's hard to say. The duo have a bigger beast to carve. Following the exit of "Community" creator Dan Harmon as the comedy's show runner, Port and Guarascio were enlisted as the show's new co-show-runners and executive producers.
The pair, who previously served as executive producers on "Just Shoot Me" and the short-lived "Aliens in America," most recently served as consulting producers on ABC's"Happy Endings."
Show Tracker spoke to Port and Guarascio late last week about taking the helm of the show. And we kind of wished we could have foreshadowed what was to come: The series was poised to return Oct. 19 on a new night -- but as of Monday, that start date has been delayed, with no firm alternative in place. Though we were unable to get their thoughts on the delay, Port and Guarascio did elaborate on the daunting task they are faced with, fan perception and Dean Pelton on a chariot (?!).If you could give me an analogy of what it’s like coming into all of this, what would it be?
I think when Sony first approached us about coming to take this job, we were really reluctant, actually, because we are huge fans of the show. And it was just sort of a daunting idea. I think once we sort of thought about it and looked at the show as this unbelievable magic garden where all the seeds have been planted and nurtured over the last three years and there are all these people here who have helped take care — from returning writers and the cast and executive producers and directors, all of that stuff — it was like, you know what, it might be fun to come in and help take care of this garden because as a comedy writer you just don’t get to do shows like this. It’s so rare where you get to break all these different rules of what is comedy storytelling. And we sort of realized we might not have another chance like this so let’s do it. So … the magic garden — there’s your analogy. I also have a sandbox analogy. Or a magic sandbox analogy.Moses Port:
We should look into changing our business cards so that our titles are listed as “Magic Gardeners.” We’re not EPs, we’re Magic Gardeners.From the time it was announced you guys would be running the show to the writing of the first episode, are you guys just pulling all-nighters studying each episode or hoping for osmosis?
We’d seen episodes before, but then it’s like you start to watch it with a different eye. We watched every episode, like, two or three times.DG:
And we thought, holy … this is complicated. It was a re-immersion with the show, looking at it from a new perspective and, also, I think our first thing was letting the cast know, letting the returning writers know, letting the returning production staff know that we were leaning on them first and foremost. We have no interest in changing the tone of the show, the sensibility of the show or taking it in a new direction. We wanted to continue to grow and evolve the way any show would from being on the air year to year. It was just about letting people know that, “Hey, we are not here to make this anything other than the ‘Community’ you have known and grown to love in the past three years. Help us keep doing that.’ Certainly when you create your own thing, you know what you've envisioned. This is different so we had to approach it differently. It was a lot of listening. A lot of listening to what everyone who's worked on the show thought about it — particularly the writers. How they came up with certain stories, what stories they didn’t do and why, why they made choices here and there. It was a lot of leaning back and taking in and absorbing as much as possible.MP:
Even the method by which they break the stories, we’ve tried to keep all of it the same.In re-watching it and looking at it from a different perspective, what went through your heads? This show has a very unique sensibility and so many people watch it closely — they watch it two or three times for fun, not work like you.
I think the intimidating part was how ambitious this show is. But all of that reinforced the idea of how – normally, you aren’t required to do this job and think about it the way this show thinks about itself. And, so, that seemed like fun. That seemed challenging.
On this show, when we met new writers, they’d be like, "I love this show. It’s my favorite thing on television. Please hire me." It’s just nice. This show has had a lot of turnover on the writing staff and brought in a lot of fresh blood of people who love what it’s been doing — which is so important to how it’s been able to grow from year to year. There’s that first moment when we were thinking of the first episode, talking about it for a couple of days and stumbling on how we wanted to approach it and the like-mindedness in the room — there was like electricity in the air. The very ambitious show that we had been watching and re-watching, it’s like we realized, "Hey, it can be done!" We could do it. There is something that is distinctively a "Community" episode that we could all work together to create.Talk about what we’re going to see from the first episode. There’s some acknowledgment of the passing of the baton, yes?
This show has done such a great job in that meta way of being aware of itself and what’s going on in the outside world. Season 4 for us is about change and it fits in very organically to what it means to be in college for four years — you’re such in a bubble when you’re in the middle of college, and not everyone is on the four-year plan. Some people are working and taking fewer classes, some people are like Jeff Winger [Joel McHale] and trying to get out of there as fast as they can. But there is something about that senior year when you feel that that little bubble is changing and there’s nothing you can do about it. The characters are going through that and, at the same time, it helps us talk about the larger change that was going on with the show and what that means and the way those things are sort of inevitable to some degree and the way they could be scary when it’s something that you care about. But also the way it doesn’t have to spell "The End" either.You guys aren't on Twitter, but this show has a very ardent and vocal fan base so you're undoubtedly familiar with their concerns — what’s your reaction?
What we have is a lot of people already on the show who have a great dialogue with the fans and I think we just sort of felt to try and step in and start doing that without having earned it yet just felt weird, to be honest with you.MP:
There’s also a part of this job that you just kind of have to tune out and just get down to the business of working on the show. There’s a lot of voices out there saying a lot of things and if you listen to it all, it can become overwhelming. We have producers on the show who have a direct dialogue with fans and that’s continued. In terms of our job, we’re just sticking to the business of making stories.DG:
And we are very much invested in letting the people who really love the show — because they are the reason the show is back for a fourth year — of letting them know that all the goals are the same and I think the cast and the returning writers are just a much better voice for expressing the opinion than we would be because fans might be like, "Why would I trust you two? You just got there!" The writers who have been deeply invested and are very protective of the show and the cast is very protective of the show and their characters — it’s just a more honest source. You can’t say we’re making Dan Harmon episodes — Dan isn’t here. But you can say we’re still making “Community” episodes. It’s a huge loss for the show not to have Dan, yes. But the good news is that there are a lot of people whose passion and creativity have been informing what the show is over the last few years and a lot of them are still here, particularly the cast.MP:
It’s a little like being stepfathers. We’re not asking the fans to call us "daddy" right now. But we’re going to be as loving and protective as we can so the family can continue.Has there been any communication with Dan Harmon?
We emailed back and forth just a little bit at the very beginning when it happened. It was really just a gracious, "Look, we hope we do right by you." And he very graciously said something to the effect that he’s rooting for us and wished us luck. I think for him the easiest thing was to just sort of step back from the blackjack table. What you have is just so much public information on what’s gone on over the years at our disposal and there’s a lot of people involved with the show that have been as close as you can be to Dan’s brain without being Dan — so that’s been really the most important part of the transition creatively.MP:
I mean, look, Dan won’t be taking a pass at these episodes. They won’t be Dan Harmon episodes.DG:
In some ways, you almost don’t give Dan enough credit if you think it’s just like switching a lightswitch off. He’s done so much work to get the show to where it is to think that it could die that quickly.The show lost its creator. It’s moving to Fridays. It’s a show that’s been on the bubble year after year. Coming into this, do you almost feel like you’re the captains of a sinking ship?
I don’t feel like we’re captains of a sinking ship, although we’re very aware of all the factors that you’ve mentioned. You never know what’s going to happen. If this is the end, we’re going out lighting the ship on fire as we go down because that’s the way we do things here. At the same time, the real lesson is somehow this show manages to always come back because there’s just enough people who watch in the traditional way. The amount of people who watch on their DVR and their computer is very important to us. And maybe this is just something I’m telling myself to sleep at night. We just don’t think it’s going to be the end. But if it is, we want to send the show off the way it deserves. There is no morbidity about it.MP:
There’s no doubt the show has always been ratings-challenged. I think we just looked at it as, "Wow, it’s a chance to make 13 episodes of the show." Just to do that, honestly, is cool. The idea that we get to write for these characters and tell these stories — if it’s 13, if it’s four, if it’s six — I think it was just exciting to get to do that for a period of time, however long that may be.And the conversations with Sony [which produces the show] and NBC about what they expected from you?
Um, well, when they first said Dan Harmon wasn’t coming back, we were like, "Um, are you sure you want to do that?" The conversations have been sort of minimal in the sense that there is something about the show — Dan has sort of tunneled through the mountain. We do the show the way it’s done here. We just sort of said to them that if we’re doing this, we’re going into it wanting to do the show that’s been on the air for three years. We’re not coming in trying to turn it into anything it’s not. That would be a bad business decision if that’s what they wanted. And it would also be a bummer to turn this show into something it isn’t — although, we know that expectation is out there. And we may be playing with that idea slightly in our first episode.
We had a couple of creative conversations early where we were pitching them some episodes and they were like, "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! This sounds like a lot like the weird show we used to do" and we were like, "Yeah, that’s the show we’re still doing." We butt heads a little bit, but that’s just part of the process. Ultimately, we got to a place where they understood where we were coming from and so we’re going to get to keep doing the show in the same tone that it’s always had.MP:
Yeah, I mean, I don’t think anyone was of the opinion of, "OK, now it’s going to be a top 10 show." I think, in truth, when Dan was gone and we were hired on, there was a moment of, "Ok, what can the show be?" And I think everyone has kind of come around to the point of, look, the most important thing is this group of rabid fans that have kept this show afloat, it needs to speak to them first and foremost. Hopefully, other people will come along, maybe we’ll get some more promotion and more people will enjoy it. But it still has to be the show that had all these fans feverishly excited every time a new episode aired.And what about the cast?
I think they had their own anxieties, understandably so. Every actor, ultimately, is the one who is out there, is the one being judged. We told them we’d be relying on them more than they’re probably used to — if a scene isn’t feeling right for your character, tell us. If this story line doesn’t fit with the tone of the show, tell us. We may not agree every time, but we’re going to a lot.Have you found already that there have been many instances where they feel something doesn’t fit their character or the tone of the show?
Yes, actually. And it’s been an important part of the process. And that’s another way the show has changed where, I mean, we weren’t here, but I think Dan had a way of where he knew what it was or what he wanted exactly and we can’t pretend to do that because we didn’t create it and we haven’t been running it for the last three years. So there is a collective mind to it a little more than there has been before. I think it’s allowing us to take those characters to some new places because of how they’ve given their characters life over the last few years.MP:
But at some point you have to make the switch from, "What would Dan do?" to "Well, what do we want it to be?"How much does pleasing the fans affect that decision-making?
I think there is a small segment of fandom for the show that is like, "This show is dead to me now. It just can’t possibly be the same." We’re not going to win over that segment of the population. But by and large most people love the show and want it to work and they’re rooting for it. MP: That first group of people, Dan could literally ghost write every episode and they would still be like, “I hate it.”Tease a little of what we’re going to be seeing this season. We’re getting a look at Pierce’s mansion …
For Halloween, we’re going to be in Pierce’s mansion. In sort of staying on the theme of change and things evolving, some relationships will take a new turn romantically and that has a ripple effect on the group. The notion that you actually have to start thinking of what’s going to happen when this college experience is done — what it’s going to mean for each person personally. And what is it going to mean for the group. That is the most important thing to us — how will they grow if they don’t have a Spanish class to study for around that study room table.
Something that has been threaded through in the previous two seasons is Jeff’s relationship with his dad and so he’s going to find him and meet him — when that’s been such a big part of your psyche for 30 years, what are you like after that? So there’s a lot of built up things where we could sort of naturally define the evolution of these characters.Is there a scene or moment of the new season that stands out and that you think fans will find particularly in keeping with the show's personality?
There’s a moment in the first episode where Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) comes out on the chariot pulled by two buff men dressed as unicorns. That was really a moment where I turned to someone and was like, "Only here. Only here." That was a moment where I got a "Community" boner.MP:
There’s a great moment in "Inspector Spacetime Convention" where you actually get to see the American version and it’s pretty awesome. It’s worth it.Are you guys excited or nervous that fans will soon finally watch the first episode that was under your care?
Both. I’m excited because I think these episodes are coming out great. I think a lot of people will be happy. And nervous because some people won't be. It’s inevitable. You have to put your head in the sand about certain things. If you listen to all the chatter, you’ll never get out of bed in the morning.MP:
Yes, we're looking forward to getting over that hump.http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-new-community-show-runners-dan-harmon-20121008,0,6853897.story