Dan Harmon, creator of Community, is standing on a stage asking people to please pay attention.
Yahoo has brought him to Austin to record a live episode of his podcast, Harmontown, which in turn will promote the unlikely sixth season of Community, which Yahoo funded and will premiere Tuesday. The underdog company has picked up the bar tab at the event space it rented, and the result is a constant murmur from the increasingly buzzed crowd. Harmon has fans here, but they have trouble focusing on what's in front of them, and as the night goes on, they stream out until only the hardcore faithful remain. It's the story of Community's first five seasons, played out in miniature over one night. Can we expect season six to be any different?
Surveying the room, which Yahoo has tastefully appointed with Community-themed decorations, Harmon is encouraged. Banners hanging overhead promote the Community College Dance that will follow Harmontown, at which a live band will play cover songs. "More money has been spent promoting Community in this room than in five years," he says. "And by that I mean two vinyl signs." It's all been a little surreal, he says. All this attention differs from his corporate parent, when he had become resigned to NBC's persistent neglect. "Yahoo has been a strange experience for anyone on this sad little show," he says. "A strange experience." His eyes brightened. "Yahoo's great."
It's been almost six years since an offbeat sitcom set at a community college premiered on NBC. With a pop culture obsessive like Harmon at the wheel, Community quickly evolved into a canvas for homage, parody, and satire — including frequent meta commentary on the sitcom format. As a result, it attracted the kind of TV-obsessed audience that's good at demanding shows stay on the air —particularly low-rated shows, which Community always was.
But it somehow limped along through three very good seasons before falling apart in the fourth. NBC fired Harmon for season four, but rehired him for five as it neared the magic number of 100 episodes that would allow it to be sold into syndication. But ratings continued to sink, and NBC finally pulled the plug last year. It was a crushing blow to the show's diehards, whose rallying cry for five years had been the half-joking "six seasons and a movie!"
Enter Yahoo, in search of fresh content to boost its nascent efforts in premium video. (The company's most significant move until now has either been hiring Katie Couric or licensing the Saturday Night Live back catalog.) Funding Community signals that Yahoo intends to enter the crowded space occupied by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and others. Unlike those companies, though, Yahoo will require no paid subscription: Community will be funded through advertising, including an extensive product-placement deal with Honda. ("We say Honda a lot," one of the show's stars, Joel McHale, would tell us the next day at a panel.)
I'm rooting for Community. I was one of those TV obsessives who thrilled to the show's deconstruction of the culture around it. A first-season episode about a paintball tournament sent up any number of action-movie clichés, another episode used Dungeons and Dragons to talk movingly about bullying. And in its best episode, "Remedial Chaos Theory," the show explores alternate realities over 22 hilarious minutes that will forever expand your idea of what a sitcom can be.
Unfortunately, as a promotion for Community, the live episode of Harmontown turns out to be terrible. Harmontown is one of those shambolic, off-the-top-of-our-heads type of celebrity-man podcasts where the entire show is about how terrible it is. Harmon is self-effacing, but never self-effacing enough, and his co-hosts can do little but watch as he free-associates for hours at a time. At one point, he freestyles a lengthy rap about (his words) "fucking your mom," and it's not even his worst musical performance of the evening.
The most #SXSW thing that happens comes when a 20-something slickster named Jordan claims to be a fan in order to be invited on stage. Only then does Jordan reveal that he's here to promote — yes! — his app, an Uber-for-liquor startup. Everything about his presentation is terrible: the unwelcome plug, the fact the app hasn't even launched yet, and Jordan's pathological smugness, which emerges every time he shrugs off the palpable disdain from the Harmontown crew. The crowd boos Jordan with a ferocity that is frankly inspiring. "This show has had a lot of villains," Harmon says, "but this guy takes the cake."
It wasn't until 90 minutes later, when the crowd had mostly turned on the podcast, that I began to miss Jordan. Harmon had grown increasingly resentful of the large segment of the audience that wouldn't stop talking over him, and he attempted to win it back ... by singing an improvised song about 9/11. The joke seemed to be that only terrible people would talk through a 9/11 memorial song, but it was hard to laugh as Harmon warbled "Towers stay up" and "I wanna 9 your 11" for five long minutes. A few people gave it a standing ovation, and as far as I can tell, it's fans like these who have somehow kept Community on the air.
It became theater as punishment, all but daring us to walk out
There were still three or four people in the crowd who Harmon hadn't yet alienated, so he and his co-hosts ended the podcast's second hour by playing the cyberpunk RPG Shadowrun. We watched (or didn't) as Harmon and his co-hosts shuffled through actual paperwork to discuss their characters' blade skills and other attributes. It stood in stark contrast to Community’s "D&D" episode, which explored the way role playing games can bring unlikely friends together. Harmontown's take on Shadowrun was theater as punishment, all but daring us to walk out.
Which is a shame, because the first two episodes of Community’s new season are pretty good. (Yahoo sent us screeners; read our full review here.) By this point in the show, the cast has seen some severe turnover: original core cast members Chevy Chase, Donald Glover, and Yvette Nicole Brown have all moved on; Jonathan Banks, who made zero impression as a grizzled criminology professor / Chevy Chase stand-in in season five, is gone as well. But enough of the core cast remain that it still feels like Community, a show you watch because in any given episode you never quite know where it will take you.
"Do you ever think, the show sucks now?" It was the next day, and Harmon was moderating a panel about the show starring his cast. If they thought it sucked, they weren't telling Harmon. "Why I fight for the show — and this is pretty arrogant of me — but it’s the greatest show on television," McHale replied. If there's a struggle this year, it's that Harmon no longer has NBC to blame for his show's shortcomings. "It's actually been horrible, because Chris and I are finally just in charge," he said, referring to his co-executive producer, Chris McKenna. "Everything we complained about for five years is finally solved. Now it’s just us — and we’re falling apart."
"Now it’s just us — and we’re falling apart."
If there was any doubt about that, Harmon then performed another one of his terrible raps, accompanied by a beatboxing Alison Brie. Asked for a season six preview, the cast suggested a potentially sexual relationship between Brie's character, Annie, and the uptight consultant played by newcomer Paget Brewster. A sexual relationship was also teased between McHale's (historically straight) character, Jeff Winger, and Dean Pelton. They were all probably joking, but who knows.
This being Community, there was already talk of the show continuing to exist far into the future, into seasons seven, eight, and nine, and maybe even that long-prophesied movie. "We don’t know," Harmon said. He added: "Yahoo seems down for just about anything. They have purple beer at their campus. Their name has an exclamation point in it. I don’t see why they would turn their nose up at the idea of a movie about a low-rated show. They seem to be very naïve. A lot can happen. I can’t comment on any of it."