'Community' Laughs in the Face of Big Changes

'We're not here to change the soul of the show,' say new showrunners

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Vivian Zink/NBC
Joel McHale as Jeff Winger, Jim Rash as Dean Pelton in 'Community'
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For fans of Community, it's been one dark timeline. The most brilliantly warped comedy of our era has never exactly racked up big ratings, despite its hardcore fan following. Dan Harmon, Community's madman auteur, got the axe last May. NBC scheduled the new season premiere for October, then abruptly put it on hiatus. And oh yeah – Chevy Chase quit.

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But at long last, Community returns to Thursday nights starting February 7th, with two new showrunners: veteran comedy writers/producers David Guarascio and Moses Port. The new guys understand why fans are nervous about the change, given that Community has always reflected Harmon's cracked sensibility. "Dan's not there and that's obviously a big loss for the show," Guarascio says. "But our goal is the same as the goal's been from the beginning – to keep making this brand of television and answer to our creative muses and no one else. We're not coming here to change the tone of the show or the attitude of the show or the soul of the show."

It's easily the most high-profile showrunner switch in TV history, if only because until a few years ago, nobody outside Hollywood knew or cared what a showrunner was. Any time The Simpsons or Seinfeld changed showrunners, fans never heard about it. "We're a little more from that school," Guarascio says with a wistful laugh. "We'd be fine if it went back to that – if we could anonymously do our work, tell our stories and let it all happen onscreen. But you know, things change."

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So who are the new guys? Guarascio and Port are a couple of jovial dudes with the rapport of longtime buddies who like to crack one another up – which makes sense, since they're old college friends who have been working together for 15 years. ("Work?" Port says in mock terror. "It's never felt like work.") Their first gigs were Nineties sitcoms like Mad About You and Just Shoot Me. In the past few years, they've created the CW's short-lived Aliens in America, consulted on Happy Endings and developed pilots that went nowhere. "We just shot a pilot for Fox called El Jefe that did not get picked up," Port says. "One day you're on Fox's schedule, then a day later you hear you're not. And then the day after that, they ask you if you wanna run Community. It's very strange."

As Guarascio explains, "The studio called and said, 'Hey, we have an unexpected question for you. Dan is leaving Community. Do you have any interest in coming and running it?' And we said, 'Why would you want Dan to leave Community? It's a horrible idea!'" But as longtime fans of the show, they warmed to the notion. "They said, 'We're not asking you to do anything differently.' Even though then they did try to ask us to do things differently the moment we got there – but that's just how the business works. That's just par for the course."

They exchanged emails with Harmon after the change – he was gracious and encouraging – and they have nothing but praise for him. "Those characters Dan created are magical," Guarascio says. "Abed no doubt will go down as one of the great TV characters of all time. And a lot of that is down to Danny Pudi. In another actor's hands, it could just have been zany, but that character is so soulful."

The new season promises twists for the Greendale study group: a new romance between Troy and Britta, Malcolm McDowell as the new history professor, James Brolin as Jeff's long-lost father, even an Inspector Spacetime convention. The season premiere looked ready to go in October, before the last-minute hiatus. How long was it stuck on NBC's back burner? There's a joke about Jessica Biel, but while the episode sat on the shelf, Jessica Biel had time to get married and change her name to Timberlake.

Fans reacted to the hiatus the way Abed reacts to Daylight Savings Time. Yet the schedule change meant a welcome return to Thursdays. "When they pushed us back from October, it was about airdates," Port says. "It's kind of business as usual, for this show. But it's a blessing in disguise not to be on Friday nights."

As for Community's future, there are still many possible timelines. Says Guarascio, "We don't know what's going on with the network, but we're bullish on a Season Five. We think they appreciate the show – I mean, they've kept it on. They have two pieces going away next year, The Office and 30 Rock, and hopefully that alone will play to our advantage. For numbers, the bar gets lower each year – the audience you need to stay alive. There's this core audience that loves the show, keeps coming back to it, maybe even can grow a little bit. But that core audience has to be our main priority."

Whatever happens next, it'll be without Chevy Chase, who finally stormed out after highly publicized feuds with pretty much everybody. (Though he appears in all but one of this season's episodes.) "It's sad, because he seemed to be firing on all cylinders, having a really good year creatively," Guarascio says. "But it's not such a surprise. We didn't even know if he'd be back for this season. It's been something that's been building over time, so we knew the end could come at any time." He snickers. "And I don't mean him keeling over."

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