What could be more quintessentially American than Community? Its creative explosion this season, all rapid-fire puns and meta-meta mind games, can’t hide the fact that it belongs in a long and honorable TV tradition: the Buncha Losers comedy, the most democratic and inclusive kind of sitcom there is. These are the comedies that don’t try to bludgeon you with plots or character development. They just show you a Buncha Losers hanging out, and invite you to join.
It goes without saying that Buncha Losers comedies speak to tough times. The massive unemployment of the Reagan years gave us Taxi, Cheers and the genre-defining Night Court, a show you could never admit to watching without making people feel sorry for you.
This article appears in the February 3, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and will appear in the online archive January 21.
If Night Court was the subterranean bad conscience of the Eighties recession, Community is the voice of our own brokedown moment. NBC has loaded its killer Thursday-night lineup with Buncha Losers comedies. The Office and 30 Rock are kicking ass, and Parks & Recreation is stronger than ever. But what sets these shows apart from Community is that they’re set in the workplace, which means their lovable misfits have common goals and problems. Not so on Community. These nitwits have nothing in common. Nobody achieves anything. Nobody learns anything either, even though it’s about college. Joel McHale, as the smarmy lawyer Jeff Winger, speaks for the group when he refuses to attend classes: “Jeff Winger never learns!”
Exactly. That’s why this is the first show ever to get college right. Everything looks unbelievably cheap and crummy. Has fluorescent light on TV ever looked so grim? There is no attempt at campus humor, no keggers or fraternity houses. Instead, the Greendale gang spends all its waking hours doing what most college students have always done with their time: aimlessly hanging out, waiting for the fun to start. Campus loafing has never been so accurately (or lovingly) depicted, as our heroes build their own imaginary world around dreadful puns and arcane in-jokes. My favorite moment is when obsessive-compulsive film student Abed says, “Black jeans? Nice try, Michael Penn!” You can’t even explain why that’s so funny without revealing what a loser you are.
The first season of Community stumbled a bit because the plotlines too often veered into realism, but that is not a problem anymore. Not when prize episodes concern a campuswide blanket fort, or a secret garden with a magic trampoline. Community takes off for entire episodes of goofy postmodern fantasy without a snag, from Abed’s animated Christmas special to Jeff and Annie’s investigation into the elaborate conspiracy behind the mysterious Professor Professorson. The more surreal it gets, the more this astounding cast shines — from Alison Brie (whom we all thought we knew as Trudy Campbell from Mad Men) to Chevy Chase (who knew he could adapt so deftly to a utility-man role?). And Joel McHale is a smirk virtuoso — he seems to have three times the normal human allotment of facial muscles, and he can smirk with every one of them.
There’s an entire episode, “Cooperative Calligraphy,” devoted to the seven characters looking for control-freak Annie’s lost pen. All the action takes place in the study room, where nobody is allowed to leave until Annie finds her pen — it’s like a parody of the already-classic Mad Men episode “The Suitcase,” where Don and Peggy interact in close quarters. In the old days, this would have been a they-all-get-stuck-in-an-elevator episode. But this one works because it’s all in their heads — everyone shares Annie’s insanity for a day. Nobody walks out, and nobody finds the pen. On some level, every episode works this way — these characters share a consensual hallucination where they all inhabit one another’s fantasy lives.
Buncha Losers comedy is one of those homegrown American art forms, up there with infomercials and Elvis-shaped soap carvings. No other civilization could have invented it. The French took a stab with Sartre’s No Exit, but then they had to ruin it with a lesson at the end. And if there’s any iron law to this, it’s that nobody ever learns. If they were capable, the first thing they would’ve figured out is how not to hang out with these losers. Tough times inspire deeply American TV. This country has a lot in common with Jeff Winger: We never learn, and we’re proud of it.