Panel Report: Community and Metafiction

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us.

Chronologically, this was the first panel we did upon arriving at Connecticon – but at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday night when we were competing with the con’s annual striptease, we were lucky to fill as much of the room as we did. All the same, the fans were fantastic conversationalists (and it should really speak volumes about the Connecticon diversity when 3/4 a room wanted to talk about Community and metafiction over seeing a striptease).

We started out by defining metafiction: namely, that it is any work that acknowledges its own fictionalism. And while Community never outright breaks the 4th wall, there are many moments where light jabs are made to acknowledge the possibility. For example, the first episode has Abed compare the cast to the breakfast club, and in “Cooperative Calligraphy” he refers to the actions of the other characters as a bottle episode. 

Community uses metafiction pretty heavily, some ways like other shows and some ways like nothing else on television. Many of the metafiction references utilize a sense of humor that rewards tv nerds, the same way continuity jokes can reward loyal fans of a show. There’s a sense of surreal humor that comes when movie and television tropes are applied to mundane activities  like making pillow and blanket forts, playing Dungeons and Dragons, or beating the class billiards instructor — something action packed. The tropes emulate times when the stakes were high, but the action itself and the actual consequences are all pretty low stakes. Humor arrives from both sides; we laugh at non-serious moments being taken so seriously, while also attributing that high stakes mentality vicariously to our own activities of similar nature. Audience members chimed in here, noting that they think of the show when making forts now or other activities that occurred on the show (one guy in particular mentioned he actually goes to a community college, leading to this train of thought frequently). 

But unlike other shows, Community also has a way of using metafiction in serious tones. Scenes like when Abed referenced Hawkeye to pep talk Jeff come to mind – Abed in particular is good at relating other characters to fiction to get them where they need to be. 

As we mentioned this, conversation started to revolve around Abed for a while, partially because he redefines relatability through his metafiction ways. The same way most characters are relatable for quirks, like Jeff’s ego, Britta’s pontificating, or Pierce’s old man racism, Abed is also relatable — but we relate to him as consumers, not as people of a certain quirk. Abed’s frequent references to television are something we understand, having seen these shows. Not only that, but Abed relates to the rest of the world through television the same way we relate to him; his understanding of what to do in a given situation is largely influenced by television. For example, he proved he could pick up girls when the group suspected otherwise, but only because he was able to successfully imitate Don Draper. Through imitating other things he has watched, he is also able to run a chicken nugget mafia, help save his school with paintball, and operate a space simulator simulator, among other talents. Not only that, but the insight he brings to the group in hard times occasionally rivals Jeff’s “Winger takes it home” speeches that end many episodes. Despite the fact that Jeff runs on street smarts and smooth talking, Abed is able to quote movies and reference shows and still often prove to be just as insightful and relevant. 

And Abed, much like Community itself, is less concerned with reaching all of the possible audience as much as he is concerned with reaching choice targets who will understand or need to understand what he’s trying to say. “Introduction to Film” and “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” both come to mind here, as well as the end of “Filmmaking Redux.” One of the ACP members, Jonah, commented here on how Dan Harmon frequently got into arguments with the network about whether or not the show should be a generic, safe, selling sitcom. The show isn’t meant to be safe, though. 

All in all, the Community panel went pretty well, largely thanks to, well, the community. Thanks to everyone who participated through listening or contributing comments! 

Is there anything else we forgot to add? Say so in the comments! 

Community: When is a sequel not a sequel, when is a parody not a parody, when is a war not a war?

So I finally watched Community.

And before I get all analytical, to all of you who have had annoying friends insisting that you watch Community before it’s too late, do that.

I don’t think the show has the consistent brilliance of, say, an Arrested Development. But when it’s on, boy is it on. Episodes like “Remedial Chaos Theory”, “Modern Warfare”, and “Paradigms of Human Memory” are some of the best TV episodes I’ve seen, ever. They literally give me new hope for the medium, as a lens that looks at itself.

The genesis of this blog was the belief that pop culture genres like television are, and have been for some time, coming into their own as literary media. Reflexiveness and self-referential parody, the meta, if you will, is somewhat of a rite of passage in a genre’s evolution from entertainment to literature, and Community is impressively daring in its forays into meta-humor. Last year, Chalkey wrote about how the show uses parody as a device, but there’s a lot more to be said.

Community‘s many parodies, homages, or send ups, depending on how you want to think of them, work for a lot of reasons when they could very easily fall flat or come across as gimmicky. They work because they are built on a solid foundation of character which is built up in the non-gimmick episodes. They work because of the terrifying level of obsession with which the creative team throws itself into the parody. They work because they fit into and enhance the structure of the show and the ongoing plot arcs.

But most of all, they work because Community is set at a third-rate community college. Greendale itself, with the Dean as its human avatar, is the key to making Community‘s parodies work, because it is so thoroughly unremarkable. Television and movies, the mainstays of Community‘s parody targets, are inherently epic in scale, and every successful Community parody juxtaposes that epicness with stakes that are actually, ultimately, incredibly low. (The exception here is the zombie episode, but even then nobody died.)

Last week’s two-part episode was, in many ways, a sequel to last season’s “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” my favorite episode of the series so far. “Conspiracy Theories” didn’t have redone opening credits or a big change in the shooting aesthetic like “Modern Warfare” or “Pillows and Blankets,” last week’s Ken Burns send-up, so it’s easy to think of it as a “regular” episode. But it really is a parody, and the target is conspiracy movies.

Jeff has created a fake class, Conspiracy Theories, with a fake professor named Professor Professorson. The Dean catches on and Jeff leads him to an empty supply closet, hoping to convince the Dean that the reason he can’t find the Professor is because he’s in the midst of an object lesson about conspiracy theories. Instead, he encounters the made-up prof, and he and Annie begin to unravel a conspiracy that shakes the very foundations of … Greendale’s night school.

The lowest stakes possible. But the show plays them up with a straight face, even when the characters don’t. Jeff gets a mysterious phone call and Annie’s tiny Hot Wheel’s car gets sabotaged. It sparks slightly as Jeff dives into Annie, knocking her to the ground.

In a seemingly unrelated plotline, Troy and Abed build a blanket fort. But the payoff is the moment when the two plots intersect, and the conspiracy parody’s signature chase scene takes our heroes through the seemingly endless fort.

“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” was a brilliant episode, but the two-part sequel (consisting of “Digital Exploration of Interior Design” and “Pillows and Blankets”) took it to the next level. It might not seem like a sequel. Professor Professorson (actually Professor Garrity) does not make an appearance, and the main plot of “Conspiracy Theories” is not revived. Instead, Troy and Abed, and their bigger, better blanket fort, take center stage.

But the show’s writers connect the shows in our minds, first with the blanket fort and then with the use of “Interior Design” in the two of the episode titles, and when we look at the shows as a pair (or a trio) we start to see a lot of connections.

Thematically, we have another conspiracy theory, though one that’s unnoticed by the characters: Vice Dean Laybourne’s shadowy behind-the-scenes meddling orchestrates the whole war, Darth Sidious-style, a plot point that’s left curiously unconcluded.

All three episodes have a Troy and Abed story and a Jeff and Annie story. The first episode’s Troy and Abed story is really simple: it’s a celebration of their friendship and it’s amazing potential to create worlds and reshape the world they live in, turning Greendale into a blanket city, complete with a Latvian Independence Parade. A year later, the sequel invites us to compare Troy and Abed now to Troy and Abed then, to look closely at the changes in their relationship and the rift that’s grown between us. The imaginative world created by their friendship returns, but now it’s a place of violence and strife. The mounting tension in their relationship becomes an all-out war.

The decision to do the second half of the two-parter as a parody of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, then, is not a random choice or a gimmick. Here we have the war that pitted brother against brother, that nearly tore a nation apart but ultimately made it stronger, evoked, hilariously, but poignantly, as a symbol for Troy and Abed’s relationship. The Civil War was the violent growing pain of a new nation, Troy and Abed’s civil war is the violent growing pain of a new friendship. But again, the humor in this plotline that could be serious comes from the extreme harmlessness of pillows and blankets. Again, the lowest stakes ever physically, but the highest stakes emotionally.

Jeff and Annie’s plot in the first episode is, at its heart, about friends teaching each other lessons. In the hilarious final scene, we find that Annie and the Dean are trying to teach Jeff a lesson, and Jeff is trying to teach the Dean a lesson (about lessons) and Annie a lesson (about not trying to change her friends). The shaky conclusion is that everyone decides to accept each other the way they are.

But again, a year later we’re invited to look at the way the relationship has evolved in the meantime. Jeff and Annie’s relationship has often been about age and about lessons – Annie looks to Jeff as a model of maturity as she grows up, while Jeff looks to Annie as a model for being the better person he’s trying to become. Despite the conclusion, the two have never stopped trying to teach each other – and trying to learn from one another.

In the Kim subplot of “Digital Exploration,” Annie tries to teach Jeff a lesson about seeing people, but when it doesn’t turn out the way she wants, she gets upset, leading Jeff to teach her a lesson about maturity. In “Pillows and Blankets,” Annie’s sweetness and goodness and moral high ground is highlighted by her role as battlefield nurse. Meanwhile Jeff’s role as undiscriminating rabble rouser takes him back to his Winger worst – using other people and their problems as a means to accomplishing his own ends. So it takes Annie to bring Jeff into the fight, or rather, to get Jeff to use his rhetorical talents for good instead of evil.

But the maturity arc is at play here, too – Annie is joining the game, in an almost laughably irrelevant role, a nurse in a war with no real injuries, while Jeff is, in some sense, being the grown-up and rising above it. The conclusion here is especially interesting in that light. When Jeff goes to retrieve the magical friendship hats, he’s participating in the childish make-believe more fully than he ever has before. Annie appears to have done all the teaching here, with Jeff realizing that sometimes the grown-up thing to do is to act like a little kid, rather than just turning up his nose at a “childish” problem and refusing to engage with it.

When all is said and done, the status quo has returned, but all of the relationships have advanced in meaningful ways. Troy and Abed’s rift isn’t erased, but now that it’s been aired and somewhat addressed we’re likely to see them work through their issues more constructively. Jeff and Annie have taken one more step in their journey of understanding themselves better by learning to think more like each other.

A great parody, one of the best yet, has been executed, but that is a small side benefit to the real and symbolic character stories that have been told.

Community is Love, Zombies and All

Community is love.

Or rather, it’s a show about love, just not the romantic kind. Sure, Joel McHale’s protagonist, the vain disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger, but the real love story is the bond the characters create within a study group at, it may be assumed, one of the worst community colleges in the country.

This sugary sweet message, of course, is expertly covered by self-aware, smart humor and cruel jibes at the main flaws of the characters. It’s that same gentle heart, however, that carries Community through one of its best and bravest episodes, the 2010, “Epidemiology,” in which the slice-of-life sitcom becomes a sincere supernatural horror show.

I say “sincere” because there’s no genre ambiguity. Community‘s zombie episode does not end with “it was all a dream.” A virus that creates zombie-like symptoms in its victims–unbridaled rage, slurred speech, a taste for flesh–exists within this otherwise normal world. What makes it all work is the emotional report between the characters, specifically Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi).

The hetero-life mates of the group, Troy, former high school athletic star, and Abed, socially disinterested nerd, are the unlikely best friends that have emerged from the show. Their bond is the kind Community is built to explore: disparate strangers drawn together and finding common ground despite the odds.

In “Epidemiology,” just as the “taco meat” of the Halloween party begins to show its adverse effects, Troy’s hurt pride at now being seen as a “nerd” for hanging out with Abed takes center stage. Their Alien-themed dual costume shot down by the girls at the party, Troy struggles to distance himself from the brotherly connection he’s formed with Abed.

Everyone else also struggles to distance themselves. From the zombies with which they’ve been quarantined.

As both hijinks and the horrors ensue, seen as the characters watch their friends turn into brain-numbed monsters, the core group is picked off one by one until only Troy and Abed are left. Abed diligently helps Troy escape through an open window, away from the zombie horde, sacrificing himself for the safety of his friend.

“I love you,” says Troy. Donald Glover doesn’t play the line for laughs as he watches the creatures descend on the pal he dismissed earlier.

“I know,” says Abed in Pudi’s patented deadpan.

The exchange is, of course, a reference to the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), before Leia watches Han Solo become frozen in carbonite. It’s also one of the most emotionally honest moments of the entire series.

The characters aren’t just sharing a joke with each other, they’re sharing a joke with each other while their established sitcom world crumbles around them.

Community is about forging the sort of friendship that strengthens you against the outside world, from making labels like “nerd” immaterial to carrying one through life-or-death emergencies. Troy and Abed’s bond symbolizes the fraternity that the show wants its core members to achieve: a friendship so strong, it can even outlast Apocalyptic, genre bending zombies.

Of course things aren’t really Apocalyptic. Troy comes back to save the day, accepts he’s both a nerd and a friend to these people, and is nearly killed in the process of saving everyone else’s life. While the “it was all a dream” trope isn’t rolled out, the characters are conveniently induced with amnesia to forget the incident.

It’s an easy ending but it’s pulled off well because we know the zombies weren’t there just for the sake of a Halloween special. They were there in order to cut to the very core of the show, giving the characters the most dire of situations so that we can see the honest affection they have for each other underneath.

Why Community Makes Fun Of Its Sitcom Community

“Modern Warfare” parodied movies such as Rambo,
The Matrix, Battle Royale and Die Hard

Community is set to air its third season next week. Although many fans consider the show to have jumped the shark with “Modern Warfare,” a season one episode, the show presses onwards, hopefully resolving the remote cliffhanger of the season two finale. But in spite of fans saying the show downhill from here (and even Abed making t-shirts referring to “Modern Warfare” with “It’s all downhill from here” written on the back), the show has many good techniques that have led to its success thus far. The most common tactics, as the fans can testify, are parodies and satirical jabs at other sitcom tropes.

Any fan will have a few examples of parodies come to mind when they think of Community. The bottle episode, “Cooperative Calligraphy,” specifically has Abed talk about the problems of a bottle episode (A bottle episode, for those unaware, contains the entire episode on one room, usually for budgeting purposes). “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” mocks the mocumentary style of sitcoms like The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. “Paradigms of Human Memory” even parodies the classic clip-show tactic most shows use to milk the series and stall with a low-budget appeal episode.
New footage was shot for the clip-show parody episode.

In some ways, it seems like this tactic is just for the comedic joy that comes with self-awareness. The fans laugh because there’s a joke that they would get more than fans of other shows; they’ve seen these tropes time and time again in sitcoms, and they

now feel as if they’re not alone in seeing the tropes become trite. In many episodes, Community implicitly puts itself above the shows it makes fun of by acknowledging the overdone conventions. Like most satire, the show is spared of the label “cliche” because of the subtle of superiority; in one jab, the show says, “I know this is a trope, and I’m making fun of it because it’s a trope. I’m not using this seriously.”

But there’s more to shows like Community using tropes in jest than just comedic value; when overdone, the satirical aspect becomes a necessity to pull of the same trope again. The fan’s willing suspension of disbelief — that is, their willingness to go along with seemingly unbelievable premises — is compromised the more a trope is used; it becomes more apparent to the fan that the show is actually a show, as evident by its show-like characteristics. But the lampshade effect of calling attention to the show’s trope usage takes away the ability of the critics — and more importantly, the audience — to do the same thing. This temporarily prevents the audience from saying “This is a show trope. It’s unrealistic.” Not only that, but when the cast members acknowledge that the current events are unrealistic, it makes the audience’s frustration relatable. In this way, the audience goes along with it, just like the cast members do. They accept that it isn’t believable, but that it is still happening.

The season finale parodied both western movies and Star Wars.

So in this way, making fun of the conventions of sitcoms is both a comedic tactic as well as a tactic for making absurd moments more realistic. Using this, Community has made many episodes and survived long past “Modern Warefare”‘s suspected shark-jumping. Because of the show’s ability to adapt as such, I speculate it will be around for a good while.