Josh Wolk's Pop Culture Club talks 'Community': What if a hilarious sitcom gets less funny, but is still funnier than most sitcoms?

Joel-McHale_lThis week’s assignment was the new NBC comedy, Community. A comedy, I might add, that was my top pick for new shows this season. I loved the pilot and watched it a few times: it felt like a little movie to me, but one that – oh lucky day! – would go on and on every week. I loved Joel McHale’s smarmy persona, and thought it was the perfect 21st-century reincarnation of the ‘80s Bill Murray archetype. With the strong supporting characters (Human robot Abed, giggly Shirley, and Chevy Chase’s obliviously un-PC Pierce) and a tight, bouncy script, the pilot was 22 minutes of sitcom perfection. Each week, however, the quality has dipped a little more. So here’s my philosophical question for the ages: If a show is not living up to its potential, but is still funnier than 85% of the other comedies out there, is it a failure or a success?

Last Thursday’s episode, about Jeff and Shirley’s bonding, Britta dating a wannabe hippie, and Annie’s psychology experiment, was a mess. Everybody was too amped up, with not enough payoff: Take the ubiquitous Ken Jeong’s Senor Chang, pressing his face up against Annie’s and kissing her forehead. This is a sign of a director who says “Just go crazy!” to his actors but shouldn’t have. (Jeong’s Chang has been an unrestrained problem since episode 2, when he did a freakout worthy of – and probably an homage to – Sam Kinison’s unbalanced Vietnam vet in Back to School. This made Jeong’s naked crime lord in The Hangover look restrained.)

In a show like this, it’s a fine line between manically funny and oh, come on. For example, I loved John Michael Higgins’ Dead Poets Society-esque teacher in episode 3. It was exaggerated, yes, but also a spot-on parody not only of the Robin Williams movie, but also of overly “passionate” professors who want to make you feel. He made sense in this world. But having Señor Chang (and John Oliver’s Duncan, for that matter) jump up and down like a petulant cartoon character was too much: all these two needed were six-shooters and they could form a Yosemite Sam tribute band. Same thing with Troy, who threw a foolishly overwrought freak-out at the end of the psychology experiment. Whatever happened to the simple effectiveness of the slow burn? This isn’t good writing, it’s just mania, the physical-comedy equivalent of a comedian who yells “F—!” in place of a punchline. Or of Dane Cook.

But when the actors actually deliver lines, as opposed to seizures, they can be really funny. Like in episode 3, when Britta saw Jeff wearing rainbow suspenders and told him, “You look like an ‘80s rapist.” That’s just a damn good joke. And Chevy Chase has been spot-on, rarely slipping into self-conscious Chevy-isms. He drops his tiny obliviously racist remarks, while being satisfied to toss little bits of physical shtick into the background, such as his recent hapless bout with a slice of pizza. (Granted, staying in the background might not be his choice, but I’m feeling big-hearted today and giving him credit.)

I have other concerns: I worry about the dominance of the Britta/Jeff flirtation. Plenty of stories could come out of the community-college experience without relying on a push-pull dance that can only go the way of most will-they-won’t-they comedies, which is to crap. But even with these worries, I still have hope that the minds that brought us that stellar pilot can do it again, week after week. It beats watching Hank. (And you know that as a Cheers fetishist, it kills me to use a Kelsey Grammer show as a punchline.)

What did you think of Community? I’m interested in hearing takes from people who just saw it for the first time, versus those who have seen all four episodes. Regular viewers like me might think the quality has dropped off, while newbies might have been thrilled with what they got. It’s the old “you don’t know what you’re missing” issue at work.

Next week’s assignment: It’s the 40th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and in my endless quest to figure out what comedy holds up today and what doesn’t, let’s see how the Brits make out. I’m gonna leave the assignment open, however: No specific movie, no specific episode: just watch some episodes of the TV show. (IFC – which will be airing a six-hour doc on the troupe’s history, Monty Python: Almost the Truth, all next week – is also airing MPFC episodes every night at 11:30pm, starting Sunday, Oct. 18. They’re also available on Amazon on Demand, and DVD.) As a huge Python acolyte in my teenage years, I always fantasized of the day when I would introduce my kids to them. But now I wonder: will the show seem hopelessly out of date, or are silly walks universal? We will discuss!

One last thing: Do you like people who are at least six months late to every trend? Then you’ll love me, because I’m now on twitter! Follow me: @EWJoshWolk. But for now, we discuss Community

PHOTO CREDIT: Jardin Althaus/NBC

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  • Anon

    I really thought that the pilot was miserable. It tried ENTIRELY too hard, and did not flow or have relatable characters. I have thoroughly enjoyed every episode since. In fact, I wish that the pilot hadn’t happened, as it has created a bit of a contradiction in Joel McHale’s character: right now he’s a guy who genuinely likes Britta and cares about her, whereas in the pilot I felt he was just trying to do anything to sleep with her on account of the hotness.

    • Janna

      I totally agree.

    • KT

      yeah i also agree. I didn’t like the pilot at all, but kept watching because i love joel. I actually think every episode has been funnier than the last.

      • junier23

        I thought the pilot was really funny. Each episode has been better.
        My favorite was Episode 3.

    • RustyT

      I agree with this too. I actually thought the pilot was trying too hard while the show has now found more of its groove. Joel McHale can be the funniest guy on TV when he doesn’t mug for the camera too much (as he did in the pilot).

    • Al

      Me too. I think the show has been getting better, not worse.

      • Kelly

        That’s true. There was so much buzz about “Community” I thought it was going to be great. I gave up on it two weeks ago. It’s in a rough time slot and it’s not funny. It’s actually kind of boring.

      • Lynn

        I too think it has gotten better each week. I thought last week’s Gossip ep was the best yet!

      • Cole9219

        Yup…I didn’t get this article. I laugh more & more every episode!!!

      • NicWin

        I guess I must have missed this episode…(what was I doing last Thursday? Can’t remember.) But I usually like the show. Last night’s was a masterpiece. Maybe I have a weird sense of humor, but Senor Chang just kills me, especially when he’s sparring with Professor Duncan. Last night by the pool? Genius. Even the Dean. I think it’s getting better.

    • Meh

      I actually completely agree with Josh, here. The over-the-top nature of certain jokes has just been falling flat to me, including (but not limited to) all of those moments he mentioned. I’m still watching, for now, but I’m feeling it less and less each week.

      • Denny

        I’ve been pretty meh about the show from the beginning and I’ve not seen anything in recent weeks. Although I’ve liked McHale on The Soup, I’m not digging him here. Also, McHale and Bill Murray should not be in the same sentence together unless that sentence reads: “Joel McHale is not as funny as Bill Murray.” This show is not even as funny as later seasons of MY NAME IS EARL to me. I’m not trying to offend anyone who likes the show, but it’s not for me.

    • gokarm

      I too agree. I did not like the pilot at all, and decided to give Joel McHale and Chevy Chase the benefit of the doubt and try it another week. For my money, the last episode was one of the best. They slowed down a little and just lived in the wacky sitcom world they set up for themselves. It’s silly, but easy; And that’s all my tv watching brain can handle. I don’t want subtext in my sitcom. Give it to me straight up wacky.

    • Ryan

      I absolutely agree. The pilot wasn’t funny. I think they’ve hit their stride. Last week’s episode was hilarious. Every character got to shine.

    • Nick

      amen! the last episode was the best yet!

    • Monsse

      Hey, can I pick your brain? My flame in my gas water heater went out. The pilot light is still lit. You can turn the heat cotornl knob up just past the A setting and it will light but if you try to turn it down the flame goes back out. The pilot light never goes out. We have it set just past the A setting and it seems to be fine but I know I should be able to turn it down so something’s got to be wrong with it. what do you think?

  • Chad

    The Jeff and Shirley gossip bonding was hysterical. Also the episode from a week or two ago with Troy and his girlish sneezing was hilarious

    • Mari

      I completely agree! Jeff and Shirley gossiping like two school girls was hilarious to me! Especially the joke about the hippie’s small nipples. Personally, I liked the pilot, and I actually feel that the episodes have gotten better. The show is consistently funny and I think it’s getting way too hard of a time because of super high expectations. I’m personally hooked for the season!

    • Nee Nee

      Troy and the girly sneezing has probably been the funniest part of the show so far.

  • Chad

    but Modern Family is funnier

    • Denny

      Exactly, Chad. Exactly. Heck, OZ was funnier.

    • Lindsey

      I agree – even The Middle is funnier !

      I just haven’t laughed at either of the two Community episodes I saw – and, I was really looking forward to the show originally.

  • dawnomite

    Yeah Josh, I’m sorry, I’ve seen every ep too. I’m not following your rules. I just have to say that every ep makes me laugh out loud, and I like its over-the-top-ness. Plus, I just love the characters, a mix of gender, race, age, and backgrounds. It’s fun to see them bounce off one another. I’m a fan of this show. Hoping it’ll make it.

    • dawnomite

      (Admittedly, a large part of my fandom is due to my wee crush on Joel McHale.)

      • Vicky

        Haha I totally have a wee crush on Joel McHale!

  • Brian

    Yeah, the show’s gotten funnier each week. Not sure what you’re talking about.

  • Monty

    I wish they’d do a bit more with Abed and Troy, their bits at the end of every episode are the the whipped cream and cherry on top of every episode for me.

    Like the rap!
    “Donde. Esta. La Bibliotecha.” Golden!

    • Monty

      Also, i thought it was a beatuiful moment when Pierce and Jeff did the Spanish presentation with the song from Magnilia playing in the background. A+

      • Blame Leno

        This is probably my favorite scene.

      • luvhoney

        That has been my favorite scene so far of the series. I was still laughing out loud when the scene was over.

    • Nee Nee

      Agreed! Troy is one of the funnier characters, and he gets very little screen time.

  • Aprilcot26

    I tried really hard to like the pilot and I just didn’t get into it. In my opinion, the show has only gotten funnier in the subsequent episodes and the characters are becoming more relatable.

  • Scott P

    Since this show started off decent and has definitely gotten worse from there, everyone should watch the funnies show on TV, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, instead.

    Too bad for Joel McHale, this show is a major waste of his potential.

  • Verity

    I really do not get this magazine’s view on “Community.” I thought the pilot was the weakest episode and I was actually worried about the future of the show based on that sole performance. However, I have felt that each week has improved on the pilot. The show has become more consistent, the jokes don’t feel as forced as before, and the characters are now more believable AND more likeable. Last week’s episode was the cleanest I’ve seen. It flowed smoothly and we got to see different characters interact with each other. I LOVED Jeff and Shirley becoming gossip buds and Abed is just so adorable. Even Chevy Chase’s character worked. Granted, mine does not have to be the correct view point but tell me…what am I missing? How was last week’s episode worse than the pilot?!?! You thought it was a mess? Are you kidding me? This show hasn’t dropped in quality. It probably started at 80% and is now running at about 95%. If they can fix the Britta/Jeff thing, I think they’ll have found their groove.

    • JM

      I agree. I think it’s getting better. The only thing I would change is to let go of the Britta/Jeff thing, and let Joel McHale smile more.

    • Blame Leno

      I agree. I’m not sure how the episode was a mess or some how worse than the others. I think you either like the show or you don’t cause at this point it feels pretty consistent.

      • Joe

        I don’t think it’s getting better, it is however consistent with the way the pilot was. Man, I’m trying to dig this show but, it’s just not that funny. I watch every other comedy show on the NBC thursday night block. “Modern Family” on ABC is easily the best new comedy this season.

    • BeaAnn

      I agree it’s getting better and finding it’s groove but needs to fix the Jeff/Britta relationship. I’m enjoying the show.

  • Sara

    Oh I love this show! It’s just…funny. I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous and over the top and weird, but I love it.

  • Micah

    I enjoyed both the pilot and the subsequent episodes. I do feel like the pilot pushed the limits trying to be as funny at every given moment so as to ensure an audience. Since then, they have had good stories that have given us more insight into each of the characters. While the comedy has dropped off some, it has been replaced by some worthwhile meat to the comedy bones. We’ve gotten to know Pierce, Abed, and Shirley. Meanwhile, Jeff’s character is starting to evolve into a caring individual. I agree that the Britta/Jeff romance can be tiresome, at least they’ve started to explore the idea that the two will become friends, even though Jeff’s infatuation for Britta will remain a stumbling block.

    There is nothing new about this sticom, except that it’s brought us relatable characters that are funny to watch with some great writing. Not every punchline is going to be a homerun, but as long as the laughs keep coming, this will be appointment tv for me.

  • Rupert

    This show is wonderful. Every episode just gets funnier. I love all the charaters and espically find the Peirce character the funniest of the co-stars.

  • Josh Wolk

    Wow, it’s wild how we seem to have completely different takes on this show. Actually, a few people here agree with me (we’d been talking about how we felt it got worse since the pilot), so it just goes to show that EW doesn’t always reflect conventional wisdom.

    This is interesting, though: So you guys didn’t like the laugh-a-minute pace of the pilot, or you just thought Jeff was too much of an egotistical jerk?

    • Monty

      I liked the pilot quite a bit, but I think they needed something big and flashy to introduce the characters quickly and grab your attention, and now since they have it, they are fleshing each of the characters out. Now each week we are learning more about them.

      One concern I do have is we only appear to have 3 teachers, and I don’t know too many people who only take 2-3 college courses when they NEED to finish college (then again, how many lawyers do I know that lost their license and had to attend community college because degree was a phoney). I thought we might get a new teacher once a week for 4 weeks and then rotate which classes they attended. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sr. Chang and Professor Wanna-Be-John-Keating, but how long can they stick to these character achetypes? Then again, they can always have quarter classes and not semester classes, so its not out of the question that we are done getting great guest stars as teachers for this season.

      Regardless, I look forward to every weekend, when i watch all my Thursday night shows on Hulu.

    • AA

      I guess that’s perhaps where some of our issues are: while you describe the “laugh-a-minute pace of the pilot”, I have only watched the pilot and since I didn’t actually laugh once, Community does not make it into my rotation. Plus it conflicts with Survivor and Flashforward. Couldn’t add a third show.

    • Micah

      I enjoyed, nay, loved the pilot, but I understood why they had to slow down a bit.

    • sarahp

      I think both…the pilot felt really, really frantic to me. You could tell a funny show was in there, but it was too much to cram into half an hour. And Jeff didn’t seem like a great lead character to me. They don’t have to be 100% likable (e.g. House is one of my favorite TV characters right now) but I thought Jeff was a bit too much of a jerk for me to want to get into the show.
      I enjoyed last week’s episode, mostly the Jeff/Shirley stuff. And I definitely think it’s one of the funnier shows on TV right now, even on an off week.

    • KT

      I actually didn’t laugh much at all during the pilot…it’s only the later episodes that got me laughing out loud.

    • Verity

      The laugh-a-minute pace was actually an issue for me in the pilot. They were just scripted jokes thrown at us from every angle. The delivery didn’t feel natural. Joel McHale didn’t take a breath half the time. It was like, “Here’stheset-upOkayhere’sthepunchlineLAUGH!” x 100. As a result, I didn’t laugh at anything. Also, Jeff was way too grumpy in the pilot and was constantly scowling. At least in the more recent episodes he’s been able to be his rude self (making fun of tiny-nipple man & Pierce’s inappropriate jokes) while still coming across as somewhat likeable (waiting for Shirley so they can walk to class together and gossip). I also thought last week’s episode was better in how they used each of the characters. Pierce popped up in the background of almost every scene, eavesdropping on everyone. I thought that was a hilarious sight gag but that could just be me. My point is I felt that the pilot had too much to do. There were a lot of characters to introduce in 22 minutes and they were all interacting as a group. So each character only had a few lines worth of dialogue to get us invested in them. It felt overcrowded and desperate. The episodes after the pilot have been able to single them out a little more. They’re not constantly in their study group so we get little sub plots to get to know them. In one episode we got Pierce and Jeff. In another, it was Abed and Jeff (still one of my favorites!). This week, Abed got to hang out with Annie and Troy while Jeff got to know Shirley. It’s all been much more relaxed in my opinion. And wow, my opinion is way too long-winded :)

    • Rfresh

      You nailed almost exactly my thoughts on it Josh (although I did like the 3rd and 4th episode more than the second). I thought the Pilot was PERFECT, watched it multiple times. Since then it has been good-not-great, still better than most, but not nearly living up to the potential set up by the pilot. They need to tone down the over-the-topness, get rid of Ken Jeong and replace him with John Oliver as a series regular, and tell the entire gang to bring it down a notch…

    • JM

      I didn’t laugh that much at the pilot, and I didn’t care for Jeff that much. I only came back for week 2 because I have high hopes for Joel.

  • Via

    I like to think of newbie shows as a marathon, not a race. Each episode doesn’t have to necessarily one up the next, instead it should build a story that holds my attention while creating characters that I can care about and/or find humorous. That said, I do think Senor Chang is too much of a caricature (w/flat jokes no less) but the others are fleshing out nicely. I liked the Shirley/Jeff gossip bond and Abed’s arc. I know it didn’t go over well w/everyone but I was glad to have him in on the joke for once instead of always being the butt of, ya know? Sorry, I’m not a first time viewer but just wanted to weigh in.

  • Julie

    I agree, the quality has gone up and down over the weeks. I deleted it from my DVR this week, due to the fact that FlashForward and Survivor are all now on at the same time, and my DVR could only tape 2. Sorry Joel! See you on The Soup.

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