Joel McHale and Jim Rash Talk Community Season Five, Dan Harmon, and the Changing Cast

Community Joel McHale and Jim Rash Interview

The cast of 'Community' (Photo © NBC Universal, Inc.)

NBC’s Community returns for its fifth season run beginning January 2, 2014 with back-to-back episodes kicking off at 8pm ET/PT. Series creator Dan Harmon’s back after being gone for the entire season four, and season five promises a return to the fun of the first three seasons which had Harmon at the helm.
 
In support of the new season, Joel McHale (‘Jeff Winger’) and Jim Rash (‘Dean Pelton’) took part in a conference call to discuss what fans can expect from season five, what’s up with their characters, what’s happening with the study group, and having Dan Harmon back in charge.

Joel McHale and Jim Rash Community Interview:

How do you deal with the behind-the-scenes turmoil?
 
Jim Rash: “You know, it was sort of like our drama behind the stage was sort of keeping Community on people’s minds outside of fans, I guess.”
 
Joel McHale: “Yes. And I would say that, you know, especially this year with Dan back, the material has been…I mean, the scripts have been so great that with all the things that have happened with the show, when the material’s this good, you kind of forget about that stuff. And last year was kind of the crazy year, but now that Dan is back it’s like the monarchy has been restored and things are as they should be. So in that sense, the sense of relief that I’ve had this year has been tremendous.”
 
Do you think that season four was unfairly slammed?
 
Jim Rash: “Well, I think you can’t have Dan’s mind and the creator’s mind and not feel that there’s some kind of difference. I mean, I think that as great a task that was before them and as great as these writers were that we’ve had over all of our seasons, you know, with Dan’s brain you can’t replicate his sort of vision.
 
I think the [role] of the whole staff is to sort of go into that vision and help service it. But without him you don’t really have your guide through that. And so, while there were so many things that were already created by the first three seasons — as far as the depth of the characters, the world, how things work, how it operates, how it can be both fantastical but at the same time character-grounded — those things are all there. But without somebody who has this sort of approach to make it so dense and deep with layers, it’s difficult. It’s a Herculean task that I certainly wouldn’t want to take on. But I think we did our best, you know?”
 
Joel McHale: “Yes, and like a show like Breaking Bad or Arrested Development, you need that sense of where it comes from. That one place, like Dan – that would be Dan or Mitch Hurwitz. And there was some really good stuff last year but it did not have the direction that the other seasons had.”
 
What do you think about the large number of guest stars and do you ever think it may work against the show?
 
Joel McHale: “No, not at all. I would say it only supported it.”
 
Jim Rash: “Yes.”
 
Joel McHale: “And I think because Dan’s writing is so terrific, he doesn’t fall into that trap of using guest stars to make up for storytelling. And all these guest stars absolutely support and enhance it. Our guest stars are so creative, like Vince Gilligan and Mitch Hurwitz and Chris Elliot and Paul Williams – I mean, talk about a crazy group of people, including Gina Gershon and the incredible, beautiful, lovely Bree Larson. I think it’s some of the most creative guest stars of the last, I don’t know, I’m going to go with the last 100 years of television.”
 
Jim Rash: “100 years, Joel?”
 
Joel McHale: “I don’t care.”
 
Jim Rash: “That’s amazing.”
 
What do you think about the departure of Chevy Chase and how it’s handled on the show?
 
Jim Rash: “Well, I mean, with the departure of Chevy from the show, I think it was a way to sort of service both how he affected the study group – the character of Pierce – and how they would move forward from this moment. I think that it’s always difficult when a transition period happens. Obviously, you know, five episodes in we deal with the transition of Troy leaving the school.
 
But I think it’s about passage of time and it’s the same thing as deciding that all the fourth season had happened the way it happened and then use the ramifications of the choices made there into the fifth season. So I think it was sort of approaching it from the growth of the characters and what it meant for them and the impact of a singular guy on the rest of them. Same thing that will be dealt with, with the Troy departure.”
 
Joel McHale: “Yes. I think from season four there was a lot of unanswered questions, and Pierce’s departure was kind of abrupt and it needed to be addressed. And it would have been easy for Dan to say everything was a dream upon his return. But the way he handled it was masterful. It really answered all the questions that I think fans would have.”
 
Do you ever think about whether the show will be renewed? Was there a real concern there may not be a season five?
 
Jim Rash: “I feel like that’s always…at the end of each year we have that little emotional ‘Will we be back?’ process through our mind. But I think that this whole year was just sort of like a gift. It felt like you were being handed material that was just, I would argue, some of the best of all the seasons. I feel like the growth of this year for all the characters and for Community in general is pretty paramount. You know, in the sense that we really went very far, as far as hitting big sort of epic episodes, but also really paying homage to these characters that we started with five years ago.”
 
Joel McHale: “Yes. I’d say as Jim just said it always seems like every season we don’t know if we’re coming back. And if we don’t have that feeling, then I don’t know what it would be like.”
 
Jim Rash: “It would feel weird.”
 
Joel McHale: “Yes.”
 
Jim Rash: “It would feel almost anti-Community if we were assured of anything.”
 
Joel McHale: “Yes, imagine if we were on The Big Bang Theory where we’re like, ‘We can do this until we’re 60 if we want.'”
 
So how will Jeff’s relationship with the study group change now that he’s a professor?
 
Joel McHale: “I would say that this year, Jeff — now that he’s a professor — he is once again somewhat destabilized and his immaturities are exposed, a whole new set of them. I think there was a number of things that kind of got taken care of last year, and those things – they’re not things that just get kind of wrapped up. It’s not something like, ‘Well, that was done and now I’m fixed.’ It’s more like you are constantly finding new things to fix and hopefully make you healthier. But Jeff, you know, he’s had years of selfishness and a bunch of that, I think, gets exposed this year. And it was very fun to play.
 
But there’s no doubt, though, that he loves this study group. He has to really come to terms with how he feels about the school, ultimately. I think Dan just absolutely lays those things out well for Jeff to have to deal with, and as an actor, that was really fun to deal with.”

Joel McHale and Jim Rash Community Interview

Joel McHale and Jim Rash star in 'Community' (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)

What’s happening with the relationship between Jeff and the Dean?

Jim Rash: “Well I think this year with the re-pilot, one of the things that we get back to a little bit with season five is that authority figure side of the Dean. You know, although he’s well-intentioned and makes huge mistakes, he does love the school. So I think he’s obviously giddy that Jeff is back, both as an entity but also in the idea of helping save the school, which is once again in jeopardy and continues to be. I think it’s in a constant state of ‘in jeopardy.’
 
This year definitely leads up to sort of something big in the sense of loss the Dean would feel with the school not being around or these people not being around him, which he has sort of folded into his family by force. And obviously the fascination with Jeff continues and will continue, I’m sure.”
 
Joel McHale: Yes … can you believe that?
 
Jim Rash: “Yes, it’s still there. That’s actually, I think, a request of Joel. I think that Dan was not sure about it and then Joel said, ‘I really want the Dean to still be obsessed with Jeff.’ And I was like, ‘I can go either way.’ And Joel just keeps pushing that agenda.”
 
Joel McHale: “I will punch you…”
 
Jim Rash: “That’s correct, right, Joel?”
 
Joel McHale: “I don’t know where you’re getting this. But it’s weird to me…”
 
Jim Rash: “I’m getting it from a place called ‘Reality.’ It’s a file I have right here.”
 
Joel McHale: “Listen, it’s weird to me that you constantly were like, ‘I think the Dean needs to win an Oscar this year and he needs to show it to everyone.'”
 
Jim Rash: “Hey, I’m just spit-balling ideas, man.”
 
Would Dean be able continue his life without Jeff and the study group?
 
Jim Rash: “Well, I think involvement with Jeff and the study group is something where he’s at his happiest to just be included. I think that just goes to speak to him as a person. I think that he probably has a need there that is not fulfilled yet.”
 
As an Oscar-winning screenwriter, have you gotten the itch to write an episode this season? You wrote one for season four.
 
Jim Rash: “No. I mean, I had such a great time being allowed to write last year and was proud to be a part of at least the Community history. But to be honest, it’s like I’m already envious of the stuff we sat down to read this year. I feel like Dan’s brain, Chris McKenna’s brain, and the brains that they have hired — I’m always in awe of that. I think that I would probably do some bad imitation of it if I even attempted. So I sort of enjoy the road they take us on. In other words, they don’t need my bald head.”
 
Do you always stick to the script?
 
Joel McHale: “Oh yes.”
 
Jim Rash: “I think for the most part, yes. I think I would say 99-point-something percent of the time we’re just doing Dan’s and Chris’ and the writers’ words. Wouldn’t you say, Joel?”
 
Joel McHale: “There’s this weird thing where people are like, ‘Do you guys just kind of make it up as you go along?’ and I’m not sure why. I guess there’s a lot of that. But no, I mean, Dan’s is not an improvised comedy, and Dan’s – all the stuff that Dan is saying in every episode, they’re very deliberate parts of the traintrack that is being laid down to get to the end of this season.
 
I know this is going to sound really grandiose but it’s as specific as, you know, Shakespeare was with his words, where there’s really no excess. And so, no, there’s not much improvising going on. But as you can see from the performances, they look like they’re improvised because the actors are so damn good.”
 
Has the departure of Chevy Chase and the exit of Donald Glover changed anything between the cast?
 
Jim Rash: “I would say not so much changed, but sort of… I mean, it’s the same sort of world, but evolved. You get to figure out what Abed is without Troy, and I think they do a very good job of watching this guy transition into the next chapter of his life without his best friend. The same thing with Pierce’s absence and having other characters complete the study room table. As the study room table becomes a whole other entity, I think it really speaks to the idea of the evolution of a series, that the rules keep getting changed on us, which is very much like reality. And, people adjust.
 
And so I feel like, if anything, it always opens up new doors when something happens, like the death of someone or the departure of someone. It only helps to explore what happens to Jeff’s character and Britta and all these characters. So I feel like that’s always a wealth of great change for a series.”
 
Joel McHale: “Yes, and Dan doesn’t shy away from those things and he never has. Just like with Britta and Jeff, through the first season it was like, ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ And Dan goes, ‘Oh they will, and they have been for a year.’
 
And it’s the same way with Pierce’s departure. Dan will just go headlong into those things. And I will say — and I’ll talk about Jonathan Banks here for a minute — Jonathan Banks’ presence in this show is just absolutely, out-of-this-world tremendous. Not only is he such an incredible actor, he is really funny. And, you know, it’s just a whole different, wonderful vibe. I didn’t mention him with the guest stars earlier, because I count him as a series regular.
 
And then with Troy’s departure, as Jim just said, you thought that Danny Pudi was awesome before. He is incredible with being this character that is socially different than everybody but is dealing with these big, heavy emotions. And boy, does he do it. I mean, he’s just incredible.”
 
Will there be any theme episodes this year?
 
Jim Rash: “Well, you definitely get some this year. I mean, as far as sort of the fantastical side and the school being overtaken with a genre, so to speak, without losing its characters – that you get for sure. We do hit upon some David Fincher worlds and we do all types of stuff.”
 
Joel McHale: “There’s another D&D episode, I don’t know if I can say that. There is an homage to Logan’s Run. Don’t know if I can say that, but I’m saying it and I don’t know what’s going to happen if I do.”
 
Joel, did you have more fun playing a student or a teacher?
 
Joel McHale: “Boy, you know, it’s neither and both at the same time, because they both are really fun to play. I got to do really fun things as a teacher, but as a student I got to do… If you had said to me that you’re going to be in a zombie apocalypse and get to play kind of a Bruce Willis action star while you’re on half-hour sitcom, I would say that you’re probably high. But with the teacher, as we’ve been saying, this season we re-establish ourselves as characters and then things go nuts. And it was fun every day, so I cannot make a distinction.”
 
Was the cast involved in getting Dan Harmon back on board as showrunner?
 
Jim Rash: “Certainly Joel probably was paramount in starting these conversations, you know, towards the end of last season I would say, sort of imagining a world where everyone — the whole team, and that meant some crew people as well that had moved to another show for season four — are now back with us. So it really was like putting the family back together and I think Joel needs to take some of that credit.”
 
What would you say to fans who might have given up on the series during season four to get them to return for season five?
 
Joel McHale: “Oh boy. Well, beyond Dan Harmon’s return, what else do you need? And I mean, more so, we just need to be promoted well. I think just getting out that general awareness is a key.
 
But throughout the year last year we had the best fans in the world. And I sadly wasn’t able to be at Comic Con, but if Comic Con was any evidence – I saw some of the video – there looked to be no problem. People were back and on board to watch it, evidenced by them having to turn away 4,000 people or something.”
 
Jim Rash: “Yes, I agree with that.”
 
Joel McHale: “That said, I will go to people’s homes and I will give them a foot massage.”
 
Jim Rash: “Yes. And I will go and apologize for the two things they’re doing and then do their chores.”
 
Joel McHale: “Yes, right. And those chores will be, like, ‘Have you ever seen an Oscar before? Oh, here’s one.'”
 
Jim Rash: “Well, you know, as long as you don’t take your shirt off and show them the truth. Next.”
 
Joel McHale: “Boom.”
 
Jim Rash: “Boom.”
 
-Posted by Rebecca Murray

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Rebecca Murray

Editor in Chief at ShowbizJunkies
Journalist covering the entertainment industry for more than 13 years. Member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and San Diego Film Critics Society.

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