Community – The Meta Breakfast Club
by: Garret Gilchrist
NBC’s Community, created by Dan Harmon, has won critical acclaim and a cult following for its likeable characters, movie genre parodies, and clever writing. As the sitcom returns for a third season, CinemaEditor’s Garrett Gilchrist spoke to three of the show’s editors.
Peter B. Ellis’s TV credits include True Blood, Carnivale and Roswell. He first worked with staple Community directors Joe and Anthony Russo on the NBC series LAX. In 2006, he edited their feature You, Me and Dupree. He has edited 13 Community episodes, including the pilot.
Peter Ellis: The script felt different. I didn’t even understand how it would play out. I trusted Joe and Ants. They know what’s funny. And the script was incredibly funny. But my first assemblies were long and slow. I’d cut a scene and think, geez, that’s really fast, but I didn’t realize how fast things really could and should play, and how much it was designed to play like that. We talked about Moonlighting and 1930s comedies, like The Front Page.
Steven Sprung, A.C.E., has edited 18 episodes of Community. He directed the episode “Early 21st Century Romanticism,” and directed and edited his own feature film, Dispatch. His TV credits include The Tick, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and Entourage.
Steven Sprung: I’d worked with the Russo Brothers on Arrested Development, and on Carpoolers which ran for half a season in 2007 on ABC. Sadly the strike happened and the show really lost momentum. When they called about Community I was shooting my feature, Dispatch. I was expecting a conventional comedy, week after week. I don’t think they knew then that each episode would have a different style and theme. It makes every episode really energizing to cut. Every week is a surprise. You come to expect that extra level that this cast and this crew will bring to the table. From the script you see the possibilities unfolding. There’s a known rhythm to other shows, whereas every Community is a new challenge.
PE: Even if something absurd is happening, we’re trying to make everybody as emotionally real as possible. The steps that people go to get there, there’s no magic, nothing imaginary, no deus ex machina. It has to work and be believable. I guess it’s up to the viewers to decide whether we’ve accomplished that.
SS: The pilot was largely the love story between Jeff [Joel McHale] and Britta [Gillian Jacbos], and true to [series creator] Dan Harmon’s style, he nipped it in the bud a couple episodes later. He had them kiss, a big kiss. This isn’t going to be three seasons of tension about whether these two get together! Forget it! He likes to surprise the audience, and surprise himself. It’s an exciting environment to work in. He takes risks, and that empowers me to take risks as well.
PE: It’s a refining process. At first I slap things together as quickly and often poorly as possible, so I can see what the story is, what each character’s arc will be. In [the episode] “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” for example, figuring out what’s going on with Neil [Charley Koontz], with Pierce [Chevy Chase]… How is Jeff responding? I try to maintain the sense of timing, how quickly it plays, giving a joke enough time to land.
SS: After my cut is done, the director has two days to make any changes. Then it goes to one or two of the producers, getting it into shape, trying to strengthen the jokes, and eventually Dan will put the finishing touches on it. Sometimes it changes a lot. Finally the studio and network have their notes and we lock it up.
PE: Everyone brings a different opinion, and I think that’s helpful. My job is to weave all these different concerns. How can I execute that idea as well as it can possibly be executed? Mostly I think we end up with the best version of the show.
GG: What was it like directing “Early 21st Century Romanticism?”
SS: Amazing. I’ve worked with the Russo brothers for many years now, and they knew it was something I wanted to do if the show ran long enough, and were very supportive. Once we got picked up for a second season, I had the support of all the producers and they made it happen. Any director will tell you, they rely on strong material. I was fortunate that the writers gave me a great script to work with. It was perfect, because it wasn’t an homage or a gimmick, it was just about the relationships between the characters, and about love. Seeing another side to the friendship between Troy [Donald Glover] and Abed [Danny Pudi]. The producers had me edit the episode too. At first I wasn’t sure. Of course I knew the material inside and out, so it was a much quicker process putting it together. And the editor wasn’t beating up the director…
GG: Are you sure about that?
SS: Oh, he sure was! And vice versa. It ended up being a really positive experience.
Lisa Lassek worked with Joss Whedon as an assistant editor on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then edited on Angel, Firefly (where she was also an associate producer), Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Drew Goddard’s upcoming feature The Cabin in the Woods. She edited four episodes of Community’s second season.
Lisa Lassek: Before I went in to interview, I binge-watched every episode. They’re great as you’re watching them air, but to see them one after another, by the third episode I absolutely fell in love with the show. It won me over completely, heart and soul. I think if you just watch the first episode you wouldn’t get what makes the show so beautiful.
PE: We knew the other characters would emerge as the season went on. But the pilot needed to work in one bite. We had longer scenes with Annie [Alison Brie] and Shirley [Yvette Nicole Brown], and Alison was phenomenal in dailies. But those scenes felt unwieldy. It was really Jeff’s story. We did a number of iterations and it just didn’t work until we made sure that we always knew how Britta was reacting. That yin to Jeff’s yang, that audience surrogate to say, “this guy’s a total creep,” or, “I’m actually buying his BS right now. If you’d told me during the pilot that we’d be doing something like “Dungeons & Dragons”… well, Dan Harmon is a phenomenally brilliant individual, so I might take it on faith that it’d work, but I had no idea those relationships would develop the way they did. I was surprised how well Troy and Abed gelled from the start. I asked the Russos later if they’d thought about where everyone would sit around the table, how that would affect the relationships in the series. And they didn’t think that far ahead, they wanted what would work for that one script. Troy and Abed being in one corner, that’s really helped their dynamic grow. Annie being in an unobstructed line to Jeff. It’s not quite accidental, but the extent to which it all worked out is amazing to me.
LL: I really think Troy and Abed are among one of the most magical partnerships in television. Who could have predicted that chemistry? The characters have evolved so much. They’re so believable, you don’t question why they would hang out with each other—it just makes sense. You couldn’t have predicted that from the outset. Jim Rash, the Dean, is a total comedic genius. Dan Harmon has said that any one of these guys could carry a show by themselves.
LL: Sometimes my favorite episodes are the simpler ones. In [the episode] “Accounting for Lawyers,” you learn why Jeff became a lawyer in the first place. You don’t have to have these muddy feelings. It’s very clear what you’re doing. That’s so deep, and what a wonderful character revelation, the sort of thing you don’t expect in a comedy.
GG: Is it difficult to get the episodes down to length?
SS: We’re usually four minutes over length, and sometimes you have to kill your babies, get rid of funny stuff you’d rather keep. That’s obviously the most painful part of the process. I’m sure it’s much more painful for Dan and the writers.
LL: Dan Harmon is a genius at honing in on exactly what to cut. He just sees the code somehow, like The Matrix. Nothing is precious to him. He never falls in love with the dialogue. He’s always able to cut things out and [those edits] usually make it better.
PE: Jake Aust, our post producer, has to manage a complicated and contradictory schedule. Dan, the Russos, Ludwig, our amazing sound crew headed by Mark Binder, everyone wants as much time as possible. How do you balance everything so that we still have something to put on the air? A phenomenally difficult job and Jake does it all without complaining. Everyone feels they got what they needed, and any compromise was for the greater good.
LL: The show is “meta” and self-aware, and that’s one of the things that makes it so great. When I’m editing, I really pay close attention to the script. The words and tone are so important. I know where Dan is going, ultimately.
PE: Joe and Anthony Russo have a phenomenal record as directors, a variety of work they’ve done and a very wide ranging understanding of film and television history. So when Dan and the writers want to play with a genre, there’s an effort to bring in the right people. Like when Justin Lin directed the paintball episode [“Modern Warfare”], let’s use every possible tool we can. When we did the paintball western, I had to make sure it felt like Sergio Leone, with those tense moments of guys staring at each other—what’s going to happen next. Through a Community filter, we didn’t hold those shots as long as Leone would. But we’re mindful of delivering what the genre demands. We’re gonna try a new idea. We can’t do the same thing we always do.
SS: We play to that cinematic quality; try not to be too “cutty,” let shots play out a little more. It’s not just about the comedy. I play much more with the excitement and the dramatic situations that are unfolding, and the comedy comes out of that.
LL: You never know what you’re going to get—anything from a Western to My Dinner With Andre. That’s what keeps Community so fresh and exciting. But what’s consistent and what carries you through are those characters. They’re so real, and their relationships to each other are so wonderful. The read-through is more important on Community than on other shows. They work on the scripts right up to the last minute, right up until shooting, and it’s the first time you can see what the episode is going to be, what the tone is. You really do get a feel for it, and what the big moments are. It’s a room full of people, an audience just enjoying those scripts. It’s the best possible way to meet the script for the first time. Five minutes into the read-through we knew that “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” was going to be special.
PE: Every week, Ludwig Goransson, our composer, is asked to do something wildly different, [yet] emulating John Williams, Aaron Copeland and Ennio Morricone [to an extent]. Ludwig is a genius. I find myself humming so much of his music. He writes such good themes, and he’s so versatile. I think there’s no limit to what he can do or where he will go; my gut says he’ll be working for decades. Don Glover who plays Troy is also a rap musician and Ludwig is his partner in that as well.
SS: [The crew is] a great group of people who work so hard. I have such a great assistant, Drew Sommer, who I’ve been working with since Dispatch. I let him handle the technical stuff.
PE: Drew is very much our computer guru. My assistant, Ruthie Aslan, has really risen to the challenge. I think we had 80 hours of footage for each part of the two-part finale. The task of managing and organizing that material is epic. Deadlines are very tight, but we can go to Ruthie and Jeff Hall, the night assistant, to cut a version of the scene for us. Ruthie and Jeff started assembling scenes and wound up editing Episode Nine of this [past] season. There aren’t a lot of assistants who could handle a show this complicated and with this much footage.
SS: [The days are] pretty good-sized—10 to 12 hours a day—sometimes a lot longer during crunch time. We do get a lot of footage, but since everyone knows that, we get slightly more time to put the cuts together.
PE: Our post coordinator Andres Anglade is amazingly diplomatic. Things can be really stressful. Trying to schedule ADR with an actor who’s out of town, at the end of the season, when we’re on air in a week and there’s no time, a lesser person would be screaming. Our post PA, Olivia Munoz, is fast, energetic, cheerful. O’Shea Read is great, handling the visual effects and color timing. Our music supervisors Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval tag-team and bring a lot of good ideas to the table. Jason Tregoe Newman, our music editor, is so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. There’s nothing he can’t do. My music notes might be complete gibberish, but somehow he knows how to translate it so Ludwig can understand it.
LL: I didn’t know Dan’s work at all. Obviously, I became a huge fan. I only knew the Russos tangentially, because I’d interviewed for their show Happy Endings. I had no other connections to the show whatsoever, and hadn’t even thought about doing half-hour comedy. Community is like magic. I feel like an absolute lucky bastard to be in the same room with these guys.
PE: The Russos aren’t afraid to try different line readings, or shoot from the other side of the room. We have a tremendous amount of material on each episode, and it’s exhausting but rewarding. It takes longer than a regular show, but when we need a different take, different angle, better reaction, that footage almost always exists to make it work. And I’m grateful to work with people who respect my opinion, and let me make that change. No matter how long the hours are and what the pressure is, if I’m working with people who care about what I have to say, I’ll follow them to the end of the earth.
LL: An interviewer said recently, you’ve had such a good career. I’ve been lucky, and learned to just stick with the smart people and you’ll be fine. Joss Whedon, Bryan Fuller, Tim Minear, Todd Holland, are geniuses in a class by themselves, and Dan Harmon is in that same class. Incredibly giving people, generous of spirit, completely down to earth and approachable. All of them create families. The Joss Whedonverse was a family—Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies. I feel the exact same way about Community. It’s the best job. It’s a family of these extremely talented people.
PE: The credit really goes to Jake who put this team together. When you’re up against a deadline you have to make hard decisions, and it’s not always easy. But when you’re working with a great group of people, I’m as happy here as anywhere I’ve ever worked. I think we all know we’re working on something very special and we’re all very grateful to be here.