NPR logo 'Community' And The Art Of Confidence

Television

'Community' And The Art Of Confidence

Boy, are they doing good stuff on Community.

There is a solid amount of really funny comedy on right now, which hasn't been the case in quite some time. But while this season has brought great stuff from Modern Family and Glee and Parks & Recreation (which technically debuted last spring, but which has felt like a new show), Community is perhaps the least appreciated week-in and week-out delight of the season.

Watch the scene above, which is the opener from last week's episode, "Contemporary American Poultry."

Knowing what you're about and getting the inside joke right, after the jump.

Streets ahead. The first thing you need to know in order to appreciate all the levels at which this scene is firing is that show creator Dan Harmon had a run-in ("run-in" actually seems a little too hostile for what it was) with someone on Twitter who tossed out the insult, "Both Modern Family and Glee are streets ahead of your meta bull——." (Without the dashes.)

Harmon found the phrase "streets ahead," even (or maybe especially) in an insult directed at himself, absolutely hilarious, and he's been using it ever since. If you run a search on the phrase on this archive of his tweets, you will see just how much he loves it. And now, it made it into his show.

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What's great about this particular inside joke is that even if you don't follow Harmon on Twitter and have no familiarity with this at all, it's still funny. But if you know that he's essentially teasing an obnoxious detractor, it's much funnier.

Actual jokes. You can do as much awkward pausing and as much pop-culture referencing as you want, but your comedy isn't going to fly without jokes. Jokes that often go nowhere in particular. Jokes like, "I thought it was about crazy farm animals," which comes ten seconds into the show. It's not a reference, it's not arch, it's not ironic — it's just a joke. Set-up, punch line. Ba-dump-bump!

Casting. The engine that runs the show is the energy of these people sitting around this table, and they frequently use a lot of them at the same time. It's critical that, although stories frequently go spelunking in the minds of one or more of these characters and find something new, all the actors know precisely what they're doing. This episode, for instance, goes on to give some great new notes to Abed (Danny Pudi), without changing the fact that Abed is Abed and Pudi has clearly understood him from episode/scene/moment number one.

Balance. The biggest name in this cast when the show started was Chevy Chase if you're talking about name recognition, or Joel McHale if you're talking about pop-culture credibility. It would have been very easy to build it as a showcase for one or both of them, but that's not what happened. Building on the foundation of these all-in study-group scenes, they've stuck very faithfully to the ensemble idea. While certain characters have been dominant for a couple of episodes here or there and McHale is still at the story's center, everybody gets a solid supply of moments, and it's hard to think of a show that so frequently uses the entire cast as a unit.

Confidence. Community's most crucial quality is confidence. It's hard to demonstrate with any one scene, but there's a very defined vision of what this show is supposed to be. They've embraced the idea of pop-culture references, yes, but they do it with sure-footed joy, not with the grasping sense that they want the laugh for the reference itself. It takes a strong sense of identity to throw as many kinds of comedy into the mix as they use here — this episode basically becomes one long Goodfellas send-up — with some Godfather and Mean Girls and Sixteen Candles thrown in — but that doesn't mean you don't end it with this.

This is, for lack of a more refined phrase, a very happy comedy. It's not an angry comedy, or a cynical comedy, or a dark comedy. It's upbeat and good-natured, but still lean and sharp. It's already been renewed for next season, which will surely continue to be ... how would we say? ... streets ahead of much of what's been passing for comedy for the last few years.