On March 15, the cast and crew of NBC’s Community arrived at PaleyFest to talk about their quirky, genre-bending comedy. We were able to get a few minutes with some of the stars on the red carpet; read on for some insights from Danny Pudi, Chevy Chase, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ken Jeong, Jim Rash, and Gillian Jacobs.
Danny Pudi (Abed Nadir)
Tell me a little about Abed’s side stories. Do your scripts look different from everyone else’s? You’re always having a background adventure.
Yeah, I mean, it started out—I remember when we first started the show, we were doing photo shoots in the beginning, and people would be like, “Everybody smile!” And I would smile, and they’d be like, “Except you, Danny.” And I was like, okay, this is sort of where we’re going. Everybody smiles but Danny. And I get it. The Abed character—in some ways I feel like a fan who’s won a contest to be in a show. Because I get to kind of be part of the show as well as being the audience in many ways, which I love. The scripts are always pretty damn ridiculous. All the sudden I’ll flip to page 23, and it’s like, “Abed delivers baby,” and I’m like, “What?!” Somehow it makes sense, though.
How often does your taste in TV and movies match up with Abed’s?
You know, pretty often. I think the tastes are pretty similar. The knowledge is vastly different, because Abed has such a vast knowledge—he’s like an encyclopedia. My favorite movie of all time is Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and last year, in an episode, I got to wear Indiana Jones’s whip, and I was talking about Indiana Jones a lot. You know, Abed has this love and fascination with ‘80s movies, with ‘80s trivia, and with shows that were huge in the ‘80s. And I grew up then, so a lot of that stuff definitely resonates with me. I think the biggest difference, though, is Abed can name every episode from M*A*S*H Season 4, and I can’t name one.
Can you talk a little about your bromance with Donald Glover—how it developed and how it’s worked itself into the show?
Yeah, it kind of just happened. It was one of those organic things. We talk about Dan Harmon being so brilliant in so many ways, and one of the ways he’s very brilliant is capturing what’s going on. He’s always able to capture what’s going on and put it into the script, whether it’s a Twitter thing or whatever it is. So we did an interview last year where [Donald and I] sort of broke off into this impromptu rap. Someone literally asked us for our sandwich wrap, or something, but I thought they said “rap,” like R-A-P. Next thing you know, we’re just busting it out. And then, Dan saw it and was like, “I’m gonna put that into the show.” The very next week we were doing a Spanish rap, and it’s kind of taken off from there. I think in many ways it really makes sense just for our two characters to have this end-of-show bit. It’s not really doing anything. It’s just a little silly taste into the world of Greendale. And for me, it’s such the essence of college. It’s those moments where you’re not in class, where you’re not walking to school, where it’s not a final, but it’s those moments where you’re sitting around with your buddies and the funniest shit happens, and you guys literally can’t stop laughing over—I don’t know—a bird that flew into the window or whatever, stuff that you can’t really explain. But it’s those moments of true friendship where you’re experiencing something together. That’s my favorite thing to do.
You mentioned that Abed is kind of a participant and a viewer. Do you think his outsider status bothers him, or is he used to it by now?
I think he’s grown to accept it and he’s comfortable with it. He understands it. I think he still has such a need to connect, though, like anybody else, and trying to figure out why he doesn’t necessarily respond to things other people do. Kind of like me—there’s always that urge to connect with someone, but sometimes you realize, like, I don’t know why I can’t connect with that person. I know I can’t, though. It’s a fun role to play, because I get to really not adhere to any social queues in many ways. It’s very freeing, but it is also lonely. And you’ve seen with Abed’s character this year, there is a little bit of loneliness—a lot of loneliness—where he’s just by himself. But I think he’s so used to it and comfortable with it, and one of the ways he’s really coped with it is diving into movies and that kind of thing. He’s much more comfortable with the movie structure and the film and TV structure, because it gives him a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Gillian Jacobs (Britta Perry)
Do you think Britta will ever stop taking herself so seriously, or is that just who the character is?
She gets made fun of a lot, and she doesn’t seem to stop doing what she’s doing. So I don’t know. Maybe she’ll really go into therapy, not like Professor Duncan fake therapy, and maybe loosen up a bit. It’ll finally hit home that she should stop taking everything so seriously, but not now. Not Season 2.
Does she frustrate you to play?
No, I love it.
What’s the best part about playing Britta?
Being completely wrong, being a hypocrite, being wrong, getting called out on things, having paper balls thrown at me. [laughs] All of that.
Do you prefer doing the episodes that are a bit more grounded, or do you like the big theme episodes? Or do you like the mix?
I like that we don’t have to pick. ‘Cause I don’t think I would want to be on a show that was all one or the other, you know? But it’s really nice to go from doing something hyperrealistic, like the hospital episode, which was faux-documentary style—to go from that to something that’s really heightened reality, I think that’s really fun. And you feel sort of challenged as an actor. You’ve got to keep all your chops up rather than just doing the same thing week after week.
You mentioned last year at PaleyFest that you’d felt a little out of your element at first, without the comedic background that some of your co-stars have. How much have you learned since you started the show?
I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot from this man, Jim Rash [who plays Dean Pelton]. He’s a Groundling and he actually asked me to go and do improv one night at the Groundlings. I was foolishly like, “Yeah, sure!” And then I got there and was instantly terrified, like, “What have I done?” But I feel like I’ve absorbed some stuff … The only reason I was able to pull it off is getting to work with people like Jim and Donald Glover and Chevy Chase.
What can you tell me that you haven’t told anyone else in the press line?
Why are you trying to get me in trouble? … What can I tell you that I haven’t told anyone else? Our trailers have really weird pictures of Native Americans in them that I don’t understand. And they have, like, all-brown decor.
Well, can you explain the ending of The Box?
No, I can’t. I’m sorry. I don’t have that answer for you.
Jim Rash (Dean Pelton)
What do you think Dean Pelton sees in Jeff Winger?
What he sees in him? What he wishes he was. I think that’s how the Dean feels on the inside. [Jeff] is this Adonis.
So it’s not just sexual attraction?
Well, I think there’s a combination. We can’t deny the fact that he’s talked about a threeway with Jeff before, so it’s definitely sexual. But I think another part of him is that he does want to be him. I think he idolizes the idea of Jeff’s college experience.
Senor Chang started out on Community as a peripheral character who is now more a part of the group. Would you like to see Dean Pelton get integrated in the same way? Obviously he would.
Yes, I think he wants to be involved. I wonder how they’d do that, because he’s still an authority figure in air quotes. I’m always happy with however they want to put me into this thing. I’ve certainly been blessed with some episodes where—like when they go into space, he’s so integral. So yes, I would love to see a Dean-Jeff adventure, a weekend romp if you will. Why not?
Your background is in improv. How much do you improvise this role and how much freedom do you feel you have?
I think there’s definitely some freedom, but there’s honestly not that much improv. Credit to the writers and Dan—it’s there. Certainly lines here and there. Donald [Glover] is always good for mixing it up. Ken [Jeong] loves to improvise a little bit. But for the most part, it’s there. I certainly have turned it on now and then, and hope that they don’t hate it. [laughs] Whether it makes it, I don’t know. But it’s always fun, take after take, to do a little something.
Gillian was just mentioning her experience at the Groundlings. Have you invited any of your other fellow cast members to perform?
Gillian came. Ken, Donald, Danny, and Joel all did a show over at the Groundlings. I haven’t gone through the whole cast, of course, but I’d love to have Alison [Brie] and Yvette [Nicole Brown]—and if Chevy would do it, I don’t know. But it’s a blast. They were all great.
Is there any potential movie parody or genre concept that you definitely want to be involved in?
Someone might have said this, but I just want to see a bad-ass Matrix thing. That could be good. I don’t know if it’s too Glee, but it would be fun to do a musical-type thing.
You could totally one-up Glee.
I think we could do it. And we actually have some singers, like Donald and Yvette alone have the pipes. And the rest of us—well, I shouldn’t judge the rest of us. I don’t know. Ken might have a beautiful voice. I can carry a tune.
Ken Jeong (Senor Chang)
I want to ask you about walking the line between realism and Gollum. How do you find the balance?
I really just trust the writers on it. There are some episodes where I kind of go off like Chang-Gollum, and then some episodes, where it was established that Chang was living with Winger in his apartment, the Valentine’s Day episode, the Chang-ing was toned down. Honestly, at this point in the run of the show, I just trust the writers. They tell me what to do, and I do it. It’s been the easiest job I’ve ever had, this second season, because all of the characters have already been established. Everyone knows these characters. All I’ve got to do is read the lines, and they tell me how big, how small, how over-the-top, how subtle, how nuanced. I just trust them and what they’re trying to integrate. Directors like Joe Russo are great at making sure the dialogue’s paced very well—snappy pacing and making sure you’re getting in all those jokes within 20 minutes of time. For me, in some instances it’s toned down because the comedy’s already there. They’re just great at deciding that for me. It’s really just a trust issue, and I love it. I never argue. I just know that what they’re doing is smarter than what I could think of comedically.
I was actually a bit surprised because my first exposure to you was in Knocked Up, in which you played a very subtle, straight-man part. Since then, it seems like you’ve gone bigger in your performances. Is being over-the-top—not in a bad way—something you enjoy?
I joke around to the writers all the time. I’ll read the script: “I’m sorry, what does ‘nuanced’ mean?” [laughs] “I don’t know how to do that. I just jump naked out of the trunk. That’s all I do.” So I love making fun of myself. I pride myself actually in being able to do whatever’s expected of me, because in Knocked Up, like you said, that’s a very straight-man role. You look at The Hangover—very over-the-top fun. And then you look at Role Models, that’s kind of in-between, little bit of nuance, but a little bit of over-the-top. So I pride myself in doing whatever serves that story comedically. There was one moment with Winger that’s in Thursday’s episode that’s just furthering the story. There was a lot of over-the-top Chang, but there’s just some nice moments between Chang and Winger, and Chang and Andre, played by Malcolm Jamal Warner, that ranks up there, acting-wise, as some of my favorite scenes.
Alison Brie’s not here tonight, but she tweeted that we should direct any questions for her to you. So, speaking for Alison, how do you transition between shows as diverse as Community and Mad Men?
You know what, it’s funny, I’ve actually asked her that. My answer, speaking on behalf of her, is she’s just that damn good. She’s just one of the best actresses I’ve ever met, period. There’s nothing she can’t do, and she just makes it look all effortless. That’s literally the only way I can answer that question. She’s beautiful and lovely and talented and I’m sorry she’s not here today.
Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley Bennett)
Everybody’s talking about Shirley being pregnant. How do you think they’re going to integrate this baby into the show?
Well, we’ve only seen Shirley’s other kids twice, once in the first episode of this season and once on Family Day, so I don’t think the writers have any plans for Shirley coming in with a baby strapped to her as she goes to class. Whether the baby is Andre’s or Chang’s, Andre’s made it clear that he will be in this baby’s life, so I believe that we can assume he’s taking care of the baby. She’s going to go back to taking care of going to class and being part of study group.
Can Chang be in the baby’s life?
I believe Shirley would not want Chang in the baby’s life, whether he’s the father or not. ‘Cause Shirley thinks he’s crazy. So I would say Shirley’s not a fan of Chang either way.
Last year at PaleyFest, I remember you all talked about how much you’ve influenced your characters. At this point, how much of you is in Shirley, and how much of Shirley is in you?
Shirley’s a lot like me. We don’t sound the same, of course. I hope I’m not as judgmental as her, ‘cause she’s very judgmental. And I don’t have an alcoholic past. But everything else—love for Malcolm Jamal Warner, it’s all the same.
Well, Shirley’s opened up a lot. She’s definitely less judgmental than she was when the show started.
Yeah, I think she’s aware that if she’s judgmental now, she’s a hypocrite. So she’s probably trying to walk that line between telling people what’s the right thing to do—because she’s a busybody—and then making sure she doesn’t become a hypocrite. It’s a little line she’s straddling.
Do you feel like the group includes her enough?
No! No. I feel like there’s a lot of adventures that Shirley could go on that she hasn’t been able to take part in.
What adventures would you like to take part in?
I would love to see more pairings of the girls. We had a lot of that last season and this season, because Britta finds out that Annie kissed Jeff, there’s been a lot of resolution of their battle, and Shirley didn’t have a place in a lot of that. So I hope that now that we have another season behind us, we can get back to the three girls having adventures in the same way that Abed and Troy have adventures. And I hope to get to work with Donald Glover one-on-one, because Shirley and Troy haven’t had any interaction that didn’t involve the whole group.
Chevy Chase (Pierce Hawthorne)
Is Pierce a villain, or is he just misunderstood?
I think he’s misunderstood, totally.
So you sympathize with him?
Do you think there will be a point where he’s more sympathetic, at least to the audience?
I didn’t realize he wasn’t sympathetic. … There are a couple episodes where he’s just inappropriately angry, but he’s kind of dumb. Kind of needy. He wants to be accepted.
Well, is it possible his near-death experience OD-ing on pain meds made him change for the better?
Oh, no. In fact, I never even put any of that together. That’s how good I am as an actor.
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