What concept episodes have you planned, animated or otherwise?
I can say there is an animated one. We have successfully kept it a secret what the genre of that animation is. Joel McHale’s character on Community and myself are from the same generation and therefore share a certain childhood of television animation, so it’s something that celebrates a specific brand of animation from that time… The budget is a little lower for various reasons. You’ve got to rebuild the sets; you’re only doing 13 so you can’t amortize costs as much. We had to be very shrewd about the crazy things that we did. We had to be crazy in a more diabolical way. So there’s one episode that you don’t see being conceptual until it’s too late. It sneaks up on you and about halfway through it, becomes something completely different, something that we would characterize in the old days as “Oh, one of those episodes of Community.” And in the realm of homage, there’s an homage to a more grounded type of movie that I love very much, which is the David Fincher-y psychological thriller, the trail of a madman, serial killer mythology. We delved into that to tell the story about a certain mythical figure that’s been stalking the halls of Greendale on and off for years. And there’s a big way that we celebrate Troy’s departure, which is sort of a cousin of Paintball, but with no paint. Or balls.
Speaking of Donald Glover… He only wanted to do a few episodes this season. How did that affect your plans?
It was a bummer and a surprise. Joel, [executive producer Chris] McKenna and I all agreed that while we loved Donald and didn’t want him to be chained to anything, it would have been great to know his plans to fly before all of our contracts were signed. [Laughs] But I don’t know how much it would have changed our plans or not. I’ll never know the answer to that question, because I don’t have a time machine. But I know that thinking about Community without Donald Glover is as terrifying for a person in the writer’s room as it in for someone out there waiting to watch season 5.
What can you say about Troy’s send-off?
It’s a heart-string puller, there was nothing we could do to avoid that. In fact, the episode is about trying to avoid that. It’s about when a goodbye is so powerful that we’d rather do anything but face it, the magical amount of psychosis we can engage in to try to avoid it. And in Abed’s case, that could mean a great deal. Abed calls for a special game to be played across the campus rather than say goodbye to Troy, and the world gets embroiled in it and it’s fun. That’ll be the fifth episode, I believe.
You have a string of cool guest stars. And Jonathan Banks will be in 11 episodes. Were these castings a ‘How do we fill the void?’ reaction to the departures of Chevy Chase and now Donald?
It happened kind of organically. We definitely wanted to avoid the idea of “Okay, there are two empty chairs so let’s fill each one of them with a replacement for Donald and Chevy, respectively, and keep going as if nothing is happening.” It was about embracing the fragmentation of what used to be a very core group. Now you’ve got your favorite members at the core but the world’s a little more hustle and bustle. So there was that creative approach to it. Our casting director, Juel Bestrop, is fantastic, and I think that out there something shifted from the days when Jason Biggs was turning down the role of the pizza guy in “Remedial Chaos Theory” to the day when we would just experimentally ask, “Vince Gilligan, would you like to play this part in the show?” and him saying yes. Somewhere between season 3 and 5, we must have acquired some tiny snowball of castability. [Laughs].
There seems to have been a warming between you and Chevy Chase more recently…
I would be the first person to say: I never hated the guy or hated working with him. His behavior was frustrating me at the end of the season 3 because I actually didn’t get a shot that I wanted. So I made a joke at a wrap party to vent some aggression and things spun out of control. But as soon as they did, he and I were doing what we always do, which is text dirty jokes to each other and leave silly voice mails. So he and I are still friends. It would be great to work with him again.
Is Bill Murray still the Holy Grail guest casting for you?
Absolutely. I’m not even sure what I would do — it’s probably best that I never step in the same room as him. I was just watching Scrooge and it occurred to me what a fantastic movie that is and what a genius that guy is. He’s really one of the most important comedic actors of our generation.
Who is else on your list?
There’s a backlog of people that I think who want to do it but are never available. Simon Pegg is hard to get over here. I want Richard Ayoade so badly to come back and not have to direct this time and tap into his resources as a performer. There are so many people that you feel like, ‘My god, it would be so great to work with the Will Ferrells and the Seth Rogens,” but it’s kind of just, ‘Well, yeah. Duh-doy.’
From the first trailer, it appears that Jeff is at a career crossroads, and returns from the legal world back to Greendale — but as a teacher. What story are you looking to tell with Jeff this year?
He’s run out of the option at his stage of pretending to be the guy who’s too cool for school. There’s a point in your life where I think you have to admit you are where you are because you want to be there — you choose to be there. And there’s a challenge to your ego that comes with that. Jeff is a little more beleaguered this season. I hate to sound too dark but he’s a beaten man in some respect. He became a good person at Greendale, and it crippled his career ambition. So now he is back in this cradle that simultaneously made him a better person but that he kind of resents for doing that. So, it’s an interesting dynamic. He’s pressed into the position of trying to keep this school afloat. We take the idea of Greendale as an institution just a hair more seriously than we’ve done in the past. We look at it sort of as our Dundler Mifflin, if you will: it’s a thing that’s real, that has stakes to it, that needs to be solvent or it can’t exist anymore. And Jeff, as a teacher, is put in charge of helping that happen and it’s a very frustrating position for him to be in because as you can imagine, Greendale’s got a lot of work that needs to be done to it.
If this is indeed the last season of Community, will we get any closure in the finale? And if not, how many more seasons do you see yourself making?
I have to want to make a million. That’s the only way I can continue to work on the show. It has to be the most important thing in the world. So I’ll make a million, but I also have to be completely comfortable with every single season being the last. So, as with every season, we attempt to walk that tightrope in the season finale.
Can you give a quick tease for each of the main characters?
Troy has a lot of questions of identity before he leaves…. Abed becomes more autonomous, starts exploring himself more. He actually has a relationship at a certain point. It’s probably hard to date Abed….. Annie (Alison Brie) gets back to her very driven, very capable, dedicated personality. She’s part sleuth, part politician, all Annie… Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) becomes more evolved as a businessperson. She’s shrewd, she’s calculating. We explore some of her passive aggression and how she manipulates people socially…. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) gets a little bit of an IQ boost. I’m as guilty as any previous handlers of her character of succumbing to the temptation to make her the butt of jokes simply because she doesn’t understand fundamental things about the world. Whereas the real Britta I think should be somebody who is handicapped by her tempestuous, passionate, political ideology…. The Dean (Jim Rash) — we cooled it on the costumes a bit, with a few noticeable exceptions. He’s incredibly funny this year as the bumbling, struggling, well-intended administrator of a school that’s sinking…. Chang (Ken Jeong) is out of his mind — clinically, comedically, dramatically out of his gourd. It’s become far too late to ask whether or not that should be the case or what that means to the group and now it’s time to just accept that that’s what he is and deal with the consequences.
How about a final cryptic hint about the new season?
As with every season before it, it’s either going to be the best or worst that you’ve ever seen. It’s a doozy. It’s 13 episodes, each episode is a little pearl and it’s from a new era of Community, which is the post–Dan Harmon-is-obsessed-with-whether-you like-the-show-or-not era. I’ve experienced enough feedback about whether or not I’m a good or bad person, washed my hands of that task and have hunkered down and tried to make what I thought was the best TV show in history.