Characters that act as pop-culture machines are nothing new. It has become especially vogue in recent years to have at least one character in a sitcom that almost constantly references or quotes other works. The difference is that most of those characters get no development whatsoever, while Abed of Community is one of the most well thought-out characters on any sitcom today.
We have gotten brief glimpses into Abed’s personal life, and none of it is good. His family split when he was young, and he was left to be raised by his demanding and overprotective father. Because he never truly experienced the outside world, he never acquired the social abilities most people take for granted.
Before coming to Greendale, he had never felt an emotional attachment to another person and has no filter for his thoughts. Because he is so emotionally cut off from the world, he has trouble understanding what will be significant to other people.
Almost every memorable experience Abed had during his formative years came through movies or television. He was so unhappy with his real life that he instead retreated into a fake one he built around media.
The result is an emotionally vacant character that seemingly can take on any personality he wants. He realizes his usual behavior is abnormal and the average person finds him weird, so when it is needed he can slip into another personality altogether.
All of this character development has been done in the span of 44 episodes of a sitcom. There are shows that did not give the audience such a vivid understanding of any character in their entire run on air.
Perhaps most importantly, Abed is consistently the funniest member of the study group. Virtually everything about his character can be played for laughs.
He makes perfectly-timed pop culture references, is almost disturbingly observant, frames entire days based on films and at times makes the group uncomfortable with his directness. He also constantly breaks the fourth wall, basically observing his own life as if it’s a TV show and telling the audience what’s going on, and delivers some of the best meta humor I’ve witnessed.
The hilarity level skyrockets when Abed is paired with Troy (Donald Glover), and at this point the two are almost inseparable. Since Abed is so socially awkward, much of the buddy relationship humor falls on Troy, who gets jealous when Abed’s attention lands elsewhere and is willing to sacrifice just about anything for their friendship.
The writers clearly had a different path in mind for the Troy character, but Glover’s chemistry with Danny Pudi is so terrific they scrapped that and instead created possibly the best bromance currently on TV.
Speaking of Pudi, I always admire actors who seem perfectly tailor made for a part, and yet in real life are nothing like their character. That is the case here.
Pudi has said in interviews before that he occasionally doesn’t understand the references he is supposed to make when he first receives the script for an episode. He is engaging, charismatic and constantly joking, all of which are in almost direct contrast to Abed.
Pudi plays Abed’s deadpan delivery and social confusion exceptionally well, but he really shines when the show delves into more emotional episodes. Ironically, some of the most poignant moments of the show have centered on Abed, the character who shows no emotion.
It is a credit to the show’s writing staff that they are able to put Abed in situations that are impactful to the audience without changing the character. But it is Pudi who really nails it. He keeps Abed’s robotic delivery, but you can hear just a slight change in tone that signifies how important the moment is.
Community may have started by being centered on Jeff (Joel McHale), but the show slowly has begun to shift its focus to Abed. The character is so interesting that he often lends himself to the best storylines, something the writers can’t pass up.
Abed is a perfect microcosm of what makes Community great. Both he and the show can be incredibly goofy one week, emotionally stirring the next week and self-referential the week after that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that is more versatile.
Most shows would be perfectly content to have a similar character pop in every few minutes with a pop culture reference, everyone laughs and moves on. And that’s all they ever are. But not Community, and not Abed.
Programming Note: Community can be seen at 8/7c Thursdays on NBC.
TV’s Top 10 Characters
10 – Stewie Griffin
9 – Sterling Archer
8 – Chuck Bartowski
7 – Manny Delgado
6 – Dexter Morgan
5 – Barney Stinson
4 – Don Draper
3 – Abed Nadir
2 – Phil Dunphy
1 – Ron Swanson
Honorable Mention – April 1