I want to eventually become a sitcom writer, so I have spent countless hours reading books and studying the basic rules of writing a successful TV comedy. And the one thing they all stress is “Figure out what your audience wants, and then give it to them.”
That is why so many sitcoms have a very clear wheelhouse where they get their best humor. Episodes consist of characters getting into sticky situations, always reacting the same ways and eventually getting out of them. The plot may change each week, but the tone and theme rarely do.
It generally takes writers some time to find the sweet spot for a new show, which is why sitcoms tend to get better as their first season goes on. But once the writers find their footing and find the notes they want to hit, they rarely sing a different tune.
That is not the case with Community. Creator Dan Harmon and his team of writers constantly push the boundaries of what they can do with the characters they’ve created. They take huge risks on a regular basis, which could be why the show has failed to build a large audience.
But the niche of fans the show has found is fiercely loyal because they appreciate how ballsy the Community writers are. In a strange way, Community manages to at the same time both break and follow the above rule of giving the audience the same thing week in and week out.
Through both of its seasons on-air, Community has experimented with vastly different installments. From genre spoofs to meta humor to bottle episodes, the series has perhaps the widest range of episodes of any sitcom I’ve ever seen.
When this trend first began, the show was breaking from the tradition of always delivering the same basic concept. But at this point, the avid fans left over now expect that level of unpredictability. And that is the one thing Community delivers week to week – unpredictability.
One week you’ll get a zombie attack during a Halloween party, the next you’ll get a full-scale paintball war, and the week after that you’ll get a deep character study of how aging affects people. Sometimes the show follows a strict setup-and-punchline format, while in others it focuses more on emotional connection than blatant humor.
And somehow, the show manages to do all those things well. It is a credit to both the characters created by the writing staff and the actors who play them that Community can maintain high quality while keeping such diversity from week to week.
The writers even call themselves out on their own tendencies and weaknesses. When fans complained during Season 1 that the Jeff and Britta will they/won’t they was getting in the way of the show, the characters had that exact conversation on screen.
In the most recent episode, the writers satirized both the TV trope of clip shows as well as their own writing patterns. The clips shown were all “flashbacks” of things that never actually happened, at least not on-screen. But they featured characters doing the same things they always do.
Jeff made metaphor-laden speeches, Pierce was offensive and ridiculous, Troy was quick to emotionally break down, and Shirley was subtly vindictive. The writers were acknowledging they have patterns, but also were showing they are aware of what they consistently do while making fun of themselves for doing it.
It’s those moments that make Community such a rare and outstanding comedy. It manages to frame and tell a full story, while also working in Inception-style levels of meta references that speak directly to the audience but still make sense in the context of the story.
I’m not sure there is another team of writers or group of actors that could adequately pull off this kind of humor once, and Community does it every week.
There may be shows with better laugh-per-minute ratios (like Parks and Recreation or Curb Your Enthusiasm), but Community delivers consistent quality and variety in equal measure. And that’s what makes it the best comedy currently on TV.