Community, man. It's a gripping topic. I've spent a lot of time on Reddit this week among passionate fans who are desperately awaiting news of a next season (or even more highly anticipated, a movie!). And with such speculation and joy comes the joining of keyboards to reminisce on what was and the burning desire to predict what will be. The Reddit universe is fascinating. But even more fascinating? The Reddit Community community. THESE PEOPLE LOVE THIS SHOW.
Every article I've read lately gets heated with differences of opinion on Season 6. So I won't get into the endless debate about whether the show is "losing its luster!" or "has never been better!" or how "Abed isn't himself without Troy!" or how "'SeaWorld should be shut down forever!" (sign the petition). But what I WILL do is invite writer, Alex Rubens, to give you his perspective. He's written for the show for several seasons, knows the characters inside out and isn't afraid to fight you if you disagree with him. Right Alex?! He wanted me to make sure I said that.
I'm really excited to post this interview because I now understand how painstakingly devoted and determined Community fans are. But I'm also equally nervous to post this interview because I know how painstakingly devoted and determined Community fans are. Just please, I beg you, be nice to me. And please be nice to Alex because he's been stuck in this position since he took this selfie last week. Doctors are looking into it.
Alex! I knew I’d see you here. Your overconfidence will be your undoing.
Let’s get the most pressing question out of the way. The Season 6 finale of Community aired on June 2 with no mention of a next season. What’s the deal, man? We’re trying to stay true to our roots. A Community that knows its own future is not Community. The fact that we were allowed to do whatever we wanted this last season was trouble enough already.
Can’t you just email the Marissa Mayer and ask for an update? I feel like she would understand. The impression I get is that the problem with Season 7 has nothing to do with Mayer or her people (the Mayerites), who have been excited and supportive throughout and clearly love having the show on Yahoo Screen. There are a lot of factors, but my sense is—and I’ve been out of the loop for months now, so I should clarify I don’t really know what I’m talking about—that there probably won’t be a Season 7 but that a movie is not unlikely.
What have you been up to while the show is awaiting its fate? I’ve been working on a million things (give or take nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-four). I recently got to visit the set of Keanu, the Key & Peele movie that Jordan Peele and I wrote, which is shooting in New Orleans as we “speak.” Also, Rich Talarico and I are just starting to write another Key & Peele movie, Substitute Teacher. And then there are about a hundred (give or take ninety-six) other film and TV things I’m working on that I don’t think I should talk about yet, this early in the process, but that I’m really excited about.
Community has – and I mean this with love in my heart – spent its six seasons on the verge of cancellation. With that, is there a pressure to make every season finale feel resolved yet open for more? I only worked on two seasons of the show, but both times Harmon was very clear that he didn’t want to write a series finale. At the same time, though, we all knew (both times) that the series finale is exactly what it might end up being. The Season 6 finale is, I think, a beautiful series finale, whether or not it ends up being that—and I think the way it’s open-ended isn’t so much about “keeping it open” as it is about representing the way “endings” actually work in real life. Nothing but death is final, and even with death the world continues along into (you could pretentiously say) seasons untold. Anyway, Harmon & McKenna really knocked that episode out of the park. That’s a sports metaphor, by the way, from the game of parkball.
How is writing for Yahoo different than writing for NBC? The short and annoying answer is that I didn’t write for Yahoo or NBC, I wrote for Harmon. So in that regard it was no different. The slightly longer answer is that in Season 5, the fact that Harmon had been rehired made him effectively unfireable, which in turn meant he could pretty much do whatever he wanted...whereas at Yahoo I guess you could just take out that “pretty much”? Maybe the real difference between working with Yahoo and working with NBC was just that at Yahoo we felt like a prize possession and at NBC we felt like increasingly unwelcome guests.
If you, yourself, could write any final ending for the show, what would it entail? This sounds like a cop-out, but I loved the Season 6 finale so much, I don’t think I’d do a thing differently. But in order to make this answer less boring, I’ll share with you my totally real but half-joking (OK, maybe three-quarters-joking) pitch for the finale: “A skinny, snaggletoothed Somali pirate shows up claiming to be Troy. He's obviously not Troy, he's a Somali pirate. But his presence here and his attempt to steal Troy's identity lead some in the group to believe that the Pharaohs have returned.” (The Pharaohs thing is an inside joke. Laugh as if you get it.)
The general consensus on Reddit is that Season 6 is darker and more realistic than past seasons, and it’s obviously functioning with only 4 out of the original Greendale 7 characters. What were some of the biggest challenges that were discussed in the writers room going into this latest season? I think the biggest challenge going in was dealing with the fact that the show no longer had anything holding it back. Sometimes having something to fight against is fuel for creativity. Maybe that struggle is even built into the DNA of the show. Harmon said something in an interview recently about no longer having any enemies this season and as a result sort of self-destructing. It’s like he had to become the bad guy himself, or he had to make the show the bad guy. There’s a line in one of the episodes like, “You realize you guys are rebelling against yourselves.” There was definitely an element of that, and I think it contributed a lot to what made Season 6 what it was, in good ways and bad. But Harmon really is a genius—one of the few people who get called “genius” and actually deserve the title—and whatever challenges we faced were transformed into greatness by the nuclear reactor at the center of that weird, amazing brain of his.
Chevy Chase, Donald Glover and Yvette Nicole Brown have all departed the show since its start. Which character exit was the most difficult to navigate? Donald was the hardest. It was devastating to Abed and to the comedic rhythm of the show. And also, I mean, he’s just so fucking talented. Everything he does, he nails. Before he was a TV star, he was a star TV writer—on fucking 30 Rock of all shows. (I’ve heard rumors that he was instrumental in creating the voice of Tracy Jordan.) He’s also of course an amazing improviser. So when he decides, “I’m done being a comedic genius, I’m gonna go do hip-hop,” of course he has to go do it. And of course he gets nominated for a Grammy. But it was a real loss and a real bummer that he left the show. Donald is magic.
Do you have a favorite character? In Season 6 it was Britta. I was talking with another one of the writers—I think maybe the great Carol Kolb (The Onion, Review)—and we were sort of realizing together that Britta is or had become the perfect sitcom hero: passionate and in a very deep sense good-hearted, but at the same time bumbling and flawed and bound to screw things up whenever she tries to fix them. And the fact that Gillian is a brilliant comedic actress doesn’t hurt too much either. This cast, man, I can’t say enough nice things. Or I guess I should say I’ve already said enough nice things that I’m a little worried they’ll think I’m some kind of stalker. So I’m just gonna play it cool. Hi, guys! I’m in your crawlspace!
Tell us something about the cast we may not already know. I’m in their crawlspace.
Which season is your particular favorite? My three favorites are probably Season 2, Season 3, and Season 1 (in descending order), but I love Season 1 too. One thing that was fun about working on this show is that there was literally no other network show I would rather have written for—except possibly The Simpsons in the ’90s. Community was my favorite show and Dan Harmon is my favorite writer. Oh, and I can’t be objective about Seasons 5 and 6, but I think the stories were stronger in Season 5 and the comedy was better in Season 6 (a progression I think The Simpsons also experienced in the ’90s, by the way). It’s too bad there never was a Season 4. Who knows how that would have turned out!
I have to mention your ex-girlfriend writes for Inside Amy Schumer and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Why would you ever break up with her? Because she’s a horrible person.
In all seriousness, it’s pretty impressive that you’re both successful comedy writers. But which one of you is more attractive?I’m kidding about Emily Altman being a horrible person. She’s a great person and a great comedy writer and a great friend—not to mention the fact that she basically got me into comedy writing. But to answer your attractiveness question, I think she’d be the first to admit that she is grotesquely ugly. Really just hideously misshapen. It’s sad, but it’s also inspiring.
What’s your favorite show right now? Naming Game of Thrones is a bit like naming Sgt. Pepper when asked about albums—but what can I say, it’s a great album. I really enjoyed Better Call Saul, and I continue to be in love with Louie (the show, not the man...although I guess Louie can get it too). Haven’t seen all of Broad City but what I’ve seen is hilarious. Oh, and some of the Amy Schumer show this past season was instant-classic-level great. What else? My wife and I have been watching a lot of Forensic Files lately...
You used to be an English teacher. What grade did you teach? Mainly high school. But over the course of a few years I taught sixth, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth.
Would you say your teaching style is more John Keating from Dead Poets Society or John Kimble from Kindergarten Cop? More Miyagi in The Karate Kid. I basically just had them build me a guest house.
You’re also a novelist. What genre is your favorite to write? I used to consider myself a novelist. I don’t want to be one of those pretentious assholes who’s all like, “The novel is dead,” but the novel is dead. No, it’s not dead. As Frank Zappa said about jazz, it just smells funny. I’m reading Knaussgaard’s My Struggle right now and it is pretty great, but a big part of what’s great about it is how it breaks the novel. I guess if I ever wrote a novel again, which who knows, then I’d probably want it to be, like, a darker Douglas Adams...or a more user-friendly Thomas Pynchon (arguably another way of saying the same thing). I like things that are funny and dark but not hateful.
What made you realize you wanted to get into screen writing instead? I got into fiction as a kid because I didn’t know how to make movies. I wanted to write Star Wars: Episode VII (currently available on my web site at okrubens.com/return) and Gremlins 2, and I never had the directorial bug, so basically I got into novels by way of novelizations. I finally figured that out when it hit me that I loved Monty Python at least as much as I loved Nabokov, and I’d be at least as proud to have written Ghostbusters as I would be to have written Infinite Jest...so why was I focusing my energy into the passion that I shared with far fewer people? My taste in fiction is a little weird; my taste in comedy isn’t wildly far from the mainstream. Not to mention the fact that all my favorite writers were just on the edge of comedy writing already—sometimes arguably well over the line. So when I realized that becoming a comedy writer would not only not be selling out but would in fact be much truer to what I loved...well, life got a whole lot easier.
Is there a passion project you’re currently working on? I probably shouldn’t discuss some of the stuff in development, but I’m continuing my stupefyingly lucky streak of working with my heroes. And yes.
Where do you envision your life/career in five, ten, 200 years? Five? Dead. Ten? Alive again. 200 years? I’m hoping dead and for good this time, but really it’s anybody’s guess.