I get to the set of NBC’s Community a little bit before sunset, the night they are going to set Chevy Chase on fire. The new comedy—about a misfit study group at a community college—does its location shooting on a real campus in Koreatown. Tonight, they’re shooting some nighttime shots for the second episode (the first one they shot after the pilot was made last spring), in which Chase’s character (Pierce, the lonely former CEO of a moist-towelette company) catches ablaze.
In this very funny new show—starring The Soup’s Joel McHale—Chase is making his first regular return to TV in years (he did a brief arc on Chuck last season). Now, in the name of comedy, he must burn.
Actually, much of the burning will be taken care of by Chase’s stunt double, who is being prepared for the shot. It involves getting his arm wrapped up and applying a gel that burns while sparing (one hopes) what’s underneath it. It’s apparently perfectly safe, as getting set on fire goes.
First, the crew is shooting another scene, involving a campus protest. The pilot introduced Jeff Winger (McHale), a slick-talking, amoral lawyer forced to get a new undergraduate degree when his old one proves, like pretty much everything else about him, fraudulent. Looking to load up on gut courses and get out of work, he organizes a Spanish study group to help him bone up, or better yet, cheat. But he ends up crushing on idealistic Britta (Gillian Jacobs), which puts him in the uncomfortable position of trying to become a better person for her, or, preferably, credibly faking it.
Rounding out the study group are socially-challenged Abed (Danny Pudi), who sees the entire world in terms of movie and TV plots (which provides a metacommentary on Community the sitcom itself); two new high-school grads, jittery Annie (Mad Men’s Alison Brie) and onetime star jock Troy (Donald Glover); tightly wound single mom Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown); and Pierce, who develops an unrequited man-crush on Jeff. (The Daily Show’s Jon Oliver is in the pilot as a college administrator but won’t be a regular; Ken Leong joins the show in the second episode as Spanish teacher Señor Chang.)
The show follows the format of a million misfits-thrown-together comedies—like The Breakfast Club, as Abed reminds us copiously in the pilot—but it works, thanks to a brisk script by writer-creator Dan Harmon (who helped create The Sarah Silverman Program). On the NBC-Thursday-single-camera-comedy-continuum, it’s somewhere between the docu-realism of The Office and the smart cartooniness of 30 Rock, and it embraces Jeff’s cynicism while retaining enough heart of its own not to be off-putting.
And Chase threatens to run away with the show as he needily pursues his bromance with Jeff. In the episode they’re shooting, he arranges to partner with Jeff in a bizarrely elaborate conversational-Spanish exercise, which Pierce turns into a man-date, bringing a bottle of Scotch to the library where they’re preparing. “To empowerage of words,” Pierce toasts. “To the irony of that sentence,” Jeff replies.
The protest scene shoots while there’s still light; then there’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait as the campus square gets lit up for the night scenes. (It’s Friday night and they have the campus to themselves. Note to budget-strapped education administrators looking for alternative revenue streams!)
Harmon chats up his cast about what shows Community will be scheduled against in the fall. (It premieres at 9:30 E.T. Thursdays, then moves to 8:30 when 30 Rock comes back.) The Vampire Diaries, somebody says. It’s like a stake in the heart. Competing with freaking vampires! Everything is vampires now!, Harmon frets. Even HBO has a vampire show. “I’m going to make a show for Showtime about an Italian mobster vampire gigolo,” he declares. “‘Madonn’, I’m a vampire! Gabbagool!’”
Once it’s dark enough, the stunt guy shoots his scenes, getting his arm lit up, then running across the square waving it around like a human torch. (Later, Chase will get lit briefly, for the close-up.) Chase talks over his lines and the physical comedy of the scene with Harmon, who seems jazzed at the idea of setting a TV legend on fire. “I’ve been doing it in my dreams every night for a week,” he says. (If you believe the recollections of the famously difficult Chase’s SNL costars in Tom Shales’ Live from New York, Harmon is not the first person in Hollywood to have had this dream.) Chase suggests a few different reads of and variations on his lines, then pronounces the scene funny. “The kind of funny that’ll get me killed.”
More set-up. They shoot a scene with Chase and McHale, leading up to the moment when Pierce ignites. It’s getting on to midnight; shooting is going to run until early in the morning. In the meantime, Chase sits down behind the camera and we chat briefly about what he likes to watch on TV (Animal Planet and Discovery ID). Somebody mentions Harold Ramis, and Chase does a spot-on impression of Ramis on his first day directing Caddyshack: “And… cut! I mean action!”
For some reason this recollection seems to make Chase a little melancholy. He starts talking about Andy Kaufman and Sid Caesar, saying how sad it is when comedians fall out of the limelight. “We’re like children,” Chase says. “We need constant attention.”
Then he brings up a memory from his childhood, a strangely dark one for a comic who’s in the middle of making a comeback on TV. He remembers his family getting their first television set, when Chase was a boy. Everybody was excited—everybody except Chase’s grandfather. “He just pointed to it, and he said, ‘It lies,’” Chase says. “He knew it. He knew that it was its job to entertain and to sell us things.”
Then he gets out of his chair, and goes off to get lit up.