Earlier this month, the small but rabid fan base of the NBC sitcom Community received some discouraging news: the show will be put on indefinite hiatus after the new year due to low ratings, perhaps never to return. But fans can take some solace in the fact that most of the show’s cast members have side jobs that will keep them in action. Joel McHale hosts E!’s The Soup, Alison Brie appears on Mad Men, Donald Glover raps under the name Childish Gambino, and Chevy Chase will continue to be Chevy Chase.
Another Community regular who is blossoming outside the show is Jim Rash (a.k.a. Dean Pelton), who co-wrote the new film The Descendants with writing partner Nat Faxon. The film, starring George Clooney and directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways), tells the story of Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer who is forced to deal with the aftermath of a boating accident that leaves his wife in a coma. We caught up with Rash to talk screenwriting, his dream episode of Community and the future of the show.
First things first. How did you end up writing The Descendants? You got pretty lucky with both Payne and Clooney for your first produced feature.
Well, Nat and I met doing sketch comedy at The Groundlings in Los Angeles, and knew each other for over a decade and started writing original scripts together. One of our projects, a script called The Way Back, caught the attention of Alexander Payne. It is a coming-of-age story about a boy who spends his summer connecting with a guy who runs a down-and-out water park. It was both funny and sad, and Alexander thought that our tone might be a great fit for the adaptation of [Kaui Hart Hemmings’] The Descendants, which he had just bought.
Did you have George Clooney in mind as you wrote the screenplay?
No, not really at all! But as soon as Alexander told us that was who he was going after for the role of Matt King, that fit right into our perception. It felt really right. And we also got really lucky with Shailene Woodley, who plays the eldest daughter, Alex. She went toe to toe with Clooney in every scene and it was just incredible to watch.
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The movie is set in Hawaii and draws so much plot and inspiration from the tropical setting. Did you spend a lot of time in paradise?
We got to go for five days during shooting, when they were filming this climactic confrontation scene in Kauai. I wish we had excuses to go more.
Community. So beloved, and yet the show is in danger. What’s the mood on set right now?
I think we are more hopeful than you’d expect. The hiatus is disappointing for sure. But we are proceeding with the idea that we will be back, and there is good optimism around it. I think what’s more disappointing for us is the greater idea; the difficulties that good shows can have in this huge marketplace. We seem to be under an archaic way of tracking ratings and it’s frustrating. We all know that technology has advanced to the point of watching TV online. Our audience is very young, and they tend to do that. Our audience watches on sites like Hulu and that’s not being counted.
Community fans are some of the most dedicated and fervent around. Have you come in contact with the hysteria?
Well, you see it all the time on Twitter. Our fans are just nuts on there, in a good way. This year I also got to go to Comic Con, and it was amazing to see that room jam-packed with people all excited about our little show. The amount of people making You Tube videos, putting music to stuff, etc., it’s unreal. Even now, when our ratings are so uncertain, we are going to make the cover of TV Guide as the fan favorite show due to how dedicated our viewers are.
Recently, Community aired its first episode focused on your character, Dean Pelton, in which he goes crazy trying to make a promotional video for Greendale. How did that come about?
Around the time we were shooting our Halloween episode, Megan Ganz, who wrote it, came up to me and gave me a little hint that they were working on a Hearts of Darkness parody and that the Dean was at the center of it. I was obviously thrilled — it was a chance to play a few more colors and learn about the darkness that lies underneath the Dean’s enthusiasm.
In the episode, Joel McHale does a spot on impersonation of Dean Pelton. Did you coach him at all?
Sadly it almost came right out of him, which was more shocking and maybe more troubling to me, that he could call upon that and nail it right away. I didn’t know whether to be offended or flattered.
So what’s next for you? Do you have a backup plan in case our worst Community nightmares come true?
I’m still writing with Nat, and we have a lot going on. The next thing we are working on is a small dysfunctional family comedy, which Alexander Payne is producing for Fox Searchlight. That film will be our own original script, but we are also reading a lot of books and seeing if something strikes us to adapt as well. We are also about halfway into the process of getting our first script, The Way Back, made into a feature. We’re crossing our fingers that it all comes together, but as you know, the film business is a house of cards.
Community is famous for its parodies and homage episodes. Assuming you have another season to go, what would be your dream episode of Community?
I used to love those zany Sid and Marty Krofft shows, and H.R. Pufnstuf. There was this group of live-action Saturday morning shows that basically looked like acid trips for kids. I think we could wrap our heads around parodying that. I’d also love to do our own version of The Matrix, because then we could all walk around doing cool s___ and looking amazing.