Saturday, June 5, 2010

Movie reference

There are certain people and media products that seem to be constantly striving to serve people like myself (read: media sponges who take many forms of media that would be deemed ‘low culture’ way too seriously). The writer who best illustrates this point to me is Chuck Klosterman, for music there’s Girl Talk, and for TV now there is Community. These are products that are aware that, while low culture may not necessarily be advancing its art form, acknowledge that these products have value and in turn use it to create their own point. Klosterman does this explicitly, Girl Talk implicitly, but Community does both.

The show centers around a Spanish study group that is composed of a mish mash of character types, all of whom you have seen before countless times in other movies and TV shows. This group attends Greendale Community College, and you know, hijinks ensue. In the study group are the high-strung overachiever Annie, the old racist misogynist idiot Pierce, the dumb athlete Troy, mother of two Shirley, buzz kill atheist Britta, pop culture wizard but often socially awkward Abed, and the leader with the silver tongue, Jeff Winger.

The pilot for this show sets up all of these characters, most of all Jeff, who is described initially by Abed as “Chevy Chase in any one of his movies,” but then Abed corrects himself and says Jeff is “more like Bill Murray in any one of his movies.” The truth is, he’s a mix of both, as he mixes Chase’s wit with Murray’s goofiness, all while being a “textbook narcissist.” Jeff sets up Community as an ensemble comedy with a leader who is a narcissist but still likeable (much like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, Stripes*, etc) with a flair for sarcasm (Chevy Chase in Fletch) and the necessary dash of “fuck you” that each comedians’ characters had when the actor was in his prime.

The rest of the characters are less important to the show’s overall progression (with an exception that I will deal with shortly), as they fill the roles of their aforementioned character types. Britta is there as Jeff’s “will they or won’t they” girl and Pierce is clearly meant to be Jeff in twenty years, but again these characters are mostly there to provide material for Jeff’s character. While each character gets their share of plot lines, it always comes back to Jeff. He will struggle with his feelings for Britta, and he will worry about becoming Pierce, but he will still continue to be the Murray/Chase hybrid that the show requires. As in all of the great ensemble comedy movies that came from the Saturday Night Live tree in the 1970s and 80s, there needs to be a powerful comedic leader, a role that Jeff fills.

Abed is completely aware of all of this, even going so far as to mention it multiple times. What makes Abed one of the most uniquely postmodern characters on television right now (and probably ever) is that he is more or less a viewer of the show that he is actually in. Abed’s main purpose on the show is to point out everything that resembles another piece of popular media, as well as occasionally trying to reenact other media. In the pilot alone, he acknowledges the study group’s resemblance to a John Hughes ensemble and, as mentioned previously, points out Jeff’s Murray and Chase similarities. Abed acknowledges that in modern society, there is little genuine action and emotion, as the bombardment of media products has left us in a hyperreality where we are all both consciously and subconsciously referring to past media products. Think of Abed as a sort of hipster version of Jean Baudrillard, except funnier, easier to digest, and much easier to paraphrase without bastardizing his general idea.

Jeff is definitely the emotional core of the show, but Abed is more representative of what the show actually is. Through its constant references to other pop culture products, Community creates a new whole that is both hilarious and at times even emotionally compelling. The show is a sitcom, and each episode is structured as such: we get a plot set up, and by the end of the episode that plot has a resolution. Community subscribes to the more modern sitcom formula however, in that it is shot in a single camera style (as opposed to in front of a studio audience) and there are lengthier plot lines that are carried through multiple episodes, most notably Jeff and Britta’s relationship that has been developed over the course of the first season.

In keeping with what makes the show great, however, is how it continually pokes fun at the sitcom format itself. Abed discusses the sexual tension between Britta and Jeff, comparing them to Ross and Rachel, and Abed foreshadows the season finale twist that you could often find in a show like Friends. Community not only references other sitcoms, but also learns from these past sitcoms’ mistakes. Like Abed, the producers and writers of Community have seen every major sitcom, and know what to do to avoid making the same mistakes that others have. Any shark jumping moments that have occurred on past sitcoms will not be repeated unless Community is attempting to make a point of it. Should Community last long enough to be able to jump the shark, it will likely do so in a new way.

Reference comedy has grown in popularity in the last 10 years, and I think a lot of this can be attributed to Judd Apatow’s team of comic actors, specifically Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd. Each of these actors’ most famous characters, both in Apatow and others’ films, rely heavily on media references to get laughs. A reference that is funny will get a bigger laugh than a regular joke that is just as funny: the reference joke gets a laugh that comes with a bonus boost of “oh I get it!” whereas the non-reference joke only gets the normal laugh. This feeling of being included in the group that gets the reference joke often bolsters the joke itself, and the audience will likely respond with a bigger laugh because of it. Community recognizes this and uses it to its advantage, much like Apatow-produced films have. If you get the reference jokes on Community, you are a part of a group that acknowledges this brand of humour, and with this feeling of community you subconsciously laugh a little bit harder**. This isn’t necessarily a cheap way to get a laugh, although it can be, it’s just a newer way.

With all of the referencing and apparent commentary on media-saturated society that Community does, it would be easy to fall into the category of being postmodern just to seem more interesting. Think of those glamour shots in Garden State that do little to serve the story or make anything more than a weak point, or the thrown in references to ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ and other media in 500 Days of Summer: these are examples of mentioning media just to seem cool, and you can find them in just about any media product targeted directly at hipsters (and often this blog – remember my last post, when I referenced Metal Machine Music for a reason that didn’t really further my point? Yep, perfect example). Community, however, rarely falls into that trap, and even the most postmodern episodes make their references in a way that serves the story. The episode everybody talks about is the paintball episode, “Modern Warfare,” and rightfully so. It is the most explicitly postmodern episode of the show so far, and not only does it serve as a tribute to action movies, but it also advances key plot points that have been building throughout the season. By the end of the episode, Jeff has both acted selflessly and had sex with Britta. These actions have been built up all season, and both get a form of resolution in this episode, even while drenched in the metaphorical paint of action movie homage.

For all of the goofing around Community does, it is clear that the crew really care about the level of technical quality of the show. This, again, is never more evident than in the paintball episode, as the action scenes rival anything you can see in a modern action movie. Just about every episode has a sort of thesis that it tries to make a point with (some more obvious than others), and it is typically a slightly different take on a point a traditional sitcom would try to make. One of my favourite ‘characters’ in the show is the Greendale Human Being, the school mascot that is basically a person dressed in a plain bodysuit that covers all of his skin. He symbolizes the thesis of the episode “Football, Feminism and You,” which Jeff says late in the episode, “that not being racist is the new racism.” Other episodes have themes about being raised on television, an episode about whether humans are inherently good or evil, Christianity’s unwillingness to accept others, and more.

The show also gets at a few grander points with its postmodernism. By having everybody in the cast playing a well-defined character type that we have seen before, Community acknowledges that the “types” that have been set out in John Hughes movies, MTV reality shows, preceding sitcoms and other products not only exist, but will continue to be perpetuated both in media products and real life. Most North Americans under the age of 35-40 at this point have grown up with a ton of popular media, and now more than ever, these media products define who we are. We are all, at this point, variations on and combinations of character types, and not only does Community acknowledge this, but it seems to be one of the first mass media products that is okay with it. Community knows that this is how modern people are, and as the show’s other main thesis is to accept people for how they are, it only makes sense that the show encourages us to creatively make references as opposed to being wholly original. Community encourages people to rethink what has been put out as the accepted idea of something: not being racist is the new racism, clich├ęs exist/people are types and that is okay, and there is almost nothing you can do now that hasn’t already been done before on television. No idea is truly original at this point, but how you use past ideas still can be.

*Bill Murray’s character in Stripes is actually named John Winger. Is Jeff’s name just a coincidence? Not a chance.

**This is completely a theory of mine. I have no evidence to back this up.


  1. Your theory has gotta be right because it's something I brought up about Family Guy and then Brent trumped? me with about (old) Simpsons. Everytime Family guy references, well, in my case 80s music videos or musical theatre which they actually do a lot, Like their 'Little Shop of Horrors' reference! Squee! I always feel like I am somehow more awesome for getting the joke. Like I wanna say 'Hey, Seth MacFarlane. You are pretty cute, but also I JUST GOT THAT JOKE. ME. Let's bang. Giggity.'

    Brent was like 'WELL EMILY THAT'S OLD NEWS' because in the simpsons they used to do that all the time but with shakespeare and smart things because all the simpsons writers went to harvard. Although to me that's a whole different ball game since it was creating comedy from the apparent disconnect between 'high' and 'low' brow art. Also most modern and postmodern literature is built on references to other literature. But I guess that is probably more 'high' art referencing 'high' art and it's not really usually for jokes but for some kind of important meaning or something.

    anyways, this referencing has been going on for a bunch of times so that one day in 2010 Abed could just say 'movie reference' and we would all laugh.

    What was I saying?

  2. Yeah i am in no way saying that Community started reference comedy, and in retrospect i should have at least mentioned Family Guy because that show borderline relies on references, much like Community. And from what i remember about the Simpsons (something i'm not well versed in), there are certainly a lot of references. those two shows often used a lot of visual references to go along with what was being said, whereas Apatow reference comedy is typically strictly verbal. there will be lines like "do you know how i know you're gay? because you like coldplay" or calling somebody with a beard "serpico" while explaining that the only reason you will get laid is because of "eric bana in munich."

    Community uses both these verbal and visual reference techniques often, but what makes Community different is that they seem to only reference things that Abed could have conceivably seen on television growing up. He's not talking at length about the Raven or Macbeth because those aren't all over TV, outside of in Simpsons reruns. the oldest references i can remember in Community are the Godfather movies and MASH, two things that are still all over TV today.

    Like the musical theatre references you love so much in Family Guy, I love adoring Ghostbusters references and hilarious reenactments of scenes from action movies. Like you and Little Shop, these are the things I grew up loving, and since Community makes these references constantly, it is, for lack of a better term, my jam. I'm more Abed than a Harvard-educated comedy writer, and that's why Community fits me personally. Community is for those who watched more than they read, and that's why I prefer references to Venkman over Poe.