Finding 'Community' in Hollywood

A few weeks ago, I visited the sets of NBC's "Community," and here's the syndicated feature that resulted...

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OK, hands up out there, who went to a community college? Come on, 'fess up, no need to feel ashamed. Besides, considering the fierce competition to get into a tiny circle of high-priced, elite universities, America 's community colleges may be among the last truly egalitarian institutions of higher learning around.

Just about anyone can go - high-school grads, dropouts (college and high school), military veterans, kids without money or older people looking to keep their faculties sharp.

You might even find a lawyer with a propensity for prevaricating who now has to really get a bachelor's degree or face disbarment.

That lawyer is Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), and his story is at the heart of the NBC comedy "Community," premiering Thursday, Sept. 17. The show is the creation of Dan Harmon, who has actually attended community college and is not ashamed to admit it. He even stars in a series of online "orientation videos," playing Dean of Admissions Pat Isakson.

Stuck at Greendale Community College , Jeff falls for 28-year-old fellow Spanish student Britta (Gillian Jacobs), so he forms a Spanish-language study group - under false pretenses, of course - and winds up being the unlikely leader of a motley bunch of students.

These are middle-aged divorcee Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), pop-culture junkie Abed (Danny Pudi), high-strung Annie (Alison Brie), former high-school football star Troy (Donald Glover) and philosophical yet oddball businessman Pierce ( Chevy Chase ).

Their teacher is the excitable Senor Chang (Ken Jeong).

The distinctly '70s-flavored, appropriately scuffed sets for "Community" are housed at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, and on this bright August day, there's a celebration under way.

"My mom's here for my birthday," Brown says. "I'm so excited. It's a great day."

In between a gala event in the hair and makeup trailer, and a handmade card featuring Communit_Yvette_Nicole_Brown.jpgBrown's two biggest crushes, Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Brad Pitt (click here for a video of the birthday celebration), she explains why community-college alumni should embrace the show.

"If everybody had to go to community college, the world would be a better place," she says. "They're amazing. It's a little sad; I guess some people that haven't seen the show thought that it would be a negative portrayal, and it's not. It's really a love letter to community colleges, because it's a love letter to people who go to community colleges."

"Community" is a comedy without a couch or a workplace or a family home. It does, however, have a library and classrooms, and McHale sits down in one of them to discuss his character.

"In so many comedy pilots," he says, "here's the main character, everyone around him is insane; he's the normal guy, he's the everyman.

"This guy is actually not the moral compass of this show. Britta is the moral compass - Shirley, a little bit - but my guy was a liar and a cheater. Now he can't be, for the first time in his life."

Of course, change doesn't come overnight.

"It's like a Navy SEAL," McHale says, "who's been trained to kill someone in 400 ways, and my guy can lie 400 ways. So when he's presented with different circumstances, his first instinct is to do one of those things. He can't stop himself.

"Then he has to go, 'Uhhh ... ,' and try to do what's right, with varying degrees of success."

And if he fails, well, starting over is what community college is all about.

"There are no strict rules," Brown says, "that if you're not good enough or haven't achieved enough (you can't go). If you want to start over again, this is the place to do it.

"You get to understand about life, and it's a cross-section of everybody."


UPDATE: My alma mater -- yes, I am a community-college grad, couldn't you tell? -- responds to "Community." Go, Pioneers!