Joel McHale Saw Rehiring Dan Harmon As Community's Only Hope

It is a miracle that Dan Harmon's groundbreaking sitcom "Community" lasted more than a half-season on NBC. The series about seven misfits who form a study group at the fictional Greendale Community College was aggressively dense in its world-building and proudly esoteric in its references. How esoteric? In only its second season, the show turned what was set up as a "Pulp Fiction" homage into an invigoratingly cerebral riff on "My Dinner with Andre" provoked by a character's extra work on Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel's "Cougar Town." Not so shockingly, "Community" ranked a dire 138 in the Nielsen ratings that year.

Harmon and a crack staff of writers that included Megan Ganz, Dino Stamatopoulos, Liz Cackowski, Chris McKenna, and Andy Bobrow shredded the outside of the envelope of what was acceptable on a network sitcom. It made "Seinfeld" look like "Full House." Critics and a cult following kept the series on the air for six seasons, but Harmon was the unruly genius who propelled the show ever forward to narrative nirvana and ratings disaster. Executives at Sony, which produced the series for NBC, didn't get or like the show. They wanted to be rid of it. So when Harmon's perfectionism frayed the nerves of his collaborators and his corporate overlords, he was fired from the show he'd created after its third season.

Harmon was replaced by the showrunner duo of David Guarascio and Moses Port, middle-of-the-road sitcom pros who'd made their bones on NBC's mainstream laffer "Just Shoot Me." It went poorly.

Three seasons and a meltdown

In the wake of his firing, Harmon candidly owned up to his combative, control-freak nature. "I'm not saying you can't make a good version of 'Community' without me," he wrote on his blog. "But I am definitely saying that you can't make my version of it, unless I have the option of saying, 'It has to be like this, or I quit' roughly eight times a day."

These are not ideal conditions for any kind of work environment, but for centuries we've excused artists' excesses and peccadillos as the high cost of receiving great art. Your vision is your vision, and it may be brilliant, but, in the performing arts, the myriad of actors and crew members who are busting their humps to serve your genius aren't automatons. A film set is not a model train set.

In any event, Harmon was gone, which resulted in a subpar, 13-episode season of "Community," which felt like the death of the show. The fans and critics hated it, the cast and writers were displeased, and the ratings were, well, actually improved! After finishing 144th in the Nielsens derby during its third season, the show shot up all the way to 133rd place.

Amazingly, "Community" received a reprieve. And this stay of execution was the doing of star Joel McHale.

A hard-fought return to Greendale

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, McHale went to bat for the series' creator as integral to the show's creative integrity. Per McHale:

"Dan was the only way I believe we would get to a 6th season since the show is in his head. Like J.R.R. Tolkien had Middle-earth in his. And I have to thank NBC and Sony for being open and willing to bring him back. And I'm as excited as a little schoolgirl."

McHale's support was bolstered by cast member Jim Rash, who'd won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for "The Descendents" in 2011. As Rash told The New York Times' Dave Itzkoff, "We had a great map to work off. But you still don't have a person at the helm who's taking us on those adventures."

Sony allowed Harmon to return to the helm of "Community," though this meant losing Ganz, who was mistreated by Harmon during her tenure on the show. Harmon apologized via his podcast "Harmontown," and Ganz ultimately forgave him.

"Community" isn't over just yet. Peacock greenlit the long-promised movie last year, though cast member Alison Brie recently expressed a bit of doubt as to whether it'll actually go before cameras. The ball, as ever, is in Harmon's court. If he can hold it together for long enough to finish the film (which isn't anywhere in the ballpark of completing a full season of television), we'll get one last day in the sun at Greendale. Here's hoping.