Community Writers Quit Because Of Insane Hours & Unstructured Format

"Community" began as a conventional single-camera sitcom that balanced humor with romantic drama. But the series became increasingly ambitious through its first three seasons. Episodes parodied action films, zombie thrillers, and "My Dinner With Andre." Background gags and Easter eggs trained audiences to root through each episode for clues. The series could also nail the television fundamentals, as in season 2's bottle episode "Cooperative Calligraphy." "Community" was made by people who loved TV, and were willing to pull every trick in the book to do that love justice. Future seasons would challenge that love, of course. The departure of showrunner Dan Harmon led to a messy season 4, and even his return in the following two seasons wasn't enough to keep the cast from leaving for new and exciting opportunities. But the show's best episodes were so exceptional that it didn't really matter. "'Community' was always a show about underdogs," wrote Liz Shannon Miller at Paste. "It knew the power of its message."

In a Reddit post from April 2011, though, showrunner Dan Harmon wrote that the show's experimental spirit led to headaches behind the scenes. "Every episode had a week to be conceived and executed from scratch," he said, "almost as if we were doing a pilot each week." Harmon was satisfied with the results of his team's hard work, but admitted the process wasn't for everybody. "Several of the writers are quitting because the hours are insane," he said. He wrote these words on April 23, 2011, two days after the 21st episode of the second season. 64 episodes lay ahead of them.

We were in the trenches together

Harmon was not the only person who struggled on the set of "Community." In an interview with The Independent, the show's lead actors took turns discussing just how tough the show was to make. "Part of the 'Community' experience was exhaustion," said Gillian Jacobs (Britta). "We were basically shooting a movie every week," said Joel McHale. That's not even counting folks like Chevy Chase, who came to loathe Harmon on set (and, per a New Yorker profile, took out his frustrations on a young Donald Glover.) Says Harmon, Chase "was going to be working 12 hours a day and sometimes doing 20 takes whether he thought he nailed it or not." Chase refused to play that game and eventually left the series in 2012.

Other members of the cast said that while the production was challenging, they at least believed in each other and the show they were making. "We were in the trenches together," said Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley). "Our whole life was that show." Similarly, Allison Brie (Annie) said that "we were lucky we loved each other so much because those long hours could have been a real slog." Making "Community" was exceptionally difficult, but it could be satisfying, too. "The weirder the episodes got, the more fulfilling it was," Brie said. Not many other sitcoms offered the wild swings and formalist gambits that "Community" did. Later, when Harmon's firing led to a full season of half-hearted television, the actors longed to return to those difficult early days.

They just didn't want it to exist

As showrunner, Harmon could be a temperamental boss. In his interviews with Emily St. James at AV Club, he confesses to moments when he lashed out at staff due to his own fears. Particularly fraught was "Critical Film Studies," a season 2 episode that Harmon was convinced would be a bust. In a sleep-deprived moment of panic, he tore into the executive producer on set, only to realize that he was scaring his young collaborator Megan Ganz. "Why did I do that?" he asked himself. "Do I think I'm [Mark] Zuckerberg?" Again and again, Harmon would repeat these patterns of workaholism, antagonism, and tortured self-awareness. At times he would wonder, "why do you deserve a TV show?"

But Harmon earned the respect of his crew because he was willing to go to the mat in order to defend the integrity of "Community." One such example is the episode "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," where the cast sit around a table and play (of course) "Dungeons & Dragons." It aired in 2011, three years before the release of the game's 5th edition and subsequent slow-burn popularity. It precedes modern "actual play" hits like "Critical Role" and "The Adventure Zone," even though it certainly did not invent the format. But according to Harmon, the show's producers were befuddled by the notion that anybody would enjoy an episode themed around "Dungeons & Dragons." "They didn't even have any notes on the story," he said. "They just didn't want it to exist." The episode made it to air, but only because Harmon and his crew fought for it. (It was later removed from streaming in 2020 due to its use of blackface.)

Cooperative Calligraphy

Harmon could also be generous in praising his creative peers. In his interview with St. James, he credits writer Megan Ganz for leading his personal favorite episode of season 2, "Cooperative Calligraphy." "I was just so proud of her for taking this outline home and delivering this draft that I read," he says. Later, he remembers how Ganz convinced him not to give up when the scripting of "Critical Film Studies" was going poorly. Harmon thanks Angela Bromstad, the former NBC programming head, for pushing him to hire more women writers. Despite his initial resistance, he soon realized that having women as well as men write the scripts only improved them. "We have to stop thinking of [hiring women] as a quota thing," he said, "and think of it as a common sense thing."

Seven years after this interview was published, in 2018, Megan Ganz alleged that Harmon had made life very difficult for her on the set of "Community." "It took me years to believe in my talents again," she said, "to trust a boss when he complimented me and not cringe when he asked for my number." Ganz's story revealed a very different Harmon than the one that appeared in St. James interview: a man willing to take advantage of others under his power. Shockingly, Harmon agreed with Ganz. In an episode of his podcast "Harmontown," per Vox, Harmon acknowledged that he was at fault. Rather than resolve his personal feelings like an adult, he said, "I made everybody else deal with them. Especially her." Even his own feminism came under the knife. Despite his earlier praise for Ganz and Bromstad, he admitted that "I was thinking of them as different creatures."

In a pickle

In 2013, Harmon and his friend Justin Roiland created the animated series "Rick and Morty" for Adult Swim. "Rick and Morty" told the story of an awkward teenager and his mad scientist grandfather. It was meaner than "Community," but its best moments were just as affecting. "Rick and Morty" gave opportunities to writers like Jennifer Gao and Mike McMahan, who went on to lead their own high-profile projects. Another key talent was Erica Hayes, who became the show's first female director in its fourth season. In an interview with Inverse, Hayes insisted that while she loved animation, it was important to recognize that animation was work. "I'm passionate about creative workers getting paid fairly and working fair hours," she said. "Any benefit that any other trade gets, we should get equally." Hayes was not just fighting together with her colleagues in the trenches, as the cast of "Community" did. She and her team were organizing.

In 2014, the storyboarders of "Rick and Morty" announced that they were forming a union with the Animation Guild. "F**K THE UNION," Justin Roiland wrote in a now-deleted Reddit post. He insisted that the Animation Guild had pressured the team to go on strike. According to the Animation Guild, though, they had simply asked the animators what they wanted to do, and acted accordingly. In the end, there was no strike, and the team scored a union contract. Years later, in 2022, the production staff of both "Rick and Morty" and its fellow animated series "Solar Opposites" filed for union election after management declined to offer them voluntary recognition. Per Callum May, the show's overseas animators still have no union at all. The same stories repeat, despite the hard work of staff members to ensure fair compensation.

The shadows you cast

This year Justin Roiland was charged in Orange County, California with "domestic battery" as well as "false imprisonment by menace, violence, fraud and/or deceit," per NBC News. Roiland was summarily fired by Adult Swim that January. These charges were lifted in March, leading to Roiland claiming he was ready to "focus both on my creative projects and restoring my good name." Many of his associates were not convinced. Allie Goertz, a musician who made a "Rick and Morty" concept album, shared bizarre and inappropriate direct messages that Roiland had sent her on Twitter. An anonymous source told Vox that "Roiland has had almost no involvement in the show's day-to-day production since its third season." Reportedly it was Harmon, not Roiland, who was the most involved of the pair in guiding the series.

In the Independent interview, Harmon says that "you end up collaborating with people who are the shadows you cast." The reason he fought with Chevy Chase on set, he believed, is that they were both talented narcissists. Since "Community," Harmon has publicly apologized for his foibles and sought to improve. Yet "Rick and Morty" is haunted by the same ghosts that dogged "Community," compounded by the stresses of animation production in the United States. A series that can be anything carries a cost of sweat and blood, taken from the writers, storyboarders, animators and other production members left to accomplish miracles in harsh conditions. Just as "Community" was made by many hands, every grisly piece of "Rick and Morty," snatched from the maw of late nights and poor treatment, belongs to them.