What Happened To Professor Duncan On Community?

Watching the pilot episode of "Community" for the first time, you'd be forgiven for thinking John Oliver's Professor Duncan will be a major part of the show. After a brief interaction with Abed (Danny Pudi), Duncan is the first character Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) talks to. In fact, Jeff and Duncan's conversation in the pilot's cold open is the first full, proper scene of the series.

Jeff is a disgraced lawyer coming back to community college to get his law degree; Duncan is the former drinking buddy Jeff once bailed out of a DUI. Jeff wants Duncan to help him breeze through college, but Duncan has just enough of a moral code to not go along with this. At least, not without getting something in return. Duncan manages to convince Jeff to give him his car in exchange for the answers to every test he'll be taking throughout the semester, except it's all part of a ruse to teach Jeff about the importance of academic integrity (or something). 

The implication of the pilot is clear: as much as the study group is the main focus of the show, Professor Duncan's also going to a major presence. After all, he's the only character who knew Jeff back when he was a lawyer, and they're established to be friends. It would be weird if he didn't play a major role in the series, right?

But that's not what happens.

Season 1

Duncan and Jeff spend a decent amount of time together in season 1, with their friendship proving handy in episode 5, "Advanced Criminal Law," where Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is put on trial for cheating on a Spanish exam. Whether Britta is suspended or not comes down to three judges: Chang (Ken Jeong), who wants to punish Britta to the severest extent possible, Duncan, who's clearly on Jeff's side, and the Dean, who goes both ways. (Scratch that, I mean he's impartial.) 

It's in this episode that two of Duncan's longest-running storylines on the show are introduced: his feud with Chang, and his questionable relationship with Britta. The trial resolves with Britta being assigned weekly therapy sessions with Duncan, who is the school's psychology professor. This plot point eventually leads to Britta deciding to become a psyche major, and it also cements the idea that Duncan is just as morally shady a person as Jeff, if not more so. Britta is Duncan's patient, after all, and every time we see them together he's trying to seduce her. 

Duncan's relationship with Chang grows worse throughout the first season, escalating to violence in the season 1 finale. After Chang is fired, Duncan gloats a little too much and Chang punches him in the face. It's a funny conclusion, but one that's a little remarkable in just how little it has to do with Jeff. Duncan's introduced in season 1 as Jeff's friend, but his most memorable moments involve his psych experiment with Annie and Abed, and his feud with Chang. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's an interesting choice.

Season 2

Season 2 features Duncan going through what seems to be a rough period in his life. Whereas being British and being sleazy were his two main characteristics in season 1, season 2 adds "barely functional alcoholic" to the top of his list of character quirks. He briefly quits drinking at the start of the spring semester, which he reveals after showing up late to the first anthropology class. "Please forgive my lateness," he says, "but I wasn't sure how to find Greendale sober." Three episodes later (in "Early 21st Century Romanticism") it's revealed that Duncan's fallen off the wagon again.

Duncan's standout episode this season is in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," where he tries to exploit Abed's mental breakdown for the sake of writing a profitable paper about Abed's condition. He's the closest thing the episode has to a villain, and he leaves the story after the study group physically forces him out of the room. 

His main storyline in season 2 is that he's somehow ended up as the school's temporary anthropology professor, and he does not take the position seriously. He spends the whole class drinking, making the students build pointless dioramas, and just having a fun time. He decides to give everyone in the class an "A" regardless of how hard they worked, much to Annie's chagrin. This all comes crashing down when the Dean unexpectedly pops by with a journalist to observe the class's final exam. Duncan lies and says he left the exams in his car and then leaves the building, seemingly forever. 

Seasons 3 and 4

Unfortunately for those who loved Professor Duncan, John Oliver was getting too busy with "The Daily Show" to stick around on "Community." After all, the political comedy show films in New York, making it pretty hard to balance with the California-based production schedule for "Community." Balancing the two shows became even more impossible in season 4, which was filmed right in the middle of the 2012 election. 

"Community" handled this by simply not dwelling on Duncan's absence. There was a lot going on in season 3 anyway, (pillow wars, Chang trying to burn down the school, etc.), so Duncan's absence wasn't too terrible to deal with. It was only really in season 4, where Pierce also started to disappear and the writing quality went down after showrunner Dan Harmon's departure, that Duncan's continued absence seemed to weigh on the show. One of the few mentions Duncan gets is in "Intro to Felt Surrogacy," where Troy says out of the blue, "Has anyone else noticed Professor Duncan hasn't been around for a long time?" Because Troy says this in the middle of a chaotic hot air balloon ride, none of the other characters get a chance to comment on how they feel about it. 

Duncan's absence is explained at the beginning of "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics," aka the Ass Crack Bandit episode, in season 5. When Duncan shows up out of the blue, Jeff asks him where he went and Duncan says simply, "I was taking care of my sick mother. She's still alive, but I've put in my time." 

Season 5

Luckily for fans of Duncan, he doesn't just return in season 5; he becomes a borderline main character. You see, the season 5 writers went in knowing that Pierce was basically gone for good and Troy would be leaving five episodes in. Two of the seven core characters were exiting the show. So before Troy left, they brought in Buzz Hickey (Jonathon Banks) and Professor Duncan, and integrated them into the main group. 

This helped to prevent the show from feeling too empty after Troy's disappearance. And by bringing Duncan back the episode before Troy decided to go on his trip around the world, it dodged the sense that Duncan was brought in to replace Troy specifically. 

Throughout the rest of season 5, Duncan has more of a presence than he's ever had before. He's a part of the Save Greendale committee, and is constantly interacting with the rest of the cast. Some standouts include him trying to shove Britta into imaginary lava, him piecing together that Hickey may or may not have slept with his aunt, and being there to witness Chang's "Bear Down for Midterms" meltdown. 

Duncan's standout episode is "Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality," where he spends the episode trying to seduce Britta. It sounds bad, but the moment it looks like he actually has a shot with her (by taking advantage of her in a vulnerable emotional state), she accidentally guilts him into realizing how poor of a friend he's been to Jeff. "You and Jeff have actually known each other longer than anybody, huh?" she says. "I always forget that. I guess 'cause you guys don't really act like friends." The episode ends with Duncan having a drink with Jeff, affirming that they are good friends after all.

Season 6

Now that Duncan's realized he's been taking Jeff's friendship for granted, this must mean their relationship will be more central to the show going forward, right? Wrong. Professor Duncan disappears in season 6, never to be seen or mentioned again. The closet thing we get to a reference is the season 6 premiere "Ladders," where Abed cleans Duncan's nametag on his office door. It's a moment that implies Duncan is still teaching at Greendale in some capacity, but he's no longer in the Save Greendale committee or mentioned in any way. Much like Buzz Hickey and Professor Slater from season 1, Duncan becomes one of the many Greendale professor who quietly fades away.

At first the lack of mention might seem like some sort of slight from the writer's room, but it makes sense: season 6 featured quite a bit of cast changes, so it's understandable for Duncan's absence to not get much focus. It also helps that by this point, most people knew exactly why John Oliver wasn't on the show anymore: he was busy hosting the first season of "Last Week Tonight" on HBO, a show that was understandably a higher priority to Oliver than "Community," which was never much of a ratings hit.

It's a shame, because as popular as "Last Week Tonight" is, I'd argue John Oliver's never been quite as funny as he was as Professor Duncan. He may not have gotten a ton of screen time, but he made the most of what the character got. Today, the big question is whether Duncan will make an appearance in a potential "Community" movie. His departure may have been sudden, but maybe the movie will give us some closure on the character once and for all.