‘Community’ is all about the show for Yvette Nicole Brown

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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(From left) Alison Brie as Annie, Donald Glover as Troy, Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley in Community on NBC. (Trae Patton/NBC)

Community finally returns to NBC for its fourth season at 8 p.m. Thursday, months after it was once expected, and with plenty of viewer questions awaiting answers.

The ensemble comedy about students at a fictional community college has passionate fans, but not so many of them that its continued survival is assured. It went through between-season drama when creator Dan Harmon was replaced after repeated clashes with the show’s studio, Sony. Nor was it a good sign that the show’s return was delayed, or that NBC executives talked about broadening the appeal of the network’s comedies after years of boutique delights like 30 Rock, The Office and, yes, Community.

So where does that leave the show on the eve of its return? I have seen the first two episodes and, for the most part, it remains funny, eager to spin into pop-culture reworkings — for example, a variation on The Hunger Games — and to be completely self-referential; the broader-comedy issue is directly addressed.

Yvette Nicole Brown, the Cleveland native and University of Akron graduate who co-stars on the show, has hardly waited around for the show to resume. She has appeared on Jeff Probst’s talk show, and done the post-Walking Dead discussion program The Talking Dead — where, among other things, she offered a detailed analysis of the importance of viscera. She also played one of the prosthesis-bedecked Gray Sisters (with Missi Pyle and Mary Birdsong) in the new Percy Jackson movie, Sea of Monsters, due later this year. And she is a fierce Twitterer.

But she is happy to have Community back on the air.

“It feels good,” she said. “It feels like a long-lost friend has returned. We shot the show, like, six months ago and we’ve been done now for almost two months.”

Told that the show was awfully close to what it had been in the Harmon era, Brown said she was pleased. Besides the change at the top, the show lost several writers “because they were all so brilliant, they got development deals and their own shows at other networks. But we kept some of the great ones. I didn’t feel there was a drop in quality, or a drop in what made the show fun and interesting and heartfelt. So I couldn’t really tell a difference. Of course, Dan is a great loss. I don’t want to ever diminish him being there. But I think we’re excited to be making the same show. And I’m glad that you think that in the first couple of episodes at least that we’re close. When you lose a creator, all you can ask for is to be close.”

On the set, though, there were still reports of conflicts with co-star Chevy Chase, who was noisily prickly about the quality of the show, and who dropped the n-word during one rant, for which he later apologized. Still, he reportedly departed the series before the current season was done. And Brown was not interested in stirring things up.

“I have no view or any comment about that at all,” she said. “I just keep my head down and go to work and do my job. What everybody else is doing, that’s their journey.”

And what about the journey this season for her and for her character, Shirley Bennett? Shirley “is really more a part of the shenanigans of the gang this year, which I think is really exciting. For a few years, Shirley was kind of on the sidelines, saying, ‘Oh, what did you do today?’ ”

The show has often been more interested in characters like Jeff (Joel McHale), Abed (Danny Pudi), Troy (Donald Glover), Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and Annie (Alison Brie). Originally meant to be a 50-something white woman, “Shirley was always kind of made to be this mom,” Brown said. “But in reality she’s the same age as Jeff. So if Jeff is able to mix it up, why is he ‘the hot young lawyer’ and she’s ‘the dumpy housewife’? We’re both spry, we’re not geriatric yet, so let me get in there and run around, too. Look at all the stuff Ken (Jeong, as Chang) does, and he’s Shirley’s age, too. I think she’s just as crazy and as much of a misfit as anyone else.”

But Community is not immune to the stereotyping that afflicts TV, not only in matters of age, but also appearance. Brown is a good-looking woman but not long ago received a tweet from a fan saying that her father sees Brown and asks “how do they let fat people like this on tv.” And this in a medium where chubby guys have often starred in sitcoms opposite model-thin wives, a condition TV critic Lisa de Moraes dubbed “male pattern optimism.”

“I am just about sick of this weight situation,” Brown said. “I guess because people can’t be racist anymore, can’t be homophobic anymore, they realize the last thing they can do is be hateful about someone not being a size zero,

“Look at the world. I am the norm. So, if I’m sitting at home in Ohio watching TV, I want to see me. I think it’s great that they’re letting people over a size 12 on television. What does my weight have to do with what I have to say, or if I’m smart, or if I’m funny? I don’t get it. I am personally offended by it. I am offended for anybody over a size 10. I am offended by the implication that because you’re chubby you don’t belong. How is that different from saying because you’re black you don’t belong, because you’re gay you don’t belong? It’s that same garbage, and I’m sick of it. I will speak on it every chance I get.

“Every chubby girl I see on TV for the most part are gorgeous women. I’m not putting myself in there — but look at Melissa McCarthy. Her face is amazing. Whatever size she is, she’s going to be gorgeous. And I’m trying to figure out why beauty is negated by size. I hate the idea that we are diminished because we happen to like bacon,” she said with a laugh. “Why do I become less of a person because I enjoy the beautiful pork the Lord has put on the earth?”

As you can see, Brown has plenty to say and is not shy about saying it. No surprise, then, that when she talks about life after Community, she dreams not only of a traditional sitcom, but also possibly her own talk show. Only it may be a little while before that happens. Even as NBC talks about broadening its comedy audience (and the series Go On has been painted as a more broad-based Community), one top NBC-er said he would be happy if Community came up with enough viewers to justify its continuation.

So did this feel like a final season when Community was shooting? “Every season feels like a last season for us,” Brown said. “We’re always on the bubble.”

While there has been a waiting game for renewal most of the time, Brown would be wary regardless of the show. She recalled how her first sitcom, 2004’s The Big House with Kevin Hart, was supposed to make 13 episodes, only to see that cut to six, with cancellation following. “I think because that was my introduction to the business, I don’t get attached to anything. I never think a show is going to make a fourth season. If we make it four, yay. But every time we started winding down, I started cleaning out my trailer. If we have 22 episodes, I’m cleaning out around 13.”

At the same time, the show structured the last episodes of the third and now the fourth season so that they could serve as finales. “If the show is over, the fans will be satisfied. If the show goes on, there are enough things left that we can go down that road as well.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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