Top 10 Community parody episodes
Mark Harrison | On 09, Mar 2015
Dan Harmon’s Community does many things well, but one of the best things it does is pop culture references. The show, ostensibly a sitcom set at Greendale Community College in Colorado, is a little reminiscent of Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes’ Spaced, wherein the characters’ social and domestic situations are exaggerated in relation to the culture in which they were brought up.
Community even has an in-built avatar for such referencing in the form of Abed Nadir, a student with Asperger’s syndrome, who sits atop the fourth wall due to his coping mechanism of using television and film to understand the relationships of those around him. Although Harmon initially identified with the protagonist, Jeff, he has admitted that he now identifies more closely with Abed, and the show has grown to reflect that.
Despite using frequent pop culture references to tell its stories and develop its characters, the show isn’t a fresh on-the-nose parody every single week. Nonetheless, the high concept comedy really brings it when Community goes after a specific movie, TV show or even a genre.
We look back over the first five seasons to pick out the finest half-hours of bang-on parody that the show has given us so far. Never seen Community before? Watch the first episode to explain who’s who, then stick these on:
10. Regional Holiday Music (Season 3, Episode 10)
“What the hell are Regionals?”
Community seems like just the kind of show that would follow series like Buffy and Scrubs and doing a full-blooded musical episode. The closest they’ve come is in this open shot at the format of Glee, with devious Greendale Glee Club instructor Mr. Rad individually manipulating each member of the study group into replacing the displaced members of his society, who are all either deceased or emotionally unstable.
Up until the big finale, the songbook for the episode is largely made up of songs designed to exploit the wants and needs of each of our heroes – Abed’s desire for a fun group Christmas, Troy’s need for an excuse to celebrate the holiday as a Jehovah’s witness, Pierce’s entitlement as a baby boomer and, most bizarrely, Jeff’s flirtation with Annie, in a deeply uncomfortable and kind of hysterical number where she’s reduced to literally talking like a baby.
It’s all so very bloody chirpy, and the cast could probably go toe to toe with the young’uns in the Fox show when it comes to pep, with hilarious original songs to back them up as opposed to cover songs. It doesn’t stand up to the previous Christmas episodes – Season 1’s Comparative Religion and Season 2’s stop-motion spectacular, Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas – but it’s a scorching spoof that still manages to be pretty lovely.
9. Basic Rocket Science (Season 2, Episode 5)
“Where are you hooligans? Bring my spaceship back!”
Pipping the Modern Family spoof of Apollo 13 to the post by about three years, this one all but rehashes the plot of the 1995 Ron Howard movie using a rundown, runaway space simulator sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken. The study group wind up stuck on the vehicle, when it’s stolen by a rival college and driven out to the middle of nowhere, leaving Abed and the Dean to set up a command centre.
Like other episodes on this list, it’s an example of a genre spoof that would break the canon of most other network sitcoms, but Community keeps things just grounded enough with the shoddy KFC van. It’s a cheeky example of branded content, foreshadowing how Subway would become a major presence in the show as both corporate benefactor and the butt of jokes about corporate culture.
But in the show’s own inimitable style, the space aspect is played with a straight bat for the characters themselves. The helpless Abed, standing in as a combination of Ed Harris’ and Gary Sinise’s characters from the film, gets some lovely moments here to lampshade how similar this happens to be to the source material. There’s also a nice touch when the rival college’s simulator is named as the City College Cosmic Pioneer (or CCCP, in reference to the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union) but even as a broad spoof, it taps into the same urgency as Howard’s film with comically lowered stakes.
8. Epidemiology (Season 2, Episode 6)
“Holy crap! Leonard’s a zombie!”
Here’s another one of those episodes that stretches the limits of the series without breaking them. While The Simpsons does an annual non-canon Halloween anthology that would otherwise break the show, Community pulls a terrific one-off in the second season by unleashing the zombie apocalypse at the campus Halloween party, and then doesn’t cheat by rebooting or revealing it was all a dream at the end.
In attempting to throw a scary soiree with an iPod full of Abba tracks and cheap meat from an army surplus store, the Dean brings down the Centre for Disease Control on Greendale. The school is under lockdown, as the food-poisoned students transmit their illness by biting their classmates and gradually begin to suffer from brain damage, with the “survivors” trying to avoid their friends to the strains of “Gimme Gimme Gimme”.
There’s a pitched ridiculousness that comes from the soundtrack, but nevertheless, the parody is so effective because it actually gets pretty real. The eventual resolution, while convenient, doesn’t feel like a cop-out and this is undoubtedly the finest of the show’s Halloween episodes – even the crew behind Spaced didn’t figure out how to make a zombie pastiche stick like this, until they got to making Shaun Of The Dead.
7. G.I. Jeff (Season 5, Episode 11)
“Look, I think I’m over-explaining it: the bad guys are snakes and the good guys are Army people.”
Having dabbled in animation with the aforementioned stop-motion Christmas episode, and after season three’s 8-bit side-scroller Digital Estate Planning, Season 5 tips Jeff into the world of G.I. Joe. The stacking of delusions that lead to the characters being imagined as characters in cartoons and toy commercials is Inception-esque, but all structural hat-tips aside, this is a love letter to 1980s Saturday morning nostalgia.
The animated episode kicks off with Wingman (Jeff) being put to a court-martial, because he actually kills Destro and breaks the consequence-free universe. Escaping with comrades Fourth Wall (Abed), Tight Ship, (Annie), Buzzkill (Britta), and Three Kids (Shirley), the animated Jeff has to work through some issues, while both the Joes and the forces of Cobra are flummoxed by his violence.
As written by Dino Stamotopoulos (whose character goes by the very Joe-esque nickname Starburns in the show itself), the parody is a very affectionate send-up of its target with some terrific gags, delivered through the authentically unvarnished style of animation that fans of the original cartoons will recognise.
6. Contemporary American Poultry (Season 1, Episode 21)
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be in a mafia movie.”
Arriving towards the end of Community’s first run, this is one of the episodes that really got television critics and viewers talking and the first to really play around with the arcane Greendale bureaucracy that following seasons would take to its logical, but utterly ridiculous, extremes.
Borrowing from the mafia movie playbook, the episode follows Abed’s meteoric rise from fry cook to campus chicken mogul. After realising Starburns is skimming the incredibly popular chicken fingers from the cafeteria menu to give to pretty girls, Jeff conspires to get him fired and make Abed the study group’s man on the inside. They build a powerful lunchroom syndicate in which Abed overtakes Jeff as the group leader and gradually takes over the whole school. Only on Community.
Goodfellas provides much of the inspiration for this one and, although they miss an opportunity for a tracking shot homage (probably impossible on the set-based location), they also pull from various other mob movie classics, including a nod to the closing door from The Godfather.
It also turns into something of a Very Special Episode, to borrow a term from TV Tropes, as we realise that Abed’s ascension is a by-product of his drive to try and understand people by getting them all talking the same language: chicken. It’s a rock solid outing for his character, only topped for parody power in Season 1 by the episode up next…
5. Modern Warfare (Season 1, Episode 23)
“Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.”
Yep, it’s the paintball one. Like Contemporary American Poultry, this one borrows more from a genre than one source – in this case, OTT action movies. Also like Poultry, it tips its hat to plenty of specific iconic moments, particularly from Die Hard and John Woo’s filmography.
A casual game of Paintball Assassin at the spring fair passes Jeff by, as he decides to take a nap in his car. Awaking in a scene reminiscent of 28 Days Later, he finds the campus paint-splattered and deserted, with the surviving players ruthlessly hunting one another down, as everyone wants to be the last one standing so that they get first pick of classes in the next semester.
Brilliantly directed by Justin Lin, (who would go on to revitalise The Fast & The Furious as a heist action franchise), the campus-wide game of Battle Royale (with paint) makes for a unique celebration of the action genre – as in Epidemiology, the bar is reset by the end of the episode, which allows every character to take the game just as seriously as if they really were at war.
A season later, the epic Season 2 finale, A Fistful Of Paintballs and For A Few Paintballs More would revisit paintball and set it against the Western genre and Star Wars respectively. These episodes represent the very best of the show’s high concept comedy, but the split means that the parody isn’t quite as laser-focused or surprising as this.
4. Documentary Filmmaking: Redux (Season 3, Episode 8)
:Mr Guzman, Luis, can I just say, I loved you in… in… IMDb.”
When Dean Craig Pelton takes it upon himself to re-shoot Greendale’s outdated recruitment advert, the production spirals into an insane pursuit of artistic perfection, documented by Abed as a fly on the wall. It all looks very much like Hearts Of Darkness, the 1991 documentary that chronicled the chaotic production of Apocalypse Now, and is hailed as better than the original film by our documentarian.
The insanity ranges from Troy and Britta being forced to hug one another and celebrate diversity for hundreds of takes to the absurdity of Chang playing understudy to Jeff for the role of the Dean, meaning that he has a bald cap on top of his own hair and a Jeff wig on top of that. There’s really no more coherent way to explain that, but that’s what’s so beguiling and brilliant about it.
It also follows up on one of the show’s most random recurring gags, about actor Luis Guzman being a Greendale alumnus who has a statue on campus in his honour. Guzman makes a long awaited cameo as the Brando figure to the Dean’s tormented Coppola, who has gone thousands of dollars over budget and several days over schedule in his quest for the right ad.
As both a rare Dean-centric episode, and as one of the more obscure references that the show has ever taken on, this is one of the highlights of the whole series. Like the documentary it takes on, it sits at a fascinating intersection between magic and madness.
3. Critical Film Studies (Season 2, Episode 19)
“Abed was being weird. And by that, I mean he wasn’t being weird.”
This might be the most grounded of Season 2’s movie spoofs, enacting a bait-and-switch on the occasion of Abed’s birthday. Jeff is trying to lure his pop culture-savvy friend to a nearby diner, where the group are preparing to throw him a surprise Pulp Fiction-themed party, but can’t get him out of the fancy restaurant, where he inexplicably arranged for them to meet.
While Troy and friends guard the famed briefcase from the film, Abed tells Jeff that he wants to have a “real conversation”, having suffered an existential crisis after filming a featured extra appearance in his favourite show, Cougar Town. (Yeah, that really happened.)
It’s around the time that this begins to sound familiar that Abed cops to the fact that he’s really doing a re-enactment of 1981’s My Dinner With Andre, “in which a man has an unexpectedly enjoyable evening with a friend he’s been avoiding lately”.
Director Richard Ayoade gets the best out of both featured references, with the study group dressing up as assorted characters from the Tarantino movie (Pierce is the gimp), while Abed’s plan to try and recapture his closeness with Jeff gives the spoof some thematic weight. Far be it from us to suggest that one of those films is all iconography and the other all theme, but this mash-up does that pretty well by itself.
2. Basic Lupine Urology (Season 3, Episode 17)
“Greendale Community College is represented by two separate yet equally important types of people: the goofballs that run around stirring up trouble, and the eggheads that make a big deal out of it. These are their stories.”
Created by Dick Wolf, Law & Order has been running on US TV in some iteration or other since 1990, so there’s a lot to mine in this affectionate parody. Most of all, it borrows the infamous episode structure, from the murder mystery procedural aspect, right down to the signature “duh duh” sound cues between scenes.
The study group are majoring in Biology for the semester, and Annie discovers that their project, a yam, has been pulverised by a person or persons unknown. Nobody really cares, except that Annie is adamant their yam would have received an A grade, and aims to prove that it was maliciously destroyed.
The rest of the episode follows Abed and Troy doing the detective legwork, so that Jeff and Annie can put together a case for the prosecution. The episode also has some top-notch guest stars in its favour, bringing The Wire’s Michael K. Williams to the end of his arc as the group’s Biology professor and parachuting in Michael Ironside as a Nicholson-esque character witness for the study group’s accused.
You have to imagine that any TV fan will have seen a heck of a lot of Law & Order, to say nothing of any of the jobbing writers who are in the room on Community, and that’s all brought to bear in a strangely engrossing procedural spoof. And when you think about it, even the title Basic Lupine Urology is a reference to studying Dick Wolf. Now that’s attention to detail.
1. Paradigms Of Human Memory (Season 2, Episode 21)
“We’ve known each other for almost two years now. And yeah, in that time I’ve given a lot of speeches, but they all have one thing in common: they’re all different.”
Aside from coining ‘six seasons and a movie’ as the most optimistic version of the doomed superhero show The Cape and the fan mantra that has kept Community going, this episode tops the list because it’s an inventive and pitch-perfect parody of the laziest kind of TV: the clip show.
Towards the end of a tumultuous year, the study group reflect on past adventures, like the time they faced down drug runners in a ghost town, or the time that Annie was almost run down by a rampaging robot, or all the times Jeff and Britta secretly hooked up, and lots of other times that we, er… didn’t see.
The episode combines the simplicity of the show’s most oft-revisited setting – putting the Greendale 7 in the study room to talk it out – with the audacity of some of its more ambitious spoofs, resulting in a clip show that probably took more effort than any scripted episode of the show to date.
To create all of the new snippets of unseen adventures that the study group have apparently experienced the cast and crew worked longer days than usual. Sets from Epidemiology had to be rebuilt from scratch just for one flashback. Harmon paid $35,000 of his own money to clear a song for a montage that lampooned YouTube shippers’ tributes to the show.
But the fact that Community put this much effort into a clip show, of all things, makes this the quintessential episode of the whole lot so far. The delivery seems so effortlessly pitched, even if anyone interviewed about this episode will call it the hardest they ever shot. That’s the kind of effort that pushes the sensible limits of parody and results in truly transcendent ones like this.