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That’s Kinda My Gimmick: “Community” and Pop Culture References

July 10, 2011

I recently discovered Community.  Featuring a diverse crowd of misfits in a Spanish study group at a community college, the show has quickly become one of my favourite sitcoms for its razor wit and its hilarious cast of characters.  But the show is perhaps known more for its endemic references to popular culture.  And it’s true: every episode of the show is littered with name-drops, allusions and parodies.  But uniquely, I’ve yet to find any reference that seemed out-of-place, jarring, or exclusive.  Even though several comments that are clearly references to some entity of entertainment have flown over my head, they have never made me feel like I’m missing the joke, even though I certainly am.  Why might this be?

Pens and pencils ready, class.  There may be a twenty-page paper, in Espanol, due on Monday. 

1. I’m At My Best During High-Speed Bursts of Wit

The first element at play to make the helpings of pop culture go down the gullet is that it is the dessert to the juicy minute steak that is the actual plot.  Community uses its pop culture references as asides for a larger, stand-alone story.  This works because the characters are strong, and can hold their own storylines: Jeff and Shirley bonding over talking smack about other people, innocent Annie falling for Britta’s perpetually-shirtless hippie ex-boyfriend, and so on and so forth.  The show, fittingly, is about the little community of ‘annoying but lovable misfits’ clashing and uniting in their first year of college.  The show doesn’t need pop culture references to work, rather choosing to use them as garnishes.  Of course, most shows manage to do that with ease – spattering references throughout an actual story. 

Troy Will Hunting

But, significantly, Community also manages to tell interesting stand-alone stories when the whole storyline is a pop culture reference.  When elongated references occur, they are used to propel the development of character and over-arching plot.  It works on the small scale: such as the B-story parody of Good Will Hunting in English as a Second Language, where Troy discovers a hidden gift for plumbing.  Even though this side-plot is a straight-up reversal of the iconic film’s plot (including several lines lifted verbatim from the GWH script), the story serves to solidify the friendship between Troy and Abed, as well as hearkening back to the running theme of Troy accepting that he’s not the hard-headed jock everyone expects him to be (he discovers a love for modern dance in an earlier episode, and his geekish nature has swelled with his friendship with Abed, which also becomes a driving plot point of the zombie-movie hallowe’en episode in the second season).  While the parody might not be as funny for someone unfamiliar with the source material, there are still ordinary circumstantial laughs to be had, and the story stands alone.

But when pop culture allusions take over an entire episode, everybody holds their breath.  “Gimmick” episodes are not new, but they’re a huge risk that doesn’t always pay off.  For instance, Glee has had featured more than a few theme episodes, devoting an entire episode to the music of Madonna, Britney Spears and Rocky Horror – each.  While they’re fun episodes, they heavily rely on knowledge of the subject material.  If you don’t know the music videos of Miss Spears, then the dream sequences in which the videos are recreated by the glee club cast just seem out-of-place.  As someone in that situation, I felt like I was missing the joke.  It was like they were rubbing my face in the fact that I wasn’t getting all the Spears references.  But worse than that, the theme episodes do nothing for long-term storyline developments.  In fact, the characters are compromised to make way for the pop culture reference.  The icy Sue Sylvester has a major Madonna fetish?  The reserved Emma becomes infatuated with the sleazy RHPS and Will compromises the glee club program by trying to perform the musical at the high school (after how many warnings about performing age-inappropriate songs?).  The episode is no longer about a high school glee club.  It becomes about the pop culture reference.

Conversely, Buffy the Vampire Slayer tackled the gimmick episode most famously with Once More With Feeling: a fully-realised musical.  As in, the brooding characters burst out into song and dance.  While it had very specific homages to Disney songs-of-longing to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, the episode broadly focused on the genre at large (rather than specific musical references), which was part of its success.  But more importantly, it used the gimmick to deliver one of the biggest storyline developments of the season, utilising the genre’s motif of expressing usually-unsaid emotion in song to unveil a powerful plot twist.  Instead of the episode revolving around the fact that it was a cultural homage, the extended reference told the story.

Winger = McClane, right down to the inexplicably darkened singlet.

Community‘s first season has featured two significant “gimmick” episodes, and they both succeed where Buffy succeeded.  Firstly, the episodes tackle genre: Contemporary American Poultry is a gangster movie and Modern Warfare is an action movie.  They play with the widely-known tropes of the genre’s cliches as the study group transform into a crime family in control of the cafeteria’s chicken fingers and as they fight for survival in a campus-wide paintball competition.  Yet the gimmicks are used to advance plot: we see Abed’s desire to find his place within the group when he usurps Jeff, becoming drunk with chicken power, and the overly gratuitous nature of action movies allows Jeff and Britta to make good on their sexual tension.  Similarly, in the second season, the zombie episode Epidemiology is mostly parody, but allows the conceit that everybody forgets what happened that night kicks off a season-long story for Shirley.  But unlike Buffy, the Community episodes are littered with very, very specific references to iconic movies of the genre.  Whether it’s Annie’s backpack being strung up like the guy in the freezer from Goodfellas or Chang’s John Woo entrance, the episodes are goldmines for fans of the movies under parody.  But the specific references don’t alienate like they did in Glee.  Rather, they’re in-jokes

2. The Little Things

I mentioned that many of the pop culture references in the show are made in passing, but their primary strength is that there are as many subtle pop culture references as there are obvious ones.  For every Ghost parody, there is a fleeting Lost-esque trombone fall-off.  For every Breakfast Club rant, there’s a shazbat.  Half of the time, the pop culture references are so niche that you feel special if you catch them, but if you miss them, you hardly know they were there.

Additionally, many of the obvious pop culture allusions operate effectively even if you don’t know exactly what is being referenced.  When Troy suggests the Dean looks like Moby, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you know who Moby is.  The reference is not the punchline to the joke, which is that Troy and Jeff are not on the same wavelength.  The pop culture reference is an in-joke for people who get it, and the mere presence of a pop culture reference contributes to the broader joke for people who don’t.  It isn’t jarring at all, and that’s because…

3. It’s 10% Dick Van Dyke, 20% Sam Malone, 40% Zach Braff from Scrubs, and 30% Hilary Swank from Boys Don’t Cry

Up until this point, most of this commentary on pop culture references could be applied to sitcoms across the board.  But where Community has the upper hand in its ability to effectively pull of allusions is that it knows that it is a sitcom.  The characters themselves are self-aware, and draw attention to the stereotypes and cliches of the genre.  There are continual references to the fact that the study group is an “unlikely family” which contains dynamics reminiscent of everything from Friends to The Brady Bunch.    That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the characters know that they are characters – in italics.  They are merely observant of their actions, and allude to them in the same way that one would reference pop culture tropes in everyday life. 

Greendale Community College exists comfortably within the oevure of popular culture.  The characters acknowledge pop culture, and even acknowledge that it isn’t universal.  One of my favourite exchanges comes from an allusion to Cheers:

Abed: To be blunt, Jeff and Britta is no Ross and Rachel. Your chemistry and sexual tension are putting us all on edge, which is ironically, and hear this on every level, you’re keeping us from being friends.

Shirley: It’s like Sam and Diane.  I hated Sam and Diane.

Annie: Who are Sam and Diane?

Shirley: We get it!  YOU’RE YOUNG!!

On numerous occasions, the characters themselves recognise that pop culture references are being made, and respond directly to them.  In most sitcoms, when the cultural references serve as the punchline, drawing attention to them verges on breaking the wall.  We don’t end a Firefly reference in The Big Bang Theory by turning to the camera to explain that FOX cancelled the series before its time.   But Community has set up a world so knowledgable about pop culture that it can both make the referential joke, and joke about the fact that they just made the reference.

Don Draper, Mad Men.

This level of meta is pretty expansive, but is certainly facillitated by the presence of the character of Abed.  Numerous times, he has claimed that he can only relate to those around him through the tinted cellophane of movies and TV.  He’s a walking TV-tropes.com, and his never-ending stream of pop-culture commentary is an integral part of his character.  The audience learns to accept this heightened awareness from Abed, so as the pop-culture references begin to seep out into the words and actions of other characters over the course of their friendship with Abed, we become more willing to accept it as a norm.  Without a self-proclaimed ‘meta’ character, the show would probably not be able to pull off its pop culture references without feeling forced or pretentiously meta.

As it stands, Community is a smart, funny show that uses its cultural allusions the way they should be used: both broadly and slyly, within both the context of an actual narrative and a self-aware setting.  Sure, it’s kinda their gimmick, but at least they know they can lay low for an episode here and there.

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