The feud between Chevy Chase and Community creator Dan Harmon has been publicized rather suddenly. It’s only coming into the public (or at least Deadline.com) eye now even though the feud erupted a month ago while the show was finishing up its final episodes of the season. When something gets into the news at a certain time, you have to wonder why it’s only coming up now, and I wonder if this is somehow related to the changing circumstances of that show. When Harmon gave his angry party speech and Chase left his angry phone message, a lot of people on the show thought it was likely to be canceled. Now it’s back, and doing not great, but well enough that a fourth season is almost guaranteed. (Not only are its ratings OK by NBC standards, its audience is very young and it attracts more male viewers than most comedies. A show that can attract young male viewers is always going to find advertisers. Combine that with the Hulu deal and the Comedy Central syndication deal, and a five-year run – or six-year run, to use one of their running gags – seems likely.) So that’s when stories from both camps start leaking to Reddit and the press, with everyone positioning themselves for the awkwardness of the season to come.
I find it funny to learn, from that Deadline.com article, that casting Chevy Chase on the show was Ben Silverman’s idea. Silverman was known for making decisions that sounded good in theory (let’s remake The Bionic Woman!) and didn’t work out so well in practice (Bionic Woman). Casting Chase, who was always notoriously tough to work with, may be just another Silverman decision that sounded better than it worked. The idea was probably that since the show was expected to have a more mainstream, broad-based appeal, putting Chase on the show would give it some appeal to baby boomers. In practice, baby boomers don’t watch the show, and the people who do watch the show are more interested in all the other cast members. So Silverman’s decision, if it was his, gave the writers extra headaches for no conceivable ratings reward.
The one thing I wonder after hearing these stories is whether the writing for Chase’s character would be better if the role were played by someone the writers liked. The writing for the Pierce character has never been strong, and except for a brief period when they seemed to be making him the token evil troublemaker of the group (which I thought was actually working) they didn’t have a clear idea of what to do with him. I usually chalk this up to the fact that it’s really hard to write an old person in a TV comedy: TV comedy is a young writer’s medium, so they’re best at writing people their own age or a little bit older or younger. But the writers have come up with some good old-man jokes for the Richard Erdman character. No writer ever sets out to write poorly for a character, even if it’s played by an actor they don’t like. But some communication between actor and writers – not friendliness, just communication – probably does make for a better or more consistent character.
Two tangentially related notes: One other reason why the old person is usually the Acceptable Target of modern comedy is that there’s been a shift in stereotypes, and particularly stereotypes about who is out of touch with technology. Once upon a time, old people were portrayed much more positively in popular culture – look at an old movie and the old person is likely to be a font of wisdom, or at least no crazier than the young people. But back then, many of the jokes about being out of touch, technologically illiterate, and so on were divided along regional lines. In pop culture, people who couldn’t figure out how to work new technology or were stuck in the past were rural people, of whatever age. As the city mouse/country mouse split became less relevant, the technological divide became more clearly an age divide. So elderly people took over as the acceptable targets for those jokes.
Second, the greatest crazy out-of-touch old man character on modern TV probably has to be this guy: