Yvette Nicole Brown has bad news for fans of NBC’s brilliant and sadly underrated comedy Community. “[The show] is going to end someday,” says the actress before quickly adding in her pleasantly reassuring voice, “but it’s OK.” Brown, who has played the caring, if sometimes judgmental, Shirley Bennett for three seasons approaches Community’s potential cancellation with a mixture of equanimity and optimism. “My first introduction to this business is that things end,” Brown says (a reference to the short-lived ABC sitcom The Big House on which she appeared with Kevin Hart), “but it’s not the end of the world.”
Though some fans may disagree with Brown, she is right. Like all television shows, Community has a shelf life and its expiration date seems imminent in light of recent events. After a four-month midseason hiatus, Community returned to its Thursday night time slot earlier this year. On May 10, NBC announced that Community would have a fourth season, though it would only consist of 13 episodes. If that news wasn’t bad enough, Community is also being moved to Friday nights. Then, only a few days ago, it was announced that Dan Harmon, creator and executive producer, would not be returning for what many are assuming will be the show’s final season.
For her part, though, Brown is taking the potentially bad news in stride. Though she won’t find out what is in store for Greendale’s band of merry misfits until July, she knows what she would like to see happen. “It’d be great if [the writers] could work out a graduation scenario,” she says. After a brief pause, she adds, “Although the study group doesn’t really excel at school.”
Browns assessment of the characters’ strengths is fair. In three seasons, the group of community college students has been more successful at playing paintball, chasing monkeys through air ducts, and building blanket forts than actually performing in the classroom. “We’re blessed to have [fans] who will take the ride wherever we take them,” Brown says. Community has been anything but an ordinary show, vacillating between standard narratives and “concept episodes” which most please the show’s ardent fans but alienate others.
For Brown, the fans are one of the most satisfying aspects of being on the show. “They’re like ‘A video game? Sure! Zombie apocalypse? Yes!’” she says, referring to two specific episodes, “Digital Estate Planning” (Season 3, Episode 20) and “Epidemiology” (Season 1, Episode 6). Is Brown surprised that fans are so rabidly loyal to a series that prefers spaghetti Western homages to typical sitcom storytelling? “I’m not really surprised anymore. I’m eternally grateful, but not surprised.”
Community has become best known (and loved) for episodes that take television archetypes and twist them inside out (see “Paradigms of Human Memory” and “Cooperative Calligraphy in Season 2) or become 22-minute long references to film and pop culture (specifically, “A Fistful of Paintballs” in Season 2 and “Regional Holiday Music” in Season 3). For Brown, the concept episodes are rewarding to watch, but not always pleasant to film. “The paintball episodes were very difficult to shoot,” she says, explaining that, without padding, a paintball to the center of the back can really hurt. She also admits that the recent episode “Virtual Systems Analysis” was a bit of a mystery to her until it aired. “I was on set like ‘What? Who?’ But then when I saw it, I was like, ‘Ooookay.’”
Though she has been acting for over a decade, it wasn’t until Community that Brown found a show that would provide steady work and mass exposure. And to think, it almost didn’t even happen. “I really wasn’t going to audition for Community,” she says. “I had had a really wretched pilot season [in 2009] and I had pretty much decided to take my ball and go home.” Thankfully, she ended up auditioning and getting the part of Shirley, which, in less talented hands, may have become a one-note character. In Brown’s hands, though, Shirley is as complex and damaged as any of Greendale’s students. “I love that [the writers] are making [Shirley] more independent,” says Brown while reflecting on her character’s development. “Her story arc was that she’s a wounded little bird who was betrayed by her husband (played in later episodes by Malcolm Jamal Warner) and raising two kids on her own. Now, she’s come full circle and is able to fly.”
Brown is not affecting a cheerful disposition for the sake of the interviewer. One gets the sense that her upbeat, positive attitude is genuine and not a façade that disappears as soon as the interview is over. Like her character on the show, Brown radiates warmth and comfort, though that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Unlike Shirley, Brown does not speak in a sing-songy falsetto or delight in poking fun at someone’s tiny nipples (as Shirley did in Season One with Joel McHale’s character, Jeff Winger). Though, like Shirley, Brown is a practicing Christian (an uncommon occurrence in Hollywood), her faith does not prompt her to pass judgment on others’ beliefs or lifestyles.
There is no doubt Brown has enjoyed her time on Community, especially working with her co-stars who make it impossible not to break character while filming. “Jim Rash (who plays Dean Pelton) gets me a lot,” she admits. “No matter what they write for him, the vocal cadence in which he will say it will always catch me by surprise.” Rash is not the only problem child, though. “Danny [Pudi] (Abed) makes me laugh by his faces and his ability to not laugh. Donald [Glover] (Troy) does not break often, but he’s the most common reason other people break.” So who is the most entertaining cast member? “Ken Jeong (who plays Chang) will make himself break because he will say his own line and laugh because he delights himself so much,” Brown says, chuckling at the memory.
Though she remains optimistic about the future of Community, one aspect of the fourth season does seem to bother her. “With the 13 episodes [of Season Four], we’re four episodes away from the magic number we need for syndication,” she says with a twinge of regret in her voice. “It takes 88 episodes, so that 13-episode order puts us four shy. I’m praying that if it does end this year, we’ll get those back four at least so Greendale can go on to live for years and years and years on channel 9 in Peoria or wherever.”
Fans, of course, would love both syndication and at least six seasons and a movie (a reference to Abed’s obsession with the cancelled TV show The Cape), the reality that Community may be coming to an end is difficult to ignore. But, who knows? Maybe NBC will release some webisodes this summer to help connect to a wider audience before the new season. As for Brown, she’s happy to help however she can. “Any time they come up with something interesting or fun to promote the show, I’m on board.”