Interview: Yvette Nicole Brown On Community Season 4, Obsessive Fans And Dan Harmon’s Departure
If you still haven’t discovered the cult comedy wonder that is Community, it’s time you caught up with one of the best shows on TV. Thankfully, seasons 1, 2 and 3 are all available now on Netflix Canada, so you have no excuse for not catching up before the season 4 premiere on October 19th on NBC. We sat down with the hilarious and vivacious Yvette Nicole Brown who plays Shirley Bennett on the comedy gem to talk about the departure of creator Dan Harmon, what we can expect on season and Community’s obsessive fans.
How did you take the news that Dan Harmon was leaving the show?
It was kind of rough for me. The cast members were blindsided. We weren’t expecting that. We had done the commentaries for the DVD of season3 a week prior, so we had just seen him. It was like a piece of your body being wretched from you. That said, Dan is fine, we’re fine, and the show is fine. I did an interview with Gillian earlier today, and she mentioned that showrunners leave shows all the time, and you never hear about it. The only reason you heard about it this time is because Dan’s name is just a part of what Community is, and the heart of him is such a part of what Community is. The good thing is that that heart and love for the show still beats inside all of us who are cast members, the writers who stayed and the directors who stayed. We’re going to be fine. With the three episodes we’ve shot, I think Dan would even enjoy them.
Did you worry how obsessive fans would take the news?
We worried that they would take it the way that we took it. It was a blindsided moment. We’re a cast that tweets a lot. I don’t think any of us tweeted for 4 or 5 days because we were that shell shocked. I didn’t know how to put into words what I was feeling about it. My thought then and now is just hoping that Dan is okay. And Dan is great! I want everyone to know. He sold a show to FOX, he sold a show to CBS – he’s really doing great. That’s the biggest concern when there’s a change like this. For him to land on his feet and start running – we’re all going to be fine.
Did you originally join Twitter to create buzz for the show?
We all joined Twitter at the same time, around the fifth or sixth episode of the first season. I don’t think you can set out to create the love fest that we have with our fans. It’s so weird to call them fans, because I see so many of them as friends at this point. They’ve taken the journey with us from the beginning, they believe in us, they root for us. I’ve been acting for 12-13 and have been on a lot of shows and had a lot of fan encounters, but nothing comes close to what I feel happens between me and a fan of Community. It’s like meeting your long-lost cousin. It’s really a family bond because I feel like we’re in the trenches saving this show together for so many seasons. Every year, we’re all fighting together to keep this show alive, and Twitter is such a big part of that because of its immediacy. I’m in the midst of an experience that I know will never happen again, even if I go on to be part of the biggest show. There’s no way that this feeling that I feel on Twitter with the fans and on the street with the fans – there’s no way that this will ever be replicated. I’m trying to just grab all these memories and store them and keep them safe because I know that whether this show ends after this season or after 6 seasons and a movie or 20 years from now, it’s going to rip us apart.
Do you talk about making Community, the movie?
We jokingly talk about the movie. It might have been Dan Harmon who joked that, if we did a movie, it would be “the lost summer.” When we come back to the new season, we never talk about what happened in the summer for most of the seasons. I think it was Dan who said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the movie was lost footage of what happened that summer – the crazy summer that the study group had, and they came to school and never talked about it again because it was so crazy.” I think that would be really cool. We just jokingly talk about it.
Are there any teasers you can give us for season 4? I know that Jeff’s dad is coming.
Yes, Jeff’s dad! And we also see inside Pierce’s mansion in the Halloween episode, and it’s just what you would imagine. We’ve seen a glimpse of everyone’s home space. I think it was the first episode of the second season where they showed a glimpse of inside everyone’s bedroom or everyone’s living room, and you saw a glimpse of what that mansion could be. The fullness of what that mansion is – I can’t begin to tell you how creepily weird that mansion is! We’re going to see that. There’s also some movement on the Britta and Troy front. There’s going to be some interesting developments – I’ll say that – in that relationship.
What drew you to playing Shirley? I read somewhere that you said it’s so nice to not have to play the “sassy black woman.”
It’s funny, the first season, there was one scene – one line – where Dan Harmon came to me and said, “God, I hate to do this to you, but can you do that thing for that one line?” We were still trying to figure out who the character was because it was for the pilot. Because I trusted Dan, and I still trust Dan, I said okay. We did one take of me doing that stereotypical whatever and we both said, “Never again.” He said, “Never again will I ask you to do it, and never again will you have to do it.” As a black woman, I’ve always been bothered by the sassy black label, primarily because everyone on this planet is sassy. It’s not just black women who are sassy. If you look at a show like Everybody Loves Raymond, the mom on there is sassy. Patricia Heaton is sassy. You watch Golden Girls – all 4 of those women were sassy! But you never hear about them being sassy; they’re just a fully formed woman who is having a crotchety day. For some reason, black women are defined by those moments, and that’s infuriating to me because there’s so much more to us than that. What I love about Shirley that she can be sassy, she can sweet, she can be judgmental, she can be angry, she can be rude – she’s a fully formed person that I get to play. I’m honoured that I get to add another image of what a black woman can be on television, and letting writers know that you don’t have to write a particular type of woman for a black woman to play her; just write a woman and just hire a black chick. You’ll get something delicious that you weren’t even expecting.
How do you hope Shirley evolves with the seasons to come?
Shirley is one of the more well-adjusted – which is scary, because Shirley’s a mess – but Shirley’s one of the more well-adjusted members of the study group. She’s the only one who’s able to maintain a relationship, she’s the only one who has children, and she’s the only one to have a successful business while being in school. She really is the success story of this group of people. I hope that she gets to continue to keep all the balls in the air, and that allow her to grow as a business woman and as a student and not have anything suffer because of it. I think that would be great.
Is there anything that the writers take from your personality and bring to Shirley?
When I first read the pilot, Shirley in the pilot calls people pumpkin and sweetie, and I do that all the time. I call people pumpkin and sweetie. Everyone gets a term of endearment from me if you’re around me for any length of time. So that’s like me. Me and Shirley are both Christians. I’m not as judgmental as she is, thank the Lord. We both make kindness a priority. We find out in season 3 that Shirley is nice because when she was a kid she wasn’t nice. She destroyed young Jeff as a kid, and she decided in that moment – she and he decided in that moment who they would be growing up because it was such a defining moment. Kindness is a choice Shirley makes every day, even if there’s rage boiling up inside her. I feel like that that’s a choice that we as human beings have to make every day. Life is hard, but you don’t have to be difficult. You can find a way towards kindness in every situation. That’s something that I have in common with her because I truly try to be kind, especially on Twitter. I try to make my Twitter a very positive experience because life is tough enough.
Has there been anything in the script where you were like, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this!”
Every week there’s something in the script! I never saw myself as an action star, and we did paintball where Shirley was saving the day and Shirley was this badass. I never saw myself as that. I’m a fierce woman in my own life, but I’m not running with guns sliding through things. There have been action adventures that I’ve been in, Westerns… I’ve been in a space odyssey. Every week it’s like, “How are we going to do this? How am I going to do this?” By the end of the week, we’ve accomplished something amazing.
Did you guys have chemistry as a cast from the beginning?
We did! Everyone seems to operate at the age of 3. We’re all mentally 3. We run around set laughing and joking, doing little bits, making up songs. We’re like a troop of monkeys. We’re always picking stuff off of each other and huddled up and hugging. I’ve never had an experience like this. As each season comes to an end, and we think, “Oh, I might not ever get to work with these people again” – we all start clinging a little tighter. We’re very close off-set as well. I know that they’ll always be my friends, but the concentrated moment of 16 hours a day with this group of people – and not just the cast, but the crew, the writers and producers – we just love each other so much, and I think that seeps through the screen and people see that. The study group at Greendale has fun because the cast and crew at stage 32 and 31 at Paramount are having fun. If we weren’t having fun, I don’t think the show would be as joyous as it is.
What role has this show played for women in comedy?
Gillian talks about this all the time. She calls it “slut shaming,” which is what happens when a woman is doing the things that a men are doing. People look down on them like, “Oh, you dirty rat.” Gillian’s character Britta is probably the most sexually open person on the show. She’s totally free with her sexuality, and no one is judging her for that – maybe Shirley, because Shirley is religious. No one else in the group is judging her for that. It’s a part of who she is. Everyone in that group is so quirky and weird and flawed in some way, but everyone is accepting of each other. I think that’s one leap for us, that a fully formed woman is allowed to be hilarious in her nonsense. I would say the same for Alison’s character Annie and for Shirley. I think this might be the first time that a Christian has been on television and has been judgmental at times but is still loved. We’re finding a way to make a judgmental Christian funny. If that’s not groundbreaking, I don’t know what is. The same thing with Annie being the Type-A. No one’s hating her for that. That’s who she is, and it’s funny. We found a way to take these personality traits that on any other show would be the girl who people are whispering about or the girl that no one wants to be around, and we’ve turned them into lovable, fun characters that are funny. I think that’s a grand step forward for women. We don’t have to be put into the corner of being a bad character because we have bad traits. We’re still a lovable person; we just have some bad things going on.
There are some really good life lessons on the show too, like the moment where Britta realizes she only dates guys who treat her badly.
Isn’t that a big moment for a woman to realize? A lot of us do that.
How would you sell the show to someone who’s never seen it before?
I would say it’s a lovable show filled with heart about a group of misfits who learn to accept each other in spite of their flaws. I think the reason people like this show is because every type of human being is represented: selfish, hateful, guarded, wounded, lovable, funny. All of those traits are in all of these people, and no one is judging anybody else for their stuff – calling you on it, like, “You could probably find a better way to live your life.” But not in the sense of like “…and for that reason I will no longer talk to you.” If you want a show that makes you laugh, makes you think and makes you cry, you’ll find that in Community, all three seasons, which you can watch on Netflix Canada.
What have you learned about comedy from being on this show?
This is the first time I’ve been on a show where every single person can take the ball and run. Usually on a show, there are one or two people who are the go-to funny people, and you’ve got all these straight people. There are no straight people on Community. Every single one is a fool, and every single one is a clown, every single one will do anything for the joke. Fortunately, we have writers and producers who will write your particular brand of funny for you to do. Let me say this about Donald Glover who plays Troy. Donald is someone who can create something that is not there. Spatially, whatever. Some people will hold an imaginary can and pretend it’s a soda, but Donald will hold it and drink it in such a way that it will make you thirsty. Spatially, he’s gifted in that way, so when it comes to physical comedy, there’s no one greater. I love to watch Donald when it involves his body. Danny can make any head movement. He’s almost like a little bird when he’s moving. I love watching him for that. Chevy Chase of course pratfalls. Gillian is goofy – beautiful girl, awkwardly goofy — and unafraid to be awkwardly goofy. She’s out of her body half the time, and that’s most of the stuff that she does that people love. And that’s Gillian, not Britta. Gillian brings that to life. As I sit around the table and watch these people do all of these things that are so uniquely them, I think, “Oh, I could do that. That’s a good way to do that!” It’s really like a comedy class every day.
What is the craziest thing a fan has done?
It’s not crazy, but a follower on Twitter showed up at the NBC party at Comic-Con with a needlepoint of my face. It’s on my mantle at home. I don’t know where she got the scan, but she sat there with a needle and thread and cross-stitched my face and gave it to me, like, “I made this for you.” That was the nicest thing!
Photo Courtesy of: NBC