The Chronicle Review

Community College, With a Laugh Track

Photograph from Photofest

In a new comedy set at a community college, the actors Chevy Chase, Gillian Jacobs, and Joel McHale play students who form unlikely friendships.
November 29, 2009

Community, NBC's new comedy about fictional Greendale Community College in Colorado, could be anywhere in academic dreamland. Greendale's Web site proclaims, "You're already accepted … solely based on your desire to attend." Its major characters are quirky, lively, and insightful, and the satirical show raises interesting issues about community colleges.

The big-name star is Chevy Chase, who plays Pierce, "the dinosaur," a returning student. He claims to be an ex-CEO, magician, and composer, although the college song he writes clunks through such lines as, "Dancing in your underwear / Taking air-conditioning repair" and "Greendale isn't a slop pail." He joins a college rock band and offers inept fatherly advice to younger students. Britta, a self-contained ex-radical, shuns romance and seeks a woman friend ("Women have always hated me," she sighs. "I peed alone my whole life"). She fends off Jeff, a disbarred lawyer, materialistic, horny, manipulative, and humiliated by reconstructing his life at a community college. Other students include a TV fanatic; a football star; a divorced, overweight woman; and a high-school academic standout. These strangers form a study group, and they actually study Spanish for 20 seconds before embarking on their real work: involving themselves in one another's personal lives.

Don't expect a realistic portrayal of community-college life any more than you expect as much in other comedies about social institutions like M*A*S*H, Scrubs, or The Office. Like them, Community satirizes the institution while making the people empathetic or endearingly eccentric because of the crazy place they inhabit. Community is the usual story about us. The subtext says we are caring survivors despite our institutions' attempts to debase and destroy us.

While Community conveys community colleges' diversity in age, gender, and race, it conspicuously avoids students in career programs or those who are truly academically weak or unprepared. Its core seven all have personality, brains, and zest. Despite the jab at air-conditioner repair, our characters take film, astronomy, and traditional liberal arts; most have no stated career goals. I suppose students truly shattered under life's wheel and those seeking technical jobs don't make for perky television material.

Poverty does not lurk behind the scenes, as it does in most community colleges, where a significant population sweats textbook costs, day care, and bus fare. In one episode, Jeff, the disbarred lawyer, loses his upscale condo with platinum faucets, and Britta steals the faucets for him to remind him to be less materialistic. In another episode, Britta pays for the TV addict Abed's film course, not because he's poor, but because his Palestinian father—owner of a falafel restaurant—refuses to indulge Abed in such frivolity. The father shrugs and says, "OK. You take him." So Britta and Jeff become Abed's surrogate parents, and he makes a film using them to enact his conflicts and hostilities about his parents ("I was raised by TV," he says). They teach him American freedoms, then return him to his father. Halfway through the first season, no welfare moms and no students with debilitating disabilities, addictions, or family abuse have appeared. Comedy plays the diversity card gently.

The campus is cozy, with tree-lined, broad walkways. Students loll on the grass as they always do in college movies. So far there have been no shots of mega-parking lots or rooms jammed with every tuition-paying body they can hold, plus one more.

College personnel are zany types. There's a lecherous British psychology professor, a tyrannical Spanish professor, and an accounting professor who creates "the ultimate blow-off class" by requiring only that students prove that they live in the moment. Consciously imitating the Dead Poets Society teacher, he orders a student to stand on her desk to seize the day. She falls and breaks a bone.

Community's farce oozes with self-loathing. As he displays his fancy new table, a dean yells, "Take that, Yale!" He coerces the disbarred lawyer into doing his nefarious bidding by threatening to post pictures of him attending Greendale, and he pointedly tells an instructor, "You're a teacher, not a professor."

Annie, a young student, says, "I don't look down on this place," then reminds everyone that she was a 4.0 high-school student who "lost my university admission and my virginity due to pill use." Jeff, the disbarred lawyer, defends Britta at a cheating hearing with scorn, declaring, "Relative to this place, I'm Alan Dershowitz" and telling the dean, "You are arguing about status at a college that correspondence schools make fun of." He addresses students and faculty as "fellow inmates" and concludes, "If crazy people can't be at Greendale, where are we to go?"

If there is a personal arc of growth, it is with Jeff. Troy, a star quarterback in high school, tells Jeff he's happy to play on the inept Greendale team, because it's easy to be a star there and there's no competition or pressure. Troy advises, "Relax and take pottery." Britta admonishes Jeff to "downgrade." Finally Jeff sighs, "Maybe I should grow up and accept being here." The show relies on the entrenched public perception that community-college students and staff members are tormented by the stigma of inferiority and failure.

There is a pinprick of nagging truth to that. We're seen as generic, not name brand, and when one community college behaves poorly, we all take the rap. Some students and faculty members do long to "upgrade." But most community-college students seem oblivious to the status issue; they want a two-year, inexpensive start on a bachelor's degree, or to quickly qualify for a career, and who cares what snobs think? Transfers often acknowledge their best courses were at their two-year schools. Professors may lust for university teaching loads, but—contrary to what university professors may expect—most really prefer teaching to doing research amid cutthroat rivalry.

The paradox in Community, a despised institution filled with interesting, capable people, echoes the actuality. My home community college advertises on the show despite the satirical jabs. Its ads tout young, attractive people playing team sports and chatting happily in the student center. No classrooms appear. In emphasizing the social scene, the real college imitates the fictional one. But the fictional college has one last twist. At http://www.greendalecommunitycollege.com, you'll find a parody of a college Web site that even invites admission applications with this Lake Wobegon-like come-on: "Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and the beauty of Greendale is you won't be confronted with either."

Community does not capture the real community college—as if there were one. But neither do M*A*S*H, Scrubs, or The Office capture actual institutions. Comedy exaggerates, romanticizes, and deconstructs. Community plays off stereotypes and clichés, reinforcing and puncturing them at the same time. Another college show currently airing, Greek, about sororities and fraternities, is just as absurd, with elegant houses, formal flirting lessons, and "unhappy face" cupcakes sent to decline invitations. It enacts the same myth as Community: People muddle forward despite the institutions that are supposed to nurture them but don't.

The reality—of strangers working closely together for 15 weeks on commuter campuses, working long hours to pay bills, poring over diagrams of air conditioners or Spanish verb forms, and then going their separate ways—is too cold for comedy. The show may miss the intellectual life of community colleges and ignore the prosaic struggles many students face, but it has created precisely what is often missing in real community colleges—community.

M. Garrett Bauman is an emeritus professor of English at Monroe Community College and author of Ideas and Details: A Guide to College Writing (7th ed., Wadsworth, 2010). He can be reached at mbauman@monroecc.edu.