Episode 122: The Art of Discourse

s1e22 The Art of Discourse

"Discourse" is an episode about what it means to be an adult, and how it means not doing what seems like the instinctive thing. Jeff and Britta assume that they should be able to put three unrelentingly sarcastic, empty-headed teenagers in their place. But trying to take that entitlement just pulls them further and further into looking childish. Troy and Abed try to manufacture rites of passage as college students from Animal House-type stereotypes but viewing their own lives with detached self-awareness isn't compatible with living it. Pierce and Shirley expect more respect from the younger members of the group than they'll ever get, but finally bond over knowing that being adults means not needing the approval of their less accomplished classmates.

My favorite part of the episode is those obnoxious kids and how their taunts gradually become sublingual and totally removed from their initial sharpness, devolving from the faux-sophistication of sarcasm into the absolute meaninglessness behind it. Each step in their conflict with Britta and Jeff is just absurd enough that the satirical conceit is never diluted for the sake of the characters. Usually on a character-based show like Community, one wants the bottom to drop out a little and return us to a world where things happen for a reason. But occasionally a plot keeps it's ridiculous, bitter edge right up to the end and because it's so rare it makes it exciting (whereas a show like South Park always goes down that rabbit hole). By the time the kids are giving up their aloofness to engage in a Western Showdown of saying "Duh!," the lesson or theme or even Jeff and Britta's friendship takes a backseat to the joke that this is how stupid kids who think they're clever look to adults. It's a pretty pure, memorable demonstration.

But it is still a character-based show, and one where three plots are always circling each other and intertwining, which keeps it both light and grounded. There is development in Jeff and Britta's relationship, in that they've now essentially torn down their respective perches and met at the lowest common denominator. When Britta tells Jeff "You've got to bang that kid's Mom!", it's a point of no return (but in a way that it's still an aberration for her, a crossing of boundaries without demolishing them and ruining the complexity of her character for the sake of a joke). On the commentary, Harmon says they have "a total lack of chemistry that's a kind of chemistry." Having seen through each others' ideal selves, they actually get along in reality, at their borderline worst.

Pierce and Shirley have the important character story, the culmination of a season-long tension between them. It ends Pierce's semi-attraction to Shirley and her complete disgust with him. It really just comes down to Pierce being forced to be honest (and stop trying futilely to be cool) for a few seconds, long enough to assess Shirley as a person whom he respects. Beneath his stubborn childishness, I think Pierce always has this certainty of his accomplishments in life, which is how he keeps from really losing his mind. After S1, Shirley would seem more deep-down sure of herself as well. But the things that keep these two from ever being the center of attention in the group are probably the same reasons why this seemingly key plot wasn't the main story of the ep.

As for Troy and Abed, their story is even more cartoonish than Jeff and Britta's. But it's parceled out in such short pieces and so deftly that it never disrupts or overwhelms the ep. Crucial to the character development aspect is their funny but telling development of self-awareness. At one point, Troy tells the others he and Abed are pledging the Cool Fraternity, but "Unbeknownst to us, we don't have a chance of getting in." They couldn't be more in control of their own circumstances, like they were writing, acting and watching their story simultaneously. But in the end they figure out their own normal lives are more interesting, and give up that control, bringing the absurdity full circle back to normal (Abed would go through a similar process in "Anthropology 101"). Generally, their good naturedness about the ordeal lets it contrast and fit in with the others. Kidknapping a rival mascot goat doesn't sidetrack the group, instead Troy brings it in to take Pierce's seat and happily shares reaction shots with it while everything else proceeds as normal. It enhances the jokes, but doesn't inhibit the story.

Stray Observations

  • Annie doesn't get her own plot, but she's very funny in the background. When caught by Shirley watching her and Pierce, when grooving out to Pierce's acoustic guitar playing or approving of a food fight. And, of course, "We do make fun of a lot of the things you say and do." Cruelty is logical when it's not directed at you.
  • Troy has to pull Abed by the arm, to keep him from following Shirley and Annie into the Womens' bathroom.
  • "If you're not, I'm sorry. If you are, I'm a hero. I'm willing to take that chance." (American foreign policy distilled by Pierce?)
  • Chang is chased by two girl scouts he presumably stole cookies from to sell. S1 always had a whole world operating at once, little details like that fitting comfortably into the whole.
  • "That's dangerous. My Uncle was struck by lightning. You'd think it gives you superpowers, but now he just masturbates in theaters."
  • "If all we need is an escape-goat, why don't we just let this one go?"
  • "Maybe he'll admit he's wrong…2,3,4-uhhhh, NOT!"
  • "Ridiculous situation descending into heavy handed drama for the illusion of story? Check."
  • "Just so you know, I'm Shirley. I wouldn't want you reaching for me should you get a hankering for pancakes."
  • Jeff realizes he needs Pierce in the group. He wouldn't be so sure by the time S3 rolled around.
  • I love the arbitrary argument over how to pronounce "pwned." You can't! it's not a word!
  • There's an amazing couple of outtakes where the goat goes off-script. Not only is it funny, but you can hear Pudi's voice change when he breaks, then pulls it back into Abed mode all in the course of a sentence. It's pretty cool.
  • When Joel did The Tonight Show during S1, they showed the clip of him jogging sleeveless to get Mark's Mom's attention. There was barely a joke (let alone context) and the clip was clearly chosen to show him  being hot. Afterwards, Joel's face suggested he wasn't amused by that selection. (Good going, NBC, as always.)

Commentary Notes

  • Commentary is with Dan Harmon, Chris McKenna, Adam Davidson, Donald Glover and Danny Pudi. It's decent but it's mostly Glover and Pudi cracking each other up really easily (I guess that's the kind of inexhaustible positive energy you need to be an actor) and Harmon rambles a little bit for sure. 
  • The writers did put a lot of discussion into what elements of youth were most annoying and intimidating and the writing and casting pushed for that. The "Duh!" thing came from one of McKenna's real high school friends, who you could only get the better of by refusing to engage him at all. 
  • Harmon wanted a story where the other characters held Pierce accountable, as opposed to some shows where it feels like the "funny asshole" character ("the Eric Cartman", according to Harmon) never gets taken to task.
  • Donald laughs at Britta saying "You've gotta bang that kid's Mom" and says it's like the mean stuff that kids say to each other without thinking like "Your Mom's in a wheelchair." He'd end up expanding that into a bit for his latest Stand-up special.
  • Donald also points out that Britta's using binoculars that she probably paid for with money that could've gone towards an iPod. Also that Pierce's essence is that he won't change, the other characters and the audience will change around him.


The ridiculous Harmon-penned lyrics to the song at the end.


“I don’t like studying I like partying. 
I don’t wanna read a book
Unless the subject is beers and boobs
And no pencils and books

The semester hasn’t started
Until you party where you’re hardest
I don’t want to take a test 
unless the question is ‘Where’s the party?’
And the answer is ‘Me’

(I drink the beer I lose control)
Why did my father always lie?

I hate science
Unless it helps you build a robot
Specifically the kind programmed to find another party
So I can skip chemistry

College is a party
So come party at the party
Party is the class in session 
And the only lesson is to party 
when you party with me”




  • andrew w.k. needs to cover that song.

  • SpongyandBruised

    Do you have anymore, uh, upbeat songs about partying?

  •  "Why did my father always lie?" is so perfect.

  •  Great review!
    one of the things about this episode that i do love is that this is the best display of the Jeff-Britta friendship dynamic that pervades the second half of season one.  These two people get each other and have fun pushing each other to do ridiculous shit, but also are willing to engage in and get carried away by the same petty shit.  Plus we see their own shorthand reinforcing this friendship, stuff like when britta says you have to bang that kid's mom, jeff's enthusiastic response "i have to bang that kid's mom!" and the little covert high-five they do.  If you take just this episode and romantic expressionism you get exhibits a and b in why Jeff and Britta make terrific friends. 

    As to Pierce and Shirley i thought this episode did a nice thing in allowign Pierce to be the one to express his admiration for Shirley.  So many of our main character come from troubling situations and yet Shirley is someone who has proven to be a damn good mom.  The type of parent that many of the other group members don't have (jeff = absentee father, abed = absentee mother, pierce = domineering father, britta = father issues, annie = both parents cut her off, i guess troy is normal?) I think the other characters are too young to see how positive that trait can be.  They haven't reached an age or maturity where self-reflection is necessary.  But pierce for all his faults knows himself and he knows what he admires.  And he admires the type of strong mother that shirley.  It is a nice story.

  • I would add in Communication Studies for the Jeff-Britta trifecta in season 1. 

  •  that is another good one.  It is interesting to see the show move from the early season 1 stage where they are sparring but in a flirting manner, to the later stages where they spar in the way that friends do. 

  • Loki100

    Okay, well, if I'm the Fun Police, then you're Director of Funland Security. 

  • Troy has racist parents (he said so when Jeff needed a place to stay in 108) and they don't seem to care much about Troy considering his dad made him move out so he'd feel less weird about his 20 year old girlfriend. Troy mentions his uncles a lot more than them. Everyone in the group has deep rifts with their parents, especially father, except for Shirley.

  • Loki100

    Well we don't really know anything about Shirley's parents, do we?

    It's probably because she's the only member of the study group who actually moved on and created her own family.

  • Loki100

    I think this episode is fundamental to understanding why Shirley and Pierce are somewhat orbital to the other five characters. Troy and Annie are just starting out in life, while Britta, Abed, and even Jeff have never accomplished anything. Britta has the thin veneer of experience, but she never had dedication or discipline. Jeff might have been a lawyer, but, of course, that was all based on lies.

    Shirley and Pierce actually each have a lifetime of accomplishments. And that is the impetus behind the occasional young/old divide in the group. It isn't about age (indeed, Shirley is only two years older than Jeff), it is about the people who were working and raising families while Sienfeld, Cheers, and Friends were on, and so missed them. Meanwhile only Jeff knows what it is like to have an actual long term job and no one knows what it is like to raise a family.

  • Best reaction shot ever?


    Best reaction shot ever.

  •  i tell you that goat can act! he is a regular mickey rooney!

  •  I didn't even read the whole review yet (I have to go to work), but I'm going to leave this fishstick, only because it says so much about who Jeff and Britta are in this episode: http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…

  •  i talk about that moment above because to me that is the quintessential jeff and britta make great friends moment

  • I love that they dressed Jeff and Britta in matching outfits again.  They always seem to do that for episodes where they're making mischief together.

  • Great call. I loved their black and grey Greendale Parents outfits in 115.

  • DavetheDouchebag

    I like that Annie is standing between two pairs of identically dressed people.

  • Wow, Unregistered Guy Named Eric : "Having seen through each others' ideal selves, they actually get along in reality, at their borderline worst."  That's got to be one of the best summations of the Jeff-Britta relationship arc I've ever read.

    My big question watching this episode is why Annie wasn't more bothered by the high schoolers.  They're gunners who are taking community college classes because they're so advanced, not because they've messed up (which is why Annie's there).  They're putting down her school and basically calling everyone there losers, which I don't think Annie believes herself to be.  I know they don't get in her face as much, but I'm surprised in the one scene where she sees the high school kids interact with Jeff and Britta that she's completely calm and treats Jeff and Britta's actions as silly and juvenile.  Between her competitive side and the side of her that was bullied in high school, I'm really surprised it doesn't affect her more.

  • I'd like to think that can be chalked up to the writers not having enough time to fit it in. Great point though.

  • That's a good point. Knowing how she reacts to similar "threats" (Evil Annie, butt flags, etc.) it definitely makes sense to think Annie would be put off by these kids. On the other hand, Jeff and Britta are completely preoccupied with the high schoolers, and at this point, their issues and the general vortex of bickering and sexual tension that surrounds them is distancing them from the rest of the group. Maybe their preoccupations become tainted by association, so while Annie might ordinarily be bothered by the kids she now sees the conflict as That Dumb Thing Jeff and Britta are Hung Up On, and she disengages.

  • Mmm….fishsticks.

    Of COURSE Abed is wearing the traditional white heart-print boxers.


    Also, I find Annie's reaction to Troy's pantsing particularly adorable.


  • wow Fishsticks are awesome for noticing things Ive never seen before. Alison's face is hilarious there.

  • Annie seems really excited about lots of things this ep. Troy getting pantsed, apparently. She's very into Pierce's song (Troy looks like he thinks it's responsible for everything awful that's ever existed). She also approves of the food fight.

    Maybe Alison knew she didn't have as big a part and was trying to be funny with every reaction.

  • Annie's unbridled laughter colored by her sexual repression was very very cute indeed.

  • This episode inspired me to buy a pair of the traditional white heart print boxers. 

  • The next moment after the first fishstick is awesome, too, when Troy glances down at Abed's boxers, works out what just happened, and bursts out laughing. 

  • I don't have anything intelligent to say about this episode on a thematic or character level, but I've always thought that it's insanely funny. Britta's not (a key moment in her evolution into The Worst and ergo one of the best characters on television), "HAVE YOU SEEN A CHINESE KID?!", Pierce sitting down beside the wrong black woman and the group's reactions (Annie: *gasps* Jeff: "Yep."), Britta's sheer excitement over her plan to have Jeff bang the kid's mom, all of Troy and Abed's antics, the ending song, etc. I remember some people online disliking it when it first premiered but I couldn't have disagreed more; it had me roaring. It's obviously completely overwhelmed by the two episodes on either side of it, but while not one of my absolute favorite S1 eps it's one that's comfortably in the middle.

    Also, as a side note, Jillian Rose Reed, the female schmitty kid, now co-stars in MTV's kind of shockingly good (for MTV scripted programming standards) high school sitcom Awkward, which probably edges out Happy Endings as my favorite TV comedy to debut in 2011.

  • Yes, without really thinking about it I think it's the funniest episode in S1 at the least, maybe even the whole series.

    -Possibly the funniest thing Chevy has done with Pierce: his "EXCUSE ME!!" when Jeff cut off his singing. (Jeff really does have a thing about other people singing, doesn't he? He did it in his Troy and Abed in the Morning appearance too.)
    -Annie's chipmunk reaction to getting caught by Shirley
    -"I put mustard on mine like an idiot"
    -"2,3,4-uhhhh, NOT"
    -Annie in one of the simul-talks saying "you say the world wide web"
    -The group mocking the Annie Gasp

    It's crazy that so many Community fans outside this bubble routinely put this down as the worst episode. I think our browbeating has helped with that a bit and now maybe Eric's review will settle it for good.

  • there really are so many jokes packed into this episode. I love season 1. 

  • "I put mustard on mine like an idiot"
    Glover's face when he says that is so perfect.

  • I'll be honest, the first time I saw this episode I had to pause it and walk away for a while. The high schoolers were just too much, and that was before I even got to the climactic duh-off. I know they were supposed to be snot nosed and annoying, but they did their job too well. 

    When I finally gave it a rewatch at the start of the hiatus, I had a new appreciation for it for many of the reasons stated above. It didn't initially work as a stand alone episode for me, but in the context of how the characters grew over the next two seasons, I found a new appreciation for it.

  • I was there with you the first time.  What can I say?  The annoying kids were really good at their jobs!  On rewatch, I was more willing to ride it out to spend time with the characters and could appreciate just how funny it is and how much (as Unregistered Guy Named Eric and others have so astutely pointed out) relationship growth happens in it.  This is one where the RHM board really has changed my mind.  But the first time?  See Melted Kojak 's fishstick.

  • "See Melted Kojak's fishstick"


  • The ladies call me the Gorton's Fisherman…

  • First time or two around, I couldn't stand those goddamn kids, and it definitely tainted my appreciation of the episode. Now I have so much affection for it and think it's one of the most fun episodes to date. I love the Pierce/Shirley story (and how Pierce veers from his best to his worst in this episode — he's really never too far from either, honestly); I love what Jeff and Britta's friendship has become by this point; and "You've got to bang that kid's mom!" definitely belongs in the pantheon of great Community moments.

    Excellent review!

  • Great review, Eric! So great in fact, that I have nothing to add or contribute. You nailed the Jeff/Britta dynamic perfectly.

    This episode may be given the short shrift because it's sandwiched between two universally beloved classics, but it does a great job of preparing the ground for Jeff and Britta finally making out in 223. It's actually a deft bit of continuity: the group starts being slightly annoyed here with Jeff and Britta's snarky, solipsistic banter, only to call them out on it at the start of Modern Warfare.

    One last thing: I love how well the episode succeeds at telling and interweaving four separate stories: Jeff and Britta's battle with the Schmittys; Troy and Abed's Animal House bucket list; Shirley and Pierce's weird little relationship; and the group's subconscious attempts to find a new Pierce. It's pretty masterful stuff, really: none of the stories is telegraphed – instead all four are fully developed, beautifully interlaced and they converge nicely in the cafeteria food fight. It's something the show hasn't been quite as good at lately: while they knock "concept" episodes out of the park, the writers seem to have significantly more difficulties these days at coming up with small, connected stories like the ones they did in the S1 "pizza" episodes.

    Fun fact: did you know that Walter White beat the shit out of the pizza boy in the tag?

  • '. It's something the show hasn't been quite as good at lately: while they knock "concept" episodes out of the park, the writers seem to have significantly more difficulties these days at coming up with small, connected stories like the ones they did in the S1 "pizza" episodes.'

    ALOT of the season 1 episodes were like this – just Greendale stories where the group have different things going on and they come together in nice ways – The Science of Illusion for example.

    this is sort of what I was trying to say a few days ago when we were talking about MOR episodes vs concept episodes. I think part of that has to do with the different type of writers the show has now.