Episode 221: Paradigms of Human Memory




Paradigms of Human Memory, season 2, episode 21

The first time I watched Casablanca, it was surreal in that every scene was familiar to me, despite the fact that I had never seen it.  The reason being, I had seen so many homages, parodies, and references to it that there was almost nothing in it I had not actually experienced before. "Paradigms of Human Memory" probably feels that way to people who watched Community after having read the Internet for a few days, as it is so stuffed with lines and moments that have been referenced and quoted a few hundred thousand times over in the course of this comment section alone. I noticed it first in Craig J. Clark's "becomes one of you" reviews, but it has cropped up over and over again, this ubiquity of joy stemming from this absurd half hour. This odd familiarity is curious as the episode is about turning the tables on familiarity in a way.

The clip show is a sitcom tradition that evokes more than a few eyerolls, so it has been ripe for reinvention for a long time. It has been used, in the past, to comment on sitcoms or on the shows in question, and Community does both of those things with merry gusto. It tells the tale of a hundred adventures we never saw, in a universe that is rich with adventures, and it merrily pokes fun at itself and sitcom tropes in general along the way. By going with a fake clip show, jumping back to episodes we've never seen before, we get to see the show pull off a neat trick: expanding its universe, commenting on itself, commenting on television, telling its fans it loves them, marveling at its characters, and taking a look back before plunging on in the hero's journey all at the same time.

As SBT pointed out in her review of "Race Relations in the American West: 1865-1880,"Community has a knack for taking stock sitcom settings, tropes, and character types and gently nudging them–not always totally reinventing them, but giving them a loving tweak–to make them seem fresh and fun while still recognizable. The propspector in red underwear is, of course, a cliche of Westerns on television and off, but acknowledging the fact that such a character in reality would be hardcore racist (and putting him in a ghost town rather than some sort of Western theme park or the actual Old West) allowed us to view the whole thing not quite from a new perspective, but at least different enough to be more fun than tired. It is also a testament to the show that, once again, instead of mining the ridiculous situation for humor solely from the circumstance, they mine the humor from the character's interactions with the premise. As it gets more and more absurd, the characters remain the heart of the show's humor.

And that ties into some of the broader themes of Community, which is, amongst other things, about television. Dan Harmon doesn't even try to hide his love of television, and it bleeds through every aspect of the show. He loves pop culture in general. The show is innovative and original, doing things no other sitcom would dream of doing, but at the same time, it's doing so with a respect and love of the genre of television sitcoms that makes what would seem like cheekiness or disdain instead seem like a natural progression from the past to the future, the evolution of television rather than the reinvention, full of respect and love.

The show acknowledges itself as a television show both subtly and not, from rapidly exposing its patterns before our eyes (rolling past silly holiday adventures, various sitcom tropes like the Old West prospector and the haunted house, the Dean's montage, and so on) to both mock them and revel in them, to including not one but two (or even three, if you count Chang and Annie's Boobs) shipper video parodies in the midst of the episode. This sort of meta-commentary is even lampshaded at the beginning when Jeff complains that Duncan has them doing a diorama of making their previous diorama. They warn you right off the bat that they are about to shove the show up its own ass. With this set up, it then explores itself gently through the fake clips, all while still telling a story of a group of people having an argument while building a diorama.

(Meanwhile, by interspersing fake clips from real episodes early on, they also toy with your perceptions by making more casual viewers doubt the falsity of the other clips. This has the effect of making the fake clips seem more real even to devoted viewers, too, so kudos to the writers and directors and actors for being fucking awesome, right.)

What Janine said about "Irish Potamology" seems to be relevant here: An important part of the humor on Community is who or what is the butt of the joke. As Dan Harmon points out in the commentary, the shipper videos are not mocking shippers; they're embracing them. Harmon expresses amazement at how the shippers draw romance "out of a rock," with his silly show "about robots and hotdogs," and his homage to them using "Gravity" by Sara Bareilles is an absurdist rendition of the work they do that is intended to show just how difficult their work is. While there are mean-spirited jokes on the show occasionally, most of them are done out of love. Troy's cartoonish understanding of physics might make him seem idioitc, but most of the joke lies in his over-the-top defense, not in his actually going through with it. Glover's indignant, high pitched defense amplifies the situation (and recalls the hilarious nature of anytime Troy cries), drawing attention to his naivete, but it's the performance that sells the humor.

Similarly, the Dean's montage is one of the most impressive parts of the episode. I touched on it with my most popular comment on Reddit (admittedly, I don't go there often), but the Dean is very rarely mocked for his sexuality or gender, but mostly for his flamboyant expression thereof instead, and even then, it's almost never quite cruel. Even Jeff has to snarl "with irrelevant news" at the end of his angriy lashing out at the Dean, not content with noting the outfits alone. And every single entrance the Dean makes, the butt of the joke isn't simply "oh, he's dressed weird." It's "he's dressed this way for the most absurd reason possible." It escalates perfectly, too: Feline AIDS Awareness is at least the sort of thing groups make a day out of. The music department one, hell, that almost makes sense. The stretch, though, from Tina Turner to Daylight Savings is so far out there that it comes back around to being genius, and there is no amount of praise enough for turning energy conscious windows into a Gone With the Wind homage. And yet, every single one of those insanities is absolutely at home at Greendale.

And that's what makes this episode so strong, so joyously familiar: it is done with love for the setting, characters, and themes of the show. We've never seen any of these characters in these specific situations before, but it's clear what's going on in all of them because we are familiar with the show. Troy and Jeff taking a barbering class together is just another blow off class episode. Abed's obsession with The Cape is just Abed's pop culture embrace of all things dorky. Annie's over-training at martial arts, Pierce's mad rise to tyrannical flu shot addict, and so on are all immediately recognizable as typical Community moments despite the fact that we weren't privy to them. It's like what Stephe and Dave were talking about in the comments to the review of "Advanced Robotics and the Culinary Arts," the show's ability to remember small details (like Boob-a-Tron) and bring them back later as fully formed ideas creates a strong continuity that gives the show an impressive depth and a strong sense of setting that rewards viewers by making the universe of the show so comfortable and familiar, it might as well be home.

The first time I watched the show, I marathoned all of it that had aired up to the last part of season 2. I think only the finale episodes had not aired by the time I started watching. I became a huge fan of the show, though, and infected my friends with it. I became enamored of the memes it generated, letting the quotes and phrases become part of my vocabulary, and it wasn't long before "six seasons and a movie" was a regular rallying cry of mine. It became so ingrained in my vocabulary that its context no longer mattered. It wasn't about The Cape, it was about Community. As I delved online for more interaction revolving around this amazing show, I was heartened to see I wasn't the only one. It became such that I didn't even remember for a while which episode it was from. It seemed like it had always been there, and it felt like it was the banner that the Communists in Italics (before we were ever called that) flew in defiance of low ratings and behind-the-scenes drama. When the show came back and ultimately embraced the rallying cry as well, it seemed to have come full circle, confirming the beautiful community that has sprung up appropriately around this show. Now, every time I hear Abed shout that out after (rather rudely) dragging Jeff's lunch to the floor, I feel a little tingle, a sharp spasm of warmth and belonging, a continual reminder of this perfect digital place.

I would be remiss in this review if I did not refer to Lloyd's assertion in his review of "Humanitarian Construction Principles" that this episode was quite possibly the funniest the show ever made. I will extensively quote it in the Stray Observations, but let me say here, not only did this episode maintain a character-based humor through a series of absurd situations and a heaert of gold, it also did so while remembering it was supposed to be humorous. It is the counterpoint to "Mixology Certificate," in that it is remembered more for the laughs than the heart (yet still has both, like "Mixology"). Like Loki said in his review of "Music Apreciation," Harrison Ford's ongoing attempts to sterilize us must be fucking stopped, my friends. His nefarious plans are not only a danger to us, but to the world as a whole, and if we don't step up, who will?

Stray observations:

  • I intended to link to a video of Jeff's speech for those last two lines, but the video I had is now gone from YouTube. You all know what I'm talking about, though. That Winger Speech is my favorite moment in all of Community.
  • "We learned new ways to hate ourselves."
  • "Didn't we decide at the beginning of the year for the good fof the group, we wouldn't allow any intimacy between each other or ourselves." "Ttroy, we never said ourselves." "All right. Now I'm really mad."
  • "Troy, drop a beat."
  • "Feast your ear tongues on these memory pops." Britta gets so many of the best lines.
  • "I'll be a LIVING GOD!"
  • "It was a particularly small egg. That's why I was asking."
  • Pierce's "How dare you?!" at Abed when he says there's more chemistry between Jeff and Annie than him and Pierce always cracks me up.
  • "I don't know if it's because you're racist or if I intimidate youmy sexually, but I know it's one of those two."
  • "I hate US!"
  • "It's not you, it's m–" "It's you."
  • "Yes, Troy, like the Traveling Wilburys of Pain."–weird that Troy is the one who makes the connection to the Traveling Wilburys. I guess he's been hanging out at Pierce's a lot at this point, but that's a pretty old band for someone who has no idea who Billy Joel is.
  • Even though he's helping them make the diorama, Chang is not actually in it. I guess he wasn't making their 19th with them.
  • Pierce is the one who believes in leprechauns.
  • "This habitat was for humanity!" Also, I love the casual way Jeff and Britta screw everyone over at the destroyed Habitat house (which is incredibly huge and expensive looking for a Habitat home).
  • "I'm talking about the… Annie of it all."
  • "It's like a reverse cow birth."
  • Another meta-commentary: taking snipes at rivals Glee. "We won like 70 awards!" "Yeah, but the reason we had to fill in for glee club was because they… died."
  • "Humanity is premiering, you jags!"
  • The plot to the tag is kinda a ripoff of The Toxic Avenger, except the part in heaven.
  • I like to think Annie's martial arts and the jump rope scene are from the same episode, called "Advanced Physical Education," in which Annie gets into a tight spot in a phys. ed. class and the group rallies to help her through it.
  • I think we should give names to all of the fake episodes. Here are the premises that were recognizable as more than normal interactions: Wild West ghost town, haunted house, St. Patrick's Day rafting trip, Free Caesar Salad Day, camping, painting Shirley's nursery, jump rope, glee club, barbering class, The Cape and the Tunisian revolution, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, flu shots, Lady Miss Lady Cosmetics, martial arts training, Boob-a-Tron and Pierce as a hotdog, Feline AIDS Awareness Day, music department fundraiser, energy conscious windows cotillion, daylight savings, Mexican drug runners, a locomotive that runs on US, a fishing trip of some sort (possibly on the camping trip), mercury poisoning, and bed bugs at a hostel of some sort.
  • The card calls it a Dan Harmon/Russo Brothers Diorama.

Commentary notes

  • They talk about the Growing Pains clip show told from the perspective of a shoe or whatever. I know I saw this as a kid, but I don't remember it much. They also talk about how this was an eighties TV trope, and that it preceded what Larry David did to revolutionize TV. More supporting information for that love of TV stuff I went on about above.
  • Yes, they re-did the Halloween set for the one scene, but the claymation was done ahead of time.
  • They had to run around the Universal lot like mad people to make this episode. Clip shows are supposed to make things easier, but that didn't happen with this one. They did not save any money, that's for sure, even though the episode was a little short.
  • The episode's being short was the reason for the animated tag, which was done by folks at Channel 101.
  • Pierce's bird impression is based on something someone in the commentary knew did. Yeah, I can't tell their voices apart very well. A buncha nasal voiced white guys and some British guy.
  • Harmon says he took out a reference the group being in a plane crash because it was too absurd for the reality of the show. He doesn't talk about the reference to Pierce almost being executed by Mexican drug runners, which is by far the most astonishing thing in the whole episode to me–that's a very extreme and intense situation that never gets mentioned again… and I love it.
  • Harmon says because this episode kicked their asses, he has to go back and do it again in a way that doesn't kick their asses. Curious what he says (if anything) on the commentary to CU.
  • They had more to do with The Cape, but NBC didn't want to tell them they were cancelled and that they were mocking them on another show. A rare moment of compassion from the network execs? I scoff.
  • Harmon paid his own money for "Gravity." I wish I had $35,000 to drop on a song just lying around.
  • The Dean montage did not change at all between being written and being filmed. Harmon left it with Megan and Chris (and the other writers, Dino, Adam, and Hilary are all cited), and he came back to find them smirking, which he says is unusual, but they totally nailed it. 
  • The haunted house does not contain an actual ghost. They say it's supposed to be a cousin of Pierce that is Scooby Dooing them away.
  • The irradiating testicles line comes from something Harmon read on some poor paranoid person's website back in the day, though it was Madonna, not Harrison Ford.
  • There's an unused scene in which Abed imagines the third season. Pierce is a robot dog, the Dean is a hologram, and Shirley is replaced by Magnitude (or a sandwich). I am kinda glad they didn't include it, even though it sounds very funny.



On the AV Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-774078646 (page 738)



  • a hat tip to… Tereglith? someone? bongoes who gave me the idea to do the fake review references.

  • Not to brag but… it was me. And this came out amazing. Great job.

  • I can only wish I had come up with an idea that good. Great execution too.

  • Loki100

    My favorite thing about Lady Miss Lady cosmetics is Abed happily participating.

  • i like to think it happened right after aerodynamics of gender.

  • This is a thing that I would say!

  • heh. glad no one seems offended i put words in their mouth… yet. 

  • also, ahem, punctuation, but i doubt anyone minds that.

  • DavetheDouchebag

    Stephe and I would also like to express our approval of the words you lodged in our throats.

  • now that you're 18, i feel more comfortable with statements like these.

  • Oh, well done glazomaniac . Well done indeed. 

    This is, joke for joke, about as good as Community gets. Even though it isn't an actual joke, the very idea that  they were able to use a fake clip show to advance the plot and delve more deeply into the characters, which is the last thing clip shows are supposed to do, is very funny to me. On the long list of Community meta moments, that one deserves special recognition. That fact actually slipped by me on my first viewing. I knew the episode had turned the very idea of a clip show on it's head, I just didn't realize how far they had taken it. 

  • and to think, they did all this, but what they set out to do was mostly just do a fake clip show and have fun.

  • One thing that impressed me about this episode was that during my first watch, I didn't fully realize it was a fake clip show until about the 1st commercial break.

    Great review!

  • that's what those fake clips from AUC and epidemiology were there for! they knew what they were doing, those glorious bastards.

  •  The Winger speech montage is solid gold.

  • what i love about it is, if you don't pay too much attention, it almost makes sense.

  • Awesome review, Glaz! You have done this episode proud.
    I had just started getting into Community and this was maybe the second or third episode I caught live. "Onoez my new favorite show is screwing me over with a clip show," I said. Something seemed a little off around the Gravity montages, though, and I began to wonder if Something Was Up. I only confirmed the next day while perusing fan reactions online that it was indeed a fake clip show. I told my friend about this cool new show I had started watching and how they had just done a clip show but get this, all the clips were new, but they made you think it was old at first, and she was all, that sounds really cool, and I was like, yeah, you should watch it, and so we did. 

  • I've been thinking a fun thing to do with a new fan is to have them watch this episode early on, or even first, and tell them it does have clips from earlier episodes but some of them are new, kinda like outtakes. Have them watch this first though because, hey, it's like a highlight package, so you can tell if you like the show. Then after they watch the entire series and catch up with the episodes they'll slowly realize those episodes from which the clips are takenaren't real at all.

  • now this makes me want to show this episode to someone before they see any other episodes and convince them it's a real clip show.

  • This used to be my favorite episode and then RCT happened. I still think it's the funniest episode, which is a worthy title for a comedy. 
    For months and months I had no idea the Cape was an actual show. I honestly thought it was something super goofy like MILF island the writers dreamt just for a joke. Look how crazy this show is! Television is weird. But no … it's actually real. And I had associated it in my head like the mercury poisoning scene in Community: something too silly to be real. 
    This episode has many of my favorite lines. "I'll be a living god!" I really love the reasoning. I'm sure it works too! 
    And why didn't you reference my review of A Feminist Critique of Caesar Salad and the Conquest of Gaul?

  • let's face it, capt: i ain't worthy to reference your review. it was the ulysses of episode reviews. 

  • Excellent write-up, Glazo. All your episode titles for the clips are great.

    I always try to remember how much "Paradigms" blew me away when I first saw it (and it still makes me laugh compulsively as much or more than any other episode). But I guess I've come to rank it a small notch below the great episodes. Maybe because examined closely all the clips just make me wish I could see those episodes. Plus I shamelessly wish the revelation of Jeff and Britta hooking up had been a little more serious/romantic. The best way I can say it as that after watching it many times, when you pull this episode apart, look at each piece, then put it back together, it no longer tells as satisfying a story as about 8-10 other S2 episodes (though it has it's own virtues that are just as creative).

    I do like how it's possible to document the group's shifting feelings about each other from "Cooperative Calligraphy" to here. In that episode, they were gratified by Jeff's absurd speech, but here they just seem somewhat wearily willing to accept it. I get the feeling they're aware that there's a growing stress on the general relationship they all have together, and one that's going to inevitably reach a breaking point (which kind of happens in the 2-part finale).

  • I love how UNSERIOUS Britta and Jeff's revelation is. I don't want there to be dumb intra-group romance. I'm glad it was friends with benefits and how no one in the group really cared at the end.

  • this is my exact sentiment. the whole point was to subvert the expectation of some big reveal.

  •  Oh fudge, this almost got pushed off the page…

    Excellent write-up, glazo! Just beautiful! And thanks for the shout-out (I didn't think anyone had read that review ;-) )

    Whenever I think about "Paradigms," I always visualize it as this perilously built structure, teetering just on the edge between genuine hilarity, and smartass shtick. It's literally one "Pop-pop!" away from sliding into solipsistic self-indulgence, and yet it never crosses that line. Because, if you think about, almost none of the episodes the clips suggest, would fly on this comment board in their full version (OK, I would probably want to know what episode culminates in Jeff saying "It's a locomotive that runs on US!"). The all look like elaborate, overly conceptual stories that amp up precisely the cartoony side of the show that was so divisive in S3. In "Paradigms" they work, because they seem to suggest more the show as we imagine it, and as it was built up in the popular imagination, than as it it really is – they're quick, drive-by sketches, immensely funny, and inventive, but ultimately, rather shallow (I'll echo Eric's comment below by saying that the Jeff/Britta revelation had been teased out a bit and handled less casually.

    The episode is a little like Jeff's speech – a familiar form filled with nonsensical content, and that's what makes it so brilliant. It appeals to our memory, it's quite literally predicated on the "Hey, remember when that happened?" conversation starters that drives places like this board. In other words, it's just great.

    P.S. The fake flashbacks remind me a lot of Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines – they have the same self-contained, inexplicable coherence.

    P.P.S. Chang being hit in the head by a small monkey will never be not funny to me.

  • i like the subversion of the jeff-britta reveal, part of putting the nail in the coffin of that will they won't they plot without playing it out like a typical wtwt plot (which i hate). 

  • Sorry, glaz, I didn't get to reading this until now. Really great review and thank you for paying attention in my class.

     I love what you say about the show's ability to bring small details back as back fully formed ideas. Ex: that joke about Britta's lipstick we were talking about that day (heh, speaking of "remember that time?"). That's a unique skill Community has.

    There's something about this episode that keeps me from fully embracing it and its love for me. I think it's the point and laugh nature of the jokes that, while hilarious in isolation, feel manufactured and mechanical in practice. The other thing is that I've never cared for what the show thinks of its fans. I recognize that it's integral to the show but it's not what butters my bread. The only way I can explain it is that, like Eric, I gravitate more to the "the study is group is having another argument" aspect of the episode than to all the fun departures (although I agree that Jeff-Britta's secret sex should not have been punched up). So of those jokes you list, my favorites are the little character flourishes that technically don't even qualify as jokes but they're funny because they serve the characters over the ones that are well-crafted but primarily serve a construct.

    "Even though he's helping them make the diorama, Chang is not actually in it. I guess he wasn't making their 19th with them."

    He is, if you look closely. He's just on the outside looking in, which is fitting.

  • The other thing is that I've never cared for what the show thinks of its fans

    what do you mean?

    He is, if you look closely. He's just on the outside looking in, which is fitting.

    oh my god that is the creepiest thing ever.

  • Just that I prefer to be a completely captive viewer. I don't want to help the show write itself because I don't care about what I think or what someone who loved paintball and wants more of it wants. It's more important to me to preserve the show's ability to tell its story, and I think some of that gets lost when the show gets too eager to please its fans.