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?
- 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.
- 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)