Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Interview with Jim Rash from Community

Photo by Harper Smith/NBC 

When Community premiered last year, we expected Chevy Chase and Joel McHale to carry show. After all, Chase is a comedy legend and Joel is our pop culture hero on The Soup. Our hopes were pinned on them for a good hearty laugh every Thursday night. What we did not expect was that the majority of the humor would come from the rest of the supporting ensemble—in particular Danny Pudi (Abed), Ken Jeong (Senor Chang), and Jim Rash (Dean Pelton).

The three have also taken on bigger roles on the show's webisodes. In the past Abed and Chang have starred in a web series involving Spanish assignments, space travel, action, and adventure. This season the featured web series is Dean Pelton’s Office Hours. Jim Rash takes us inside the inner sanctum of Greendale's fearless leader as he tackles the problems of some of the school's favorite reoccurring students like Leonard and the Human Being, Greendale's faceless mascot.

We spoke with Jim Rash in a recent conference call interview about the webisodes, the show, and how he learned to be funny.

Check out our slide show of Dean Pelton photos at and watch Community on NBC, Thursday nights at 8:00 PM/7:00 PM Central.

Q: You have great comedic timing. Is it something that’s natural for you or do you have to work at it?

JIM: I wish it was natural. I don’t know. Maybe it comes from just growing up… being super popular in high school, and you just learn to use it. As far as training and stuff, it’s honing. I got to Los Angeles. Most everything got honed, I guess… at The Groundlings Theater… I’ve been active at The Groundlings for 11 years. So that was probably my training outside of college. But I think it was probably instinctual at some point along the way.

Q: Besides the timing, what did you learn from your experience at The Groundlings that you applied to your work on Community?

JIM: Well certainly I started working at The Groundlings, and mainly to take improv classes. And, I think those were beneficial not just with acting [on] Community, but also in writing because I enjoy doing that as well. Even though I have to say the writing staff is incredible and Dan Harmon had such a vision that although there is certainly always room for a little improv while we’re shooting, it’s a lot on the page. So I would say that Groundlings has been definitely influential for me just across-the-board, certainly in peoples’ fascination in the growing world of improv and that kind of stuff.

Q: You’re from Charlotte, [North Carolina], not exactly a theater and acting friendly city. What got you started in acting and theater?

JIM: Well, other than what can only be called just super quality High School Theater, which I did do. Well, two things for me started me towards what I wanted to do. One was as soon as I graduated—I went to a school called Charlotte Latin School, in Charlotte—and after I graduated from there, I really wanted to go to Chapel Hill. And, now the world will know, my grades weren’t great. I’ll confess that. And so I went to a post-graduate year at a boarding school up in New Jersey called the Lawrenceville School. And anyway, their theater program there was amazing, and I just fell in love with that, and then carried through to Carolina, and then when I got out to L.A. with The Groundlings. So, it was that path I think was [where] it really began, even though I did do some theater at Latin. But it really began probably for me up there at Lawrenceville.

Q: When you were a kid, did you do a lot of comedy, like acting up around the family and puttin on shows?

JIM: Yes, I feel like it’s a universal thing that everyone always seems to have done shows in their living room or something to get their start. But I definitely remember doing, again, some questionable but fun Children’s Theater when I was a kid. Where you were most likely playing some kind of animal in some kind of small children’s play. I think I was a Mallard duck, but that’s way before I had a right to say that I was into it. But for me, it probably didn’t get going until sometime late high school, early college.

Q: What do you think of the fact that Community the TV show has embraced the Internet to expand the viewership and the fan’s appreciation for the show?

JIM: Well I think it becomes instinctual, especially when you have… a show that by all means gets a cult following, [like] many shows out there. And I think the Internet and various websites and this community from blogs to everything is ripe with people who become fans of stuff, and it’s a great community to nurture for whatever it is, for whatever show, and I think it’s a powerful thing. And certainly to give a voice to shows that are special and have a good solid following, that’s a great place to nurture them.

Q: Is there anything else you can tell us about these webisodes—how they came about and that kind of thing?

JIM: Well we basically did Dean Pelton’s Office Hours, what goes on with some outside characters. And hopefully in the future, maybe some of our main characters will make an appearance. The Dean goes about the day-to-day business. So of these first three—which you can check out now obviously—[we] do a little sexual harassment issue with the human being, personal wig toupee help from Leonard, and then a little independent study intern who seems to take our personal relationship a little further… But, it’s funny because I’m not quite sure where they started as far as with the idea to do it… The scripts came to me and they said we wanted to start doing these little webisodes. So, I was really excited to do it. So hopefully, we’ll continue.

Q: Have you found shooting the webisodes to be different than shooting on the actual set with the full cast?

JIM: It was the same in the sense of obviously on the same set. And actually, it was the most if not all the same crew shooting that day, because we shot those during a hiatus week. So that part of it felt the same. And it was fun obviously, because Leonard’s is one of those who I see quite a bit. I think he’s on a number of episodes... and the Human Being. Even though Human Being… this time was a different person. It rotates. I think there have been two or three people who have inhabited that glorious costume… they always seem so comfortable in. But, it is a little weird, yes… It’s always going to feel a little different, but hopefully down the road we do some more and get some of the cast in there as well.

Q: Will the webisodes go into the lives of some of the peripheral characters, like Star Burns and Leonard, and even more into your own?

JIM: Yes. Well, I hope it will be a little bit of that, because I think one of the things that’s been really fun that Dan and everyone has put together is even in little small things, even the larger parts of ancillary characters like, myself and Leonard, and Star Burns, and Rich is coming back. I think he was in the pottery class, he was in the Halloween again. And then also even little small parts here and there, you always notice the same people resurfacing, because they really wanted [it] to feel like a regular school. How you see some familiar faces. So I think the webisodes, at least so far, obviously Leonard is in one, and hopefully there’ll be some introductions and crossovers both ways, I would hope. But it’s fun to explore the lives of all the people you see in these classes who might not be the regulars. So hopefully we’ll get a little bit more of that.

Q: Do you look at the webisodes as a way to promote yourself as a character actor or to gain fans for Community or both?

JIM: Now you’re putting me in my head. I hope I rise to the occasion. I do think it’s a great way to broaden your being seen, to expand the people that know about the show and watch the show. And I guess for me, I don’t know if I feel so much pressure as much as just honored to have the opportunity to expand the life outside of just the TV show. Because obviously you have Joel and Donald, and all these people who have huge outside stuff through which they’re also bringing it to the table, from Joel with Soup, and Donald with his stand-up and his writing as well. I’m just using them as examples, but everyone [is] working so hard to really focus the attention on Community in different ways. So, I’m hoping that the webisodes will do that as well.

Q: Are you hoping these webisodes lead to a spin off for you?

JIM: I don’t know about a spin off, but I certainly hope that it leads to some more webisodes and exploring it, because I’m happy where I’m at, at this point. I don’t know if the world can endure a whole show centered around a Dean Pelton. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s an interesting guy… we might learn too much. It’s probably good that we learn him in doses. But it’s just been a fun ride and I hope it continues. I would imagine it would be very interesting… maybe Dean Pelton moves to another city and [fulfills] his lifelong dream of raising Dalmatians. There we go. We got a show.

Q: You’re a part of Twitter. Why is that social network important for you in the promotion of things like the webisodes?

JIM: When I did the Twitter thing, it came through at Groundlings, where we set up our Twitter accounts for the cast members so it would come on our websites, and I just had no idea, until I started doing that. And I remember… Tweeting very minimally in the beginning. And all the sudden… I came home and I think it was like [my] Gmail account was filled with 100 emails. And I don’t know that many people that would be writing me. Just the notifications that people were following it. It was overwhelming, and I feel it’s obviously a huge way that people get announcements or links to stuff. It’s pretty incredible how people use it. So I’m pretty much a novice to it. So I would have to say I’m learning and watching as I go. There are more experts at it than I am, that’s for sure.

Q: On Twitter you get recognized as Moby quite a bit. Have you talked to the producers about Moby coming on to play your evil twin?

JIM: I think that would be a great idea. I guess when I started maybe shaving my head more, or something, but the Moby stuff started a while ago, as well as I also got some Steve Soderbergh, if I have a hat on. But yes, not too long ago, there was a part on, I think, How I Met Your Mother, where they were looking for a Moby look alike, and then another Moby look alike that I know—a guy by the name of… JP Manoux ended up doing it. So, there are a number of us out there, so hopefully it would be cool to see if Moby would even come to do that.

Q: Do you have any input into the antics of your character?

JIM: Yes. One of the fun things that’s been on this ride since the first season is the added stuff… the secrets we’re starting to find out about him from Dalmatian fetishes to his over curiosity of Jeff Winger and… as I understand down the pike, there should be some more fetishes that might come his way to add to it. And then as far as the Lady Gaga fascination, I don’t know if it was a fascination or just a chance to show off his legs… And then ABBA, and clearly recording himself listing things he needed to do… I love the fact that we’re not quite sure yet what goes on in his personal life, but I look forward to one day having some kind of reveal to that. Whether we want to know it or not, I don’t know… I think he’s got a very social awkwardness, meaning no ability to filter what comes out of his mouth and then catch himself on it. So, I hope there’ll be more of that.

Q: What were your expectations for Dean Pelton when you were cast? Did you know that he was going to be this crazy? This weird?

JIM: No. It’s funny just because I didn’t. When we shot the pilot, I was cast… pretty late in. I think they had already started shooting. And at the time, it was just a guest star on a pilot that you didn’t know whether it would be picked up. And then they always talk as a possible recurring type thing. And then once the show got picked up, I just had no idea how much they would end up using the Dean. And nor did I know where we were going… I think it all began the most… with the Dalmatian video as far as getting into some weird stuff. As soon as that [became a] YouTube thing and wondering if that was going to awaken something in me. I think that they just ran with that a little bit. I definitely think it evolved because even in the pilot, it’s funny, if you actually look back at the pilot. In the very beginning I’m wearing a wedding ring in the pilot, and I always said that disappeared by the second episode that I did. So either he was briefly married or he puts the ring on just for a little bit for people’s first day of school. I don’t know. But he’s definitely evolved and it’s been a lot of fun.

Q: When you get a new script and you learn these new things about the Dean, do you find yourself saying, “Really? Dalmatian costume? Seriously?” Or do you rejoice because it’s so silly or both?

JIM: I rejoice in anything that’s very fun and specific. I think that’s the fun of it, and seeing where you’re going. But, I can’t say I don’t have those moments when I’m like, “What?” But I think it’s more a joyous "what," as in just along for that part of the ride. So, I’m always excited when there’s a surprise or something very specific they’ve started to get in their minds, because they start to think of things and lay some groundwork for down the road, which started with that video of the Dalmatians and ended with obviously the finale with Dalmatians in costumes. So, they let it grow.

Q: If you could write something about your character, what would you choose to have happen on screen?

JIM: Oh. Interesting. If I could write something for him. Well, I don’t know if I know exactly what would happen, but like I said, I would like to see… his home life, because… I’m always curious if I go anywhere or do I end up just staying there? But I would love to see and discover what his personal life is like if I were asked to write something. I don’t know what I would go with though, because I do like it being [in] question, everything about his personal life from what he’s in to, to all that kind of stuff.

Q: Earlier you were mentioning your school days. Throughout your education, have you ever met any faculty members that were like Dean Pelton?

JIM: I don’t know if I can say I’ve met someone quite like him in any of my school experience. I’m trying to think of anybody. But no, I don’t know about someone who seems to infuse himself into the lives. Obviously Dean always tracks down specifically Jeff in our core, which is always funny that they always seem to hear the announcements first before the rest of the school body. But that’s the design of the TV show, so it’s a lot of fun, that he takes such a vested interest in this small study group. But I don’t think I’ve had anyone that would be that invasive from my past.

Q: If you were the Dean of a school like Greendale in real life, what type of facilities would you want?

JIM: One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed, that I think hopefully one day they’ll investigate, is exactly what the social budget of Greendale is. The Dean seems to spend a lot of money on dances and some pretty elaborate stuff. So I think I would follow in his footsteps at least in that, because it seems to be a very entertaining approach to a community college. They seem to have a lot of social activities and a lot of real big events. So I would love to see his budget, or see someone crack down on his budget. I’d probably embrace that.

Q: Dean Pelton has this funny self-entitlement about him when it comes to his job. Do you think he thinks of himself as a hero or crusader?

JIM: I think he does. I think he is a guy who at his core really wants this school to be successful. And I think he fancies that this community college can be like, [as] he said sarcastically last year, "Any of those real colleges that people choose to transfer to after two years." I think he wants people to stay. I think he believes that this place can be just as great as the big colleges. So although I think that obviously, [he] makes a lot of missteps. I think that his heart is in the right place and his desire. When we first started, I remember Dan Harmon, the creator, was in his mind early on, felt… it’s possible I went to some Ivy League school and that Dean didn’t have the college experience that he felt that he deserved. And has been hell bent on making Greendale… his college experience the way he wants to have it. So that was how he always saw it.

Q: If you ask any Community fan what their favorite moments from the show are, they’ll either tell you the paintball episode or the Apollo 13 episode. Which episodes stand out for you?

JIM: Well, obviously those were a lot of fun to shoot…. I just had so much fun shooting the Apollo 13 space bus episode personally. But I will say that one of my favorite times, because it was only the second episode I was in after the pilot, was the football one where I got to come in and ask Troy if he wanted to play football. And, it was so much fun just because that was the first time back for me, and… in the pilot I only appear in the beginning. So, it was fun from that moment [to] start fleshing out who that guy was. So, that one will always be something that was fun personally just to shoot, to explore that.

Q: What’s it like working with the cast of Community?

JIM: Oh, it’s great. It’s a really close group. I think that they’ve all bonded and are very welcoming to myself and then obviously even any other guest stars and new people along the way. And it’s fun to watch Joel, who is very quick witted and loves to tease people, and it’s fun to watch him play around with Ken Jeong… And then Donald Glover obviously is another one that enjoys that as well. So, it’s a really fun set to be on when we’re working longer hours, it makes it go a little faster you know. So very lucky.

Q: As an actor in a comedy series, what does it mean for you to be on the same show as Chevy Chase?

JIM: Oh, it’s pretty great. One of my first episodes was just with him designing the human being, so it was pretty cool to come back to that, having just done the pilot at that point to have a little story line and one on one time with Chevy Chase. So it was a little intimidating that first couple of days, but there was no need for that. He was very welcoming, so we had a lot of fun.

Q: What’s it like working on a show that really seems to go out of its way to value that ensemble? What's that like from your perspective, getting that real opportunity to not just support but also really shine in your own right?

JIM: It’s really been great to be on a series that has really embraced all the voices of all the characters. So often… you have funny stuff to do. You just pop in and then you pop out and you’re not sometimes integral to the plot. But the writers of Community specifically have been so great about really embracing the idea of their core cast. Even in some of these bigger, splashy episodes that we’ve done—specifically even Modern Warfare is probably the best example with the paintball. Even when all this insanity’s going on, Dan and the writers laid in some kind of character growth in it, which is always such a huge challenge, but it’s pretty honorable and that’s what they’re going for. And especially to squeeze in the amount of time you have in these… 30 minutes for a half hour comedy. But, I will say going specifically to your question, that yes, it’s just been great that they spread the wealth so to speak, but yet at the same time, keep everyone involved when it is focused on one character, which is nice.

Q: Community is obviously developing a very large and rabid fan base, and I’m wondering if you could just tell us a quick story maybe about one of your more memorable recent experiences with some of your fans?

JIM: Oh, God. I didn’t think I would get recognized as much. In the beginning, I thought, “Oh, this is a recurring character,” or whatever… but I remember just being in a very crowded movie theater, in the lobby waiting to go into this movie, and there was this group of teenage boys. And it was just funny to me because all of them had their girlfriends just sitting on their laps waiting for a movie. They didn’t get up or anything; they just yelled from across the room, like, “Hey man. It’s Dean! Dean Pelton.” And, I just thought, “Well, there’s my fan base.” Finally, I got the teen boys with their girlfriends are really into my character. But they didn’t really come over or anything, but it was just the fact that they yelled across the room. But, hey, I’ll take it you know.

Q: You recently wrote The Descendents a film starring Geoge Clooney, right?

JIM: Yes. Well, it comes out, I think it’s going to be next year… around this time. Yes. A little guy named George Clooney is in it. Yes, my writing partner Matt Faxon and I, along with Alexander Payne, who actually also directed it, adapted this book called The Descendents, so that should come out next year. But yes that was a great experience… That also started with The Groundlings, and I had written a couple of pilots and then a screen play as well as adapted one. So, that’s definitely a part of my life I want to continue and nurture outside of Community.

Q: What made you decide to adapt The Descendents?

JIM: Well Matt and I had written a screenplay that got us noticed by Alexander Payne and his producing partner, Jim Burke, and they actually just brought us in, too, because they had optioned The Descendents. So it really was like, "Read this book, come back, and tell us what your take on it would be." And so luckily they liked what we had to say, so [we] ended up writing and then working with Alexander on the final product. And that was it. So it was just something that fell into our laps.

Q:  Do you have any plans to write any other pilots or a TV show?

JIM: Yes. We’re working right now on a pilot for HBO. We had pitched an idea over there, so we are just in the early stages of writing right now… We had written an original a few years back that had gotten some attention. It was called The Way Back, and we had written it around the time when… a lot of things were happening as far as the economy. And so making these smaller movies was a challenge. So we’re hoping that we can get back to that, as things pick back up and these movie slates pick up a little bit. But in the meantime, I think we’re going to work on this HBO thing, and then hopefully write another original screenplay. So it’s certainly a side passion that we have, so we just continue to do that.

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