This Christmas, you can keep your Festivuses and your Benihana Christmases and whatever it is they do in the holiday episodes of Friends because there’s only one half-hour holiday-themed comedy I want under my tree. Dan Harmon’s whip-smart, ultra-meta series Community, which lived for six precious seasons, first on NBC and then on Yahoo Screen (R.I.P.). Although it seemed destined to live on in the sitcom hall of fame, the series has already fallen out of the pop cultural conversation too much for my taste, with Harmon moving on to Rick & Morty and the sitcom spotlight falling back on newer (and deserving) clever shows like The Good Place. At any rate, every holiday season, the show pops back into the foreground of my mind, because across its six seasons it aired three holiday episodes, each more self-referential than the last.
Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) isn’t the community college-set series’ protagonist, yet as the series went on, he was positioned at the heart of the show episode after episode. This is because, in a way, the character is the show itself. Abed perceived the “reality” of life at Greendale Community College as a TV show of sorts, so he was able to comment on the evolving status of the show, as well as grapple with the inherent meaning, or lack thereof, of TV. Either because holidays inspire introspection and a search for meaning, or because holiday episodes are a classic TV tradition Abed can deconstruct, he ends up front and center in most of the show’s holiday specials.
All depth aside, the series is funny as hell. With a cast that includes Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Jim Rash and more, the jokes-per-minute ratio is through the roof and the delivery is often just as likely to induce a giggle fit as the line itself. All Community holiday episodes are special because, like the war-movie-parody paintball episode, they were initially well-received which led to the expectation that each new one would top the last. For Halloween episodes, you can’t go wrong with “Epidemiology” (tainted military meat causes a zombie outbreak) or “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” (each character tells a short scary story to diagnose one’s homicidal tendencies), but all three of the Christmas-Hanukkah-December episodes are aces. Let’s break them down.
Community’s first season is only a fraction as creatively off-the-wall as the rest of the series, which makes it tougher to rewatch as it hews closer to traditional sitcom structure. Still, this episode includes plenty of bits that went on to become memes and running jokes: “The lord is testing me,” “I’ll allow it,” Forrest Whittaker eye, Pierce’s cult, Annie’s anguished scream, Greendale’s inordinately high holiday budget, and “It’s December 10th!” are all gifts from this half hour that keep on giving.
The plot is this: Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) wants to have a Christmas party, and is freaked to find out that the study group isn’t Christian. Abed’s Muslim, Troy (Glover) is Jehovah’s Witness (“Do you know how foolish you sound right now? What else do you believe in, blood transfusions?”), Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is atheist, Pierce (Chevy Chase) is born-again-Buddhist but actually in a cult, Annie (Brie) is Jewish, and Jeff (McHale), announced to boos from the group, is agnostic.
Everyone tries to please Shirley by thinking about what baby Jesus would do, but then Anthony Michael Hall shows up as a mustachioed, vest-wearing psycho bully who staples paper snowmen to his forehead just to show he can. It’s great to see Hall playing against his past type, and when he courts Jeff for a fight, he’s obnoxious in a realistic way. Before episode’s end, there’s a lot of Christian guilt-tripping courtesy of Nicole Brown’s perfect sing-song passive-aggressive voice, a massive and possibly homoerotic fight set to Florence + the Machine’s “Kiss With A Fist” and a random but well-written dig at Paul Rudd. The episode has all the chaos and failed good intentions that will later make the show great, and its final rendition of a religion-neutral “Oh Christmas Tree” teases the full-blown musical episodes to come.
“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”
Made in the style of classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is an impressive technical achievement. The episode is also surprisingly cinematic and emotional, following the gang on a journey through a “Wonka dark” winter world constructed in Abed’s imagination as he struggles to cope with not seeing his mom on Christmas, all while Professor Duncan (John Oliver) attempts to psychoanalyze him. The series’ meta-commentary is on full display here, as Abed literally sees the world as stop-motion, a change he assumes must signify the specialness of this Christmas in particular.
Filled with more heart than comedy, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is a tamed down classic that’s downright family friendly. The episode is the show’s first foray into musical territory (earlier one-off songs include viral favorite “Donde Esta La Biblioteca?” and season three would go on to perfect the series’ musical side), and is packed with short, cute songs that crop up whenever one of the group is banished from Planet Abed, the imaginary world whose “atmosphere is 7% cinnamon.” Between songs and creative moments, the episode sneaks in jokes about Lost, Michael Jackson’s dad, and music copyright law, but by the end, it’s become one of the series’ most winningly philosophical.
“The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning,” Abed says after the group successfully rescues him by singing about the holiday’s individual importance to each of them, and it’s so surprisingly profound that he may as well be talking about life itself. Lots of people remember “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” as the point at which the show “got weird,” but those people are missing out on a brilliant, ever-evolving series.
“Regional Holiday Music”
Community’s third year is, overall, one of the best seasons of comedy to ever air on television, and this rollickingly festive and cuttingly specific send-up of Glee is no exception. The episode’s premise is clever: it follows intensely cheerful (and evil) choir head Mr. Rad (Taran Killam, a world-class funny person) as he attempts to recruit the study group into glee club “again”–the first time having been during an earlier clip show episode composed entirely of clips we’d never seen before. The group has only foggy memories of their first stint in glee club since it didn’t actually happen within the show’s timeline, but they’re still highly susceptible to the contagious musicality that bounces around Greendale like a plague throughout the episode. Characters play on each others’ weaknesses in manipulative holiday-themed musical sequences that are at once funny, catchy, and easy to sing to.
Every song in “Regional Holiday Music” is a jam in its own right, and hilarious too. There’s Abed and Mr. Rad’s first number (“Glee!/It’s like a drug that you use/That turns your pain into shoes/And your shoes into dance!”), which baldly declares Ryan Murphy’s musical then-phenomenon the episode’s target in case the many references to regionals weren’t enough. There’s Troy and Abed’s rap (“I am Jehovah’s most secret witness/So I might have to dedicate my life to Christmas/And act just like I love it til the day I die!”), which is the closest we ever get to a Childish Gambino appearance in Community, and which also features one of Abed’s only references to his presence on the autism spectrum. There’s “Baby Boomer Santa” making fun of the “well documented historical vanity” of its titular generation (“He made the Iron Curtain and the Gremlins too/Fake butter and AIDS and Twin Peaks!”), and even a play on the season’s most infantilizing, sexy Christmas songs (“Bwian hurty understandy Chwismus”) performed by Annie. Shirley’s taken down by a Christian propaganda choir (“We asked our public school to give the answer/But they could only teach us not to pray”), and by the time the whole study group has succumbed to the musical bug going around, the episode already has hit all the hallmarks of a new comedy classic.
Like both other episodes listed here, the integrity of the magical holiday season–which is especially important to structure-dependent Abed–is threatened in “Regional Holiday Music” and must be protected. In this case, things fall apart rather dramatically at the Christmas pageant, and Abed repeatedly asserts that trying to force light leads to more darkness. Whether he’s right or not, this later leads into the idea of “the darkest timeline,” one of the show’s strangest and most reality-bending detours, based in string theory, which fans clung to as the series came up to the brink of cancellation again and again.
What’s the point of it all? I don’t know. Maybe the meaning of Community is the idea that Community has meaning. Plus, it’s fun to watch on Christmas.