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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Comic Community
By Neda Salamat, Muir '12

How do you turn a short pitch into a popular cult comedy show? Heather Petrigala, Muir '00, was one of the producers who took Community to NBC.

"Comedy is subjective, but I like smart comedy, where the joke isn't obvious," Petrigala says. "I was a huge fan of the show Friends and attended a taping while I was still in college. The entire night I was glued to the studio set. I was obsessed with seeing all the behind-the-scenes action that went on during shoot night."

Heather Petrigala, Muir '00, sat beside Dan Harmon, a disheveled, heavy-set man with a salt-and-pepper beard and perpetually red eyes.

As the vice president of television development at Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment and a television development executive at Sony, Petrigala sifted through hundreds of scripts, in order to find and pitch quality writers to networks. Harmon, with his gruff un-Hollywood appearance, happened to be such a writer.

On this particular summer day in 2008, the duo were trying to ground Harmon's voice in reality— until then, he had mainly channeled his unusual sense of humor through bizarre scripts on extraterrestrial life. When the writer began to describe his experiences as a thirty-something at Glendale Community College, Petrigala knew they'd found the perfect outlet for his sense of humor.

When ABC, CBS and Fox passed, NBC miraculously bought Community—unwittingly giving birth to one of the most beloved, cult television classics since Arrested Development.

Community follows Jeff Winger, played by funny man Joel McHale, a recently disbarred lawyer, and his Spanish study group as they go on bizarre and often life-affirming adventures at the fictional Greendale Community College. But the show is also about pop culture and television fandom—the show's three seasons has spoofed everything from My Dinner With Andre to Pulp Fiction, taken on noir and spaghetti westerns and poked fun at Mad Men and Lost. The show's quick wit can often seem alienating to those who are unaccustomed to its frenetic pace—but there's no doubt that Petrigala and the other creative minds behind Community pushed television in a new direction.

"Comedy is subjective, but I like smart comedy, where the joke isn't obvious," Petrigala says. "I was a huge fan of the show Friends and attended a taping while I was still in college. The entire night I was glued to the studio set. I was obsessed with seeing all the behind-the-scenes action that went on during shoot night."

After graduating with a degree in communication, Petrigala started her career as a page for NBC, where she met her husband, before moving on to a position as a television coordinator for Brillstein-Grey Entertainment. In 2008, she landed a development position at Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment and began work on Community—her break-out show. "I always knew I wanted to be in entertainment," says Petrigala, "I majored in communication and it gave me a very broad knowledge of that particular field. It wasn't until after I graduated that I realized television was where I was meant to be."

Petrigala's love of entertainment gave her a keen attention to detail that translated to each show. Each episode of Community takes five 12 to 16 hour days to shoot, and everything from writing to casting receives meticulous attention. The end result is innovative writing and a multi-talented cast, filled with rappers, show hosts, comedians and even an Oscar winner, Jim Rash.

"We must've seen thousands of actors for all the series regular roles on Community," says Petrigala. "I remember we were looking long and hard for our Annie, and finally Alison Brie (Rudy Campbell of Mad Men) walked in, and we just knew she was the one. All our actors are fantastic. Donald Glover (Troy Barnes) adlibs a lot on set, and he's hysterical."

The end result is that the show has a fanatic following on massively popular geek-platforms such as reddit and Comic Con. However its unique tone—while helping it secure one of the most loyal fan bases to date—is also proving problematic for Petrigala and other pioneers in the push for intellectual television. For one, NBC and Sony have typically pushed back against Harmon's most experimental episodes, even going so far as to nearly drop an episode about Dungeons and Dragons because they thought that the public "wouldn't get it." Instead, they wanted an episode about the board game, Monopoly.

Community's band of community college misfits in a scnene from season 3, episode "Contemporary Impressionists."

In addition, the show's low ratings reflect a flaw in the way television shows are rated. Currently, ratings are based entirely on Nielsen families, a select group of elite whose show-viewing habits are used to reflect the population at large. For a genre-bending show like Community, where most of the fan base is twenty-something without Nielsen boxes, it's been an uphill battle to stay on the air.

But, for all that, the show has been successful, delivered as it is on a number of platforms. "There are so many avenues and outlets to watch television," says Petrigala. "It really is amazing. Gone are the days when people have to sit around the TV and watch a show in real time. That's something we've learned on Community.… Our audience skews young, so most of the time they are watching the show on their computers or cell phones"

Though Nielsen ratings don't measure online viewership, the show won a small victory when it was renewed for another half-season to air this coming October, although it is still in constant danger of being axed. For Petrigala, it was all about making every extra episode the best they could—a common goal on the Community set.

"Being on set is one of the most exciting parts of the job," says Petrigala. "There is so much energy and a sense of camaraderie from everyone working together to meet a common purpose."

And Petrigala is now bringing that sense of excitement to her latest position, running Television Development for director Ruben Fleischer, who has a deal at 20th Century Fox Television. She started in August and is already looking for writers and the opportunity to develop that magic pitch. "It is really fulfilling," she says, as she begins work with her new creative community.

Neda Salamat, Muir '12, is an editorial intern with Triton magazine.