Community and the art of the sitcom guest star

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The television world would be lost without Community. The antics of the Greendale study group has kept the hearts of millions of loyal viewers warmed and ablaze with weird comedy peppered with genuine pop culture fanaticism.

It’s a show that heeds no bounds as far as style and content go and is without question the most original program currently airing on network waves.

But the world does not need another plea to the heads of NBC for saving the show. With recent accolades such as winning TV Guide’s annual “Fan Favourite” poll and the outpouring of prominent critics’ speaking out against the shelving of the show, the voice of the people is loud and clear for the suits at the peacock to hear.

No, I’d rather not dwell on what we all already know. Instead, I would like to voice some appreciation for one of the shows greatest strengths so far in the series. This is the brilliant use of the sitcom guest star.

Although many casual TV watchers may have never given this a second thought, casting guest stars in situational comedies is a fine art. Often times, it works as planned, and the actor’s portrayal of the character is funny and convincing. Every once in a while, a show executes it so perfectly that the actual presence of the actor cast makes the character’s entire existence funny without having to say or do anything.

There are typically three different approaches to casting the perfect guest star. The first is casting a veteran television or character actor who has proven themselves on the small screen but has never managed to transfer that stardom into film success.

Classic examples of this scenario are Magnum himself, Tom Selleck, on Friends, Night Court’s Harry Anderson conning the Cheers gang or John Cleese going up against John Lithgow for Jane Curtin’s affections on 3rd Rock From The Sun.

The best use of the “TV vet” approach is seen in shows that attempt to cast the perfect parents for their main characters. Alan Alda playing Alec Baldwin’s dad on 30 Rock, Markie Post and John Ritter as Eliot’s mom and JD’s dad on Scrubs, or Marion Ross playing the Foreman grandmother on That 70’s Show. You know casting has gone right when TV royalty can be persuaded to guest star as Mom or Dad.

The second approach taken to ensure the perfect cast is when an obscure, or once famous personality, stars as themselves. No show did this better than Seinfeld did.

Think back to the appearances by famed New York Met Keith Hernandez or Academy Award winners Marisa Tomei and Jon Voight. Arrested Development should also be praised though for their employment of Carl Weathers, Andy Richter and John Larroquette (to name a few) playing fictional versions of themselves.

Finally, the third way to ensure a successful guest-starring role is enlisting an A-lister and putting them in a role atypical of their norm. Brad Pitt on Friends was probably the best example of this, playing a formerly fat friend to Ross and hating on Rachel (played by his then wife, Jennifer Aniston.)  Other examples would include Jon Hamm on 30 Rock and pretty much any celebrity guest on Extras.

To come full circle, Community has done an absolutely stellar job at developing their guest stars. So far in the series, they have featured TV vet John Goodman as the Associate Dean, plucked Michael K. Williams from Boardwalk Empire and The Wire, got Jack Black and Owen Wilson for an episode and most recently gave famous “that guy” Luis Guzman a starring role as himself, the school’s most famous graduate.

Each of these instances has demonstrated the shows eclectic style of humour, extracting comedy from different yet equally hilarious places.

In an era of TV when a show can either flourish as an unofficial history of television (see Scrubs, Seasons 1 – 3 of 30 Rock) or falter under the constrains of using guest stars for the sake of using them (see Will and Grace, Seasons 4 – 5 of 30 Rock), Community is definitely using its unending potential as a forefront for TV history.

So please. Don’t cancel it.


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