By Tim Cuprisin Media Columnist Published Mar 25, 2011 at 11:00 AM

It wasn't a complete surprise to Dan Harmon when NBC announced last week that his Thursday night comedy "Community" had been picked up for a third season.

Still the show's creator/executive producer wasn't 100 percent sure.

"It's always a surprise no mater what anybody says, unofficially," Harmon, a native Milwaukeean and ComedySportz alumnus, said in a Thursday afternoon telephone interview.

"We had been unofficially assured for quite a while that we were, quote, 'safe,' unquote. I've been out here maybe 15 years and I've learned never ever ever to count on anything."

That's especially true because, as Harmon said, "NBC's in a little bit of turmoil these days.

"Maybe I shouldn't say that," he said with a bit of a laugh. "It's in a transitional phase."

But despite the fact that CBS moved ratings powerhouse "Big Bang Theory" into the 7 p.m. Thursday slot up against "Community," the network has stuck with the quirky show with a relatively small, but loyal audience.

Harmon says that in his producer role on the show, about the mythical Greendale Community College (based on his own experiences at Glendale Community College in California), he did take into account the increased competition.

"As a producer, one step back, I made some strategic decisions based on the awareness of the increased competition, which is to say I came out swinging.

"If we were able to stand our ground and take the punch from the likes of 'Big Bang,' that would be a hero story."

Among other things, he sent the cast into space, had a "full-blown zombie epidemic" for the Halloween episode and tried to be as high-profile as possible in the first six episodes of the second season.

"In retrospect, it really didn't accomplish anything. We had a 1.9 rating at the end of every week ... which is both a miracle and a little daunting.

"We obvious have this core audience that won't watching anything else when the show is on," said Harmon, who went on to quote some interesting audience research.

The numbers show that while the U.S. TV audience has a low awareness of the show, "people who watch the show, even one episode, have a very very high chance of watching it again.

"It's the Krispy Kreme of shows, just get them to put it in their mouth, and they'll want it."

Harmon's Krispy Kreme of shows has developed since its premiere last season. In the beginning, Joel McHale's "Jeff Winger" was the center of the show. Now, it's Marquette University graduate Danny Pudi's "Abed."

"I think that over time, if you're doing your job right, actors take over their characters. A writer's job is to observe the actors in real life and observe them on TV, How are they dark? How are they edgy? How are they lovable?"

Harmon said McHale's character "began as my eyes in the world.  He was the guy representing my unlovability in the face of lovable knuckleheads. He was just reluctant about everything."

As episodes unfolded, Jeff developed into a more layered character. "That Joel McHale is doing more than just being the straight man in comedy is wonderful," said Harmon.

"Instead of being the wise guy on a ship of fools, it just became a ship of fools," Harmon said in describing the evolution of the show.

Pudi's Abed has become another manifestation of Harmon's own personality. "I have a lot more in common with Abed than I do with Jeff Winger," he said.

And then there's Chevy Chase, who has gone from being, in Harmon's words, "a consummate soloist," to being a member of an ensemble cast. And, in this season, Chase's Pierce character has become something of the villain in the cast.

"Ever since I first met him, I wanted to give the character more tooth and backbone," he said, explaining that it was hard to do, since networks "don't like to hear the word 'dark.'"

"I got more confident as we got more laissez faire treatment from the network.

"Now, he's our Eric Cartman from 'South Park,' or our Archie Bunker.

"The writers need that. I know some people are put off by that, but we like to make sure every episode of 'Community' is its own single entity, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Villains are really important to that.

"We all have families and we have antagonists in the family," he said, describing the real meaning meaning of "Community." It's not just a sitcom set in a community college, it's about a community created by Jeff Winger, Abed, Pierce and the rest of the ensemble cast.

Ask Harmon about his path from Milwaukee to Hollywood, and he'll tell you about a teenage meeting at Brown Deer High School with Bob Orvis, one of the founders of Milwaukee's ComedySportz.

"It was probably the most important thing that ever happened in my life. He came to Brown Deer and was talking to me as if I was an adult."

It began his association with the improvisational comedy group, which was more about writing than you may think.

"It's practically the same thing. You're performing as your write, so you have to adopt these very basic principles: don't stand around asking each other questions, make something happen, speak in declarative sentences, endow the world around you with attributes. Somebody says you're a zebra, now you're a zebra.

"That is exactly what you do in the writers' room. You just keep saying 'what if?' over and over and over again," Harmon said.

Nothing ticks off Harmon more than a writer who rips an idea before it plays out. "I'm always smacking writers on the back of the head to remind them that there are no wrong answers. We need to prove that an idea is bad, not by attacking it, but by proving it's bad."

As one last Milwaukee aside, I asked Harmon about the show's Greendale Community College. That name, is it our Greendale?

"I believe I probably did grab that from the Greendale of my youth," he said. "I'm sure that was a Milwaukee reference."

Shooting is done for the remainder of this second season -- the show airs Thursday nights at 7 on Channel 4 -- just editing remains to be finished.

Harmon will have a month off at the end of April, and then, by early June, he'll be back in that writers' room, as the team tries to figure out just how season three will start.

Tim Cuprisin Media Columnist

Tim Cuprisin is the media columnist for He's been a journalist for 30 years, starting in 1979 as a police reporter at the old City News Bureau of Chicago, a legendary wire service that's the reputed source of the journalistic maxim "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." He spent a couple years in the mean streets of his native Chicago, and then moved on to the Green Bay Press-Gazette and USA Today, before coming to the Milwaukee Journal in 1986.

A general assignment reporter, Cuprisin traveled Eastern Europe on several projects, starting with a look at Poland after five years of martial law, and a tour of six countries in the region after the Berlin Wall opened and Communism fell. He spent six weeks traversing the lands of the former Yugoslavia in 1994, linking Milwaukee Serbs, Croats and Bosnians with their war-torn homeland.

In the fall of 1994, a lifetime of serious television viewing earned him a daily column in the Milwaukee Journal (and, later the Journal Sentinel) focusing on TV and radio. For 15 years, he has chronicled the changes rocking broadcasting, both nationally and in Milwaukee, an effort he continues at

When he's not watching TV, Cuprisin enjoys tending to his vegetable garden in the backyard of his home in Whitefish Bay, cooking and traveling.