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Gillian Jacobs: A Key Part of NBC's Community

on Thu, 01/09/2014 - 00:00

The NBC comedy Community has not only never been a ratings juggernaut but has had its fair share of internal controversy as well. Conflict between series creator Dan Harmon and actor Chevy Chase, for instance, erupted almost from the start, and Harmon’s tendency to continue polishing scripts past deadlines led to the showrunner’s removal from Community at the end of season three. Chase, however, continued to be outspoken about the portrayal of his character, and the former Saturday Night Live star left the series near the end of the fourth season by mutual consent. NBC and production company Universal then backpedalled in regards to Harmon, rehiring the creator of the series for season five. Despite these soap opera-ish backstage shenanigans, however, Community is still a cult favorite and has even been dubbed “the geekiest show on television” by CNN.

“We’re talking zombies, dead-on action movie sendups, the Doctor Who knockoff Inspector Spacetime and an ‘Earth-2’ United Nations,” CNN commented in March 2012 in terms of the NBC sitcom’s Geek Credentials. “The first season DVD included a Kickpuncher comic book based on a fictional, cheesy Robocop-style film beloved by characters Troy and Abed. Community is a show that expects viewers to be on their pop culture game.” It’s also a show that has a Pittsburgh connection, as actress Gillian Jacobs—who plays Britta Perry on the series—is a Mount Lebanon native who cut her acting teeth at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.

“The very first play I did was in the third grade,” Jacobs told Pittsburgh Magazine in April 2010. “My mom signed me up for my first acting course when I was eight. I took classes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse every Saturday. I had to make my entrance from a janitor’s closet.” After graduating Mount Lebanon High School in 2000, Gillian Jacobs attended the Julliard School of Drama in New York City before making her way to California and the fictional Greendale Community College, where Community is set.

Community centers on a collection of misfits who bond after forming a study group at a local community college. The core set of characters each have their own unique foibles, as one would expect from a network sitcom, leading to screwball-comedy storylines and homages to everything from spaghetti-style westerns to classic mafia films. As CNN mentioned above, Community is also filled with a litany of not only geek but pop culture references, turning the series into a testament to our times in addition to making one laugh out loud. The show also has a “heart,” however, as the members of the fictitious study group inevitably learn the lessons of friendship while receiving a real-world education outside of the classroom in the process. Gillian Jacobs’ character of Britta Perry, meanwhile, is a self-declared social radical that is more self-centered than anything, and the unique blend of original comedy that creator Dan Harmon created for Community suits the former Steel City thespian well.

Gillian Jacobs ultimately credits her comic abilities to the Pittsburgh Playhouse. “We would do Monty Python sketches in class, and we’d really listen to the Lemmings comedy albums,” she explained to Entertainment Weekly in September 2009. “I had my life Monday through Friday in school, and then I had my ‘real life,’ which was my acting class on Saturday. No one was gonna tell you that you were too goofy, or what you liked was too strange. I remember one time there was a really heavy rain and my mom said, ‘You’re not gonna be able to go to acting class today because there’s flooding on the bridges,’ and I was like, ‘We’re going!’ You have a teacher who’s making you do ‘Dead Parrot’ when you’re in junior high or elementary school, it’s a really great gift.”

Community is hardly a ratings juggernaut yet has somehow managed to stay alive against the odds, making the NBC sitcom a “really great gift” to geeks of all shapes and sizes. And thanks to the presence of Gillian Jacobs, it is also a gift that the Steel City helped to craft as well.

Anthony Letizia (January 9, 2014)

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