Community is an Amercian TV show created by Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty) based around a study group at a small community college. From this pretty basic set-up it went on the become one of the most satirical, referential, and clever comedy shows to have made it onto major network television.
It had three “proper” Christmas episodes (and a fourth that was set at a Christmas party, but was more about Malcolm McDowell’s history professor, and isn’t set in the school) and here I’m going to review them chronologically. No show is as varied in tone as Community, and the three Christmas episodes sum that up perfectly. Here we go!
“Comparative Religion” (Season 1, Episode 12)
Early on, Community was still a relativity straight sitcom, with sleazy lawyer Jeff (Joel McHale) trying to pick up ardent feminist anarchist Britta (Gillian Jacobs), with the rest of the guys and girls still having their roles defined. This first Christmas episode showed the importance of each character of the group, and also helped to show the growth in the first half season.
The Dean (Jim Rash) decides that Christmas needs to be replaced with a generic winter festival, with “Merry Happy” as the seasonal greeting of choice, and has created the Mister Winter character as a symbol.
Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Shirley (Yvonne Nicole Brown), who is looking to celebrate her first post-divorce Christmas with her new family – the Spanish study group. The only problem? She’s the only Christian in the group: Annie is Jewish, Abed is Muslim, Troy is a Jehovah’s Witness, Britta is an atheist, Jeff is agnostic (BOO!), and Pierce is a Level Five Laser Lotus in the Neo Reformed Buddhist church.
At the same time, Jeff stands up to Mike (played by the Anthony Michael Hall) a jock who picks on Abed – and ends up arranging an “after school” fight.
The only problem: he’s never been in a fight before, so he gets trained by Pierce and, hilariously, Troy.
Shirley sees this as a direct insult, and forbids Jeff from fighting and arranges her Christmas party for the same time. The whole gang comes to the party, apart from Jeff, and Shirley realises that if the study group is to be her second family, she need to go and support Jeff…
*Cue heartwarming music*
… before the gang end up in a hilarious fist fight as Mike’s gang turns the Dean’s winter wonderland in an arena for a full-on brawl.
This was probably the first truly great episode of the sitcom, because episode writer Liz Cackowski manages to fit a lot into the episode. Obviously there is the heartwarming realisation that Christmas is about family (in whatever form that takes in the modern world), we also get plenty of satire about both the “War on Christmas” brigade AND the PC do-gooders who are so afraid of offending anyone they don’t celebrate anything, as well as the aforementioned great cameo appearance from 80s star Anthony Michael Hall. We also have some great character work from Britta, foreshadowing her move into psychology with her interpretation that fighting comes from latent homosexuality (before of course fighting the only girl in Mike’s gang), and a training sequence for Jeff, all the time delivered with Community‘s typically sparkling script. The constant boo-ing of Jeff as an agnostic (“shut up Nietzche!”) and referencing that it is only December 10th are just two examples.
There’s also this great ending tag.
Like I said, this was the first truly great episode of Community. However, they would top it a year later…
“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (Season 2, Episode 11)
By the middle of the second season, Community had found its identity, having a lot more confidence in its characters, and able to push the boundaries of what a sitcom on a major network could do. Case in point: their second Christmas episode sees Abed have a breakdown, and the world of Greendale becomes stop-motion animated.
Abed thinks this is because it is the most important Christmas of all time, and look, the title credits prove it!
Ian Duncan (John Oliver making a welcome return), the school’s psychology professor, tries to help Abed with a group therapy meeting in the study room. He reveals that he is also a Christmas Wizard, and can help take Abed “on a magic journey”, to Planet Abed – “the most Christmassy planet in the universe, its atmosphere is 7% cinnamon.”
When we arrive on Planet Abed, the gang have been transformed on the journey:
The gang then travel around Planet Abed, to the North Pole to find the meaning of Christmas (via the cave of frozen memories at the oh-so-subtle prompting of Professor Duncan). Travelling there via Carol Canyon, where the plants produce Christmas Carols instead of oxygen (when Pierce asks “will this be expensive?” Abed replies “No they’re all public domain”), the gang is picked off one by one as they can’t help Abed anymore. Firstly, Shirley is taken off by the Christmas Pterodactyl, as she proclaims that she is the only one who understands the real meaning of Christmas. Then Jeff is eaten alive by the Flying Humbugs, who are attracted to sarcasm (as Britta says “If only he could find the power to not be a smug douche”). Eventually, Abed makes it to the North Pole (with Pierce, who doesn’t want to go home because he is lonely) and finds the meaning of Christmas in Santa’s workshop.
And what is the meaning of Christmas on Planet Abed? A DVD of the first season of Lost – a metaphor for lack of pay-off. When Professor Duncan/the Christmas Wizard returns and confront Abed with the letter his mother had sent – that had caused Abed’s situation – which causes Abed to go catatonic (and literally freeze). That seems to have brought the episode to a brutally dark ending – until the gang turn up and takes care of the Christmas Wizard
Abed then realises the meaning of Christmas:
This episode of Community is one of the best Christmas episodes. While the first Christmas episode satirized the ideas around what Christmas means in a modern secular world, this second episode gets to the real meaning of Christmas – the intensely personal experiences and traditions that make Christmas so special to you. I know someone who watches Kung Fu movies every Christmas Eve. Some people have a great big breakfast on Christmas morning. For the character Abed it was his mother coming to visit him every 9th December to watch holiday cartoons. When that didn’t happen this year, he had what is basically a psychotic break – typical Christmas episode fare, huh? An incredibly moving, yet still funny, Christmas episode.
Another brilliant end tag as well:
Interesting to note that the animation in this was episode mostly produced by Starburns Industries, which was founded by Dino Stamatopoulos (who played the character Starburns as well as being a writer), and that company went on to make Rick and Morty with Dan Harmon and the Oscar nominated (and one of my favourite films) Anomalisa with Charlie Kaufman.
“Regional Holiday Music” (Season 3, Episode 10)
So Community went for a third Christmas episode, again going for the true meaning of Christmas. This was pretty much the mirror image of Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, with the show going happy and light, but still comes back to the gang celebrating that being together is what is important. And as Britta says “the stakes aren’t actually that high, but somehow, that just makes it extra scary.”
A much simpler episode this time around, as the Greendale’s Glee club is served with a cease and desist letter thanks to Jeff. That leads to Glee club instructor Cory Radison (“call me Mr Rad, or Cory, just don’t call me late for dinner, unless your serving brussel sprouts”) trying to recruit the study group to replace them in time for Regionals (as Pierce constantly asks “what are regionals?”). Mr Rad does this through getting Abed first, then a series of songs seal the rest of the gang. The best are Troy and Abed’s Christmas rap (Troy is a Jehovah’s Witness and so doesn’t celebrate Christmas):
And Baby Boomer Santa to hook in Pierce:
which is a classic. There’s also Annie’s brilliant deconstruction of the sexy Christmas song
Boopy-doopy-doop-boop-sex – if that isn’t enough to make you watch the episode, I don’t know what is!
The whole gang is in for the Christmas pageant, before a Freudian slip from Mr Rad leads Abed to realise that the Glee club is not just for Christmas, but that the group will be doing this for regionals. Then sectionals.
“And then a week later is semis.
Then national lower-zone semis!”
Abed decides to ruin the pageant the only way he can – by getting Britta to sing her “heart’s song”. Of course, she’s horrendously off key and Britta-s the pageant to such an extent that Mr Rad starts ranting about her ruining everything, and that he was the one who caused the bus crash that killed the original Glee club (an incident referred to in the fake clip show at the end of season 2).
“Regional Holiday Music” is a very good episode that sets it targets on Glee and again ends with the gang realising what is most important is spending time together. This time they all end up watching Inspector Spacetime’s Christmas Special – so bad the show’s creator had his knighthood revoked – in Abed’s flat. It’s not as good as “Abed’s Uncontollable Christmas”, but very few sitcom episodes have ever been!
And here’s the final Christmas tag, featuring The Dean, Chang, Magnitude, Starburns, and Leonard.
Well that’s it. I hope no-one minds me missing the 4th season episode out. These three episodes show that as meta, subversive, and self aware as the show got, as many pop culture references and spoofs as it had, for all the gimmick episodes, the heart of Community was always pretty close to the surface.
Stay gold Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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PS as a special treat for reading all the way to the end, here’s my favourite tag in all of Community, Spanish Rap:
Any excuse to post that!
An earlier version of this article appeared on TheSnootyUshers.com in December 2015.