If you're not watching Community, you're missing out on the best comedy network television currently has to offer. The show—which follows your typical rag-tag bunch of misfits (among them a recently disbarred lawyer, an erstwhile high school quarterback, and a moist towelette tycoon) as they pursue their undergraduate degrees at Greendale Community College—owes this honor to its all-star cast. Among its cabal of incredibly skilled comedic actors is Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays mother-hen type Shirley and with whom I got to speak recently. Enjoy!
Hi, it’s nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you too!
Let’s start at the beginning: how’d you get involved with Community?
Well, I auditioned. It was a three- or four-audition process. At first I was going in at first with every actor known to man who was going up for Shirley, and then I had a producer session and a studio test and a network test, and finally I got it. There were four or five levels.
Did you get to do screen tests and callbacks with some of the other cast members?
No, they don’t do screen tests with any of the other—they call them chemistry reads, actually—unless you’re a romantic lead. So I know that Gillian Jacobs did some chemistry tests with Joel McHale, and of course the other women who were going up for her part, but I think she was the only one. But I just—you know, they’d plug me in wherever, so it didn’t really matter.
So the awesomeness of the cast blindsided you.
Yeah, I didn’t know how awesome the cast really was until we did the first table reading for the network. I heard all these wonderful voices and all this comedic craziness and I was like, “Wow, this is gonna be a great show.”
What have been some of your favorite experiences working with this group of costars?
Well, we work really long hours—like, sixteen hours a day, five days a week—so something as simple as going to the craft services truck to get coffee or a sandwich with the gang can be fun. We spend more time with each other than we do with our friends or significant others, so it’s like I know everything about these people at this point. The other night Gillian and Danny Pudi and I went to see Donald Glover, who’s a rapper under the name Childish Gambino. We went to his show last night, and I just looked at Donald—I hadn’t seen him in two months, and I just missed him so much. You feel like part of your arm is missing when we don’t see each other because we’ve worked so closely together for so long, so any time spent together is great.
You guys are always tweeting pictures from behind the scenes, and it’s clear that you’re thrilled to be working together.
Yeah, we really are. I hear it’s rare for a bunch of people who don’t know each other to be thrust together and have the chemistry that we have. We were very, very blessed that we all have the same kind of temperament, and even the same sense of humor to a certain extent. It’s been a real blessing.
What has been your favorite episode to film thus far?
It used to be the Christmas episode from the first season, as well as Modern Warfare with the paintball, but now it’s the flashback episode that just aired. We read that script, and it’s the only script I can recall where we gave the writer a standing ovation at the table read. It was fun filming it, and it was great watching it, so I’m going to go with the flashback episode just for what we accomplished: we shot like 75 scenes that week. We were running and gunning and just grabbing scenes where we could, so I’m really proud of us and that’s my favorite episode.
Might you be willing to give us some scoop on what is coming up?
Well, just recently Shirley gave birth, so we got to find out whether Señor Chang was the baby’s father or Shirley’s ex-husband, and then we have an epic paintball war—a two-parter—coming up, so we’ve got some great things in store on the show.
Another paintball episode?
Yeah, this one’s gonna be a two-parter episode with Josh Halloway, who played Sawyer on Lost. He’s awesome in that episode, so it’s going to be great.
You’ve obviously done work both in TV and in film. Do you have a preference?
I used to say television, but that was before I did a single-camera show. What I loved more about TV while doing sitcoms was the fact that it’s an easier schedule, but now that I’m doing a single-camera show I’m doing the same hours as a movie so it’s kind of even now. But I’m kinda lazy, so for me—since the work is the same—it all comes down to: the less time that’s required of me, the happier I am. So I guess it’s equal now. Either one is fine.
What’s your favorite part about playing Shirley?
I like that Shirley’s a lot like me. I read the first script and she called someone “pumpkin,” and I do that all the time. I call people “pumpkin” and “sweetie” in real life. So when I read that she did that, I was like, “Okay, she sounds like me. This is someone I can play!” Also, a lot of times when I’m on set and I say “That’s nice!” that’s me, not Shirley. That’s something that I say, and it’s now become Shirley’s little catchphrase, so I just throw it in wherever it organically fits in a scene and it makes it on the show a lot. I’m proud that that’s a little bit of me that makes it on the show. I do like playing her; she’s a lot like me.
What’s great with her, as with all the other characters, is that she’s so well-rounded. She isn’t a stereotype and she hasn’t been reduced to one out of laziness.
Yeah, it’s been great how they right for just people. They’re not trying to recreate some person from a past show, like “black people like this” or “tall people like this”—it’s nothing like that. It’s like, “let’s just make a funny person who happens to be played by a black person or a tall person,” so there are no real stereotypes on our show. The writers are very, very smart.
Glee is also on the air right now, and it trumpets itself as a very diverse, inclusive show, but Community does the exact same thing more extensively without feeling the need to comment on it.
Oh, thank you! I think Glee does a great job with it as well. I’m happy to see so much diversity on television across the board: people with disabilities, people of different sexual orientations, people of different races… it’s melting-pot TV right now, which is great, so any time I can turn on a show and see five or six different races in one scene I’m like, “Yay! Now we’re doing it the way God intended.”
It seemed like there was a moment where we were dimming a bit, as in the nineties finding diversity wasn’t even an issue, but it does seem like diversity is making a comeback now.
Yeah, and I think it’s important because it mirrors what the world is. You’d like to see yourself on TV; everybody wants to see themselves represented on TV.