“I hate reference humor,” Annie moaned as she wandered helplessly through the “haunted” Hawthorne mansion in last week’s Halloween-themed episode of Community. The ingénue clearly hasn’t been paying attention to her last three years at Greendale, where a quest to garner the coveted chicken fingers in the school cafeteria affectionately sent up The Godfather and Goodfellas. Or where a study group could spend an afternoon trapped inside a runaway Kentucky Fried Chicken spaceship. Or where a simple birthday party might wind up with an elaborate Pulp Fiction theme. (Annie was Honey Bunny.)
The problem with “Paranormal Parentage,” as my chatting partner Gene Demby aptly put it, is that the jokes were too broadly painted—less egregious than the premiere laugh-track episode but still in the same neighborhood. “Heads, lock up your brains,” Jeff proclaimed to the study group early in the episode. “Britta’s on the prowl for fresh therapy meat.” And the last third of the story devolved into a scene straight out of the Scary Movie franchise: Troy doesn’t recognize the danger behind him; as Annie and Shirley try to warn him, he doesn’t pick up on their distressed body language. “Behind you!” Annie sputters. “I’m behind you, too,” Troy giggles. Soon, all of them (and Jeff and Britta, too) are running around screaming in Scooby-Doo fashion.
In Season 2, Troy said, “There is a time and place for subtlety, and that time was before Scary Movie.” And until now, Community has honored that tradition—it’s never exactly been subtle, but it’s sprinkled the more broad humor within its smart commentary. Jim Belushi—an easy punching bag for pretty much anyone in the entertainment industry—has found his way into several Community jokes over the course of the show. (“That’s the Jim Belushi of speech openings,” said Annie last season. “It accomplishes nothing, but everyone keeps using it and nobody understands why.”) But jokes at the expense of the less-revered Belushi brother (and other ones like it) have worked despite their simplicity because they were few and far between. In “Paranormal Parentage,” the broad strokes keep coming and never quite let up.
In the zombie-themed Halloween episode of Season 2, there was an inspired running gag throughout the story: Shirley is dressed as Glinda the Good Witch, but everyone—including Troy—thinks she’s Miss Piggy. It’s employed, as I’ve explained in the past, as a sharp commentary on our own perceptions and expectations of women of color. But this season, none of the gags did additional work – they were just gags, some good, some bad. Annie was gratingly coy, Shirley returned to her one-dimensionally matronly ways from the show’s earliest beginnings, and Britta’s on a never-ending Dr. Phil kick.
Annie’s line about reference humor was, of course, meant as a cute jab at the show itself, which can sometimes seem too meta for its own good. (See: “Contemporary Impressionists.”) But even if we’re to believe she’s suddenly and inexplicably not into the whole random-cultural-reference thing, we—the show’s fans—are! And we always have been; we just selfishly prefer that the show’s references be smart, not dumb; narrow, not broad. It’s part of what drew us to the show in the first place, and what makes Abed—the dominant strain through which much of this self-awareness eternally flows—one of the most beloved characters on the show. Unfortunately, Abed was absent for much of the episode, choosing (perhaps wisely) to hole himself up in Pierce’s secret surveillance room watching Cougar Town. Maybe we should consider joining him?