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Joel McHale is prowling around the set of “Community” in an enormous puffy white wig and a Mayor of Space sash. Gillian Jacobs, whose eyes have been emblazoned with purple streaks, is trying to stay comfortable in a slinky flight suit. There’s a helmet-like dark brown wig resting on Jim Rash’s usually bald head — and the cafeteria is covered in aluminum, with foil-wrapped lunch trays glued to the walls.“Get ready to see some ridiculous,” announces McHale.

That’s for sure. In its sixth season, creator-exec producer Dan Harmon’s idiosyncratic sitcom “Community” is as eccentric as ever. But this time around, the Sony Pictures TV series has decamped from NBC to the more freewheeling environment of Yahoo, where it will debut March 17 with two episodes. Subsequent installments of the 13-episode run will be released every Tuesday.

Where the marriage of the Greendale gang with NBC was always awkward, the hope is that with the move to Yahoo, the program and its showrunner will be freed from the strictures of broadcast television. The question is whether that liberation will make for genius comedy, as Harmon’s fans predict, or push the series off the rails.

All involved — from Harmon to Yahoo to Sony to the cast — insist “Community” is the same show fans have always embraced. But now the man with the reputation of being Mr. Unconventional is finally getting to run things without any suits looking over his shoulder. For better or for worse.

“I am going down to a trickle of river that’s been taken over by my guys, with guns guarding it, to make sure that nobody gives me notes,” Harmon says. “I’m in charge now, and that’s going to be the best way to take me down.”

FAVORITE EPISODE:  "Remedial Chaos Theory”

 We were shooting scenes from it the week it aired on TV. We continued to pick up shots from it at midnight. That felt like it was going to break our minds, that my mind would crack in half and a bunch of gobbledygook would spill out. But it’s such an amazing episode. I feel such pride about it.”

-Gillian Jacobs
(Britta Perry)

His bosses may have changed, but Harmon’s notoriously bad work habits haven’t

He even has a term for his kamikaze style: “pole vaulting.” “You charge at something headlong and decide in the moment whether you’re going to succeed or fail or possibly impale yourself,” he explains.

We’re in the “Community” writers’ offices early one morning, where he admits he slept on the couch the night before. His once-occasional all-nighters, he says, have sometimes stretched out to an entire week. He hasn’t seen his wife in days. He rides a Segway to and from the set to help conserve energy — his.

We’re in typical behind-schedule, in-over-our-heads mode, which my therapist has told me to admit is the way I like to work, instead of acting like there’s some goal in the future where I stop working like that,” he says, picking over a breakfast of peanut butter-filled pretzels. “I don’t want to make excuses for it, though. It would be nice to get better at this.”

It’s near the end of production of the season, and Harmon is clearly getting crushed by the workload. He’s writing scenes as they’re being shot, and berating himself for it. He’s hoping to take advantage of an upcoming hiatus to gain some much-needed breathing room. He’s sensitive to the ripple effect his habit of working down to the wire has on those who staff the show

“You’re forcing the wardrobe person to make worse pants,” he says, ruefully. “Her name’s on this show, and the actors are wearing bad pants. I want to get better at it this, because I don’t like the feeling of making other craftsmen misrepresent themselves. That makes me feel bad.”

He’s filled with regret for the cast, too, who’ve had to learn their lines on the fly. “Everyone who couldn’t handle it has kind of fallen away,” he says. “And what’s left is a very acrobatic crew. I never worked on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but it almost feels like we’re doing a sketch show sometimes.”

Harmon looks perpetually rumpled, with a scraggly beard and a pronounced paunch that reinforces the image of a man who entirely loses himself in his work. He still has that touch of madness about him, but no longer seems the angry, vitriolic flamethrower — after all, he finally got what he wanted: creative control.

With no network executives to rail against, his only enemy is himself and his perfectionism. “Now who am I mad at? Now what am I rebelling against? What is your TV show on Yahoo making a commentary about?” he asks rhetorically.

Harmon says that he’s finally learned not to obsess over network politics, as well as to work with other writers, a complaint levied against him in the past. “I used to lock myself in my office and just write the scripts by myself,” he says. “But these last couple seasons, it doesn’t matter; it all goes in a big cauldron. And we all just spit in it and drink from it and throw it around.”

Could season six mark the emergence of a kinder, gentler Dan Harmon? “There’s a misconception that Dan is unmanageable,” says an insider. “But he’s fully aware of deadlines and budgets. He just gets a creative thrill out of a deadline. And he has a more avant-garde way of staying within the lines.”

Sources say this season will come in on budget (unchanged from the NBC era), though rumor has it he’s been saving up for a classic “Community” paintball episode — but with a twist.

Cast and crew are both looking forward to it — and dreading it. “You grow a callous over your anxiety,” says director Rob Schrab. “It can be kind of painful and scary, but in the end, it’s always worth it.”

FAVORITE EPISODE:  “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux”

& “Just as a performer that would be my guilty pleasure. Anything that felt like you were doing an action movie was a blast.”

-Jim Rash
(Dean Pelton)

“Community” may have been a fan favorite, but that feeling never extended to the halls of NBC, where it was perpetually on the bubble. What had launched in 2009 as a sitcom about a group of misfit community-college students had morphed into its own quirky universe, impossible to categorize, rife with pop-culture refer-ences, Internet-ready memes and experimental episodes where the characters were transformed into animated versions of themselves.

While it attracted a passionate fan base online, it never drew a sizable audience (its fifth season ended with a 1.5 rating in adults 18-49, and 3 million total viewers). And the now-infamous behind-the-scenes drama with its showrunner — Harmon was fired after a tumultuous third season, then rehired for season five (along with co-showrunner Chris McKenna) after fans and the cast, including star McHale, rebelled — certainly didn’t help its cause.

Yet when the Peacock finally canceled the show for good last May, Sony refused to accept it as the final word.

“We seem to be the studio that fights to keep shows alive,” says Sony Pictures TV president Steve Mosko, pointing to the company’s success in finding a second run for “Unforgettable.” “It’s so hard to get a show out there. If you think it has opportunity to grow and build and keep an audience, you fight for it.”

Yet Harmon says he was relieved when the ax fell. He was heading off on vacation with friends when he got the call from Sony. “Five years of guilt and anxiety and shame and self-loathing and workaholism and being somehow just a little bit separate from God in that I was trying to make him happy … ” he says. “All of it just going away — and becoming a human being in a van on the way to an airport.”

The negotiations to relocate the show to a new outlet came down the wire. Netflix and Hulu (which holds streaming rights) were among the bidders — but then Yahoo swept in with a last-minute pitch that won over a skeptical Harmon.

"I just spoke from the heart,” says Yahoo chief marketing officer Kathy Savitt, who oversees the digital platform’s emerging content strategy. “We’re trying to be the place that guides audiences to the best content and the best storytellers. I told him, ‘Your show is beautifully written, beautifully acted, and with a fanbase of 3 to 4 million. … It should have another zero on the end of it. Let’s see if we can help.’ ”

Harmon was swayed. “She was just so honest … or the most gifted liar in the world,” he says with a laugh. “I just found myself thinking, ‘You can’t go away from this phone call and then go back to complaining about the way television is produced. You have to say yes to this because if you don’t, then God, for the rest of your career, will be going, “You’re full of s---.” ’ ”

Not to mention he’d finally be free of the Nielsen ratings that plagued him for so long. “The joke that we keep making,” he says, “is ‘now we’re just entering this nice, simple world where the company airing your content can tell you that at two minutes and 11 seconds, 47% of women who buy Prada shoes clicked two happy cats.’ ”

The cast was won over, too. Savitt met with the actors on set, gathering everyone in the cafeteria to deliver her pitch. She talked for about 10 minutes about her aggressive marketing plans — from a premiere party to an Emmy campaign — and suddenly realized no one had said a word. She thought she was doing something wrong. Finally star Ken Jeong explained, “You have to understand that nobody’s ever talked to us this way.”

Once the deal was signed, the Yahoo team hit the gas pedal to deliver on its promises, using last summer’s Comic-Con to announce the website as the show’s new home, which Sony TV chief marketing officer Sheraton Kalouria dubbed a “coming-out party.”“

We had to tell them what Comic-Con meant to the ‘Community’ fans,” says Kalouria, who credits the show’s “rabid, engaged fanbase” with keeping the show alive. “And they embraced it instantly.”

Since then, Yahoo has rolled out a first-look promo in movie theaters nationwide. There’s a launch party and panel planned for SXSW. The site offers season-by-season primers, which Savitt says are getting “millions and millions of views.” And Sony and Yahoo teamed up on the new season preview trailer, which in “Community” tradition, spoofed a movie — this time taking on “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Savitt promises more to come once the show launches. Among the ideas on the table: a weekly Harmon commentary dubbed “Communitary,” which will debut the Friday after each episode airs.

Yahoo has opted for a weekly rollout of the show, rather than the bingeable, all-at-once strategy now common online. Savitt says it was Harmon’s decision; Harmon says it was Yahoo’s. He does note he’s happy, though, with the incremental run. “Because I’m old,” he says. “It was weird to think that ‘Community’ would just be all put out there on one big cookie tray.”

One thing is for certain: Savitt will be following what’s become the industry standard of not releasing viewership data immediately. “Our hope is to be as transparent as possible with our customers and our advertisers,” she says, “but at the same time, join an industry that’s redefining how we measure success.”

"I don’t care if they’re happy. I don’t care if I betray them. I don’t care if I’m dishonest with them. I don’t care if they go bankrupt. I don’t care if their emails get hacked. I don’t care if they like me. I realize that’s how they’ve always felt about me.”

Favorite Episode:  “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking”

“There was a scene where Chang was crying unexpectedly. You’re seeing real tears, they just came. In terms of pure acting, that was the favorite acting scene of my career, 
because it just came unexpectedly. It became profoundly emotional.

-Ken Jeong
(Senor Ben Chang)

As happy as Harmon is with Yahoo, it’s clear the scars from the battles with NBC and Sony haven’t healed.

“I really would not be shocked to hear that Sony wants to keep making shows with me forever,” he says. “Because it’s that unhealthy a relationship. It’s nice working for a studio that I do not have to lose a moment’s sleep about disappointing. I don’t care if they’re happy. I don’t care if I betray them. I don’t care if I’m dishonest with them. I don’t care if they go bankrupt. I don’t care if their emails get hacked. I don’t care if they like me. I realize that’s how they’ve always felt about me.”

For his part, Mosko says the company and the showrunner have managed to put it all behind them. “Whenever you have people who have passionate points of view in a creative business, you’re going to have moments when people disagree,” he says, adding that he shared a hug with Harmon at the show’s 100th-episode party. “But in the end, the one thing we all agree on is we love the show, and we want to see it continue.”

Harmon compares his relationship with Yahoo to that of a contractor hired to build a deck. “You’re not supposed to need to sit there with the guy while he’s building the deck and ask him about every nail,” he says. “But you do get to fire him if somebody’s foot falls through the deck. I like the idea that the buck stops here.”

Savitt says that her strategy is to “let Dan and team be Dan and team,” and happily reports, “To date, there have been no kerfuffles.”

At a recent table read, Sony TV exec Max Aronson and a few Yahoo executives — all of whom are fans of the show — stayed behind afterward to share their notes with Harmon. One was about a minor plot point, another was about a character’s emotional arc. No one questioned the script’s 42-page length or the production requirements necessary to pull off the elaborate stunts the episode — one of those classic, outre “Community” concoctions — would require.

After a brief exchange of ideas about how to take advantage of Yahoo to create ancillary material, an exhausted Harmon finally waved everyone off. “I’m going to spend all weekend in bed playing ‘Minecraft,’ ” he said.

The table read — which was supposed to take place earlier that afternoon — had been pushed into late evening. The script, like most before it, was delivered past deadline.

“The process of getting the material is as difficult as always,” concedes an insider. “It’s not the perfect way to produce a TV show. But it leads to some of our best episodes.”

On set for the space-age episode, Jacobs is steeling herself. “We’re excited because it’s so great, but you know what it takes to produce an episode like this,” she says. “You have to be prepared for a certain level of exhaustion. So put that flight suit back on, and slide down that slide one more time.”

It’s the first so-called “weird” episode of the season — the kind that most rankled the suits at NBC.

Everyone takes great pains to reassure the curious that those who loved “Community” on NBC will embrace it on Yahoo.“

Creatively, it’s the same show, thank God,” says McHale. “He’s not changing the show because it’s on the Internet. We’re not walking around naked and swearing.”

The difference that’s most noticeable is the length of the shows: The first two episodes are 25 and 26 minutes, respectively. Savitt endorses what she calls “jagged-edge endings.” “If a show feels like it needs to be 32 minutes vs. 26 or 22, we’ll do that,” she says.

That format allows Harmon a bit more room to play. “I will always be a three-act-structure, story-first guy, but it’s not as tightly laced structurally,” he explains. The Yahoo version “has a little bit more of an unpredictable quality to it.”

There are also subtle changes: a new director of photography, who’s giving it a more cinematic look; new sets, including a bar and Britta’s parents’ home; as well as more external shots.

It also helps that the new home on the CBS Radford lot — the show had to move its stages from Paramount — also allows for more exteriors without palm trees creeping into shots.

Exclusive photos from the new season of "Community"

Of course, the biggest difference is the cast. Three longtime members have left: Chevy Chase, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Donald Glover, who exited so he could “be on his own.”

“The other day, I was like, ‘What would Troy’s line in this scene have been?’ ” Jacobs says.

That had been a go-to for the writ-ers, who’d gotten in the habit of simply ending a scene with: “Donald Glover says something funny here.” Says Har-mon mournfully, “To go from having Donald Glover in your show to not having him in your show is never going to be a value-add.”

Brown left for family reasons (she’s caring for her ailing father), but she’s been able to visit, since her new job on CBS’ “The Odd Couple” shoots on the same lot. “It still feels like home over there for me,” she says.

As for Chase, who exited amid a feud with Harmon, the Internet exploded with rumors he’d be returning. “That was based on a conversation that we had had,” Harmon says. “I asked him if he would be willing to do a certain thing, and he said yes. We don’t know if we’re actually doing it yet.”

But there are other surprise cameos sure to delight fans.

It remains to be seen whether this is the final chapter of “Community.” The cast’s contracts are all up, and the actors are in high demand for other projects. While Harmon says he’ll do whatever fans want, even he admits he’d rather write a movie, so he can “work from home with his wife and his dog.”

But if viewers embrace “Community” on its new platform (Savitt says they’ll make a renewal decision based on “viewership, overall fan engagement and the show’s impact on the larger Yahoo network”), anything is possible for the show that’s defined itself by defying the odds.

 “I think it’s going to be one of our best seasons,” notes McHale. “As Dan says, people are finally going to watch the show the way they’ve always watched it.”

Behind the Scenes Video Interview with Joel McHale and Dan Harmon

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