“Comparative Religion” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, December 10, 2009
PLARN: Dear Tereglith,
In our essays about the first eleven episodes of Community, we’ve both written at length about the evolution of the show, often tying it in with our personal journeys as fans. As the false starts drop away and small breakthroughs accumulate, it’s always exhilarating to witness the signs hinting toward what our unassuming little series will become. It is as if we’ve been searching for a clear demarcation point, one specific moment or episode where everything falls into place and the show truly “becomes” the Community we know and love, freed from the constraints of its embryonic form. Among fans, the consensus is that this point doesn’t quite arrive until “Modern Warfare”, but we’ve already identified several episodes where the show’s ambitions seem to be growing by leaps and bounds1, and it’s clear that the raw material for crafting its concept episodes was there nearly from the beginning.
Still, defining the show simply by its parodical capacity seems like missing its point to me. Anyone can do referential humor — not everyone can integrate referential humor into the very fabric of its characters’ lives. And that’s something Community was doing long before its meta-genre-riffs became de rigueur. So i’m going to state a bold claim right now, and i want your thoughts on it — “Comparative Religion” is the first perfect episode of Community. That is, it is the first episode that showcases its best aspects with sustained consistency, firing on all cylinders and making the fullest possible use of all of its strengths, all the way through. Comedically, emotionally, narratively; i’m hard-pressed to find a single false step in anything this episode does. i almost don’t even want to include our standard Quotes section at the end, because every damn line is pure gold, and we can’t very well transcribe the whole script.
i expect some pushback on the idea that this is the first episode that perfectly epitomizes Community, if not from you, then at least in the comments. Some might find fault with the quasi-antagonistic role it places Shirley into2, or see its plot as somewhat trite in how closely it adheres to sitcom convention. But for me this episode is pure joy from start to finish, and before i go into my reasons why, i’d like to give you a chance to weigh in. Am i overrating this episode? Are there better early examples of this show doing what it does best? And why am i still laughing so hard at Forest Whitaker Eye? It’s been 10 years — it should NOT still be this funny!
TEREGLITH: Hi Plarn!
You’ll find very little pushback from me on that thesis, which could make for a bit of a conflict-free crosstalk. If I were to quibble, it would only be to say that I think “Intro to Stats” is also pretty perfect in the sense you lay out – every line hits, every beat builds to a perfect apex. But “Comparative Religion” takes all that episode’s strengths and magnifies them, with more besides. It’s a half hour that has only grown in my estimation over the decade since it aired, and one that I would now rank above its showier Christmas cousins, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and “Regional Holiday Music”3.
Like “Intro to Stats”, “Comparative Religion” is an episode where the A/B/C structure we’ve discovered to be so rigid throughout many of these early episodes dissolves into a single free-flowing ensemble plot. I described the conflict of that episode as functioning like a battery, with the rest of the study group roiling between the opposing poles of Annie and Jeff. The same battery makes this episode go, with Shirley instead of Annie as Jeff’s opposite pole, but it’s supercharged with the introduction of deeper thematic elements. While Annie just sought a new lease on her social life in college, Shirley’s emotional investment in the study group in this episode runs deeper. She needs them to function as a surrogate family to fill the family-shaped hole in her Christmas traditions, because due to her divorce from Andre they’re the only one she’s got.
Jeff, meanwhile, no longer needs to be coaxed and cajoled into attending group functions (he volunteers early to attend and bring his “winning smile”), but can be easily pulled away from them by external conflict. While his pursuit of Slater was wholly self-serving, his conflict with Mike the bully begins when he comes to Abed’s defense, not his own; he’s showing his devotion to his friends too, just in a more toxically masculine way. Shirley’s fundamental disagreement with him is whether physical fighting is appropriate for Christmas – or, at least, a December 10th that’s serving as Christmas. What makes their conflict and its resolution so great is that they’re both right and wrong: Jeff is an ass for refusing to assign any reverence to the de facto holiday even though he knows it means a lot to his friend, while Shirley is a bully for refusing to brook any deviation from her preferred way of celebrating (and believing). By the end they’ve both grown.
Where I think this episode outshines “Intro to Stats” most is in its engagement with its holiday. I tried to find some connective tissue between the notion of Halloween and the text and subtext of ITS – masks, guises, the roles we play – and found there just wasn’t anything solid there. But “Comparative Religion” is all about Christmas and how it functions in the lives of people from different religious backgrounds. Shirley comes from a milieu where the purpose of Christmas is unquestioned: It exists as a unifying celebration of shared belief in the divine birth of Jesus Christ. But part of forming a diverse surrogate family, or indeed, functioning in a pluralistic society, is realizing that sometimes practices that feel unifying to an in-group can feel exclusionary from without. By the end, as the group celebrates something the same shape as Christmas, Shirley has recognized that the holiday is capacious: it can accommodate her fervent Christian belief, but it can just as well be a neutral meeting place for a Jehovah’s Witness, a Jew4, a Muslim, an atheist, an agnostic, and a Level 5 Laser Lotus who just want to share each other’s company. Season 2’s Christmas episode would sum it up in one of my favorite lines of the whole show: “The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning.”
What I think speaks to me so much about these two episodes is that post-modern, humanist approach to Christmas. While I was raised attending a Presbyterian church, my parents were never very hard-line about it and I’ve been a non-believer for a long time – since before this episode aired, I’m sure. But despite that, I still love Christmas in a way that transcends mere aesthetics. This episode and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” after it are a kind of Christmas story I’m starved for – secular, non-commercial5, but still respectful and occasionally reverential of the strange socio-cultural power that Christmas can still have even for those who don’t believe in the original “reason for the season”.
So, I’ve talked for a couple hundred too many words. I’d love to hear your take on what makes this episode so great. And, if you don’t mind sharing, what’s your history with religion and relationship with the phenomenon of Christmas, and how does that color your engagement with it?
PLARN: Dear Tereglith,
Yes, that’s exactly it — this episode builds on the success of “Introduction To Statistics” by replicating its all-group plot structure, while weaving in a rich examination of the script’s themes6 and a pair of satisfying character arcs, to boot. As you mentioned, where most episodes will pair characters off into A, B, and C stories that may or may not converge at any point, “Comparative Religion” pulls the genius move of bringing together a Jeff plot and a Shirley plot, which are really just two sides of the same plot, and giving every character some specific function within it. Whether that’s as an enabler of mounting escalation, which is Chang’s role, or to continually point out the thin line between aggro posturing and sexual tension, as Britta does, this structure provides an opportunity for the ensemble to unlock their true capabilities as a unit. The reason why the kinds of genre-exercise concept episodes that kicked off with “Contemporary American Poultry” 7 were even possible is because they’re grounded in the character dynamics and electric chemistry that drove episodes like this one, which laid the foundations by exploring the potential of prolonged interactions among the entire cast.
And so while Jeff’s and Shirley’s respective conflicts anchor the episode, each character gets a chance to react to both of them in turn, generating a veritable onslaught of rapid-fire jokes as diverse and silly as the study group’s beliefs themselves. You correctly noted that Shirley and Jeff are both right and wrong in their own ways, but it should be mentioned that while Jeff’s initial standing up for Abed was the selfless act of a true friend, his actual motive for fighting Mike is rooted in indignation over having his Spanish corrected during a test, possibly causing him to fail8. This leads to a scene that takes place in one of my favorite sets of early Community — the random, unused room where the study group will later attempt to teach Abed the ways of romance in “Physical Education”. In this episode, it’s used as a training gym for Jeff, who has reached nearly middle age without ever being in a fight. While Pierce dishes out cheap shots and Troy stresses the importance of asking “‘Sup?” with the right inflection, Shirley’s sudden appearance seems to call into question whether the group can truly consider themselves a family.
After all, a family needs to be united by something, and for someone as strong in her faith as Shirley, a lack of shared conviction could be enough to break them apart. Prior to this, the various schisms among each study group member’s belief systems came across mostly as joke fodder, yet another quirky way in which they each represent something unique. But when Shirley puts her foot down and forces Jeff to choose between either attending her party or the scheduled fight, their differences no longer seem quite as humorous anymore, and without Jeff around to play mediator, what should have been a joyous end-of-semester gathering quickly descends into chaos. As the nominal “mother” figure of the group, it falls to Britta to remind everyone that one of their own is headed into a confrontation alone even while they sit around bickering, and that they’d all rather fight someone outside the group than each other9
This leads to one of my favorite types of Community third-act resolutions, which i call the “double-turn”. It’s where two characters who had been on opposing sides of an argument both come around to each other’s viewpoint in a way that feels earned and genuine. For Shirley, this point comes when she says “Kick his ASS”; for Jeff it’s when he realizes he’s still wearing the “W.W.B.J.D.” bracelet she gave him and he says “Mike, i’m not gonna fight you”, and both times it works as brilliantly-realized moments of character development, as they each overcome their prejudices and choose to put their relationships first. As impossible as it is to imagine the Jeff Winger of the Pilot saying “Me, i don’t believe in any of that stuff, but i DO believe in friendship”, it would have been equally unthinkable that Shirley would respond to a plea of “It’s Christmas!” with “It’s December 10th!” With a little help from their friends, they’ve both learned new ways to resolve their differences, and the brawl that spills out between the group and Mike’s ridiculous troupe of gymnasts and fly dancers, set to Florence + The Machine’s “Kiss With A Fist”, plays more as a celebration of the love and support they’ve found in each other than as any kind of dangerous altercation. Turns out what really makes a family is the conscious choice to stand together, even if one of you ends up taking a swing at the other.
Like you, i was also raised in a Judeo-Christian religious tradition (Mormon, in my case), and although i’ve long since abandoned adherence to its principles10, i certainly haven’t lost my sentimentalism around the Christmas season. That’s why i agree completely with you that this is the kind of holiday episode our culture needs. It should be a time of year when we put aside our petty squabbles, while still acknowledging that they exist. At the same time, Christmas is kind of insane, and it should also be a time of year when we can confront the forces that beset us with a renewed sense of righteous purpose. If it is to have any meaning at all, it must remain flexible enough to fulfill these very human needs. Stories serve as examples for how we might navigate difficult situations in the real world, and what this one shows us is that if these weirdos can get along, any of us can. However unlikely the family we’re in, any of us can make ourselves better by striving to be the best part of it we can be.
On that corniest note i can manage, i bid you farewell as we sign off on this project for i know not how long. Hope you have a happy holiday, and i look forward to corresponding with you again.
TEREGLITH: I almost hesitate to follow such a lovely exegesis, but I’ll do my best. I love your nomenclature of the “double-turn”, and I’m trying to think of others from throughout the run of the show – the first one that leaps to mind is Pierce deciding to leave the group just as they’ve decided to let him back in, at the conclusion of “For a Few Paintballs More”. But that’s a tragic example, a twist of the knife. Here, the double-turn is joyful, as Jeff and Shirley each reach a deeper understanding of what drives the other. Jeff finally sees how important it is to have some sort of guiding light even if it’s not Baby Jesus. And Shirley, in turn, finally sees how a humanist framework can provide the same type of moral clarity she personally finds in Christianity.
What I think makes this one work extra well is how it plays into both sides of Shirley. While she has spent the whole episode being sickly sweet, it’s been baked in since the pilot that her sweetness hides a rage that can and will put someone’s head through a jukebox. When she orders Jeffrey to “Kick his ASS”, the tension between the series-level view of the character and the episode-level view breaks in a burst of righteous fury. In asking himself “What would Shirley do,” Jeff ascribes his friend an almost Christ-like level of patience and tolerance – but even Jesus had to go ham on some money-changers sometimes.
When the snow has settled, the group returns to the study room, individually battered but collectively whole. In stark contrast to her earlier renditions of “Joy to the World”11 and “Jesus Is a Friend of Mine”, Shirley magnanimously sings a completely secular version of “Silent Night”. It could have played as a nasty bit of “PC Culture gone mad” humor that Community occasionally traded in in those days, but while the lyrics are ridiculously stilted, the sentiments behind them are genuine. It has the feel of something new and untested, a syncretic set of holiday values that we and the group don’t quite have the cultural lexicon for yet but that we’ve got to try to articulate anyway.
So to that end, Plarn, I bid you to function with relative ease, through this holiday and the new year.
- As stated in the intro, this episode has way too many quotable quotes for us to put them all here. Feel free to comment with your favorites though!
- The “Non-denominational Mister Winter” getup is the very first crazy costume worn by the Dean – his only one this whole season, in fact!
- On the Community Board at the AVC, one of our earliest memes was using an incredibly brief video of Annie shouting “Yay!” at the end of this episode in order to connote joy and excitement. In order to evade Sony copyright strikes, the uploader had appended a Windows MovieMaker message longer than the clip itself with the text “I Do Not Own This”. The phrase “Yay! (IDNOT)” thus became commonplace on the board for years. The video was recreated some years ago by a member of the community after the original disappeared:
- In terms of broader meme presence, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of Senor Chang wearing his giant sombrero and saying “I’ll allow it” over the years.
- Commenter Josephus Brown shared this on the last review:
“This is incredibly nerdy, but the “we were fiiiiiiiiiigh… ting. It IS hard to think of another word!” bit always slayed me.
I did neurolinguistics as an emphasis in my cognitive psych degree and as you start to say a word your memory suppresses the words that don’t match that phonetic and morphemic template. So it’s honestly really really REALLY hard to think of another word.”
- If you’ve never heard the full version of “Jesus Is a Friend of Mine”, the song Shirley tries to get the group to sing, you really should give it a spin. The lyrics are… something.
- The tag: Abed sings “O Christmas Troy” while decorating his friend with tinsel and baubles. Jeff asks why they do that kind of stuff. The answer: “Because it’s fun.” That about sums it up!