“Physical Education” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, March 4, 2010
Sometimes an episode of Community succeeds because it explores a resonant theme, or it nails the tone and feel of a certain genre dead-on, or it creates an iconic moment with its characters. And sometimes an episode of Community is just an absolute goddamn delight because of how utterly silly it is. “Physical Education” takes the now-familiar formula of an early Community episode and applies it to two stories that unfold in appropriately bizarre and hilarious ways, with no greater ambition than to be as weird and funny as possible. While this formula tends to risk exposing the limitations of its medium, an episode like this demonstrates how liberating it can be. When your characters are this firmly established, and your story beats are constructed this tightly, you can get away with conclusions as absurd as an epic naked pool-shooting showdown, or a character encountering a race-swapped version of himself.
Abed and Jeff are the first characters we were properly introduced to in the pilot, and the ones who allegedly represent two sides of Dan Harmon’s personality. But while they’ve shared stories in episodes prior to this, to my knowledge this is the first time they’ve each been the focal points of their own A- and B-plots in the same episode1, and writer Jessie Miller, along with director Anthony Russo, seize on the opportunity to position them as both good and bad examples of a healthy ego. Jeff’s the one we think we’d like to be, all false bravado and performative confidence. But that confidence crumbles the moment it comes into conflict with authority, and before you know it, you’re rage-quitting Billiards class because you’re too embarrassed to be seen in public sporting unfashionable John Stockton shorts. Meanwhile, Abed appears to not be an aspirational figure on the outside, and may even seem more like a “relatable” type, someone who can serve as an audience surrogate. But beneath that unassuming exterior lurks a bottomless well of pop culture knowledge, superhuman self-assurance, and freakishly accurate character impersonations.
Abed is, of course, not the true protagonist of his own story. This is one of those times when the group as a whole undergoes a change in their dynamic in the face of Abed’s abject unwillingness to change — or in this case, being so willing to change his behavior on the outside that it only reinforces his unflappable character on the inside. It’s telling that when Britta tries to adopt his philosophy for herself, the group doesn’t buy it for a second — simply proclaiming you don’t care what others think is the same as announcing that you care what others think. Jeff understands, in that moment, that to be genuinely confident you have to be willing to risk humiliation, to make yourself look ridiculous. If you can withstand the mockery of others and still persist, you can truly be anything. They are not laughing at Britta because of how she pronounces the word “bagel”, but rather because she fails to see the humor in how her pronunciation of the word “bagel” clashes with her self-image as a worldly, knowledgable person that she has so carefully cultivated. Jeff will not stop caring about his looks, possibly ever, but by embracing a less flattering pose than usual, he manages to give himself over to a higher priority than vanity, at least for a day.
My favorite thing about Jeff’s role in Abed’s plot is that for once, he’s in the right all along. Normally when there’s a plot about Jeff being in opposition with the others, he is the one who is wrong, or all parties involved are wrong in some way. But here, he recognizes the group’s attempts to turn Abed into a ladykiller as a hoary sitcom-level trope just as surely as Abed does, and is proven right in the end. Real, earned character development — you love to see it. Fortunately it stays true to Jeff Winger’s essence by having him still be a smug dick about it, and the episode rightfully undercuts him with the hypocrisy of his refusal to abide by Greendale P.E. guidelines.
Coach Bogner (veteran character actor Blake Clark) and his obsession with wearing “the proper equipment at all times” feels distinctly like another step in the gradual progression of Greendale from “crummy school” to “weird purgatory these characters are trapped in”. His conflict with Jeff over how to dress for Billiards class echoes the one with Professor Whitman in “Introduction To Film” in that Jeff is in it for the easy credit2, but fails to grasp that he must overcome something inherent to his personality to get there. This is symbolized by his unwillingness to shed the leather jacket when he first tries playing in shorts, which, obviously, makes him look sillier than if he’d just changed out completely. He is, after all, a character being played by Joel McHale in his 30s, which means he’d probably look good in just about anything. But no matter how dreamy you actually are, no one can pull off the short shorts/leather jacket combo. It’s just not going to happen. His ensuing tantrum and blow-up on his way to dropping the class plays almost like an attempt to stage an uprising, and rally the other students to his side against the tyranny of Coach Bogner’s shorts-only policy. But instead his frustration comes off like so much impotent preening, and he exits in disgrace.
This is the point in the episode where his plot intersects with Abed’s, and what a doozy of a scene for him to make an entrance on. The setup for it is simple and elegant, and they arrive at it with minimal fuss — a mystery girl named Jenny Adams (Carrie Wiita) has sketched what appears to be Abed’s face into Troy’s Spanish textbook, resulting in the study group making it their personal mission to get the two of them together. But that requires Abed’s participation, with the results going as disastrously as any anyone could have foreseen. Having regrouped in what appears to be a perpetually-empty unused classroom, each one of Abed’s classmate-friends takes a turn trying to help him step up his game romantically by becoming a more suave and appealing version of himself — as he puts it, “zero to hero, geek to chic”.
i should be used to it by now, but the sheer chemistry this cast radiates whenever they get to play a scene where all of them interact with each other still floors me with how naturally and comfortably every piece fits. By turns, they all get at least one comedic moment to play that is at once deeply rooted in their individual characters while building on their underlying group dynamic, making for a collection of performances that are much more than the sum of their parts. The highlight is clearly Abed’s transformation into Don Draper3 but nearly every comedy beat lands here, at a pace so frenetic yet controlled that all you can do is laugh along, maybe pause a little for clarity, and laugh some more. It’s a wonderful scene in the vein of similar ones found in “Romantic Expressionism” and “Comparative Religion”, with the added bonus of holding off on the crescendo until Jeff Winger suddenly appears. The scene could have played just as well without him, but the fact that it culminates with him storming back out as Abed continues to mimic him just puts it over the top, leading perfectly into the third act.
This is where our aforementioned resolutions unfold one after another, as a “White Abed” named Joey (Danny Pudi in whiteface) rears his head, revealing himself to be the true subject of Jenny Adams’ sketch, and the study group goes through their usual paces of guilt and self-blame. The reason they get so upset is because it seemed like Abed was hitting it off with Jenny, and they assumed he’d be heartbroken. But then Abed shows up and delivers a monologue about how his inability to connect with others can actually be an asset, because it allows him to be honest with himself about who he is. While people like Britta and Jeff concern themselves with the dissonance between how others perceive them and how they feel inside, Abed is just out there being Abed. This is maybe the first time in the series that the uplifting thematically-relevant speech in a episode comes from someone other than Jeff, and in fact it inspires Jeff to reclaim his dignity by proving he loves the game of pool more than he cares about cool clothes.
And then there’s the big pool game, which is just shot, edited and written to perfection, a beautiful montage set to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves Of London”, wherein two men eventually settle their differences in the nude. The emotion and the absurdity escalate in perfect tandem with each other, and yet everything about it feels so meticulously arranged as to feel inevitable. The moment Jeff drops his pants you know the briefs are coming off next, but the way it is built up sells the idea that the stakes really are this high, and that this game really means this much. Like many other brilliant moments from this show, i feel foolish even trying to describe it, other than to say that it is the most heightened 80s-sports-movie-style conclusion they’ve done to this point, and represents another small step forward in its ongoing journey from Community, an NBC sitcom, to COMMUNITY, the show to end all shows. Some parts of this series cannot be properly explained — they can only be witnessed. Or endured, as the case may be.
NOTES AND QUOTES
⁃ End tag: Troy and Abed playact a Bert and Ernie routine, until Troy remembers his cousin’s funeral is today, and runs off. My favorite part about this is how they devour the cookies by letting all the crumbs drop out of their mouth puppet-style
⁃ There’s a bunch of good visual humor in this episode, especially during Jeff’s first time in shorts as he’s self-consciously trying to line up a shot without exposing himself, and the foreshadowing of Jeff’s game with Coach Bogner when it shows his old Grecian fresco (?) painting of men shooting pool naked
⁃ Similarly, Joel McHale’s showboating as he kicks ass in pool is a joy to watch, but my favorite moment from that scene is Coach Bogner in his underpants thrusting his way across the table
⁃ i swear i am not being The Chang Police on purpose, but i did think this episode used him more judiciously and effectively than some of the others. The Dean’s obvious objectification of Jeff is something that feels creepily stalkerish at times, but it plays more as an “admire from afar” thing here than his usual default of constant, outrageous flirtation
⁃ i guess this is kind of an elephant in the room i’ve been ignoring, but i’ve never really known what to make of White Abed as a gag. Is it funny? Sure, maybe, kind of. Is it a plot convenience? Oh definitely, of course. Is it offensive? i think it depends. As has possibly been discussed in this space before, this show has an at-best shaky relationship to skin color, even without considering the banned-from-Netflix Dark Elf gag from “Advanced Dungeons And Dragons”. And yet it’s hard to read much malicious intent or even ignorance into this stuff — if anything, it’s maybe a little overthought. i’ll just cop out here and say that my favorite thing about the gag in this episode is Jeff asking whether Abed could be considered “Brown Joey” and Shirley says “If you want to get racist about it!”
BRITTA: Oh great, so much for “baggles”
BRITTA: Uh, i lived in New York, Troy. i know what a “baggle” is
ANNIE: This is so romantic. It’s just like The Notebook, except instead of Alzheimer’s, Abed has…. someone who likes him
CHANG (after Britta says “baggle”): Ugh, you’re the worst
JEFF: Alright, nobody here is “Can’t Buy Me Love”-ing, or “Love Don’t Cost A Thing”-ing anyone. Because we’ve all seen enough after-school specials — and Fat Albert — to know that Abed only needs to be himself
ABED: A different version of me. i think it was a vampire
JEFF: You’re stupid! This is stupid! Pool in shorts is stupid!
PIERCE: Good grief, clear the chickens off the runway, i’ll be the bad guy. Yes, A-bed, you need to be someone else, someone who eventually gets a girlfriend. Because i can’t think of anything more frightening than a half-Polish, half-Arab virgin in his 30s. One way or another, that story ends with an explosion
SHIRLEY: Be somebody nice, like Mike Brady. He always had that housekeeper throwing herself at him, and he never made a move on her
BRITTA: Don’t be Mike Brady, Mike Brady’s not sexy. You should be like Jo from Facts Of Life. ….But you know, the dude version
TROY: You should be like Calvin. His best friend was a tiger, he always went on dope adventures, if anything stood in his way, he just peed on it
ABED (breaking down his impression of Jeff): 10% Dick Van Dyke, 20% Sam Malone, 40% Zach Braff from Scrubs, and 30% Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry
DEAN (over PA): Jeff Winger, i’ve been informed by Coach Bogner that you left your panties in his pool class
JEFF: Did you know that he called me a hipster? A hipster! i mean, do hipsters walk around wearing $300 jeans from Italy?
JEFF: Well, i hate to say that i told you so. So i’ll shout it through cupped hands: I TOLD YOU SO!
ABED: Everybody wants to help me. But usually, when they find out they can’t, they get frustrated and stop talking to me, or they trick me into buying them ice cream and shove me into a clothes dryer
JEFF: Abed…. you’re a god
JEFF: Now, do you want to talk about clothes like a girl, or use tapered sticks to hit balls around a cushioned table, like a man?
JEFF: i choose shorts. I CHOOSE SHORTS! SHORTS!