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Poking Fun at Community Colleges

May 6, 2009

Community colleges have been the butt of disparaging jokes for almost as long as they've been around. The line about them being nothing more than “high schools with ashtrays” has worn thin through the years, and some educators still do not find such wisecracks funny.

This fall, a community college will not just be the punch line to a series of quirky witticisms; it will be the setting of a prime time situation comedy. Monday, NBC announced its fall lineup, including “Community,” a comedy about a lovable group of "losers" at Greendale Community College, a fictional two-year institution. The show comes from the creative minds of Joe and Anthony Russo, who won Emmy Awards for directing several episodes of the now-defunct Fox sitcom “Arrested Development.”

“It's been said that community college is a ‘halfway school’ for losers, a self esteem workshop for newly divorced housewives, and a place where old people go to keep their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity,” reads a network description of the show. “Well, at Greendale Community College ... that's all true.”

Billed by NBC as a “smart comedy about higher education … and lower expectations,” the show stars Joel McHale, host of the weekly comedy clip show “The Soup” on E! McHale, himself a 1995 graduate of the University of Washington, plays Jeff, a lawyer whose college degree has recently been found to be “less than legitimate," resulting in his suspension by the state bar.

Rounding out a fairly well-known cast, comedy legend Chevy Chase co-stars as Pierce, a graying community college student who imparts wisdom to the younger Jeff. In real life, Chase is a 1967 graduate of Bard College.

The show, according to a brief network synopsis, focuses on a “band of misfits” who attend an after-school Spanish study group organized by Jeff. The students -- both young and old, and from all walks of life -- eventually bond and “end up learning a lot more about themselves than they do about their course work.” The synopsis goes on to mention that the premise of the show is something akin to “The Breakfast Club,” the 1985 coming-of-age movie about a group of high school students in Saturday detention.

Though an NBC publicist for the show did not return calls for comment, a four-minute trailer for “Community” does offer some hints as to its content. Despite the many jokes in the trailer at the expense of some of the students' life circumstances -- for example, Jeff, the out-of-work lawyer, is portrayed as a compulsive liar -- the fictional community college is billed as “a place where anyone can begin again.”

This is not the first time that NBC has made jokes at the expense of community colleges. Four years ago, Jay Leno provoked the ire of the American Association of Community Colleges and other educators for his frequent jokes about the intellectual acumen, or lack thereof, of community college students.

One community college president was so peeved that she set out across the country on her Harley-Davidson motorcycle to meet with Leno and defend the role of these open-access institutions. Betty K. Young, recently named president of Houston Community College’s Coleman College for Heath Sciences, eventually made it to Hollywood and had a sit-down with Leno on “The Tonight Show” to tell her side of the story.

“It was a good opportunity to go out there and tell the community college story and note that Jay’s comments are not what we’re all about,” Young said. “And, Jay understood that. I mean, he’s a comedian and an equal opportunity offender. I didn’t say, ‘Hey, Jay, I don’t like you.’ I said, ‘Hey, you’ve given us a forum to talk about what’s important.’ ”

Still, news of “Community” hitting the airwaves this fall does not have Young ready to hop on her bike and head back to Hollywood in anger. On the contrary, she said the show might even be a good thing, noting that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.

“It could be a great statement about the role that community colleges play in society,” Young said. “A few years ago, people pretended that we didn’t exist. Now, we’re going to become a prime-time television show. That’s amazing, and it’s recognition that community colleges are a uniquely American institution.”

From a cursory look at the trailer, Young said she was encouraged by the ultimate message that two-year institutions are a place to start over.

“The idea that community colleges are for losers is a losing statement,” Young said. “It’s about winners. If you look at this group of characters, it looks like they’re going to pick themselves up in a crummy economy to have a chance at success. The show is about making people laugh. Still, I hope the show will encourage people to take a look at their future and consider a community college as an option.”

Other community college leaders also remained open-minded about the forthcoming sitcom. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said the show’s concept brought some fiery e-mails on one of the group’s mailing lists earlier in the week from some presidents who were “alarmed by it.”

“I would just hope that some day, people will feel like it’s unacceptable to make fun of community college students,” Boggs said. “Just because we don’t have the exclusive admission standards that Harvard has doesn’t mean that you should feel free to make fun of our students. I hope the show doesn’t portray our students that way.”

Boggs, however, noted that it was likely that the show would not be disparaging and, instead, portray a community college campus in much the way that shows like “Welcome Back, Kotter” have portrayed high school campuses.

“Let’s keep an open mind about it and see,” Boggs said. “Sometimes comedies have a way of revealing truths.”

For her part, Young has extended an invitation to Jay Leno to watch the show's debut with her.

“I would welcome the opportunity to sit down and watch it with Jay,” Young said. “I feel like he and I have this good connection, and it would be a great opportunity to tell the community college story again.”

 

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