The much anticipated premiere of “Community,” the NBC sitcom many community college faculty and administrators feared would damage the already less-than-desirable image of community colleges, is history. The first network comedy set on a community college campus and featuring a group of community college students had its debut on Thursday, September 17. It was a hit. Those who make a living by tracking TV viewership suggest that 7.7 million viewers tuned in to the comedy.
First, a confession. I knew and liked Joel McHale long before he was a “wannabe” actor. He arrived on the LA scene armed only with an M.F.A. and a newly acquired agent. I can remember applauding his gutsiness when he and his wife told me they were heading for LA, determined to make it happen. I knew how talented he was, but I also knew what a good guy he was, and don’t good guys finish last — especially in cutthroat Hollywood? Not this time. Not this good guy. From commercials to cameo roles to a cable show, his stock just kept rising. And last Tuesday he found himself on the red carpet at the New York premiere of Matt Damon’s new film, “The Informant!,” in which he also stars. Thursday found him on the “Today Show,” “The View” and all over the newspapers. Critic after critic (including the venerable New York Times) gave a thumbs up to “Community” and praised Joel’s portrayal of Jeff, the snarky, disbarred lawyer who showed up at Greendale Community College, filled with disdain for who we are and what we do.
So what’s good about that? Has my fondness for Joel blinded my lifelong loyalty to and advocacy for community colleges? Have I turned my back on a 33-year career as a community college professor, dean and vice president just because I know and like the star? Shouldn’t I be on the phone with Joel, telling him how shocked and appalled I was to hear him say “If I wanted to learn something, I wouldn’t have come to a community college”?
No. Let’s be honest. How many times have we all heard that type of disparaging remark — and attitude! — coming from some smug student who is “embarrassed” to find himself enrolled at a community college? And how many times has that student come to eat his words when he finds incredible faculty who know how to teach and who care about their students?
I hosted a “premiere party” for my colleagues at Prairie State College. We all groaned at Jeff’s disparaging remark. But most of us also found ourselves laughing. We identified with the cast of “Community.” We have all had students just like every character on the show. After all, we work at a community college, and community colleges are the most diverse colleges in America. We’re proud to say we work at one of the “loser colleges,” where we take students whom some would dub “losers” and make them into winners.
And we’re proud to acknowledge our lack of selectivity. In fact, we start out every academic year by telling our new students that they’ve come to a place where they can reinvent themselves. We tell them nobody knows their high school G.P.A., their class rank, their SAT score — and nobody cares. Because we don’t. We’re in the business of changing lives — and we are serious about our work. But that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes see some humor in what we do.
We know we’ve always been the under-appreciated, under-respected, under-funded sector of higher education. But all that’s changing. President Obama, Secretary of Education Duncan, and Jill Biden are bringing us the recognition and funding we are due. And now — thanks to “Community” — we’re the subject of a network sitcom.
My colleagues and I hung around for an hour after the show exchanging funny stories about our students. I’m going to pass those along to Joel. His writers couldn’t possibly make up stories as funny as the real tales we have to share! But I’m also going to send him stories of the losers who made good. They couldn’t possibly make up stories like those either. Face it. Nowhere can you find a better source for comedy — or for heroism — than a community college. The premiere of "Community" convinced me it will show both sides. Let’s sit back and enjoy our newfound notoriety.