Q&A with Yvette Nicole Brown of 'Community'
By nate pruitt
March 15, 2012
Greendale Community College may be a fictional school, but for fans of NBC's Community, it's as familiar as their own alma mater. Since 2009, the fast-paced meta-comedy has become famous for its parodies of other television and film styles—from claymation to Pulp Fiction—and, of course, its lovable, ragtag study group. And in the midst of reviving Chevy Chase's career, launching Donald Glover's and giving audiences a crash course in pop culture references, Community also manages to tackle big issues, from addiction and racism, to religion and friendship. Few shows are brave enough to attempt what Community does; fewer still are hilarious enough to pull it off. Which is why it came as such a shock when Community was suddenly pulled from the Thursday night line-up last fall. Fearing cancellation, the show's rabid fans took to Twitter and even street protests to lobby for the Greendale Human Beings—and it worked. Tonight marks the long-awaited return of Jeff, Britta, Annie, Shirley, Troy, Abed and Pierce to primetime.
RELEVANT recently got the chance to catch up with Yvette Nicole Brown, also known as "Shirley", the group's well-meaning though often misguided Christian member. She told us more about what we can expect from the conclusion of season three, what it's like to be a Christian playing a Christian and why the "study group" doesn't seem to do all that much studying.
RELEVANT: Now that Community is back, what things can we expect for Shirley in the rest of the season?
Yvette Nicole Brown: I think Shirley grows a lot as a woman. She has to make a choice, even in this first episode back, about whether she wants tocontinue toward the independent life she has been chasing in regard toher business degree, or to go back to her husband, Andre (Malcolm JamalWarner), and be a housewife. This is a big decision for Shirley becauseshe loves her family at home, her husband and sons, but she also lovesthe family she has at Greendale. She is learning what it is to have aportion of her life that is her own. It is a good story arc for Shirleythis season, and I get to interact a lot with Joel McHale’s character,Jeff Winger, which I love. There are three or four more episodes whereShirley and Jeff are paired off in some way, which I think is reallyawesome.
RELEVANT: On Community you play a character with flaws and a dark past, but who also shows personal growth. How does it feel playing such a dynamic Christian character?
Brown: I think it’s great that I’m playing a Christian with flaws because as every Christian knows we are flawed. Christ’s strength is manifest in our weakness, so if we had everything together there would be no need for Him. I like playing a character where it’s obvious why she wears a cross every week, because she’s crazy. It’s great that I get to play someone who really mirrors a real Christian, and she’s learning. She's not as judgmental as she was when the show began and is more loving as a true Christian should be.
RELEVANT: Do you ever find a need to speak up about the portrayal of Shirley’s faith on the show?
Brown: I don’t get drawn into it often, but there’s a policy at Community, and I don’t know if it’s something that [show creator] Dan Harmon intended to have happen or if it happened organically, but if there is anything any of us are opposed to I have found that he has an open door policy. And then, I’m an actor, so no matter what they write there’s a way to deliver a line with the right level of graciousness or remorse. I think it has been a great transition being a person of faith and playing a person of faith.
RELEVANT: Is there a line drawn on jokes about Shirley or others' misperceptions of her while not making faith the punchline?
Brown: Community is a comedy show, and one of the characters happens to be a Christian. I do think they have been very careful to make sure everyone is the butt of the joke for various reasons. At times Shirley may be the butt of the joke for her judgmental attitudes that manifest themselves in her Christianity; it’s just part of the show, nothing for or against Christ from the writers. For all characters it is equal opportunity offender and supporter, and I think that’s great.
RELEVANT: How do you feel about Shirley’s witness at Greendale Community College?
Brown: As far as how Christ is handled on the show there was a scene in the first season where I said the Lord’s Prayer as an ad-lib. There have been a lot of opportunities to boldly declare who Christ is on the show and I don’t think that has ever happened on a mainstream show before. On [the recent] musical episode I got to sing, “Jesus is Lord, happy birthday, Jesus!” For the little knocks that Shirley takes, I think it is worth it for the truth of Christ to get in the show through the character, and I have to give kudos to the writers.
RELEVANT: How does humor help you deal with matters like an imposed show hiatus?
Brown: It is very important as a human being to be able to laugh at yourself and circumstances and particularly as a Christian. We have to know that good times don’t last always and bad times don’t last always. So when I’m facing a difficult moment in my life I tend to go, “Oh well, this sucks.” To have a laugh about it and move on is very necessary. I think God has a sense of humor and the way my lessons come from God is very funny. I have to laugh at myself even if it’s a tough lesson.
RELEVANT: Finally, during the hiatus there has been quite the buzz online with the rallying cry of “six seasons and a movie.” Has anyone addressed the lack of academic progress of the study group if they remain at Greendale three more seasons?
Brown: I don’t think there’s any danger of them graduating any time soon as they aren’t very bright—or I should say they don’t really study any. Whenever there is a final they’re always cramming, and they don’t look very good. The group is always passing by the skin of their teeth besides Annie (Alison Brie). If they want to stretch it out for six years, it would seem they could do it easily. Also, there’s a reason why Dan Harmon didn’t call the show “Community College”, he called it Community. It is a show about a group of people who could be meeting up anywhere, not just a community college library, but a coffee shop or diner or anywhere out there.