At "Community's" Los Angeles PaleyFest panel on March 5, the cast and producers of the NBC comedy were on hand to preview what's ahead in Season 4: namely puppets, paintball, origin stories and a "Freaky Friday" homage penned by actor and Oscar winner Jim Rash.
Stars Joel McHale (Jeff), Gillian Jacobs (Britta), Alison Brie (Annie), Danny Pudi (Abed), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), and Rash (Dean Pelton) were on the panel (which you can watch in its entirety below), along with producers Moses Port, David Guarascio, Russ Krasnoff and Tristram Shapeero.
The biggest news that emerged from the event was undoubtedly the aforementioned puppet episode, which will see the "Community" gang immortalized in felt form by Scott Johnson and Drew Massey, who were responsible for turning David Boreanaz into a fuzzy figure in the "Angel" episode titled "Smile Time."
Per a release from NBC, in the surreal-sounding episode, the study group will take a wild balloon ride that crash lands in the woods, leaving them spending a little time with a friendly mountain man, played by Jason Alexander (“Seinfeld”). As the gang recounts their adventures in the woods, which has left them all feeling a little awkward with one another, Dean Pelton encourages them to speak about their experience with the use of puppets. The puppets include characters Jeff, Pierce (Chevy Chase), Britta, Shirley, Abed, Annie, Troy (Donald Glover) and Chang (Ken Jeong).
This Thursday's episode (8 p.m. EST on NBC), sees Jeff finally meeting his father (James Brolin), and McHale teased -- in typically wry fashion -- what fans can expect from the episode, in which "Pitch Perfect's" Adam DeVine plays his half brother: "James Brolin plays my dad and Barbara Streisand plays my mother ... No, Jeff his meets his father finally after all those years of having his number. It is quite intense between Jeff and his dad -- thank god for Gillian and Adam DeVine, who knock it out of the park. I haven't seen the cut but it gets pretty heavy ... It turns out that they both have herpes."
And with Britta responsible for Jeff's long-awaited breakthrough, does she have a chance at now becoming a legitimate therapist? "I don't think so," Jacobs laughed. "She's still in the phase of accidentally helping people -- I think to be a real therapist you have to help people on purpose."
Another topic of conversation was Britta's burgeoning relationship with Troy. Since Britta's the worst, does that mean that the couple are doomed? "Why would we tell you that? Why would we tell you what's coming up in these magnificent episodes that you're going to watch live?" Jacobs joked.
"We'd rather not spoil any surprises, but it's not doomed as a foregone conclusion by any stretch," Guarascio promised. "A lot of the year is kind of the resurrection of Britta ... which sort of begins with how she inadvertently helps Jeff ... So who knows, maybe that may lead to something we’re not quite expecting."
The show's most enduring relationship -- the friendship between Troy and Abed -- will be given a spotlight in an episode written by Rash, which was described as a "Freaky Friday" homage. According to McHale, it's "one of the best we've ever done."
"It was an awesome and stressful process because you're humbled to get to do something and be a part of a show that you've been on and loved for four years and hopefully maintain the vision that its creator gave us," Rash said. "It's ... a little body-switching. It's very important to the Troy and Abed relationship."
As well as revisiting the Darkest Timeline and seeing a portion of an episode involving paintball (as well as a potential return for Annie's Boobs), the producers confirmed that the show would be tackling a superhero-esque origin story for the study group, which will show the gang through Abed's eyes to "trace back to how they came to be" together.
Though the cast purposefully avoided addressing Chevy Chase's departure and the future of Pierce as a character, Shapeero talked his way around the contentious issue by praising Fred Willard, who played the part of Pierce in portions of the Season 4 premiere and at the PaleyFest table read. "Who wouldn't love more Fred Willard? He was amazing, such a gentleman to work with, fantastic," the producer said. "So who knows? We have to cook something up if there is a Season 5 ... We can't really say that until we know there is a Season 5, then we can have the discussion, because it is a big thing to address [with] how the show moves forward."
"I think we've proven we can just say it's Pierce and move on," Guarascio said, pointing out that they did it on "Roseanne" with Becky.
As for whether the cast is confident about Season 5, Pudi joked, "I will find out from one of your tweets whether or not our show is back."
'It's one of those things where you never hear -- no one ever lets you know those things in advance," McHale agreed. "Believe me, I hope so ... Without you guys, none of this would be happening. We would not be here. So we're going to give each of you five dollars!" (They did not.)
Brown revealed a little more about Shirley's character progression this season, previewing that we'll meet her in-laws in this week's Thanksgiving episode -- and that the episode will explain a little more about how the character came to be the way that she is (as well as demonstrating her questionable taste in wallpaper). "Shirley is probably the most well-adjusted of everybody in the study group because she's always had a family, she's always had kids, she's always had a life, and she was really just coming to Greendale to get her degree and go back to her life," she admitted. "We're starting to see the weariness of Shirley in the show, she's making comments like 'I could be home with my babies.'"
In terms of the challenges the new producers faced in taking the reins from Dan Harmon, Guarascio joked: "Little-known fact: Dan Harmon was not with the show this year; wasn't reported at all ... It is hard because we were huge fans of the show beforehand ... What it came down to is ... the cast is just so fantastic and the heart and soul of the show ... The heart and soul of the show becomes the people who are performing it, so even though there's this great creative talent that was no longer with the show this year, there are all these other great creative talents who are continuing to give it its spirit and its life ..."
The co-showrunner also credited the cast with helping the newer writers and producers stay on the correct course in terms of storytelling and keeping the characters consistent, admitting, "We really need to listen to them and they've been doing this for the past three years and they know the show inside and out and that was just an asset."
With typical Shirley wisdom, Brown summed up her feelings on both the show's legacy and renewal chances towards the end of the panel. "Four years is great -- we made it to syndication and we got to meet all of you guys and we've been to Paley four years in a row," she pointed out. "This has been a great run ... We're in the gravy years of our careers and the gravy years of this show. If we get to continue into another year, it will be an awesome blessing and we'll get to come back hopefully and see you all again, but it's not a bad thing. Four years is great, so remember that, whatever happens in May, we made it four years and we did it together and that's a great thing."
Watch the full "Community" PaleyFest panel (including a dance number from Jim Rash and Joel McHale) below:
"Community" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.
What do you think of "Community" Season 4? Would you like to see it return next season?