Chris McKenna, a departing co-exec producer on the NBC sitcom and head scribe on Season 3’s standout time-jumper, “Remedial Chaos Theory” — an episode he calls a “labor of love” — was treated on Thursday to an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.
Here, McKenna talks to TVLine exclusively about the methods behind “Chaos'” Emmy-nominated madness, out-going showrunner Dan Harmon‘s indelible mark on the timeline-driven installment and more. He also opens up about his new gig on what might be fall’s most anticipated new comedy, Fox’s The Mindy Project.
TVLINE | Congratulations to you and Community on the Emmy nomination!
Thanks! This belongs to the entire writing staff of Season 3. We all worked insanely hard on each episode and each one sort of drove us insane — this one in particular. To quote my favorite show [Community], it drove us “crazytown banana pants.” It’s nice to see the hard work of Dan [Harmon] and all of us being recognized. It’s really an honor.
TVLINE | While working on this episode, were you able to look beyond the insanity and see what a classic the episode might — and did — become?
I don’t think we knew. It was one that really became this vortex where we got sucked into it… Doing it with seven alternate timelines definitely required a certain level of thinking and, for lack of a better word, math. When I went off for a week to write it, there were metaphorical Beautiful Mind strings all over my office, just trying to keep all the threads together. [Laughs] There was that level of thinking about each story, how they interlock and build on one another, that we just lost sight of the forest for the trees, in terms of what people would think about it. It wasn’t just a concept in service of a concept; it was a concept in service of the characters in the world of Community… It ended up being a really great marriage between something that was a really fun concept, and also a really fun exploration of the characters.
TVLINE | Where did the concept for “Remedial Chaos Theory” come from?
It was Dan’s brainchild. He had been wanting to do something with alternate timelines for a while, almost based on something like a video game with this idea that you can die and start over again. Then we just simplified it and set it up like a game night and the roll of a die… We didn’t want to stack it with too many complicated concepts from the beginning, so [it was] just this mundane idea. And then me, and [writers Megan] Ganz, Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane just sat in a room and went crazy for a week and a half. Dan would come in and reshape it — he downloaded so many ideas and was integral to this whole thing. He was the mastermind overseeing this whole thing. It was not only complicated to write, but also complicated to shoot — we were still shooting stuff up until a week or two beforehand, particularly that tag. Dan and I had this idea that the tag should be an alternate timeline, and it became obvious that it should be the darkest timeline, Troy’s timeline. So, he and I stewed over it for awhile and then I went off and took a crack at writing it — and it’s one of my favorite things of all time… I’ll be honest; the alternate timeline tag was so rewarding because I’m not sure it was the favorite tag of the studio. [Laughs] And you can see the response of that, the fact that it has taken on its own life with artwork and everything else.
TVLINE | That tag definitely became something much more… It was essentially the face of the Community fan movement following the show’s forced hiatus.
Absolutely, and the goatees were all Dan. He said that Abed should be cutting up little felt goatees for everyone. Instantly, that’s when the whole thing just came together in such a hilarious, great way, and obviously became a rallying call for our fans.
TVLINE | Do you have a favorite timeline?
I think the Troy timeline in terms of it being batsh-t crazy… It was really rewarding to see how people responded to it, because you never know. I love the wisdom of the timeline where Abed catches the die. Like Dan said, it’s the one episode where Abed gives the Jeff Winger speech, and I think that is remarkable: that we have a show where it has enough mythology that you can realize Abed is sort of switching with another character.
TVLINE | And we have to talk about Britta’s pizza song.
Ugh, hilarious. [Laughs] Megan Ganz pitched the “Me so hungee” stuff, so we had that in the script, and then Gillian [Jacobs] made it her own. That was pure Gillian weird-wonderfulness… Since you bring up Gillian, she had one of the best comedic performances over the course of this season on any show and she’s remarkable — like the rest of the cast. Not to take away from anyone else, but Gillian is an absolutely hilarious comedic performer… She has a fearlessness and a faith in us; she basically created one of my favorite characters on TV. Britta is just unlike any other character on television.
TVLINE | All that said, does it make the nomination for this particular installment that much sweeter?
I am so honored and humbled, not only to be among the other nominees who are incredible — Lena [Dunham] and Louie [C.K.] and Amy [Poehler] and Mike Schur — but also I’m absolutely honored to be representing the show in this way. “Remedial Chaos Theory” definitely represents the show at its weird, wonderful peak… It’s just a testament to the crew and the cast; they trust and they are faithful, and that allows them to turn in unbelievable work. I don’t want to say it was a special episode; I just think it’s a special show, and this is a shining example of just how special it is.
TVLINE | And now you’re part of The Mindy Project, which is arguably the buzziest new series of the season. Given that it’s grounded in more reality than Community, was that an odd transition to make?
It was sad leaving Community, but I was extremely excited to work with Mindy [Kaling]. I’m blown away by how talented she is as a writer. She is brilliant and hilarious and smart and decisive. I will say that it’s a different show tonally than Community, but Community had a very, very distinct voice, and Mindy has an extremely distinct voice and point of view, too. So, that’s been great… I’m really excited and happy about it. It’s been an absolute blast over the past seven weeks.