Joe Russo can still recall long days on the set of Community—and how rarely they ever actually ended. In retrospect, the entire experience might be described as a blur, a mad marathon in which every episode offered its own sprint toward a shifting finish line. But it’s also an experience the director clearly cherishes, now more than a decade on since his time in the trenches of that cult sitcom. And while he and his brother Anthony Russo have certainly gone on to bigger things, including the biggest global hit of all-time with Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame, there remains a fondness in his voice as he recalls his time working on that Dan Harmon-created comedy.
“I remember sleeping in my trailer quite a bit on that show,” Joe says when we caught up with him and Anthony last month ahead of the release of their new movie, The Gray Man. “I was getting three or four hours of sleep a night because I would go from set straight to editorial at two in the morning. Then I would go to sleep in my trailer for four hours, get up, and be back on set at 7 a.m. the next day. And I did that for the better part of two years.”
Indeed, before the Russo Brothers became household names by helming some of the most popular events in the Marvel Studios canon—Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and the last two Avengers movies—the Russos were cutting their teeth week-in and week-out on a sitcom that likely became far more ambitious than anyone expected, including the network who greenlit the show, NBC. Now fondly remembered for the talent it helped shine an early spotlight on—in addition to the Russos in the director’s chairs and future Rick & Morty co-creator Harmon, it also introduced talent like Donald Glover, Alison Brie, Ken Jeong, and Jim Rash to a wide national audience—the series struggled in its time, having to align its network sitcom expectations with a desire to change tone, aesthetics, and even genre from episode to episode.
Joe and Anthony were in the center of it developing that voice, which began when they directed the Community pilot together. They went on to alternate directorial duties and helm many episodes of the series each over the next three seasons, including Joe helming fan favorite episodes “A Fistful of Paintballs,” “For a Few Paintballs More,” and “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.”
It was the second of two sitcom classics that the Russos helped bring into the world, as they also directed together the pilot and various episodes of Arrested Development. Looking back at it now, Joe freely credits Community’s tonal complexity and vast ensemble as good preparation for balancing the even larger stable of heroes in the Marvel universe.
“Arrested Development was a very complicated ensemble show, and I think Community even more so in a lot of ways,” Joe explains. “It endeavored in 22 minutes to put a little bit more heart into the endings of episodes, which is very difficult to pull off in such short-form storytelling. And I think there were more characters in Community than there were in Arrested Development, ultimately. And so Community was about as difficult as it gets in television because we’re delivering 20 episodes a season, and doing it on a weekly basis, changing genre every week, changing tone every week, and dealing with sometimes 10-plus characters in 22 minutes and trying to stick an emotional landing.”
He continues, “Doing that for several years, it hones your ability to handle complex narrative and juggle a lot of pieces while trying to also be efficient and add emotional complexity. So yes, it prepared us in a way that I don’t think anything else could for the volume that we tackle, and it really supports our high-functioning ADD in a wonderful way.”
Considering the series in retrospect, and while on the precipice of releasing his and Anthony’s latest film—a new action movie with a fairly rich ensemble of its own, including Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, and Billy Bob Thornton—Joe suggests Community is the type of experience young and hungry filmmakers should seek out.
Says the director, “Young filmmakers ask us, ‘What can I do to get better at directing?’ We always say, look, if you’re a carpenter, you build a lot of tables. Pretty soon you are going to be great at making tables. So if you want to direct, direct as much as possible, get out with an iPhone and shoot short films. On Community, we built a hell of a lot of tables.”
The Gray Man opens in limited release on July 15 before premiering globally on Netflix on July 22.