In September 2009, two sitcoms premiered that would regularly face cancellation, yet still manage to grow loyal fan bases and ultimately run for six seasons each.
Cougar Town didn’t exactly know how to market itself; the title suggested that star Courteney Cox would be dating younger men for the entirety of the show, but it quickly became more about her character Jules’ friend group than anything else. The cul-de-sac crew’s chemistry kept viewers coming back rather than any particular schtick. As Emily VanDerWerff pointed out in her AV Club review of a season two episode, “There’s not an immediately obvious engine driving this show,” and that was part of its appeal.
Community, on the other hand, possessed a distinct identity. A group of unlikely friends bond at a community college, all of them with their own baggage to parse through. The sitcom’s cult following, though, was drawn in by the myriad meta jokes and movie references, usually facilitated by the pop culture-savvy Abed (Danny Pudi). Sure, Community got progressively weirder as the years went on, but all of those elements were present from the start.
So it felt pretty unusual, then, when the two had a brief but memorable crossover. It all started with Abed’s love for Cougar Town, which came to its peak in Community in season 2 episode “Critical Film Studies.” The episode, though billed as a Pulp Fiction tribute, was a bait-and-switch—writer Sona Panos actually modeled it after the film My Dinner with Andre. One of Jeff Winger’s (Joel McHale) first lines in the episode is: “[Abed] watched Cougar Town. It was as if he didn’t want people to like him.” Abed ends up confessing that he pooped his pants after accepting an invitation to be an extra on the set of Cougar Town (“Look, if you want me to take it seriously, stop saying its name,” Jeff insists. The Cougar Town writers agreed, continually making fun of the title as their opening credits bit).
That episode aired on March 24, 2011. Just over two months later, 10 years ago today on May 25, Danny Pudi as Abed appeared in the background of the penultimate episode of Cougar Town’s second season, “Something Good Coming, Part 1” (written by Jessica Goldstein and Chrissy Pietrosh). He listens intently in the background as Laurie (Busy Philipps) and Travis (Dan Byrd) converse (unlike Abed’s account in Community, where he says the scene features Courteney Cox) before running off, having just shit himself. Byrd and Philipps also show up briefly in Community’s beloved second season finale, “For a Few Paintballs More,” which aired on May 12 of that year.
They’re odd cameos, Easter eggs for sitcom devotees who happened to watch both of these primetime misfits—a fairly small Venn diagram overlap at the time. But as the years have worn on and both Cougar Town and Community found their way onto various streaming platforms, that overlap has probably widened a bit, delighting a small but devoted number of fans. And besides the appearances, there are several one-off lines about Abed’s love for Cougar Town, and in the latter Travis apparently makes his girlfriend watch season one of Community. It’s a weird little layered multiverse—Community is a TV show in Cougar Town, and vice versa. Abed would adore the meta-ness of it all.
Watching both shows back, they are cut from the same bizarrely patterned cloth. Unlike other ensemble sitcoms focused on a group of friends (as opposed to family or workplace), the core cast aren’t all in their 20s or early 30s, instead bridging the gap between multiple generations. While the main characters of Community gather around a study room table rather than a kitchen island like those in Cougar Town, the friendships between the characters act as a sort of gravity in both locations, pulling us back in week after week (or day after day, in binge-watching terms).
The main characters of each chosen family are foils: Cougar Town’s Jules builds her life around other people and can’t stand to spend a moment alone. In Community, Jeff is aloof and self-centered, resembling Jules’ image-obsessed love interest Grayson—that is, before she forces him to let people in. Jules always manages to find herself in the middle of some shenanigans thanks to her overly caring disposition, while Community mined perhaps one too many storylines from Jeff’s resistance to deep friendship.
It feels a bit oversimplified to say Community and Cougar Town draw strength from their focus on human connection, with the former looking at it from a more cynical angle while the latter tends to be more light-hearted. After all, most shows rely on relationships, whether platonic or romantic, to keep viewers hooked. Maybe the real human connection they share isn’t that of the characters, but of the respective shows’ writers, admiring each others’ work, winking at fellow sitcom oddballs who had the peculiar luck of premiering during the decline of network television.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, Hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.