Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with yet another Community interview. I’ve already delivered Chevy Chase, Donald Glover and the great full-audio chat with Ms. Alison Brie, Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs. Surely it’s time for Shirley.
Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley is a mysterious member of this ragtag little study group. The more that is revealed about her backstory, the more cracks can be seen in her super nice, proper Christian façade and the darker it seems the character is.
As a fan of the show, it was quite a trip to sit on the couch in the study room and chat up Shirley. In person, Brown has all of Shirley’s sweetness without the threat of Shirley’s dark side threatening to pop out at any moment.
We talk quite a bit about Brown’s take on Shirley and where she’s headed. In particular, I love the theory on how the series could end. Hope you guys enjoy!
Quint: We are in season three now. How’s that treating you?
Yvette Nicole Brown: You know what’s been great? I know people say this after every year, but it feels like we are finally getting our rhythm, like we have our stride now. We know the best places to nap on set, we know which crew to grab when it’s snack time… I really feel like we are in our zone now and then I think as an ensemble we are really getting tight, like we know each other’s comedy and silliness so well that we just kind of move like an organism. It’s been great this year, really great.
Quint: One of the things I love about the show is how it’ll change gears between referential humor, character humor, situational humor and so on. That keeps it fresh. I have to imagine that only helps you guys work as a group, especially after working together for three years.
YNB: Right. Yeah, we each have bits with each other by now. Do you know what I mean? So if the camera is on me and Alison and they say we need to have a certain type of reaction we will go “Do you want to go with this or do it with this thing?” So we have little handshakes and little movements, little eye things, physical things that we all do with each other that we are used to. It’s just like shorthand. Do you know what I mean? I think that the writers and the directors are letting us play a little more, because everybody on this show is really silly, like really silly people, so they let us just find little ways to makes each other laugh in a scene knowing that if it makes us giggle it will probably translate to the audience as well. So yeah, I hope that it’s layers of comedy, layers of different types of comedy.
Quint: Just sitting here watching a few takes I’ve found I have to do my best to keep my laughter from ruining the take.
YNB: Oh, we break all the time.
Quint: I can’t imagine how hard it must be to keep from breaking. That must be one of the hardest parts of your job.
YNB: It is hard. It’s very hard. Donald makes me laugh hysterically and a lot of his comedy is really, really dirty, so I always feel really bad that I’m laughing at it, because I feel like my mother would not approve that I’m laughing at some of the things that he does, but he’s so freaking funny. We break all of the time. Some of us are better at pulling it together than others. If Danny and Alison break together, fifteen minutes later we are still trying to get them back and whenever Alison laughs she cries, so then we have to redo her makeup.
Quint: Her therapist might have something to say about that…
YNB: (Laughs) As soon as we see Alison about to go, we go “No! No…” and she tries to just pull it in, but yeah they break the most I think. I’m the hardest to break, but I can’t stop it once it happens. I will try to hold it in as long as I can, but once I’m laughing it’s done. An hour later I’m still trying to pull it together, so yeah we break all the time.
Quint: Trying to stop laughing makes it funnier.
YNB: Yeah, it makes it funnier and then as we get later in the day… We have some days, we call them “Fraturdays” when our Friday blends into our Saturday, so on a Fraturday at like 3 o’clock in the morning forget it. It’s going to happen and everybody just waits for it to happen and then we all enjoy it and then we move on.
Quint: It must be interesting with your character, because Shirley has such a different kind of comedy than everybody else. You get to play the more prudish, more shocked.
YNB: Yeah, she’s shocked by everything. Everything catches her off guard.
Quint: But what I love about the character so much is that she is a woman of duality. She’s prudish, but when she lets the monster out boy does it come out. There’s that one great gag from the first season where you said something about ramming someone’s head through a jukebox and I was like, “I don’t think that was a made up story.”
YNB: Yeah, no it’s not. Shirley… we have not really fully delved into everything that’s gone on with Shirley. We know that she used to be an alcoholic and a drunk with all of the pictures in the bar. There’s the violence of the head into the jukebox. I don’t know if anyone notices, but she threatens to kill Britta at least three or four times a season and really in a very low voice that only Britta can hear, “I will kill you” like she might.
Quint: Series finale…
YNB: I’m telling you, man, series finale. Yes she murders everybody. It is a seething underbelly of rage in Shirley that I always joke that I don’t think the high voice or the low voice is who she really is, I think her real voice is somewhere in the middle, but because she’s so used to being (In a high voice) “Hello…” and just keeping everything so perfect. I think if that façade cracks at all, it really will be a massacre at Greendale, so she tries to just “Oh, are we going there?” this really tight like “Hold it, hold it.” So yeah I think there is some stuff under there.
Quint: When did you realize that about the character? Was that something you knew from the beginning?
YNB: No, you know what’s funny? It was in the first pilot, because she’s having the altercation with Annie and Annie says something and Shirley is like “Oh, well sweetie…” and she was like “Hey, don’t call me sweetie” and Shirley is like “Oh, so nice doesn’t work on you. Okay, well let me show you the other side.”
So she just taps it a little bit, she doesn’t really go all the way, just gives a little tap and lets everybody know “I’ll kill you” and then she keeps it moving. And then by the time we came back to do the series, I just really liked playing with that perfect voice with that black girl anger and sassiness, so I kind of found a way to do both. It’s great when I do the show, because there are some lines when I get a script I can go “I can do it either way” and one of our producers and directors, like Joe Russo, he will always go “Do the low one here” or “Give me a couple of takes with the high voice, then go into the low,” so I get to play a lot with her vocal things.
Quint: That’s awesome. I love the passive aggressive humor.
YNB: Oh, she is very passive aggressive.
Quint: That’s kind of her go to whenever she is pushed. It’s such a great contrast.
YNB: And full of guilt, too. She’s a guilt machine, she really is. She always wants to be included. She wants her opinion asked all of the time. My favorite thing was, I think it was second season when Alison and Gillian had the fight over raising money I think for dolphins or whatever they were fighting for, the whales… I don’t know, it was something and Shirley saw them in the cafeteria and they were having their little fight and Shirley just had her little chips like she was eating popcorn watching. She’s like “Oh, did you hear what she said to you?” She’s a mess. She is a hot mess. I love her to death, though. She’s a mess.
Quint: Great, so where is Shirley in this season?
YNB: Shirley, like everyone in this season, is trying to find her way school-wise. She needs to declare a major, she needs to find a way to balance having a full family with three kids and a husband and a full class schedule. She needs to try to find her way in the group. I don’t think she likes being considered “Just the mom,” I think she wants more out of her existence; that she is hip, she’s cool, she’s lived, but because she hasn’t been honest exactly about how much she’s lived she is not as accepted as everyone.
There was a scene that was cut from Donald’s birthday at the bar where Shirley explains why all of those pictures were there. Something happened with her husband and her husband took the kids from her for a while and she was really angry and the only way she could deal with her anger was to drown her sorrows. Shirley starts to cry and Troy, his character, says “Oh don’t cry, Shirley. We like you a whole lot better now.” And Shirley was horrified, like “You can’t love me because I’m kind and I care about you? You have to love me, because I’m a lush? You have to bring me down?”
Quint: Which is odd, because that’s almost a comment like directly from the audience. It’s like the audience can just go “It’s boring if the character is just nice,” then “Oh, you’re an alcoholic? This is interesting.”
YNB: “Now it’s good.” Yeah, I think she really feels like “Well, come on! I’m here every day. I love you guys. I take care of you, but I don’t exist until there’s something embarrassing about me.” I think that kind of broke her heart a little bit. So yeah, that’s where the character is this year. To bring it back to the question you asked, she is trying to find a way to be a part of the group and be seen as more than just the mother hen. So good luck to Shirley, I don’t know if it’s going to work out, but good luck to her.
Quint: So where do you think the future of the character lies, outside of killing Britta in the series finale, of course.
YNB: (laughs) I think that if Shirley at the end of this series can find a way to be a great mother, have a great career, and not be defined by either I think she will be good, because before the show started I believe that she was just a homemaker. She was a happy homemaker where her husband strayed and then she’s like “Okay, what am I now? Okay, I think I’m going to go to school.”
In the first couple of seasons she was all about school, but then her husband came back, so now she’s kind of walking this fence and I don’t think the answer is being a homemaker or being a business woman. Hopefully by the end of the season she is no longer trapped between that duality and she will find a way to merge her two sides and be a little bit less of a… they call her a muppet, less of a muppet and more of a fully formed human being. So I think that’s going to be her character arc over the whole show hopefully.
Quint: Cool, so what do you have going on outside of Community? Do you have anything lined up?
YNB: I do a voice on POUND PUPPIES. It’s a show on The Hub. They’ve brought it back. I play “Cookie” on POUND PUPPIES and that’s…
Quint: I had a pound puppy growing up.
YNB: Did you?
Quint: Of course.
YNB: Well, you have to get a new pound puppy.
Quint: I know, I’ve got to adopt a new one.
YNB: Yeah, it’s a great show. What I love about POUND PUPPIES is that it encourages kids to get their dogs from a pound, like every week the dogs’ job is to find a puppy or a dog their perfect person. (Hopefully) it’s subconsciously planting a seed that there is a little puppy or cat or cockatoo, whatever you are into that is looking just for you and you don’t have to go to a breeder to get him. Go to the pound and adopt.
Quint: Yeah, save a life.
YNB: Exactly. So I love that that’s part of what the show is about and I think it fires on all levels. Kids will enjoy it, because it’s a cartoon and there are dogs and it’s silly, but there’s a lot of inside jokes for adults as well and a great cast. Eric McCormack is on it. Betty White is on it. Jim Parsons did a guest spot. Luke Perry did a guest spot. We have had great guest stars and it’s a great cast, so when I’m not here nine times out of ten I’m in a booth recording that. That’s what I’m doing mostly.
Quint: Not too shabby.
YNB: No, it’s good. Two jobs is good, especially in this economy. I’m grateful, grateful, grateful.
Quint: Cool, well I think that’s about all I’ve got.
YNB: Thank you. It was so nice to talk to you. I didn’t get a chance to tell you before, but I have been reading your columns for forever.
Quint: (Laughs) Yeah? Well, thanks! I watch you every week, so we’ll call it even.
There you have it! Look for my chats with Danny Pudi, Ken Jeong and Dan Harmon to wrap up my insane amount of interviews with the cast that I got during my big set visit!