The creators of the NBC show Community hope the imaginary universe of Greendale Community College will be funny.
But there's an even chance the show will offend the millions of Americans who actually attend these schools.
The idea for the show began when comedy writer Dan Harmon walked into a community college. He was hoping to save his relationship with his girlfriend by taking a class with her. He found himself sitting next to a fascinating cast of characters.
"There was a teenage pregnant girl studying biology," Harmon says. "On the other side of me, there's a Vietnam vet. There are any number of reasons you might be at this place which, of course, is TV dynamite."
Harmon has turned that dynamite into Community, the tale of life at a fictitious two-year college.
In the show, Joel McHale plays a fast-talking lawyer sent to the purgatory of Greendale Community College because his fake law degree was unmasked. Don't ask how he expects to get a law degree at a two-year college — remember, this is network television.
"These people share the feeling that they are better than this second-chance school," Harmon says of the characters in his show.
"Many of them are ungrateful to be there, consider themselves being there as the result of some kind of broken path. But they're all lucky to be there, and find each other, and it's a good, healthy place for them to be."
'A Teachable Moment'
You could call community college a goldmine for irreverent jokes and smart-as-a-whip dialogue. Or you could call it an easy attack on students who already suffer their share of cruel jokes.
"They have to be funny, and that was their attempt at it, but I didn't think it worked so well," says Norma Kent of the American Association of Community Colleges. The group has been girding its loins, preparing for a lot of snarky humor at the expense of two-year students.
"We're using it as a teachable moment," Kent says. "And we think that it's an opportunity to say a lot of good things about community college and their students regardless of what the show portrays."
After one episode, there are surprisingly few complaints. During a first episode viewing at Montgomery College, a well-respected community school in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., three students — all in their second year — giggled but did not guffaw through the pilot. But the show's deepest digs threw them off.
Students Have Thick Skin
"I've heard that a lot of people call a community college a high school with an ashtray," says business student Ksenia Prokunina.
But these students are used to a sitcom world where nothing is sacred. So Prokunina says she's not offended.
"I think humor is a good thing," Prokunina says. "I think as long as you don't take it too seriously, it might actually be a good thing for a community college, that they make a show about it. "
The characters in Community face the same existential dilemma that community colleges themselves face — they have to rise above their own low self-esteem.
Harmon's expectations for this sitcom are pretty grand — he wants to get laughs and teach meaningful life lessons. Community college students and advocates are mostly hoping to avoid another slap in the face.
Harmon says the school amounts to a kind of test these people have to pass.
"The campus is a character," Harmon says. "The college itself is a character. What do you do when you're not handed everything on a silver platter? The answer is absolutely different for every character."