Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.

Community PuppetsIt wasn’t until the end of tonight’s Community panel at PaleyFest 2013 that the one genuine piece of news emerged, as a clip of the cast as Muppet-like puppets was shown to those at the Saban Theatre. An all-puppet episode featuring extensive use of the performers in puppet form will air in April and include a cameo from Jason Alexander (though not as a puppet). As the panel closed, the cast mates brought out their puppet lookalikes to revel in the moment. The puppet gambit is in keeping with a quirky series that’s already used stop-motion animation and other creative devices to distinguish itself. Earlier, new show runners David Guarascio and Moses Port focused on this Thursday’s episode that finds the introduction of James Brolin in a recurring role as the long-estranged father of star Joel McHale’s character, Jeff Winger. The installment also features Fred Willard in a cameo, and he was also present during a table read that opened the panel.

The ghosts of ousted creator-showrunner Dan Harmon and departed regular Chevy Chase hung over the panel, but that didn’t stop those present from having a good time during a wild session rife with in-jokes, tangents and barely-controlled mayhem, all to promote a comedy whose ratings numbers are bottoming-out during its fourth season on NBC. When the producers were asked to address the void caused by Harmon’s absence in season four, Guarascio did his best to put a positive spin on it. He noted that while Community lost a “great creative talent” this year in Harmon, he maintained that it’s always the cast that is the true heart and soul of a show. “They give the show its spirit and its life”, he maintained. He also admitted that the performers haven’t been shy about sharing their opinion “when they felt we were veering off-course. When they felt (something in) the story needed to be addressed, we felt that (since) they’ve been doing the show the past three years, we’d better listen to them. That’s the approach we took”. But he was quick to add that he and his cohorts are “proud of the shows we did.”

Tellingly, however, there was greater praise for Willard than there was for Chase, who left Community in November after the bulk of season four already had been shot. When he came up in conversation, exec producer Tristram Shapeero would only say that Willard — apparently being groomed as a Chase replacement — was “such a gentleman to work with” and that if the show goes to a fifth season “we’ll have to cook something up”. Besides Guarasico, Port and Shapeero, the panel featured exec producer Russ Krasnoff and cast members McHale, Gillian Jacobs (Britta Perry), Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley Bennett), Danny Pudi (Abed Nadir), Alison Brie (Annie Edison) and Jim Rash (Dean Pelton). The session was marked by raucous exchanges and interplay among the cast. When the subject of whether the low-rated comedy could return for a fifth season, McHale asserted it “would be great” but is “one of those things you never hear in advance…(but) believe me, I hope so”.

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