The day Yvette Nicole Brown's agent called to tell the Cleveland native she'd landed the role of Shirley Bennett, a saccharine, sanctimonious divorced mother of three on NBC's quirky comedy Community, he also had one other bit of information. She had to get to Southern California's Culver Studios in 30 minutes for the cast's first table read. She lived 45 minutes away.
As Brown entered the room full of show executives and actors all waiting patiently for her arrival, there was one empty chair, right across from Chevy Chase, who plays fellow adult learner Pierce Hawthorne.
"He extended his hand and said, 'Hi, I'm Chevy Chase,' " Brown recalls matter-of-factly.
"Yeah, ya' are!" she responded with an excited air of attitude.
Now in its third season, premiering Sept. 22, Brown still has a seat at Community's ethnically diverse and hysterically dysfunctional table of students.
"We're all back; I can say that," Brown says. The cast also includes Joel McHale as smug lawyer Jeff Winger, Donald Glover and Danny Pudi as unlikely BFF's Troy and Abed, and Gillian Jacobs and Alison Brie as beautiful coeds with ugly mood swings.
"Shirley is in keep-the-group-together mode," says Brown of last season's paintball competition cliffhanger that Shirley almost won. "She's also in how-do-I-get-this paint-out-of-my-clothes mode."
But that's all she will reveal, not wanting to give away too much. The show has become known for a new theme or genre homage every other week, such as the Pulp Fiction episode, during which Brown donned a killer suit and facial hair to resemble hit man Jules Winnfield.
"I looked in the mirror and immediately saw my father staring back at me," Brown says. "And I loved how the makeup department made Shirley pretty even with mutton chops and a goatee."
Always conscious that her roles, like Shirley and her previous turn as ornery and exuberant Helen Dubois on Nickelodeon's Drake and Josh, have an impact on the minds of impressionable youngsters, the actress navigates her career choices strictly via moral compass.
"I never wanted to do something later in my career that causes a baby to go, 'Oh my goodness!' " Brown explains with her trademark octave-climbing inflection.
She wasn't sold on a Community storyline involving a Halloween one-night stand with Senor Chang (The Hangover's Ken Jeong). Shirley found out she was pregnant soon after, and the question of who the father was became a central theme: Was it Chang's or Shirley's ex-husband (played by The Cosby Show's Malcolm-Jamal Warner)? At first Brown fought show creator Dan Harmon on it but agreed in the end. "He did take Shirley on a positive journey," she says.
Harmon, along with producers Joe and Anthony Russo, initially conceived Shirley as an older white woman until Brown auditioned. "She owned the role," Joe Russo recalls.
The trio also respect Brown's opinion in fleshing out Shirley.
"Shirley really embodies what the show is about," Russo says. "Her character is such a complex mixture of pathos and comedy. Yvette still finds a way to make all that stuff funny."