The Community creator gets personal in a revealing new documentary directed by Neil Berkeley.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dan Harmon had a rough 2012.
After a vitriolic voicemail to Harmon by Community co-star Chevy Chase went viral, Harmon’s career took a decidedly downward spin. NBC execs fired him from the show he loved and he would have to endure watching new writers guide the misadventures of the gang at Greendale Community College — characters he created — much to his dismay.
A self-described narcissist, Harmon couldn’t wallow in his depression alone. Instead, he ramped up the performance schedule of his already wildly popular live podcast, Harmontown, taking it from monthly to weekly, and decided to take the show on the road on a 20-city tour across the United States. Director Neil Berkeley, realizing the potential of an interesting story was brewing, decided to document the tour on film, and Harmontown the documentary was born.
Filmed with the same style and premise as 2011’s Conan O’ Brien Can’t Stop (guy gets fired from NBC, takes his live show across the country to reconnect with his fans, finds redemption), Harmontown is a warts-and-all look into life on the road with Harmon and his merry band of podcast cohorts, including the stylish Jeff Davis, the stoic audience member turned regular Dungeon Master, Spencer Crittenden, and Harmon’s fiancée, podcaster Erin McGathy.
Script spoke to Harmon during the SXSW Film Festival where Harmontown premiered to a full house at the Vimeo Theater in the Austin Convention Center.
Why did you even agree to do a documentary like this?
Dan Harmon: The fundamental impulse was just narcissism. I just can’t get enough of myself. And it’s clinical and it’s diagnosable and it’s unhealthy and it gets me in trouble. So I really just thought, you know, looking back on all of it, especially watching the documentary, which is very revealing about what I’m doing, I didn’t understand at the time what I was really doing was fleeing network television, fleeing writing because I put myself into Community the way a co-dependent person puts themself into a relationship. I got dumped from that relationship, but I wanted to feel sexy again and therefore signed agreements with CBS and Fox. I’m also completely terrified of doing it wrong again and so like an unhealthy narcissist that I am, I just followed my comfort and just pursued my desires. I wanted to curl up in the arms of the only people that I felt reasonably confident wouldn’t break my heart. These people that are forgiving of me. Like the people that are not only Community fans, but specifically the subset of Community fans that bother to call themselves a Dan Harmon fan, which is a rare breed and a very forgiving breed and I was like, okay, let’s go, let’s go curl up in their arms for a while.
It’s amazing the audience that Community has garnered through the years and the passion that can be found in those diehard fans. What was your inspiration for the series?
Harmon: Honestly, at the time it was my most sincere attempt at a mainstream sitcom. I knew that you don’t even really have a chance in TV unless your story’s coming from some kind of personal experience. And I knew I had this one personal experience that actually felt like marketable TV type stuff and that was the experience of going to community college in my 30s and being sucked into a study group with people that had nothing to offer me. And not really wanting to be there initially, but then all of a sudden kind of falling in love with them and wanting them to pass their biology exam even though it didn’t benefit me at all. So I bookmarked that in my head when it happened to me, thinking, “This is the only good actual mainstream TV idea you’re ever gonna have. All the rest of your stuff is all about time travel and robots.” So I signed a blind deal, a literally blind deal because I never even met the people until after I signed the contract, a blind deal with Krasnoff Foster Productions, which was a little pod on the Sony lot. So I brought up that idea and five ideas about robots and time travel and Russ Krasnoff said those robot ideas are great, but NBC is really interested in working with you. I said, “They are?” He said, “Yeah, so how about this community college thing?” I was like yeah, okay, let’s do it. And I really thought let’s just do a regular show, keep it cool, get a house and have a health plan, you know, that was the goal.
In the film, it shows you waking up and going to the computer and clicking on the Final Draft icon and doing a “Fade in” bit, which was really funny. But it begs the question, what is your writing process like? Is it literally a wake up in the morning and head to the computer type of thing? You seem like more of a late night kinda writer.
Harmon: My process has never been the same twice, but it’s really, really unprofessional and unhealthy. I’m addicted to the adrenaline of a deadline, so I push it.
So you procrastinate until the last minute then bang it out?
Harmon: Yeah. So then I have an unconscious excuse in my ego to be bad. Otherwise, I’ll just sit there. This is nothing new and it’s not magical. This is just plain and simple textbook bad work ethic. If you’re 25 and that’s how you’re starting to approach things, I urge you to knock if off now. Stop taking yourself so seriously and try to figure out a way to actually be disciplined, because it’s so silly. Like, there’s gotta be a way to write badly on time. (laughs)
What was your take on the documentary itself? What was it like watching yourself in it? Have you distanced yourself from that person on the screen?
Harmon: No, it’s definitely me. I recognize every pimple and red Solo cup. As a subject, I’m embarrassed that I’m not funnier and wittier and helping more poor people across the street in the movie. But, as a producer, I think that would be a boring documentary, and I’m very proud of recognizing Neil Berkeley as somebody that could make something interesting and turn the waste of ego and emotion that I threaten to be into something that is worthwhile for people to watch. You know, it’s hard to take flaws like mine and turn them into a benefit for other people. I try to do things like Community, writing fiction about flawed people that can resonate with other people. Then when I get on stage, that’s just for me, and you can see it often conflicting with Community fans. Like they go, “Oh I’m a Community fan, who is this jagoff whose name is on the show who keeps running his mouth and hurting me?” So for Neil to be able to take that jagoff part and turn it into something else that makes people happy is a real feat. We’re really using every part of the buffalo. But yeah, as a producer, I look out and think this is a very interesting look into a very specific man-child personality.
The great part of the whole story is that, in the end, you were able to come back to Community. There’s a happy ending, a silver lining to it. You’ve gotten to go back and work on what could be the final season of the show. What was it liked being offered the gig to come back after all the well-publicized drama?
Harmon: It was the strangest, most frightening, most comfortable thing that’s ever happened. I mean, it felt like it was exactly what should be happening, but at the same time it felt like, well, who’s been in this situation that I can emulate? And the answer was nobody. To top things off, it happened so late in the game seasonally that when Chris McKenna and I sat down to have our conversation about whether we should do this or not, we had to decide within 45 minutes, we then had to try to staff up after Parks and Recreation had already had their pick of the litter. There was nobody left except for people who were being provided to us by fate, you know. Dan Guterman, for instance, was in New York working on The Colbert Report and we convinced him to betray his mentor and benefactor and move to L.A., in spite of having just gotten married with his wife working in New York. I took him to dinner and pled with him to move to L.A. and be on our staff because he was a good joke writer. And there was Erik Sommers who was a hirable writer that hadn’t been hired by any other shows because Sony had him working on Happy Endings and they thought Happy Endings might have a life on USA. So they kept one writer, Erik, on board. And then the USA thing didn’t happen, so Erik, who just had a kid and was buying a house in the Palisades, was floating around out there and we were able to snatch him up. I don’t know what we would have done without Erik Sommers being able to run joke rooms and things like that. That was the most surreal part of it. I didn’t have a chance to walk in and have a bio-pic moment where I went to my old desk and put my name plate back out. It was just an empty office space. It felt like the first act of one of those underdog sports movies. It was just like okay, who’s this knucklehead? Why is he available? Well, he’s an arsonist. Okay, all right, he’s a co-executive producer! But they turned out to be the greatest writing staff in Community‘s history, at the risk of offending anybody who’s worked on the show in the past. All totaled, it was the best total writing staff. This is the first time that I could say without a doubt that if we got another season, I would simply go to all those people first and go, who wants to come back and do it all over again? Because they were great.
You’re so self-deprecating. You love making fun of yourself. Some would say it’s part of your charm. But does it ever get to a point where jokes about your alcohol intake or your appearance becomes too much? Does it bother you at all?
Harmon: Do I ever wish everyone would start calling me handsome and sober? No, I don’t.
But from a personal standpoint, does it get old for you?
Harmon: The one bummer about it is when my foot gets tangled in that gossip machine. Where too much attention becomes a bad thing. There’s a rarified context in which I am charming. Thank you very much for saying it, but it’s like a small aquarium in which this breed of fish looks interesting. In the larger one, I’m a ridiculous oaf and a monster and I don’t suffer TMZ headlines well. So when that large a world is starting to process me, I’m bummed out that there’s a paragraph in those articles that talk about what a big, fat, drunk jerk I am, because they’re quoting my fucking blog. You know, like I am the only one who goes on record about what a bad person I am, how hard I am to work with, blah, blah, blah. And I’m doing it in an effort to be a good person, a humble person. I’m from Wisconsin where I was taught to avoid at all costs pretense. You know, be as narcissistic as you want, but be honest and self-deprecating. So that’s the one annoying point, where I’m like, “You didn’t get this from anybody but me.” You can’t quote a self-deprecator and use it as a source for your article about what a bad person he is. So that being said, I deserve all of it. I mean, I’m not complaining. It’s cause and effect.
What are your plans if and when Community ends?
Harmon: Fox was really, really generous when they started reading the headlines about me going back to Community. They graciously offered to roll the deal that you see being talked about in the documentary. Actually, I’m gonna start my Fox script tomorrow. I’ve never started it. I have to think either Fox doesn’t care or they actually agree with me that if I did write something for Fox, like a pilot, that we would want it to be good. We want a straight shot at a bullseye. I do think a show like Community would have a huge life over at a network like Fox. So there’s a lot of pressure there, which I shouldn’t put on myself, to write the next Community for Fox. They’ve been very gracious and patient while I conclude this relationship with my long lost co-dependent lover, Community, because I think they want my full attention and I want theirs. So as soon as my obligations are done with Community, I want to reward Fox for their generosity and patience and try to write something really good for them that they can take or leave. Beyond that, I don’t know. I think about going into FX because I love those guys and have for over a decade.
They would be a perfect fit for your style of writing.
Harmon: They’re great, great people. Same people have been working there since way before Community, who I really think are actual geniuses at development. So I’m tempted to just go in there and get excited about anything in particular and walk out with an opportunity to do something completely refreshing. But I also have fantasies about just like, you know, focusing on Rick and Morty [his cartoon on Adult Swim] and turning that into a job that can exist as a 9 to 5 thing. Also, getting my fiancée pregnant and being a healthy person. I’ve been poking holes in her diaphragm.