A little over two years ago, Dan Harmon was fired from his job running Community. His response was to turn his focus to his podcast, Harmontown, and soon after that, to get out of town and take it on tour. The documentary about that journey, Harmontown, is out in New York today and on VOD. Vulture spoke to Harmon about making a movie about himself and how the tour ultimately saved Community.
Why this movie now?
I was trying to turn a very cowardly impulse to run away from work into something with a semblance of productivity and professionalism. Getting on a bus and going around the country for hugs, in a time when you should be sitting down to get back to work, having been fired, could be looked at, by me, as a very infantile thing — unless I brought some cameras along. If the movie makes money, then I can say, “No, that was work. I wrote it off on my taxes and everything.”
How are you able to detach yourself enough to work as a producer to make it the best movie and not necessarily the best portrayal of you?
Well, that was an easy matter of when you have somebody as talented and suitable for the job as Neil Berkeley [the film’s director], it comes with the agreement that he’s not going to make a puff-piece for you. I had to have a beer with him and make the agreement that it was my tour, but it was his movie.
You said he wasn’t going to make a puff-piece. But would you want a puff-piece anyway?
No, not at all. Because then, if my name was on it, that would be even more toxic, PR-wise. I knew because my name was in the credits that it needed to have a certain amount of darkness to offset [it]. I saw early cuts of the movie that didn’t have as much darkness in them, and my friends and I all suggested, “I think a little darkness will go a long way.” I knew I had to look bad or else I was going to look very bad.
In the documentary, you say, “I wish this is what I really did.” Is that true? Or, more broadly, if you could make a living as a performer, would you want to?
Well, I mean, yeah. If we define living as the amount of money that I can make writing a script, which, compared to the amount of money I made as a dishwasher, is gigantic. There’s a very responsible financial course that I’ve set for myself, even though it doesn’t seem that way from my PR persona. Writing is the responsible thing for me to do for any future children or house payments. I could make a couple bucks and — compared to dishwashing, a couple heavy bucks — go around performing, but ultimately, it would not compare. If it did, yeah, I think I would end up doing it. I also would end up writing a movie, but I think I would succumb to the temptation to make the same amount of money running around, needing no preparation for anything, and never doing anything I didn’t want to do.
It’s interesting to ask any creative person this: How much are you motivated by money and stability?
It wasn’t until I made Community. In the days before Community, if I wasn’t writing something that I thought would be the best TV show in the world that I would insist on watching every day just from the description of it, then I [was] failing some kind of god of writing or something. There was some point in my late 20s where I thought, what would you do if you found a million dollars under a rock? And when I started to answer that question honestly, the answer was I’d get a house, and I’d get a dog, and I’d get a bottle of Scotch and a fireplace. Then I started to realize that I shouldn’t take myself that seriously as a writer. That’s when my writing started to get a little better, because I was a person driven by person motivations. I was able to start writing on a little bit more of a human level.
Then there came the post–Sarah Silverman [Program, for which Harmon was an original co-creator] days, when I started to think, Okay, well, now I’m writing quasi-mainstream stuff. I just got fired. If I can’t work at Comedy Central, where can I work? And also, how long is it going to be before my liver explodes? And when that happens, who’s going to pay for it to be, at least, disposed of properly? And so that was right around the time when, thankfully, I lucked into a blind deal with [Community producer] Russ Krasnoff. So, I pitched him the most grounded, mainstream thing I could think of, which was this community-college memory that I had.
Still, when I sit down to create, the process of making something can’t be tied to any motivation, because you either do it or you don’t. It’s like a dog taking a poop in your yard. How much is the dog motivated by digestion, and how much is the dog motivated by pleasing you? And the answer is moot; the dog is just pooping. But you can make note of where the dog is pooping in the yard. If it’s pooping in the mainstream NBC section, then maybe it’s because he wants to make you happy.
In the movie, you say, “I want to be the guy who makes people happy.” Do you think without Harmontown and meeting the fans, you’d still be able to chug along with Community after the setbacks you’ve had?
I think the answer is no. If my only interaction with the audience was through the show itself, through Reddit, through Tumblr, through Twitter, and then, by proxy, through these nobles who hire and fire you, then I don’t think I would have had it in me to go back to the fifth season. And I definitely don’t think I would have had it in me to do a sixth season for this new upstart, Yahoo. I would have lumped everyone in together at all their worst moments and said, “No, you people, you had enough of me. I’m gonna go back to writing about time travel.” Instead, I hugged some very warm, trembling bodies. I don’t know if they were relying on me to make Community or not. It could have been strangers that had never seen the show, but I think a lot of human contact helped me make a different decision, when I got reoffered the job, than I would have made.
What were the CBS and the Fox pilots you were asked to write after you first got fired from Community about?
The Fox thing just never happened because I got done with the tour and I got rehired on Community, and Fox was gracious enough to say, “Well, we seem to have caught you at an odd time in your life. Why don’t you finish up with this weird ex-girlfriend that keeps interrupting our dinners and have it out on the sidewalk and we’ll have another date later.”
The CBS thing, you can see me turning it in at the end of the movie, and they didn’t end up doing anything with it. I’m afraid to read it, but I thought it was good at the time. It was sort of an Absolutely Fabulous ripoff with a ‘90s grunge rockstar turned bartender [Harmon has mentioned elsewhere that this was potentially going to be Jack Black] who’s still pursuing the same philosophical path as he did when he was in his 20s. He’s obsessed with not selling out, and he has this bar in his hometown where people come on pilgrimages to take pictures with him. Then, in the pilot, in the first couple pages, the exciting incident is that a young adolescent girl walks in who’s an illegitimate daughter of his, born of a groupie in the past, and who has heard that he’s her dad, and wants to live with him so that she can have an address in his city in order to get into a really prestigious art school. So she’s sort of the grown-up and he’s the baby, and it’s Absolutely Fabulous.
In the process of working on those projects, did you realize what was so special about Community?
I think I realized that what was special about Community is the actors. I’ve written lots of scripts almost as good or just as good as the Community pilot. The big difference is Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi, Gillian Jacobs. That’s what TV is, you know. I’m sure Chuck Lorre would say the same thing about Sheldon. Ultimately, there’s nothing particularly magical about what we do as writers and showrunners; the best we can do is know what we’re doing. We can’t really bring any amount of magic to the final product that the actors can. They’re the heads in the box. We have seen lots and lots of very well-written things without people that we liked in them, and we’ve hated them, and we don’t even remember them. On the other hand, we tolerate lots of very poorly written stuff because we love the people. We watch Wheel of Fortune because of Pat Sajak’s head! We love that guy.
With Community switching to Yahoo, are you placing rules on yourself to maintain the pacing and the tone of the show?
Yeah. I think that the act breaks from the original Community, as it was born into the NBC clock, are very good act breaks. It’s a three-act story as raised at NBC. The commercial breaks are coming at points in a story where, if you were watching a 20-minute play, the curtain might come down, and you might have an opportunity to go get a box of Twizzlers and think about what’s happening, digest, and speak to your friends about what’s going on. I like those act breaks; I like where they are, and Yahoo’s intended clock sounds like it’s perfectly compatible with those same spots. So we are breaking three-act stories in the room. My intention also is to keep the same runtime because that will make for the same pacing and the same tone.
You’ve done a lot of press and Q&As for this documentary. Are there any questions that you thought people were going to be asking you that they haven’t?
[Laughs.] “How much weight have you gained since the movie?” Because it’s almost like 17 or 18 pounds. I’m afraid to look at the scale. I never thought the guy in that movie would be handsome, but he is.