At the start of 2017, mulling over the awful year that was and pressed down by one disheartening news alert after the other, some people started to fear that there was one high-profile death in 2016 that they maybe forgot to account for: the death of comedy Twitter. At some point between the ridiculous joke fodder of the election and the slow horrible realization of the full stakes setting in after the results, Twitter became less of a pleasing diversion that comedians used as a one-liner testing ground and more of a daily burden, the best way to stay up to date on the onslaught of awful news and keep tabs on the President-elect’s bonkers to the point of truly scary Twitter presence. Comedians like Rob Delaney and Sarah Silverman were now mostly tweeting articles, fact checks, and pleas to support the DSA and ACLU and PP. They and many others were tweeting jokes less and less, and honestly, who could blame them? It was in many ways admirable to see so many high-profile figures from the entertainment industry using their privileged platform to promote truth and human rights. At a time when we needed light dumb distraction most, but conversely more than ever needed to stay vigilant and resist apathy, our newsfeeds became an ongoing car crash from which we couldn’t look away, only we were the passengers in both cars, and Trump was in the driver’s seat, and the seatbelts were all actually snakes, and the cars were on fire, and oh-god-no-everything-is-on-fire.
During the first week of 2017, a link to a Periscope appeared on my newsfeed, probably sandwiched between breaking news about Russia and oh, I don’t know, Zika, alerting me to two things:
One: Periscope still exists, and,
Two: Dan Harmon, at that very moment, was psyching himself up in a living room on the other side of the country to hop on an elliptical, and he was live-streaming it.
The live-streaming platform, though promising in its potential for unpredictable moments and instant connection when bought by Twitter in 2015, has largely confounded comedians, who mostly don’t seem to know what to do with it. While Vine birthed an entire new generation of online content wunderkinds and the genius likes of Josh Ruben and others continue to make full use of Snapchat’s capabilities, Periscope hasn’t really emboldened a similar popular creative flourishing. Mike Birbiglia has Periscoped from the green room once or twice, and Hannibal Buress has used it on trips to Target, but no one can really argue that there are any great Periscope stars yet (Lin-Manuel Miranda might be an exception, but he’s good at everything and therefore counts for nothing).
Here was Dan Harmon Periscoping, though. The January 5 livestream began with him fuddling with his speaker system before sweating and screaming on an elliptical. After 20 minutes, he stumbles off the machine panting and cursing, and paces around his house, gasping for air. The selfie-view of his face in tight closeup as he heaves and pants looks like something out of a found footage horror movie, as he mumbles to himself: “I’m a champ. I’m a fucking champ. I’m a fucking winner. I no longer crave heavy creams and sauces. I’m an amazing winner.”
That’s the point where he steps into the shower, still filming, and we’re left knowing what we believed to be true, at some level, all along: that Dan Harmon is a man who has a sign for ‘APPLAUSE’ and an artful odalisque portrait of himself on his bathroom wall.
When he emerges, dripping, fleshy, hairy, and pocked with a couple of genuinely alarming spider bites (“from Australia,” he later says) looking every bit his 44 years and solidifying my theory that he’s Zizek’s secret twin, he thanks the remaining viewers for their support, asks for some more workout advice, tells everyone to go to the Women’s March, and confesses that he live-streamed this workout because “I really thought I was gonna die for sure.”
Dan Harmon demonstrating his imperfections and laying his self-deprecation bare is nothing new and is a key element of his comedic identity. To anyone familiar with his work, from Community and Rick and Morty to his weekly Harmontown podcast, this brutal confiding honesty where he talks about his most troubling and self-destructive traits makes him both deeply relatable while also building himself up to fit the tortured genius mold. In that vein, these Periscopes are a natural fit. Even the word — elliptical — calls to mind Harmon’s famous Campbell-inspired “story circle” method of writing, a hero’s journey that loops back to the beginning.
What separates Harmon’s Periscopes — which he’s been streaming every few days for the past two months — from his usual output, while staying fundamentally true to himself, is their simple, persistent optimism. Every other day, Harmon climbs onto the elliptical, and he doesn’t stop. He bitches and moans, and pumps his fists in the air, and sometimes cools down with a sensual dance to James Blake, but he sticks with it, building his endurance, working through the same playlist (“Rocky Theme,” “X Gon Give it to Ya,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and some unfortunate Imagine Dragons) every time. And whereas Harmon’s past explorations of self-loathing usually veer in tone between apologetic wallowing and confrontational defensiveness, he’s pushed his navel-gazing outward in these videos, transforming it into something positive, active, and maybe reactive. In addition to the overt driven self-improvement of the workout itself, Harmon ends his Periscopes by riffing for a few minutes on the news/nightmares of the day. He tells us to “fight the things you’re supposed to fight,” calls protesting “the only public resource we have right now,” and encourages young people “recently activated” by political events not to be dissuaded by the gatekeepers of culture and politics. If you’ve never been told “Peace, Resist” by a naked man on a live cam toweling himself off to “All Apologies,” you might not be doing the internet right.
Both Harmon’s public journey of self-improvement and self care, as well as the shower-side chats that follow, are a positive, galvanizing force in otherwise disheartening newsfeeds. Not only that, but Periscope seems like it might have finally found content that best serves its form under this political climate. It has the urgency, immediacy, and overall effect of forming real-time community that best serves this sort of routine, ritualistic content (almost like a bizarro morning show) and direct address audience mobilization. In the midst of a frighteningly unpredictable 2017, Harmon shows us that if he of all people can strive to make small but incremental change, any of us can, and makes a case for Periscope as a relevant platform in the process.
Maybe the elliptical workouts are a metaphor, for exerting effort, day in and day out, sweating buckets, only to find ourselves right where we started, having moved nowhere.
Or maybe it’s just a comforting respite to watch someone who’s a little fat like us, a little out of shape like us, pretty mad and frustrated like us, and way funnier than us, channeling their anger and frustration into something positive.
Or, as Harmon puts it, maybe it’s fun and soothing and ridiculous to tune in on weekday mornings for the “dramatic old political guy that makes you watch him shower.”
Rebecca Alter lives and writes in Toronto, where she’s trying her best, gosh darn it.