Diehard comedy fans surely know the origin story of Community creator Dan Harmon, but for the uninitiated, I present you with this overview of his early career and a detailed rundown of the shows he created for Channel 101, the live monthly short film festival he started up with friend and frequent collaborator Rob Schrab back in 2003.
Harmon and Schrab first began working together as members of ComedySportz Milwaukee, a short-form improv organization, in the late 80s. In the 90s, they formed the improv and sketch group the Dead Alewives with some friends, performing live shows in Milwaukee and recording a comedy album. More importantly, however, they started working on comic books together during this period. Schrab created the self-published comic Scud: The Disposable Assassin, which landed he and Harmon a deal to turn it into a movie for Oliver Stone’s production company.
Heeding the call to adventure that came from Hollywood, Harmon and Schrab left their familiar world of Milwaukee behind to move out west, where they were told by the folks at Oliver Stone’s company that they couldn’t write the script to the Scud movie because they were “comic book guys.” Harmon and Schrab soon proved them wrong, though, when they signed a two-picture deal with Robert Zemeckis’s company and created the Fox pilot, Heat Vision and Jack, starring Jack Black and directed by Ben Stiller. Fox execs passed on the show, although it did develop a fervent cult following online in the years that followed.
Out of the ashes of Heat Vision and Jack’s failure came Channel 101. As 101’s official website says, Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab were “banished from legitimate television” after the Fox show didn’t pan out. With the sluggishness of the movie industry also standing in the way of their comedic endeavors, the pair had found that the success they desired came with a heavy price — the loss of creative control. Through Channel 101, Harmon and Schrab’s careers were reborn as they had found a way to go back to their roots by creating their own comedy free from the demands of choosy Hollywood gatekeepers.
Predated by a series of short film challenges between Harmon, Schrab, and friends, and a precursor festival known as the Super Midnight Show, Channel 101 debuted in the summer of 2003 and quickly became a place for aspiring comedians and filmmakers to hone their craft and broadcast their work (via the festival’s website) to the masses in the pre-YouTube era. Between the LA screenings and a sister festival in New York, Channel 101 gave sketch groups like Tim and Eric, The Lonely Island, Derrick, and Human Giant an early boost and attracted the attention of established comedians like Jack Black, Drew Carey, and Sarah Silverman, who were all eager to catch the magic.
Below, you’ll find every pilot Dan Harmon created for Channel 101 (except for one), from its inception to present day:
Computerman was Dan Harmon’s submission to the first-ever Channel 101 screening in June of 2003. Harmon starred as Eugene Murzowski, a guy who accidentally turns his computer into a cyborg when he cuts his finger and a drop of his blood falls on the keyboard. Harmon enlisted his buddy Jack Black to play the title role. In an attempt to keep things fresh, Harmon rejiggered the show in Episode 4 to take place in space before trying to reinvent it again in the sixth episode as an animated show. At that point, Channel 101 voters had grown tired of Computerman and elected Sockbaby, Earthworm Jim creator Douglas TenNapel’s martial arts epic, to take its place.
Call Me Cobra (2004)
Dan Harmon and Jeff B. Davis created this show as a vehicle for another famous face, Drew Carey. In Call Me Cobra, Carey played a struggling actor who’s mistaken for a hit man but takes the job anyway because he needs the cash. Drew Carey became enamored with the Channel 101 process and directed the second episode, a more expensive and ambitious outing that featured a fancy new intro sequence. Call Me Cobra was tragically canceled by default when the gang wasn’t able to film a third episode in time for the next month’s deadline.
Laser Fart (2004-2005)
Dan Harmon’s love for Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is on display early here in Laser Fart, a superhero story in which Harmon plays a guy who shoots lasers out of his ass when he farts. Harmon submitted the video as a joke, but it became a surprise hit and one of Channel 101’s longest-running shows. Laser Fart’s success is a chilling reminder of the dangers of democracy.
The Most Extraordinary Space Explorations (2005)
Dan Harmon created and starred in this sci-fi-themed series with next-gen Channel 101ers Sevan Najarian and Justin Roiland, whose greatest contribution to the Channel 101 universe is the amazing animated series House of Cosbys, a show that had its lifespan unfairly cut short when Bill Cosby’s lawyers threatened to sue. Space Explorations added Sarah Silverman to the cast in its second episode and went on a decent winning streak until its Halloween episode spelled its doom.
The Lynx (2006)
Even the co-founder of Channel 101 can have his pilot rejected, as proven by Dan Harmon’s 2006 submission, The Lynx, in which he played Dan Harmon, a guy who develops the superpower to become a human lynx, capturing the wildcat’s ability to run, jump, and be really hairy - as long as he undergoes an elaborate self-sex ritual first. It’s another absurdist superhero story that pays tribute to everyone’s favorite mythologist, good ol’ Joey Campbell, and I will put my reputation on the line by saying Channel 101 voters made a mistake when they allowed this one to slip by.
Taking a break from adapting Channel 101 into a TV show for VH1, Dan Harmon went super-meta by creating this series about a guy who moves to L.A. to try to get a short video into Channel 101. It’s really funny and an early example of Harmon’s penchant for crawling up his own ass and finding great comedy there.
Harmon made this parody of Channel 101 with JD Ryznar, co-creator of the beloved 101 series Yacht Rock. Hosted by Harmon and Ryznar, ChooseYourOwnSelectAVision.TV was its own monthly competition made up of three 30 second shows - absurdly being screened each month in the midst of the actual Channel 101 competition. SelectAVision was canceled by default when Harmon and Ryznar were unable to get their fifth episode in on time. Unfortunately, the cancelation happened before they made an episode in which one of the shows-within-the-show was its own uber-short film festival, composed of three 15 second shows.
Water and Power (2008-2009)
Water and Power, Dan Harmon’s longest-running Channel 101 show so far, is also one of his best. Co-created by Ryan Ridley (The Wastelander, Phone Sexxers), it’s a spot-on parody of police procedurals, starring Harmon and Ridley as employees of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The show was so popular that it even prompted others to create the spin-off Water and Power: Miami.
For cameos from superstar comedians, check out episodes 5 (Aziz Ansari, Andy Samberg and the rest of the Lonely Island), 8 (Jack Black), and 9 (Joel McHale, John Oliver, and Chevy Chase). Community fans, take note!
Dan Harmon, Kelsy Abbott, Justin Roiland, and Myke Chilian created and starred in this rejected pilot about four siblings who fall victim to an invasion of mysterious tiny creatures known as “Googas.”
I’m not even going to sum-up Dan Harmon’s most recent Channel 101 show; I’ll just let him do it himself with this tweet from three years ago:
Unfortunately, Daryl has been taken offline for unknown reasons. I’m going to assume that it was a move by Harmon to keep unsuspecting NBC execs who hold Community’s fate in their hands from seeing the second episode, which may or may not have contained man-on-cat rape.
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Dan Harmon has been bogged down working on Community for the past three years, so he’s been (understandably) unable to create any Channel 101 series lately, but, as his bio on the Channel 101 site says, he “vows to return and dominate.”
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.