Dan Harmon Explains His Cultural Influences

Dan Harmon, the creator and executive producer of NBC’s Community, was controversially fired after season three in 2012, but he’ll be back at the show’s helm when it returns for its fifth season on January 2. In no particular order, these are the movies, books, and evolutionary anthropologists that inspired him.

1. George Lucas
He introduced a code of honor and a taste for the mystical to a generation that was being raised on empty garbage—the first generation raised on nothing but media. We would have been a generation of absolute sociopaths and drug addicts if it weren’t for George Lucas. He believed you could make a film that both was important to people and had robots in it.

2. Joseph Campbell
He was a comparative mythologist who asked himself, “Why is it that these stories are so similar?” Too often we become atheists at the age of 12, just because our parents turned God into the bogeyman. The idea of religion as a myth wasn’t blasphemy to him. After a lifetime of feeling generally toxic, spiritually, I felt like I could have a little place in the universe without having to wear a snake around my neck or push up my glasses and sneer at the mention of God.

3. Mr. Show with Bob and David
[Bob Odenkirk and David Cross] were doing this really well, and not trying to make the suits happy. And not trying to make the audience happy—they were using their own sense of humor as a compass.

4. RoboCop
was the first movie I ever saw that suggested that there could be two different messages at the same time. Yes, I had just seen a ridiculous movie about a man in a robot suit who fights crime. But it was also that capitalism is bad, the government is corrupt, and people are sheep consuming things, to their own destruction—but no one was saying that out loud. And I realized that your entire movie could be a mode of expression.

5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
In middle school, there was this kid I sat with at lunch named Anthony, and we would go hide in the corner and then recite random things from Hitchhiker’s. Zaphod Beeblebrox and Ford Prefect were role models for introverts: “Hey, let’s get drunk and see the universe before we die, unpredictably and meaninglessly.”

6. Network, Paddy Chayefsky
Someone comes in the room and says, “This is a monologue about my position on this situation, this is how I feel, this is all of my passion, this is all of my intellectual musings about it,” and it’s energized and laid out as eloquently as possible. And then the other person responds and regurgitates another beautifully written monologue. There was no such thing as realistic writing or unrealistic writing, because there’s nothing less realistic than a bunch of people on a movie screen well-lit and looking like Faye Dunaway. I was like, “This is like ancient Greek theater. These people are just pronouncing things! And it’s gorgeous!” 

7. Arrested Development, Mitchell Hurwitz
I happened to catch Arrested Development when Fox was already engaged in that dance of death that they do when they have a critical hit and a ratings disaster. They say how much they love the show while they move it around on the schedule and hold a pillow over its face in broad daylight.

8. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut was somehow putting his brain on the page, and it was sometimes offensive, sometimes seductive, and all the time immersive and real. I’m always given to run whatever insipid stuff I’m writing through the Vonnegut litmus test: Is there something on your mind while you’re writing this that you’re avoiding?

9. Frederick, Leo Lionni
A children’s book. Frederick was this mouse who sat on a rock while his friends begged him to load food for the winter, and he would tell them, “I’m gathering sun rays.” Or, “I’m composing a poem.” So when they run out of food, they say, “Well, Frederick, what about these sun rays? What about that poem?” And he unloads them and it works—he keeps them all alive. It was about, Oh, art is vital to the collective. Holy crap!

10. Dungeons & Dragons
I’d go through all the books just designing dungeons in the hopes that some person was going to play with me. The important thing about D&D is that it gives you this infinite world to play in, but it also encourages you to create your own unlimited world. If you don’t like reality, you can change it.

11. SCTV
was good, but this sketch show, where people gathered around a bunch of cheap sets and had the time of their lives, was really infectious. Dave Thomas was a master of some slapstick-based martial art where he would poke people in the eye like the Three Stooges. They were clearly improvising the dialogue, and they were kind of giggling. That was my Aha! moment: “You’ve got to do this stuff for yourself. Your job is to have fun in front of other people.”

Garry Shandling
Everything he’s ever done has had this so-called meta component to it, before they were calling it meta. He always made sure the frame was part of the painting. The fact that he was identifying the camera as a character—that was mind-boggling.

13. Spalding Gray
It had to be explained to me. My mom said, “People like to listen to him talk, so they made a movie about it.” And again, it was just that petty part of me—“I want to be that person!” He decided he was what he was and that his job was to take the top of his head off and reveal what was going on up there, with as little bullshit as possible.

14. Charlie Kaufman
I was adapting a George Saunders story, and was crippled by it, and was thinking I should put the word Adaptation on the cover sheet: “Who cares about this story? This should be about how it’s eating me alive.” Then I saw a billboard for Adaptation! I was like, “Did this guy listen to my brain and put a billboard up overnight?” He’s haunted me ever since.

15. Woody Allen
He was this nerdy writer who had decided, Ah, you know what? I’m going to be honest about what turns me on, and what scares me, and how ugly I am, inside and out. He ignored the rules of why someone should be onscreen and became an icon without permission.

16. Tom Kenny

I asked Tom Kenny, “What would be your advice to young comics?” And he said, “Go through your set and cross off anything that doesn’t make you laugh out loud.” And I immediately said, “But that’s like 90 percent of my … Oh.”

17. Chris Elliott
Way before Get a Life, he did this thing [Action Family] where everything indoors was a multi-camera sitcom and everything outdoors was a single-camera drama. In one scene, a killer the dad is tracking outside turns out to be the new boyfriend of the daughter in the multi-cam story. On the sitcom set, the boyfriend falls through a window, and it cuts to the other side, where it’s like Lethal Weapon and the body is landing on the cement. A mindblower.

18. Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos
I played it on a loop, and she sang me to sleep—it was a lullaby filled with venom. She was Katy Perry shooting fireworks, but a lot cooler.

19. Sexual Perversity in Chicago, David Mamet
My drama teacher—a pastor’s wife—handed me The Duck Variations and said, “There’s another Mamet play in here that I would normally have blacked out.” It was talking about ejaculate, and the F-word is every other word; I was so confused. I thought plays were about women on rocking chairs drinking lemonade. My teacher said, “David Mamet is very famous because he writes the way people talk.” And I said, “You can be famous doing that?” Everything kind of shifted in my brain. I had a new taste bud.

Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks
That was just, like, a character where it was: “Oh my God, that’s just the coolest guy in the world! How do I be like him?” The idea of a guy with slicked-back hair, in a trench coat, who worked for the FBI but believed in reincarnation and all religions and using pantheistic faiths to solve the crime and catch the serial killer. Everyone he talked to, he was so committed and so in the moment. That was the role model I chose. In my wildest dreams, I would be as cool as that guy.

21. Elaine Morgan’s aquatic-ape theory
She was unfairly ridiculed [for her theory that humanity’s ancestors were semi-aquatic]. There should be no wrong answers when you’re speculating about why human beings are different. It was just such a peaceful, interesting, mythical concept, and a scientific one, that maybe the origin of our species was kind of a fairy tale. I told her I admired her work and that there was a link in what she was studying to the realm of the creative. She said, “You’re not the first person to equate my studies with fantasy. That’s what I’m up against all the time.”

22. Cheers

The characters were so distinct. As with “Peanuts,” you could put them in outer space and still know which one was Charlie Brown. And my goal has been to make characters that distinct from each other, and identifiable at their core. A neat freak is not a character, that’s a behavior. If the character is a neat freak and you do an episode where they’re forced to be sloppy, you’ve jumped the shark.

*This article originally appeared in the January 6, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Dan Harmon Explains His Cultural Influences