When introducing the documentary Harmontown at the South by Southwest Film Festival, director Neil Berkeley (Beauty is Embarrassing) described his film’s thesis, saying, “The point of this film is not about whether Dan Harmon is a good person or a bad person, but to understand why people are in that room listening to him.” The film follows Harmon on tour with his Harmontown podcast shortly after the embattled show runner’s firing from Community in early 2013. Berkeley’s remarks make clear it’s less a tour doc than a character study, in a similar vein to Rodman Flender’s doc, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which premiered in 2011 also at SXSW. And it’s understandable if Berkeley feels protective of his subject – as caught through Berkeley’s lens, Harmon is shown as a genius that inspires and empowers strangers but is clearly not an easy man to love up close.
Harmon, of course, has an immense deal of self-awareness about this, and when he’s not discussing it, he’s getting meta about the story structure he’s likely to be fit into. The film opens on shots of Harmon and girlfriend (now fiancee) Erin McGathy still in bed recovering at the end of the tour. Once he rouses, Harmons looks into the camera, disdainful. “Is this gonna be the beginning of the movie? Or are you gonna show clips of my friends saying awful things about me?”
Berkeley intelligently lets this commentary guide the film, immediately cutting to a series of famous faces discussing what it’s like to work with Harmon. John Oliver describes him as “a human hand grenade with a predilection for pulling his own pin out,” but more jolting is Sarah Silverman’s discussion of working with Harmon on The Sarah Silverman Program. She recounts walking on eggshells around him explaining, “he can be controlling.” She recalls the undeniable strength of Harmon’s writing but concludes, “I’m his biggest fan and I fired him.”
Before we get evidence of Harmon’s difficult side, Harmontown offers a glimpse into his effect on fans and his dedication to those who feel like outsiders. As one person puts it, “the only boss that Dan respects is the audience.” Berkeley does an excellent job of showcasing the warmth and community that exudes in the room when the podcast is being taped. From city to city on the tour, he captures Harmon reaching out to audience members, asking them to talk about themselves onstage, and shows Harmon creating a place where fans feel welcomed and accepted despite any differences.
Harmon has a talent for recognizing in others what they don’t see in themselves, and this is showcased especially well in the story of Spencer Crittenden, who was plucked from the audience to serve as Dungeon Master for a live game of D&D. Crittenden (and the live game) did exceedingly well and he quickly became a show staple. As Spencer goes along for the Harmontown tour, Berkeley follows his journey as well, from some of the first requests for his autograph to later as Spencer doubts whether he really connects with anyone.
Fans love Spencer, and it’s easy to see why. As dungeon master, he’s in his element – confident, witty, skilled, he knows the game better than anyone else onstage and it shows. His participation in the Harmontown tour is a chance for someone who might not otherwise be a rock star to get the spotlight, and even Harmon speculates that Spencer may be the secret hero of the documentary.
As the film turns its attention back to Harmon, we’re soon given evidence of just how harsh he can be, this time in the form of a fight he and McGathy work out during the show. It’s a sort of live group therapy, and it’s painful to watch as McGathy details the horrible things Harmon said to her the night before. And as Harmon openly admits to his flaws, including alcoholism and its attendant issues, Berkeley shows the stark contrast between the man who makes strangers feel welcomed, loved, and accepted and the one who can push the people he loves to tears. It may sound like a hit job, but to Harmon’s credit, he’s the one who sought Berkeley out for a tour documentary, agreeing that Berkeley would have final cut of the film.
Toward the film’s end, Harmon returns to his meta-commentary on the documentary’s story. He questions whether he’s actually the villain of Berkeley’s narrative, pointing out that it’s really Spencer who’s gone on the hero’s journey – never mind that it’s rare for the villain to take the hero under their wing and encourage them. As Harmon points out, story structure requires a hero to change, but he forgets that the very reason change is a necessary story element is precisely because it is so hard. The tour convinced him that he has to try, and it’s that kind of honest vulnerability that makes Harmon so fascinating and Harmontown so well worth watching.
Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and Culture Map.