The Unceasing Honesty of Dan Harmon

Few people would relish the opportunity to have their lives documented in the midst of a low point peppered with job loss, substance abuse, self-doubt, and relationship woes, but in talking to Dan Harmon, it seems that he would have it no other way. In the recently released documentary Harmontown, director Neil Berkeley takes us along on a 20-date live podcast tour with Harmon and his cohorts after Harmon’s dismissal from Community and during a somewhat uncertain time in his career and personal life. It’s an entertaining and often uncomfortable look not only at Harmon, but also at the people who surround him in the personal and public worlds. I talked to Dan Harmon about the documentary, his relationship and (very briefly) the next season of Community.

How did you get hooked up with Neil Berkeley?

Neil was a mutual friend through Rob Schrab. I saw Beauty Is Embarrassing and I was quite taken with the cinematography and almost perversive intimacy. When I decided to go on this podcast tour I thought that we should make a movie about doing it so we could recoup the bus costs and Neil popped into my head.

I was reading a quote from Neil where he says, “Spend a minute with Dan and you’ll realize that honesty is what he values most and any documentary about him or his work must be completely transparent.” That was pretty evident in the film but I was wondering, is there ever a point for you where you feel you can’t be honest?

Yeah, I feel that way all the time. That’s one of the most stressful things about achieving your dreams and having a TV show is that you also become kind of an elected figure in a sense. People can hold you to these standards and to me, in my mind, it runs purposefully contrary to the mind of a writer who, at their best, is supposed to be a rare conduit for honesty. I don’t know. You shouldn’t be a writer and feel like you need to be careful. It’s not a smart thing to do. It’s like asking a loading dock employee to have no arms.

We place a high value on truth but do you think honesty is ever a bad thing?

I think you hit it right there by distinguishing between the two words. Truth is a bad thing all the time. The truth might be that you think your friend shouldn’t have gotten a haircut, or you don’t like his wife and wished that they’d never gotten married. It’s not necessarily the most honest decision you could ever make to bring that up at a party before they’re about to walk into a room. Sometimes we use truth in very dishonest ways. We use it competitively, we use it politically. Since I make that distinction, I don’t think honesty is always the best policy.

You connect with your fans largely by just sharing what’s going on in your mind, in your heart, in that moment. But are there any subjects that are off-limits? Things that you don’t want to talk about when you’re on stage or when you’re writing?  

No, not really. There’s trouble spots. With politics you’re setting yourself up for alienation, which is actually going to get in the way of your job of connecting to people. If you have really strong opinions about certain foreign policies and things, you’re talking to an audience who has also been socialized to believe that that’s off-limits, that it’s a different realm and they should get angry when someone doesn’t share their beliefs about it. So, you’re kind of wandering into a snake trap when you start pontificating about culture wars and things. But that being said, I wouldn’t want anybody out there who’s making TV for me to consider anything off-limits.

A big theme that runs throughout the film is you trying to do the tour and connect in person to your fans and then, you’re also writing two pilots at the same time. You bit off a lot and there are moments where it seems like it might be more than you can chew. Is that just kind of your mode of operation? Take on a bunch of projects and then just try to struggle through and battle your own procrastination to get them done?  

Yeah, that’s pretty much the size of it. I tend to bite off way more than I can chew and you can tell that by the size of my stomach.

The film also documents a rough patch for you and Erin (McGathy, Harmon’s fiancé). How does she feel about opening up publicly? For instance, when you bring her up on stage at Harmontown to talk about something that had happened within that past day. It’s a very tense moment. If people listen to the podcast then they heard it but it’s really different to watch it live and see the looks on your faces, standing in front of several hundred people. How is she about that when you say,“Hey we’re going to get up on stage and talk about this?”

Well, Erin and I share a fascination with ourselves and the desire to have other people to be fascinated with us. It’s the only common ground that we have. I’m like, “Maybe we should talk this out on stage.” I always have a very willing partner in her. We air our dirty laundry out, basket by basket, all over the audience. But what is viscerally different is that Erin has the goal of looking like a good person while she’s doing that and I find that hypocritical, or at least, self-destructively impossible. If you’re going to be in the business of attention-at-all-costs and fascinated with yourself, I think it’s a conflicting goal to also want to come off looking awesome every time. I feel like that’s what’s central to our conflict. Like she wants to pick and choose what I say on stage about our relationship but she also wants to hold onto the idea of me saying stuff about it. Then we have these little tiffs, “Well you shouldn’t say this, or you should’ve said that.” That’s what triggers me. I’m like, “Wait, someone is telling me I shouldn’t have said this or that. Oh boy, do I ever know how to defend this.” There’s nothing worse than a wench’s baby.

Do you think by pushing that stuff in to a public forum it allows you to deal with the issues in your relationship in a more constructive way?  

Yeah, I think that Erin and I… it’s a good way for us to get started. I think. I think if it keeps making us miserable and we keep having arguments about the fact that we did it then we should probably stop. Sometimes it’s like, “Oh we had a fight. Erin come out on stage and lets talk about that fight we had,” and then we have a fight about the fact that I had her come out on stage and talk about the fight, so maybe we should stop doing this. Then she’s like, “Well I don’t want to stop doing this.” That’s where it gets complicated, which is why I think that half of positive work is regurgitation, is getting stuff out there. I do think you need to follow it up with dialogue. But we’re handling stuff. She and I are in couples therapy now, leading up to our marriage. We thought it would be a good idea to see somebody and kind of waterproof any leaks before we cross this eternal threshold together. I’m learning now that couples therapy is not the nightmare that it sounds like. It’s actually the other half of getting the shit out there. We’re going to ask ourselves, “Did this satisfy us and what are the little tricks we can learn to avoid those in the future?”

Lets switch over to Spencer (Crittendon, Harmontown Dungeon Master). There was no way that could have been planned, that while you’re filming this movie Spencer has a rise to fame. It was really fun to watch. What do you think draws people to someone like Spencer who is admittedly shy, reclusive, and standoffish but still connects with people in such an honest way?

Is the question why people are attracted to Spencer?

He really connects with people in a special way. I picked up on a bit of magic with Spencer. When Jason Sudeikis comes onstage and he doesn’t know how Dungeons & Dragons works, he’s sitting there watching this Dungeon Master and by the end of it, he is completely captivated by Spencer. He’s like, “This dude is amazing.” What is it about Spencer that brings that out in people?

I think he’s unflappable. We’ve seen all too well the human animal is fascinated with cameras, publicity, and audience applause, and we’ve also seen that it changes people. We want it so bad but no matter how honest we start the process, we can end up warped, not even knowing who we are anymore. I think we don’t like that in ourselves. I think that Spencer has this stoicism to him that lets us engage in the fantasy that it’s possible to be something, even in the face of 20,000 people yelling at us and they are either high-fiving us or booing us, but in either case, sort of asking us to change. And then we don’t. He seems authentic.

It’s all an act. You know, he lives in Beverly Hills, he’s 38 years old, he’s on his third divorce.

How did you feel when you first watched the footage back?

When I saw early cuts of the movie I was terrified. There were versions of the movie that were completely truthful and then puff pieces that were like, “We went on a tour and had a good time. We tried to make some jokes and sort of failed at them but now we’re home, ha. It’s fun to be on the journey but coming home is better. I have a podcast. You should listen to it sometime.” It was like,“Oh shit. That is not the crime I thought we were going to commit.” Then there was the phase where it lacked a sufficient amount of darkness for my name to be on the credits and be on camera. You shouldn’t have to look that hard. I’m a pretty bad boyfriend. I’m not very well put together. “We need some Crumb in this. Give me some Crumb, baby.” Then it got really bad. We’d cut to a scene and I was like, “Oh, shit. This guy really hates me. I didn’t need to push him that far. He had a lot of footage of me being a shithead.” Now I had made a movie about myself, which is one crime. I made a movie in which I looked like a piece of shit, which is another crime. And the biggest crime of all, it wasn’t good. I’m a bad person, I’m a bad film producer and I’m bad with my money. My experience of me processing that way was because I was part of a creative process in which I had no actual power. I would look at him and say, “Don’t do this or that,” and he would do whatever he wanted. I wasn’t accustomed to that. Eventually, it just sort of fell together. Erin was a big part of that, saying, “Just tell him to focus on Spencer.” You’re a baby that comes home and realizes you’re a baby. You’re done growing up and there are other yous out there that have only just begun. That’s when I felt I was getting old.

Real quick before I let you go: Community Season Six. Do you have a release date yet?  

No. I’ve heard the term January 27th going around. That’s the only actual date I’ve heard. I anticipate mid-to-late January.

The Unceasing Honesty of Dan Harmon