Dan Harmon has had a busy year. One year ago he premiered his documentary Harmontown at the SXSW festival in Austin, got rehired at Community, made a fifth season of Community, which was then canceled. Yahoo! bought the show, produced a sixth season, and it premieres today on Yahoo! Screen. He has accomplished an immense amount in a small period of time, but his work ethic comes from avoiding life’s big question: Who am I?
I spoke to Harmon before his live Harmontown podcast taping at SXSW on pressure, perseverance, and an unhealthy work ethic.
Has your creative process been different this season? Did it change from writing for TV versus the internet?
We are pretty much our own bosses now, creatively speaking. We are considered by Yahoo to be property that they’ve bought because they liked the way it was. Our job now is to show up and do whatever we think Community is without Yahoo helping us fix it, which was always from the very beginning of Community, always the goal and NBC’s goal and the whole goal of broadcast media. Writers are subcontractors that are on a minute-to-minute basis supposed to carry out the correct whims of the entertainment experts. I think as we move into this new age, the content is sort of uncontrollable and you know what’s going to be a hit and why, therefore we just sort of hire people to make TV shows. Beyond talking about marketing strategies, Yahoo didn’t consider it their job to fix Community.
You do not have to change, you’re trusted to do your thing and continue with it.
Yeah it’s definitely the world we always dreamt of, and for a writers’ room for sure.
With some people leaving and recurring characters growing into larger roles, has it been exciting to expand the characters’ worlds? For example, Dean Pelton and Chang’s roles have grown throughout the seasons.
I remember when we did that. Jim was always this powerhouse performer and I always wanted him to be a regular on the show. At a certain point when you’re asking people to renew their contracts their agents are smart enough to say, “This guy is a big deal on your show, make him a regular character!” That’s all contractual stuff. The writers are happy to consider Jim a star of the show and write for him as a very important character – and write a lot of weird jokes.
How have you approached guest stars for this season?
We play it on a case-by-case basis. If there is a character and a story that plays a vital role inevitably the question becomes: do you want this to be somebody you already know in terms of an actor you’re familiar with, or do you want to get Billy Zane and you ask for Billy Zane so someone contacts Billy Zane for you and asks him. When you’re a writer it is easier to have conversations with other writers about actors you share a vocabulary about. If I can say to another comedy writer, “What if this guy is Christopher Walken?” Then there’s some inkling. We rarely go, “Let’s cast a no-name in this role” and then have a conversation about how this person should perform it and who they are and what physical qualities they should have. This is why it’s horrible for actors out there because you can’t be an actor without suffering through this world where all anyone wants to see is what they saw yesterday.
It is so much easier to pick someone you’ve seen doing something similar. Have you found the pressure is on now that Community is coming back, with bigger fan support and Yahoo stepping in? Have you found the pressure on yourself when writing?
Yes, definitely; that’s what will probably be the end of the show [laughs]. I don’t think I work well when I’m thinking that my goal is to accomplish something. I think my best stuff is effortless and accidental and as a result of being behind schedule. When I think that I have an application or a goal, then I start making plans and then everything I do sucks. I do it very slowly and then find huge challenges breaking the story and writing the description for the season. We’re about to find out what the ultimate lesson will be.
How do you find the perseverance in yourself? Is it from obligation or confidence in your abilities?
I’m a workaholic, and not in the sense of, “Oh I work really hard!” It’s just sort of more in the sense of my wife’s going to hate me because I use work as a way to avoid figuring out who I am and what life is. If somebody somewhere in the world is saying, “Hey, Dan Harmon you wanna do this project?” I will continue saying I should do that because who knows the day where I’m not being offered opportunities. So, I make excuses that I have to provide for my family and stuff like that. My perseverance is more of a sad confusion or fearful compulsion to keep active so that I can be the thing that I made, instead of finding who I am and having to deal with that.
Is it different or exciting to return to SXSW in Austin, one year after your documentary Harmontown premiered?
Yeah it’s fun to be back for a new reason. We were making the documentary about the fact that I didn’t have a job and SXSW was a great place to heal and be liberated. Of course the movie ends with me getting my job back and now I’m back at SXSW to promote the new show. The weird thing is there’s no documentary about the fact that we did season 5, the ratings were okay, and we got canceled anyway and Yahoo bought the show; that should be a documentary! I don’t know who would be in it because I have no idea what the hell is going on.
Just you waiting, answering emails and phone calls.
Yeah, I’d like to see a documentary about the conversations between me and Yahoo and us closing the deal; I think it would be really interesting.
I found something in the documentary that really stuck out. You said, “I want to find other people who don’t mind what I’m saying.” Do you think gaining a following with the podcast and with Community has opened you up to a new type of person or audience member?
Definitely. The reason I podcast is because of my compulsion to try and make people like me. The focus of it is anxiety. When you say, “I want to make people like me” there’s two major components to that impulse, there’s the “make” part and the “me” part. You can really lose yourself in the making because you’ll do anything, and then you aren’t being you. The best case scenario is that you’re a version of yourself that people like, but it isn’t really you. The worst-case scenario, the more likely case, is nobody likes you at all and you’re not yourself, but like everyone else you’re emitting this desperation. It’s religiously important to re-calibrate and stand that honest ground and say what’s in my head so that I can test that ledge that exists between me and people’s truths about me and find out it’s not that dangerous to fall, and it’s not that high up even if I fell. I have a lot of anxiety about people catching me being the best human and kicking me out of society, and you need to address that. Any therapist knows that’s never going to happen and for me that’s truly never going to happen because I run my mouth continually and don’t get run out of town.
I think that’s why there’s such a humane element in Community; all these characters are so different that people associate themselves with one character, but in a truer sense you’re likely a combination of everyone.
Yeah, the thing that drives all the characters is this fear of being alone, which is this fundamental thing about people. You try to figure out why the world is so filled with all these people who are thinking different things. You’ll see a guy on CNN who just cut this guy’s arm off and is laughing about it or some guy wants to nuke the sky – are we just animals? Is there a truth at all and are we fools for believing in it? I’m very comforted to believe that it’s okay for all those things to be random and unclear because the one thing that has been proven true over the thousands of years civilization has been around for is that people are afraid to be alone. Once you realize that, you don’t have to feel like a liar when you’re writing your stories because you don’t have to feel like the world is really like this, but I’m writing a show that takes place in another world. Or, you could be writing some morbid, dark comedy because it is real and it accepts that there is murder in the world and it makes you feel kind of anxious and hot when you watch it. My preferred approach is to write from one thing that is true that everybody, everybody – thin guys, fat guys, everybody in between – all have a nagging suspicion that we’re not good enough for everyone else and they’re gonna catch us and put us all on an island somewhere. That really is the same for everybody whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat; any race or any gender. It’s really sticking your heart’s teeth into that. Your heart has teeth, you know?