Trading One 'Community' for Another
Dan Harmon is talking to you
Canceled sitcoms litter the network landscape. Fired showrunners and head writers hop on and off vehicles up and down the line, limping under bindles full of spec scripts and napkin notes. This much has been true for television immemorial.
But when the creator of a beloved – albeit commercially underperforming – show is canned, and that show somehow keeps moving without him, people pay attention. Especially when he's seeking that attention out.
In the spring of 2012, Sony Pictures Television declined to renew Dan Harmon's contract even as NBC was renewing Community for a fourth season. Though controversial, it was almost fait accompli. Harmon had cultivated a reputation as a brooding, difficult, and demanding executive producer, one more likely to respond to the feedback of a devoted viewer in the middle of nowhere than he was to that of staff members or studio execs. And his embrace of a blogcentric mode of expression – where he could meet admirers and critics of the cerebral, quixotic, pop-culture-obsessed, and, well, dorky Community on their own turf – did not endear him to the higher-ups.
"I would have fired me," Harmon told KCRW's The Business last year. "They're not going to hand the ball to the guy that spent three years losing in the ratings race and not turning a script over until I felt it was finished. If your ratings are high and there's money being made, you're allowed to be a perfectionist in television."
Nearly a year later, it hardly seems to matter that they weren't, there wasn't, and he won't be. The start of Community's fourth season has been postponed from October of 2012 to this February, and while Harmon has neither forgiven nor forgotten – his Reddit IAmA in August, for instance, brooked no quarter – he has moved on: to the raucous quasi-weekly podcast Harmontown (www.harmontown.com) with improvisational titan Jeff B. Davis, as well as to projects for Adult Swim, CBS, and Fox, and to a collaboration with Charlie Kaufman on the screenwriter's stop-motion Anomalisa.
The Chronicle spoke with Harmon by phone in the weeks leading up to the Harmontown tour, which stops in Austin on Friday, Jan. 11, at the Cap City Comedy Club.
Austin Chronicle: I hope everything's going well for you these days.
Dan Harmon: Yeah, it's going swell. I've got three days to turn in two scripts, to CBS and Fox, and I'm not exactly blazing any, uh, I don't know what the expression is ... I'm not exactly setting any land-speed records. But I guess that's how I need to work.
AC: Is there anything psychological there, or is it just purely a function of having so much stuff to work on right now?
DH: It's all of the above, and always been the same. Regardless of the circumstances: No matter how confident I've been, no matter how much someone's paying me, no matter how long they give me, no matter what the topic or medium is, the thing that seems consistent is that I will figure out what the boundaries of procrastination are and push them five degrees beyond their utmost extreme. I think it's because my body and my mind are addicted to a very sloppy, bad, unhealthy workflow. I think that my brain is addicted to the adrenaline and guilt of having to pump something out. When you're in that zone, you enter a different mindset, where, at a certain point, it doesn't matter if it's good or bad. If you have any time at all, your ego gets in the way. You go, "Well, it's gotta be good. I'll just take this time to make sure it's good." And then only when it's like, no you're gonna get fired if you don't turn this in, in an hour – then I finally get to do what a writer is supposed to do in the first place, which is write.
AC: Not to pry too much into your process, but how do you typically work? Are you the kind of guy with an organized desk in the same workspace every single time to maintain some order, or do you work on the run, catching as catch can?
DH: It's never been the same way twice. The only thing that's ever been the same is that I wait till the last minute and screw over the people paying me and make them anxious and force them to be my Mommy and say "give it to me now." The circumstances of the actual writing are never the same. I might be sitting in bed with a laptop in my lap pounding something out. I might chew an Adderall like PEZ and stay up for 48 hours in my home office. I might go out to the car to get away from the Internet. I might thumb something out on a phone from a bar. It depends on what's due, when it's due, and who I'm working for. And what the hell's going on in my life, I guess.
AC: Can you talk about the Fox and CBS projects a little bit, without giving too much away?
DH: The CBS show I'm writing, I'm in the first draft of it right now. They've OK'd the outline. It's definitely going to be a multicamera sitcom. It's about a father-daughter relationship that's unusual. It's sort of their home life combined with the life in the bar that they live over. So it's sort of a Cheers meets Absolutely Fabulous. That's about all I'm probably allowed to divulge, I really have no idea. But that's probably all I know, too. [Laughs] The Fox thing is a workplace comedy. I'm kind of hoping it'll be single-camera, but believe it or not, I've taken on the task of thinking of it as possibly multi-cam or single-cam as I'm writing it. I'm trying not to force my tastes onto it in that regard. If it's possible for me to write a great workplace comedy for Fox that has the Fox kind of quote-unquote edge that Fox wants from their sitcoms and be a multi-cam, then I'll do it. But a lot of times that edge more easily takes the form of cinematic storytelling, conveying a sharper line of emotion between the characters and the audience. I think that's why, when you look at Fox's programming, most of their successes are single-camera. They haven't had a multicamera hit since, what, Married With Children? I have one foot in multi-cam and one foot in single-cam as I write for Fox.
AC: How do your hopes for these shows compare to the kinds of hopes you had for Community when you were first writing it?
DH: I would love to have a great single-camera comedy on Fox that could somehow follow in the footsteps of Community as being respected critically and emotionally fulfilling for a certain kind of viewer. And I would love to have a big, crass, very well-written, solid, simple multi-cam on CBS that proves that successful things can be good, as well. And, at the same time, we have this animated show on Adult Swim that I'm writing now, which is really cool and absurd and sci-fi and chaotic and kind of appeals to the 15-year-old in all of us.
AC: I think a lot of people will be glad that you've got so much going on in the wake of what happened with Community and NBC/Sony. But I was watching the keynote that you gave at the XOXO Festival, which was great and really fascinating to me, and some of the language that you used to describe the network aesthetic and trajectory almost implied that you would never take part in it again.
DH: I feel like TV, by nature, if you're doing it right, you're doing it right for everyone watching. TV is designed to be loved and watched by as many people as possible. Obviously, the more people watching what you're putting on, the more successful you are. But then we have this fork in the road, where we have come to believe that in order for something to be watched by truly everyone, it has to start taking things from the quality column, integrity column, the humanity column. You have to have someone in a singing contest, who, if they're not the best singer, they have to eat a moose's balls or something. And then the audience gets to vote. And we have to turn everything on television into professional sports in order to keep people watching; we can't keep telling stories. I would want to try to prove that false. I don't particularly care if I die trying, because the trying is the passion, the compulsion for me. When Steve Irwin was alive, and he talked about a crocodile, he'd probably warn you a great deal about how messed up a crocodile could make you if he got his mouth over you. But he wanted to be among them. He respected them and chose to just hang out with crocodiles constantly. If he gave a keynote about them, I think he'd say, "Well, they have razor-sharp teeth, and they can take your leg off, and they're never going to change, and they don't give a crap about us." But he'd be wearing a T-shirt that says "I Love Crocodiles." It's sort of the same dynamic. And I, like Steve Irwin, will probably be dead very soon.
AC: What makes you say that? You describe yourself in the context of Harmontown, on the show's website, as a "self-destructive writer," which, as you know, goes for a lot of writers in general. So what makes you particularly self-destructive these days?
DH: Probably nothing more than any other writer, possibly any other person. I speak first and think later. I try to keep as little difference as possible between what's going on in my head and what's coming out of my mouth. Like I said, I procrastinate; I alternate between being a perfectionist and hating myself and everything I write. It's nothing really new to this world, but the reason why I bother to say self-destructive is because it lets people know that you know so that they can stop thinking about it.
There's such an emphasis in our culture on succeeding. If someone's saying something to you that sets them up for failure, 50% of your brain is occupied with how can I help this person be more successful, how can I point out to them that what they're doing will ultimately not help them succeed? I think it's help to put a big hat on your head that says, "I'm gonna self-destruct, so stop worrying about me being successful and start listening to what I'm saying." I keep getting fired, but my house keeps getting bigger. I don't worry about success. Fuck success. Watch me self-destruct and enjoy it, because that's how you'll get a good TV show.
AC: Not to overreach here, but in listening to the Harmontown podcasts, it almost seems like a forum for you to flaunt that sense of disregard for what people will think of your career. Is it fair to say that it's a release for you, some kind of catharsis that TV doesn't allow for?
DH: Yeah, sure. It's therapy for a guy who has too high a tendency to get lost in his own head. It's better to just let some of these things get out that bang around in my skull, because the more they bang around in my skull, the more distorted they get. I find that if I just say to somebody what's going on with me, that the bad people move to the bad section – they get out of my way – and the good people, you know, enjoy it, collaborate with me, good things come my way. I think that's what everyone should do: They should know who they are and say who they are. And try to get over the fact that everyone in the world isn't going to be compatible with who you are, but look forward to the fact that you're going to be aligned with people who are, and there's going to be a heightened joy there.
There's too much lying in our day-to-day lives. I think that all of us kind of hate it. I think that we fantasize about doing what we want and saying how we feel. I think that's why we're fascinated with serial killers and organized crime and terrorism. Because we walk around with this big question in our chests, which is: What if I got out of bed tomorrow and said how I felt and come what may? Is the answer that I would end up going to prison, or would I end up president? We can never answer that question to our satisfaction, because we've got children to feed; we've got dentist bills. That's all part of the beast. We walk around with that knot in our chests. I think that a lot of people in my position would be as "self-destructive" as I am because on the practical side, things keep looking up for me, I keep landing on my feet, I keep getting to do cooler and cooler things. I haven't reached this point yet where the big lesson has been, oh, you should alter the way you think and behave. I've watched a lot of cautionary tales around me of people who are really, really, really, really good at thinking one thing and saying another, and their only reward is maybe a big pile of money and a big long job at one place. I don't really consider that to be ... it's just the result of politicking.
AC: So, what is the reward for you, then? You're a very media-savvy guy; you're incredibly erudite when it comes to television and entertainment and art, to some degree. Is it the acceptance of your peers? Is it critical success? Is it financial success? Is it all of the above?
DH: It's all of the above. There's one thing that connects all of us: It's, like, a good review in The New York Times , and a good review in Entertainment Weekly, and a big, fat check from a studio, and a fan letter, and high ratings, and to some extent, really low ratings, and a lot of conversation on Reddit, people asking me questions on Tumblr, people Tweeting at me. It all falls under one umbrella, which is: I'm contributing. I'm connecting to people. People understand who I am. They can hear me; I exist. I am somebody. And people can see me and touch me. If I didn't have writing as a methodology, I would be shuffling down the street looking at the sidewalk, going back and forth between the local bar and a very dirty house, waiting to die with my cat. And no one would have ever known that I existed.
God gave me this quote-unquote gift to be able to write some thought down on paper and it gives me the opportunity to actually have friends and family, people who write in to me and say, "Hey, I just want to let you know, I'm a transgender female, and I really, really love the Dean Pelton character on Community; I love some of these things that you've done with storylines, or quotes that suggest you wouldn't throw a drink in my face or make fun of me if you and I were in a room together." The fact that I can communicate with them from across the country, without ever being in the same room with them, is the reward. That's the idea. I'm actually making strangers happy, however small a part of their life my work might be. That's the need that I have, that I won't be able to ever truly fulfill. So, every little bit, I'll take it.
AC: One thing about you – and I guess this goes for performers and writers often – is that you seem to have a rotating or constant flow of partnerships with likeminded people. Your partnership with Jeff on Harmontown is no exception. I sort of picture you guys as refugees from a certain style or brand of television that is endangered at this point. Jeff, with Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which seems like it would be almost a charming antiquity on American TV today, even though it wasn't that long ago that it was on the air. And you, with Community, which does, or did, push the boundaries of what was acceptable in a conventional sitcom format. You guys have proven resilient, and haven't taken that marginalization lying down as you've found your own new outlet. What is it that brings you guys together? What do you bring out in each other, in terms of your comedic sensibilities?
DH: I've been friends with Jeff for almost 15 years. I stumbled into a friendship with Jeff sort of as a drinking buddy and also somebody I knew from the improv background. ... I've always been a creative elitist. I prefer the company of talented people. I don't care if your talent is making a really good rocking chair, or if you're a really good cop or librarian. In L.A., you meet fewer people who make rocking chairs and curate libraries. My small handful of friends are people who I consider very, very good at what they do, and are probably underappreciated. Less appreciated than maybe I think they should be. I think my friendship with Jeff was sort of based on this mutual ass-kissing, for lack of a better term, where we were relatively young, and he was a great actor and a brilliant improviser and a particularly gifted improvisational singer whose talent had enthralled me when I saw him on stage for the first time, so I just kind of wanted to hang out with him in L.A. And he was somebody who kept telling me over and over again what a great writer I was when no one else was telling me that. So I think we glommed on to each other out of confidence or insecurity, depending on how you want to look at it, probably just two sides of the same coin.
I think that's a very interesting insight that you have that I hadn't particularly thought of: Jeff's foremost skill being almost of a vaudevillian caliber, like something my mom could love on television, when he's doing what he does best, when he's got a microphone in his hand, and somebody starts improvising a song on the piano, and he takes information about someone and composes it into a shockingly catchy song on the fly. He's so much better at that than so many people who are supposed to be. That, as a skill, is comedically benign; it could sit next to your Glade Air Freshener in the kitchen and make things smell nice. And, yet, underneath that, Jeff is politically an anarchist and a humanist. There's a very revolutionary spirit to him.
And then you can draw that parallel to me, sure. I'm doing a sitcom, and it's on NBC, and it's got everything but the laugh track, and its foremost goal is to make my mom laugh. But under it beats this supposedly subversive heart, just because it did take itself very sincerely, and I wanted to make something great in that medium. I also have a "systems are wrong, and people are right" philosophy. I think that what binds Jeff and me is, we're not ashamed to live in that contradiction. He and I can both watch a funny, silly movie, and if it's well done, if it's good, if it's doing what it's supposed to do, we can go, "Oh, that was a really funny movie with a pie fight in it." We don't consider that a betrayal of humanity, just because it pacifies the masses. ... He's also a very low-maintenance friend. He and Rob Schrab and Dino Stamatopoulos are my best friends. I would say only friends, at the risk of offending anyone who stumbles on to this who thought they were my friends. I feel like a lot of people have 20 friends and then 50 acquaintances in a circle around that. I have three friends and 500 acquaintances. And my friends are people who don't demand anything of the people around them, who kind of tend their own garden and can commiserate about that when it's a bummer and share the triumphs when it's a joy, but don't need things from other people. Now, that could be a really unhealthy tendency on my part; maybe we're all just a bunch of closed-off narcissists.
AC: For anyone on the fence about buying tickets, or for people looking for something to do on Jan. 11 in Austin, can you talk about Harmontown a little bit, and what you guys try to achieve with each podcast?
DH: I think the easiest thing to say to people in Austin is, hey, if you're on the fence, listen to the show. What I am not is a stand-up comic. I do not have Patton Oswalt's 30 years of finely honing an incredible 60-minute act that you could then go and hear the next night in a slightly different way but just as funny. And because I am not that, because I have not dedicated my life to stand-up, I definitely dedicate myself when I do these shows to being sincere, being honest, rolling with whatever happens. If you want to come up on stage at the show and confess to a murder, we won't judge you. We don't bully people in the audience. Harmontown people are united in their brokenness, their realization that there's no such thing as normal people. Between Jeff and me, we always make sure that the energy of the room is catered to. If it's dead, we're not gonna go, "Oh, you're a dead crowd, go screw yourselves, you did something wrong, we're leaving." We're gonna figure out what's wrong and correct ourselves and give you the show that makes you leave there feeling like your money was well spent. And that's honestly all I can promise you, because nothing's planned. We're going to be podcasting the show every single night at every single stop that we do, and anyone in the country can listen to how the show is going, from city to city. I'm intentionally doing that to remove the option for myself of doing greatest hits, of saying anything twice. This way, I'll just always have to be talking off of the top of my head and sharing where I'm at and connecting with people who are there in that room. I want to interface with each audience and make each show its own thing. So, check it out on the Internet, and if you like it, come see us. We'll change it up, but I'm not going to come out with sparklers in my butt or anything.
A truncated version of this interview appeared in the Jan. 11, 2013 print issue.