Trading One 'Community' for Another
Dan Harmon is talking to you
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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.