LAFF Interview: Dan Harmon, Sitcom Savior and Mayor of HARMONTOWN
On any given Sunday night, a comics store in Hollywood is where you’ll find Dan Harmon, the writer-producer-creator of Community and Rick and Morty, as well as the self-styled mayor of America’s most amorphous municipality: Harmontown. Each week Harmon dumps the contents of his brain onto an adoring podcast audience alongside his moderator/”comptroller” Jeff Davis, his fiancé Erin McGathy, and chieftain of the podcast’s long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign Spencer Crittenden.
In early 2013, shortly after he was infamously dismissed as Community‘s showrunner, Harmon took all of them and filmmaker Neil Berkeley on the road for a cross-country podcast tour. The result was Berkeley’s rousing warts-and-all documentary Harmontown – which had its LAFF premiere last Monday – that’s both a revealing chronicle of touring life and a feature-length testimonial for the transformative power of a totally open and honest dialogue.
Recently, the always-candid Harmon took some time out of recording Rick and Morty‘s second season to talk to Screen Invasion about Harmontown, seeing himself on film, and being a “flawed Dumbledore.”
Screen Invasion: How did the idea to film this podcast tour come about?
Dan Harmon: It was sort of compensation for the fact that the decision to go on tour was kind of a selfish one. I wanted to go on tour just to comfort myself in the face of losing my job, and the reason I wanted to bring a film crew was to convince myself that I was doing it for some higher purpose than that, and maybe a financially solvent one. It’s not a very practical decision to quit your job and skip town for a month when you have other stuff to do.
SI: I imagine you’re used to a certain level of scrutiny in the entertainment industry, but it seems so much more intense when you’re the subject of a documentary. How were you feeling during the filming process?
DH: During the process I felt ok. I guess it put a little bit of strain on my relationship with Erin [McGathy] just because it’s one thing to worry about how I might look since I can stop thinking about that and turn it off. But Erin didn’t want to be the “documentary wife” archetype that’s either suffering in silence and judged for that, or being too interfering and being judged for that. If you’re not the focus of the documentary I’m sure you’re a lot more worried about your image.
And you know, she was also worried about our relationship being portrayed. Are people going to say, “Why are you two together?” or “You don’t really love each other” or “You don’t love each other the right way”? If there was a pressure there for us, it was as a couple, but as far as me I forgot that the cameras were there and didn’t think about it.
SI: You do come across pretty natural, just as you would be doing the podcast.
DH: Yeah, my natural state is explaining myself to strangers and wanting attention and thinking that everything I say is important, so it kind of lends itself to being the subject of a documentary.
SI: The film is quite candid, much like the podcast, but were you ever anxious about the camera capturing something you maybe weren’t prepared or planning to share?
DH: No. The intention was to share everything and I told Neil before we left that it was going to be my tour, but it was his documentary. And I knew that documentaries are worth something if they capture something that doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be captured. Even though that’s a bit of a conflict of interest for the ego and the parts of you that want to manage your own image, I’m more interested in honesty than image management.
When I try to make people think I’m cool, that’s when I really embarrass myself. When I’m honest and vulnerable and shoot myself in the foot, that’s when I end up succeeding. So I was pretty convinced I could do my usual m.o. and say “Ok, just do everything, go as dark as you want, capture every crevice. Then show me a cut of it and I can give you tips on how to make it funnier or darker or whatever.” But the director knew I wasn’t going into it to look at it and say “Ok, good job” or give lots of advice. I wasn’t worried about feeling that I was being something I’m not, you know?
SI: What was your first reaction when Neil shared the footage with you?
DH: It went through several cuts, and the original one just felt like a puff piece. It felt like, “Oh, I went on the road and produced this movie about it,” and it looks like I’m just a hard-working guy and I love people and people love me and I never make mistakes. It felt like a commercial for the podcast. That wasn’t Neil’s intention, but we weren’t sure what to do structurally with 600 hours of footage. We didn’t know what the final product would look like before we started shooting.
So when we saw the first cut, I told him, “You know, you should really make this for you.” We really wanted to darken it. We referred to Crumb a lot – there’s a point in Crumb where you realize that Crumb might not be the perfect person. The people who make things that make other people happy and change people’s lives, or maybe people who are smarter than other people, they’ve got problems and deep flaws and it’s very interesting to find out about them. Then there was a cut that was, like, incredibly dark, to the point where it was darker than reality. There was a certain back and forth, just looking at cuts until we realized we didn’t have to force the darkness – the darkness was there.
I think the final epiphany was probably after the fourth version of the movie I saw, and started to panic, thinking that “Look, I’m not funny, I’m not an interesting person, I’m not going on any kind of journey here.” I keep saying that I know that, but that’s not good enough. That’s when Erin said, “Why don’t you just make it about Spencer?” Because he’s there the whole time. He’s young, he’s innocent, and he does go on a journey. He goes on a figurative and literal one.
It’s not like we added a ton of stuff with Spencer, but it was that attitudinal shift. It’s really about him, he’s the one going on a journey. I’m just the flawed Dumbledore. I’m not the Harry Potter. I’m not the person who’s changing here. I’m something to gawk at. And then the next cut I saw, I was like “This is it, we got it.”
SI: I think the film does come across as a very complete portrait of you, with the darkness but also very heartening moments as well, and a lot of that comes from your interactions – your symbiotic bond, really – with the fans. Did you learn anything about your relationship with your audience during the tour?
DH: Yeah, I did. I think I learned right away in Phoenix – and you can see it in the movie – that these people are because of a relationship, not just with the show but with me. On one hand that means I can do no wrong when I’m onstage, but on the other hand it means I really need to use that power responsibly. It’s interesting when you meet with the goddess of freedom, then you have to figure out how you’re going to use that.
The epiphany was that people are coming because they don’t necessarily think that they’re like me or want to spend all their time with me, but they have themselves and these fundamental flaws that they’ve maybe been ashamed of their whole lives and they feel liberated by the image of somebody saying, “Yeah, I’m all fucked up, but here I am alive. And I’ll be back tomorrow, telling you why I’m fucked up, and I’m not going to turn into stone because of it. No one’s going to come out from the rafters.” I think that’s what people really like, the transparency and the humanity of it. I wasn’t sure that’s what was for sale before I got out on the road.
SI: Speaking of the fans, and Spencer specifically, you mentioned how he kind of emerges as the secret hero of the film. Have you seen any changes in him because of this experience?
DH: He’s being working as my assistant since the time that we shot the documentary, and we’ve also been working on this project that’s an animated Dungeons & Dragons adventure. It’s celebrities playing D&D with us, much like on the podcast, and it’ll be animated here at my studio. And because he’s our dungeon master, he’s gone from being an employee of the Apple Store stock room to being a writer, producer, and actor on the project.
Nothing’s really changed about his personality. I’ve been watching as he’s put into the weird, powerful but sluggish, and often contradictory world of making entertainment in a city that considers it an industry. Spencer’s logical as well as creative, and he has experience working in a really tightly-run organization like Apple, so there’s a collision between his absolute certainty and the way that TV is run.
He picks me up in the morning and he’ll share a couple things he’s learned about how TV works, and I just find myself saying, “Yeah, it’s fucked up. It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how it is.” You find over time that you have to accept that every project is a bunch of people trying to figure out what’s going on. The margin of error is about 70 percent on every decision that’s made, and that’s how the system is designed. And it’s fun watching everything through fresh eyes, coming into this industry and being bewildered by it.
SI: Finally, would you change anything about this experience, having been through it once?
DH: I wouldn’t have taken work on the road. If I had known we were going to make a pretty decent movie, that we were going to do this at all, I would not have taken a deal writing a sitcom for one network and I wouldn’t have told a second network that they would have to wait a while. I would’ve had more fun. When I watch the movie, all I see is myself stressing out over how much work I have to do. I wish I could be experiencing how magical it was to be driving a rock-and-roll tour bus across the country.
Stay tuned to Screen Invasion for our review of the documentary!