How Dan Harmon went from doing ComedySportz in Milwaukee to creating NBC's Community
We talk to the creator and executive producer of one of TV's best new sitcoms
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When Dan Harmon was a TV-obsessed kid growing up on the far North Side of Milwaukee, he dreamed of one day having his own show on NBC. But his journey to Community, the hilarious new NBC sitcom he created and oversees as executive producer, has hardly been a straight line. After cutting his teeth in the local improv scene in his late teens and early 20s as a member of ComedySportz and the Dead Alewives comedy troupe, Harmon and friend Rob Schrab set off for Los Angeles in the late '90s, eventually founding the subversive Internet TV network Channel 101 as a reservoir for their strange, playfully goofy short-form videos that often satirized conventional network television.
Harmon and Schrab also worked on more traditional projects with varying degrees of success, including writing and executive producing the infamous 1999 television pilot Heat Vision And Jack, starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson, and writing the Oscar-nominated film Monster House. The duo also co-created The Sarah Silverman Program for Comedy Central, though Harmon was later asked to leave the show after creative clashes with Silverman. Now Harmon is back with Community, which follows a disgraced lawyer (ably played by The Soup’s Joel McHale) as he’s forced to attend community college with a group of wacky burnouts, including Chevy Chase in a career-rejuvenating role as down-on-his-luck rich guy Pierce Hawthorne. The A.V. Club recently talked to Harmon about the show and how he‘s trying not to blow his highest-profile project yet.
The A.V. Club: You started out doing a short-form, bizarro version of network television with Channel 101. Now you’re working on an actual network TV show. Isn’t the sitcom supposed to be dead?
Dan Harmon: I stopped pretending to know about this eight months ago. Because now I have a horse in that race. I had to start from a position in my head that Community wasn’t a sitcom. I had to write the pilot as if it was a movie. Or else I wouldn’t be able to get through it. The last time I tried to write a sitcom, it sucked. Of course it ends up being a sitcom, but you let the industry create the medium and the categories because that’s the effect of running your stuff through that pipe. It was no different to me from The Sarah Silverman Program pilot or a five-page script I’d write for a Channel 101 video or a 110-page script I’d write for a DreamWorks animated film. The only thing that changes is the length of pages and maybe the demographic watching. You don’t let as many AIDS jokes in Monster House as in The Sarah Silverman Program.
AVC: Was it always your secret ambition to run a relatively traditional sitcom?
DH: It was my fantasy for my entire life. I was raised on NBC television. When I was a kid I never knew the difference between a sitcom and a drama. I just knew what my parents were watching and what was making them happy. These half-hour shows about these people hanging out and being in this extended second act of their lives, that’s what programmed my family's brains and everybody else on the block. I always fantasized about being one of these programmers—I just wanted to get to L.A. and make one of these shows that make people happy.
AVC: The most immediately striking thing about Community is the cast, which is loaded with ringers like Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, Ken Jeong, and John Oliver. How were you able to assemble this all-star team of comedy?
DH: By miracles, especially with Joel. Let’s face it: Unless you’re doing something for HBO or FX, it really comes down to whether your star is likeable. And Joel is likeable to the extreme—to the point where you can give him a little bit of unlikable characteristics and all it is is Han Solo, a loveable scoundrel. Joel read the script and liked it, and that was just my good fortune. And the same thing happened with Chevy Chase. The rest of it was just this painstaking slash dysfunctional slash collaborative slash tug-of-war stalemate of spending the entire pre-production time trying to make everybody happy. And it was a race neutral process on top of it. There’s this realistic random assembly to the cast; instead of the bridge of Star Trek you have a black housewife and a black teenager and a white Tracy Flick—though we looked at 8 million Latina and Asian Tracy Flicks and came up with zero. It was this organic process that gave us a realistic smattering of human life.
AVC: Chevy Chase’s character seems informed by his real-life back-story. Both Chase and his character Pierce Hawthorne were really successful but burned a lot of bridges, and now they're looking for redemption.
DH: Absolutely. That was the thing that excited me the most. There’s all this meta-intersection of what Chevy is doing by being on the show and what Pierce Hawthorne is doing by going to community college. Chevy keeps saying in interviews that we still haven’t told him what he’s doing at community college. [Laughs.] It’s the same reason why he’s doing the show—it’s this redemptive/anti-redemptive act. What makes Chevy and Pierce heroic is this refusal to stop. Chevy is so enduring. He’s been vilified on his meandering career path dozens of times, and yet he shows up on screen and all my jaded 25-year-old friends that told me not to cast the guy from Cops And Robbersons are lighting up my phone with messages and quoting his lines. I think people have wanted to love Chevy for a long time.
AVC: But Pierce isn’t the cool wise-ass Chase normally plays.
DH: I warned him. I said, “You realize I’ve never seen you not be Chevy Chase. This guy is kind of a clown. The joke is on him.” And he said, “Well, I think the joke was always on Clark Griswold.” And he’s right. He thinks about this more than I do.
AVC: You’ve said that Community is based on your real-life experiences going to community college in your early 30s. You already had a successful career at that point. Why go back to school?
DH: I wanted to save a relationship with my then-girlfriend. She was going to take a dance class at the local community college, and I thought we should take Spanish together. Because we’ll have to drive there and drive back, and we’ll be in a class together where we’ll be underdogs together and we’ll have things to study and learn. [Laughs.] It will force us to communicate and interact and have fun together. It didn’t work, but while I was there I became part of a study group of people I normally wouldn’t hang out with, because I’m very agoraphobic and narcissistic and solipsistic. But I was in this group with these knuckleheads and I started really liking them, even though they had nothing to do with the film industry and I had nothing to gain from them and nothing to offer them. There was a flash where it was like, “Oh shit, this is what normal people do all the time.” So, I tucked that away for a rainy day when my conceptual pitches stop selling. When NBC was interested in working with me, it was like, let’s bring out the simple, grounded, realistic idea.
AVC: So you’re the Joel McHale character?
DH: Yeah. You know, he’s definitely the televised version of me. [Laughs.] There’s a scene in the pilot where he’s on the football field with John Oliver and he says, “I discovered when I was a kid that if I talk long enough I can make anything right or wrong.” That sums up what I was feeling at that community college. I had spent all of my life empowering myself, proving I was a big boy and could do whatever I wanted. But that’s only half of a life. So, in that respect, the character is me. But at this point it’s just Joel McHale saying stuff. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you still get the urge to take an idea, made a video about it, and post it the same day?
DH: I just did that yesterday to promote our move to 8 p.m. I made a video in my car on the way to work, talking to myself about moving to 8 and getting really profane about it. I put it up on Twitter and then I took it down because I thought, “Isn’t this what you always do? [Laughs.] Don’t you keep getting fired from stuff because you have this weird compulsion for self-destruction? Don’t you think NBC will get pissed off if you’re on the Internet going, ‘Fuck you, we’re moving to 8! Fuck you!’” The joke was that it was a viral video and it’s just me saying fuck over and over. It’s truly harmless. But I took it down because it’s like, “You’re 36 years old. Buy a house. This is your only season.”
AVC: You think Community will only last a season?
DH: My objective is to get this up and running the way a TV show can, because when you have that kind of desire from the industry for something to work you can take advantage of it. You can Apatow it, you know—set up a machine that chugs out something hopefully of quality. And then go and follow your bliss. But that’s going to be a long time coming. I want to make sure the first season is something I can look back on, because this is obviously going to be the first and last time I have this kind of access.
AVC: Before working on Community you were co-creator and executive producer of The Sarah Silverman Program. Why did you leave the show?
DH: Sarah and I did good work together but we didn’t work well together. The way she put it is she wanted to be the only crazy person in the room. [Laughs.] It was her show. She had the justifiable expectation that we would be honored and humbled to work on the show we created together. It was a shock to her when I was thinking the whole time, “You’re Jerry Seinfeld and I’m Larry David, let’s fucking do this.” It was the biggest compliment I could bestow on somebody, but it was an incredibly offensive proposition for someone who’s been waiting as long for such a well-deserved shot as Sarah. We get along fine, and we’ve never said a bad thing about each other’s creative contributions. I remain a huge fan of her, and I hope she can work on Community at some point.
AVC: Have you worked with Rob lately?
DH: Nothing currently right now. Rob is still over at The Sarah Silverman Program, running that thing, and I’m over here. The last thing Rob and I did together was for the 81st Oscars, when Hugh Jackman hosted. We wrote the music and lyrics for his opening number. The last time I saw Rob was at the Emmys—we won one for that.
AVC: Are you still working on a Heat Vision And Jack movie script?
DH: We were doing that for a while, but that’s a real sword in the stone, creatively. What pleases one entity is the opposite of what another entity wants. Even if you had eight people and two studios that were completely simpatico, that would still be a tough row to hoe, adapting what was essentially a valentine to ’80s television into a three-act feature. Every writer I’d run into at a party in Los Angeles would sooner or later reveal that they had been asked to do a re-write on the Heat Vision movie at some point.
AVC: How has you improv background in Milwaukee impacted your subsequent career?
DH: It’s all-encompassing. The way I learned how to function as a human being, how to write, and how to collaborate—as much as I can—with other writers and producers, it’s all based on the principles I learned as a high schooler in ComedySportz. Just the basic improv stuff of saying “yes” instead of “no” as often as you possibly can, always assuming the other person is right no matter how fucked up they sound. If you’re genuinely creative you’re going to find a way to make what this person is doing work for you. I think that’s what got me and Rob through the alternative ’90s. We stuck out because in a very nerdy way we were very enthusiastic about everything. We loved Hollywood, we loved television, we weren’t sticking our hands in our pockets and waiting for someone to think we were cool.