It’s been an interesting couple of years in the career of Community showrunner Dan Harmon: He was fired and re-hired from the show, which was canceled by NBC and then un-canceled by Yahoo. Between all of that, Harmon helped bring the animated sci-fi comedy Rick And Morty to Adult Swim and took his popular podcast, Harmontown, on a cross-country tour. That 16-city jaunt forms the basis for a documentary film also called Harmontown, currently in theaters and available on VOD. Prior to visiting New York, San Francisco, Austin, Houston, and Chicago with both Harmontowns, Harmon spoke with The A.V. Club about the documentary, the effects that first tour had on him, and the unexpected Cougar Town crossover Community fans can expect in season six.
The A.V. Club: How does it feel to revisit the period in your life depicted in Harmontown?
Dan Harmon: It’s a little weird. I’ve been through the worst of worrying whether this movie is good or bad or what people are going to think about it. Now that I’m exhausted by it, I’ll occasionally get a tweet from somebody who’s just replying to a promotional tweet—they’re writing to me and going, “Why would I want to see that? Who the fuck are you?” Come on, I just got done with this journey. But it’s the nature of the business, so here we go.
As far as the actual glimpses of myself, I think when I watch it I still marvel at how shitty a boyfriend I’ve managed to stay, having seen this movie a couple times. “Man, when are you going to learn to kiss her on the forehead after one of your hilarious, dry bits about how you don’t love her?”
AVC: Does it feel like so much time has past since the tour?
DH: It’s like a different lifetime. I tend to have that. I have a very bad memory, and I have a very kind of mercurial career path, so there are these intense relationships with projects and then one day, you look back and go, “Oh, wait, what? I worked at Kung Fu Panda for a year? I don’t remember who that is, what that was, or why that happened.” So it does.
This movie seems like a window into some different past. Obviously, for most of the movie, you’re watching a guy that is coping with the fact that he had a sitcom on NBC and no longer has it and is saying to himself, “Okay, this is my new life: the guy that tries to write a new script that hopefully can try to be as good as Community’s pilot. I’ve got to start this whole process over again.” That’s the guy you’re watching. Then, at the end of the movie—because it took so long to shoot it and edit it—you find out, oh, he went back to Community. But then, while you’re watching the movie, you’re like, oh, then NBC canceled it. And then Yahoo picked it up. There are, like, six transformative plot twists. You have to just look at it like Titanic: I know the ship sinks, but this is a love story.
AVC: Your mantra throughout Harmontown is “I hope we can make these people happy.” You want to go out on stage and you want to entertain the audience, and you do. But there’s also a point, later in the film, when podcast co-host Jeff B. Davis says you know exactly what to say to hurt someone’s feelings. Do you feel like those abilities are two sides of the same coin?
DH: Absolutely, I think so. I think it represents disconnection. Disconnection can be a weapon or a curse. I love The Aviator and I love The Social Network—I have a fetish for, or maybe just a comfort in, stories about people who are different from other people who use it as a superpower. It’s sort of fantasy fulfillment, because I feel like I’m up against a big wall or piece of Plexiglas most of my life. Day to day, it is an inconvenience. It’s not painful, it’s just a constant inconvenience to feel disconnected from other people. And then there’s these moments where you just give into the fact that it’s a superpower. It’s like, “Oh, I don’t have nerve endings, I can walk into this burning building. Or I can just take a punch. Or I can punch harder.” I’m so caught up trying to overcome this handicap, I forgot I could crush this person’s head with my hands.
I’m not saying any of those things are accurate. I don’t think I’m that badass in any context, but in those moments, it’s the same thing. It’s all on the same axis. I’m not one of these people who knows what to say. I don’t take a compliment right, and I don’t give them at the right times. I can’t make small talk, and I don’t receive or send social cues properly. I watch people tell each other the right things and I’m like, “Goddammit, why didn’t that occur to me? She got a haircut—I didn’t say anything, I didn’t notice.” It’s a bummer. And then you’re like, “It’s not a bummer: I’m going to fucking take over the world.”
AVC: Having done the podcast for a while, having done the tour, putting out the documentary—has any of this helped your ability to form those connections in a positive way?
DH: I think that now—I’m going to couples therapy with my fiancée, and watching the documentary, watching myself interact with Erin in that one scene, I’m like, “Oh man, I didn’t know what that looks like.” I’m watching a documentary as a viewer. As I have so many times, I have those judgments of those characters: It’s as simple as, “Hey, why don’t you? Why don’t you break character and actually, sincerely tell her she’s pretty? Why can’t you do that?” That feels like it’s had a big impact.
I don’t know how much it’s changed my behavior. I can’t sit in an interview and go, “Yeah, I’m way better now, I’m an awesome boyfriend now. She’d have to be the one to set me free of that.” We started going to couples counseling in anticipation of getting married, and the things I see play out in the movie, on a personal level, solidify the tools I’m learning in couples therapy. They teach you that actually, when it comes to living the rest of your life with a person, intimately—which is no more natural than, for instance, wearing one hat or eating one food—it’s either healthy or unhealthy, it’s something you’re going to have to put some energy into. And it’s a good opportunity to learn that people have little dances that they do with each other. They’re social constructs, but they’re meaningful to people. You can learn the rules of, like, these are the three things that an apology actually accomplishes when it’s being done right. You can run down the list in your head: Is this a real apology? Or they will tell you, if you’re a healthy couple, 85 percent of your communications are positive—there’s that 15 percent that are negative. If it falls below 85 percent positive, it becomes this toxic relationship. For every shitty thing you mutter into your coffee cup, just make sure there are four or five nice things. If you emulate that behavior, it’ll start to take in your head. The behavior begets the feeling and the thinking.
AVC: You mentioned that going back and watching the documentary feels like watching a character on the screen. What was it like to be at the center of someone else’s creative endeavor—in this case, Harmontown director Neil Berkeley?
DH: Well, Neil’s creative endeavor is he’s just on the wall, so it actually felt fine. I love the idea that everything I’m doing is so important that there’s a camera in the background when, in fact, it’s not important when I’m brushing my teeth. But every time you brush your teeth, there’s a guy in the corner of the bathroom shooting you. It helps me. I’m like, “You know, I do brush my teeth great. It is important to capture this moment—it’s 30 seconds in 600 hours of footage.” You’re never going to see yourself brushing your teeth, it’s not important at all, but I’d rather live my life that way. I think I’d love to have a camera crew follow me around.
It was fine. I didn’t feel like, “Oh, this is Neil’s portrait and I’m just a figure in it.” He’s not that kind of personality. He’s a good documentarian because he gives himself over to the capturing of someone else’s bullshit.
AVC: Was it freeing at all to be around cameras and a film crew and not have to be in control of the situation?
DH: Yeah, I kind of liked it. It’s like, “Look, I’m living the life. There are these guys floating around.” It’s a big nightmare in my life, the idea of, “Oh, I’m talking right now and why the hell am I talking? Is this other person—does he hate me? Is he bored? What’s the story?” Reducing the burden to someone whose job is to look through an eyepiece at what you’re doing because you’re so goddamned fascinating—it may not be for healthy reasons, but I took to it like a fish to water.
AVC: The A.V. Clubbers wouldn’t want this interview to end without a few Community-related questions, so: How far along is season six of Community right now? Can you give us any idea of when we can expect to see new episodes, and what we might expect to see in those episodes?
DH: [Sarcastically.] Well, I want to be really clear on the point that we have no idea if we want Alison Brie on the show. [Laughs.]
It is already mildly concerning to me how little specific work we’ve got done. The couple of conversations we’ve had—we have to bring in new characters and we’re talking about 13 episodes, when the 13 episodes are going to be happening—I don’t know. I’ve been all over the place.
When you say “A.V. Clubbers,” I’m like, “Oh God—the boss is in the office. What have I been doing?” I’m straightening my papers and taking down the titty posters. There’s a lot of exciting stuff to talk about, but it’s the nature of the thing: If I talk about it, it’ll either be misinformation in two weeks’ time or it’ll be a spoiler in the best case scenario. It’s going really well. All the writers that were there last year, who were all new last year, are now 13-episode veterans. They’re still kids and they’re still bright-eyed and ravenously dedicated. Now they’ve got a little bit of swagger to their loyalty and their wit and candor. It’s the best situation you can have in a writers’ room. And we’ve added some salty old dogs—notably Kevin Biegel, co-creator of Cougar Town, is donating his time to a show he genuinely loves in spite of having moved well past the ability to create his own shows and do whatever he wants. He’s coming over to help us make his favorite show better.
We had to look at season five as being—I don’t know whether it was good or bad on-screen, but it was a triumph in the writers’ room because we had this guy, Erik Sommers—he was the quarterback. He had the right amount of experience and energy to take a really green writers’ room and turn all of the anxiety into enthusiasm. He was just this great Boy Scout. Because he wasn’t available while we’re doing it for Yahoo—of course Erik Sommers has a new job—going out into the world and saying, “Oh, we need another Boy Scout, another awesome lieutenant who’s going to inspire a sense of meaning in people, whose job is to look at the world in a jaded way,” it was not easy to find that guy. Then here comes little Biegel running in the room, true to his name: tail wagging, nose all wet and cold.