A documentary about the Oprah of ineffectual white people
by Thom Yee
I don’t know if there’s a better way to garner no website traffic than to write / about a documentary / about a podcast / by the creator / of a low-rated sitcom / cancelled by NBC / with a new season available exclusively online / on a streaming service no one’s heard of / owned by Yahoo. But here it goes anyways:
If you know of him at all, you probably know Dan Harmon from his critically lauded, much-maligned and poorly Nielsen-rated television show, Community (if you know of that show at all… which you should). It was his time as series creator, executive producer and showrunner for much of that show’s run that Harmon gained fame and notoriety, the show and its creator growing a ferociously dedicated (but small) fan base. Co-workers, be they directors, writers or actors, have also been fiercely loyal to the man. Well, except for Chevy Chase.
It’s during one of Harmon’s performances for his podcast, also called Harmontown, that Harmon famously played back to the audience one of the (rightfully or not) legendary Chase’s angry voicemails to the attending audience:
I hope you’re ready to take your medicine, you fat f*ck. You didn’t give us a script to begin with, so nobody knew what the f*ck was going on during the week. Second of all, your g*dda*mn bad writing, sh*t stinko f*ck, was an abomination, and your writing is getting worse, so suck my c*ck. I don’t get talked to like that by anybody, certainly not in front of my wife and daughter, you g*dd*mn asshole, alcoholic, fat sh*t. You’re gonna live to be about fifty-seven, if you’re lucky, the way you eat. I have nothing to say to you except you can suck my c*ck. Is that clear? And I hope you can play that for everybody around you who agrees with you that you should say “f*ck you” in front of all of those people, to me and my family. You think that’s the right way to behave? If you were here right now, I’d f*cking kick your f*cking teeth out.”
So there was always that.
Despite any of the acclaim Community may have scraped together during its first two seasons, the show still struggled through ratings-starved conditions for most its run, but it wasn’t until the end of the show’s third season that things really went off the rails. Fresh off the fan-driven “Save Community” campaign generated after NBC left the show off its 2012 spring schedule, Harmon was fired from Community — the show that he had created and labored over, a show based on his own experiences in community college — on May 18th, 2012, the day after the last episode of the third season had aired.
Following the firing, Harmon devoted himself to the Harmontown podcast, turning what was once a live monthly comedy show into a weekly affair, one that’s continued to this day even after Harmon’s brief rehiring for Community season five. Harmontown the documentary and the subject of this review, was shot during Dan Harmon’s time away from the show.
In January of 2013, seven months after his dismissal as showrunner from NBC’s Community, Dan Harmon set off on a national bus tour to perform his [popular?] podcast, Harmontown, in more than twenty cities across America (twenty-one is more than twenty). Accompanying him on the tour and onstage were regulars Jeff B. Davis as emcee (or comptroller of Harmontown), Spencer Crittenden, Harmontown’s Dungeon Master and Erin McGathy, Harmon’s longtime girlfriend. Through different stops, the four were also joined by a cavalcade of special guest stars, including Jason Sudeikis, Bobcat Goldthwait and Marc Maron. Harmontown the documentary is the story of that fateful January.
So I’m going to start off with the very real fact that I personally have a lot of respect for Dan Harmon. He created my second favourite television show of all time (and to Community’s credit, the first will probably never be knocked off its perch), a show that’s shocking, brilliant, funny beyond reason and wise beyond its years. For me, Community has become a point of kinship between me and more than a few other people I might not otherwise have anything to talk about, and in it’s own way, it’s actually affected the course of my life (though possibly for the worse). I’ve written essays, critical analyses, and speeches on it. It’s one of only a few examples of fiction that consistently leaves me in awe of its resplendent glory. It’s a show that, even without its emotional resonance, would still stand out on the basis of its humor and concepts, and it’s so clearly a singular piece that exists only through the mind of Harmon (a fact we can empirically prove with the show’s unfortunate and Harmon-less fourth season).
Dan Harmon looks like he smells bad. He claims to shower only irregularly at best and the people who spend the most time around him frequently reference his B.O. He’s publicly stated his ambitions as “I am going to be a millionaire and I’m going to smell like a butt.” He’s scruffy in a way that it’s difficult to imagine where or how to start with cleaning up. He’s been fired from more than one television show, can be hard to work with, and he, self-admittedly, can be pretty horrible to be around. He looks like the kind of guy who’s had a tough time of things, who definitely bears a grudge against certain parties from the formative years of his life, and if he doesn’t have trouble looking himself in the mirror, it’s because he’s already given up. And I don’t know if he likes himself. Like, at all.
So pretty much like every writer I’ve ever met. Only successful and I don’t automatically hate him.
I think it’s important to note that in its native form (i.e., on its usual non-tour dates), Harmontown is performed in Los Angeles’ Meltdown Comics. Normally a person doesn’t go into a comicbook shop. Normally a person doesn’t go into a comic shop to talk about comicbooks. Normally a person doesn’t buy comics. Normally a person doesn’t buy comics, doesn’t play roleplaying games, and doesn’t talk about either of those things, and normally a person looks down on any person who does any of those things. It’s important to note that because it’s all of those abnormalities that define the Harmontown podcast at its core.
The Harmontown documentary begins with an image of Harmon’s cat before setting in to Harmon and his girlfriend Erin in bed after what looks like their first really good sleep back at home shortly after the completion of his twenty-one-city bus tour. Before setting off on the film’s journey, Harmon poses the question to himself “What did I learn?”, followed by a series of talking heads (fish in a barrel!) by some of his most famous friends talking about who is Dan Harmon. I think John Oliver puts it best when he calls him “a human hand grenade who has a predilection for pulling his own pin out.” He’s obviously self-destructive, gregarious and explosive, but Yvette Nicole Brown (Community’s Shirley) manages to capture what makes his work so fundamentally worthwhile: “There’s a running theme in his work… he reaches out to people that aren’t used to being reached out to.”
More than anything else, there’s a sadness that pervades Harmontown, informed first from a lack of acceptance, then an overabundance of acceptance, and then how hard and unacceptable it is to settle into that acceptance (plus more than a little self-indulgence). In creating Community, and in particular being fired from a show with such a fanatical fan-following, Harmon has found himself with everything he’s ever wanted — money, fame, devoted followers, a lifestyle that lets him follow his passions and that has made him the one sought after by network execs. Laced throughout the film are oblique references to pilots he’s writing for CBS and Fox.
What becomes clear from the outset of the tour is that everything Harmon does through Community, through his writing, and through his Harmontown podcast is about appealing to the dregs of society. There’s a segment during one of his podcasts that he specifically calls people up to the stage who feel like they’re the most emotionally damaged, and it’s not overdone or anywhere approaching mean-spirited. It’s about genuine understanding, acceptance, and perhaps a little bit of celebration, not only that it’s okay, but that they’re okay and that we’re all okay. What Harmon has created, with the Harmontown podcast especially, is a space where people can feel safe more than they usually ever do, even if it’s on stage, and even though the whole show usually ends up being crass and drunk and unfocused and out of control, the only ones who should feel left out are the emotionally healthy. He begins calling his followers Harmenians, describing one as “a nerd full of love.”
The message is making itself really clear… I think it’s that idea of trust, of free fall, throw yourself out a window… don’t know what’s going to happen, don’t look ahead… in this, nothing can go wrong because it’s nothing that we’re doing. ~ Dan Harmon
The central point of struggle in Harmontown, or at least the one most easily followed through the film’s narrative, is that despite his success and also because of it, Dan Harmon is still nowhere near where he wants to be. He now exists in a world that feeds his ego, he can’t stop himself from being horrible to other people, and he needs to grow up.
I don’t want anyone to have to deal with the fact that I sometimes can be incredibly cruel. Over the last twenty years I have begged and pleaded to every expert I could find to flip the switch and make me never ever do that to another human being again. I want to be the activated, healthy version of myself. I want my cathexes to be stripped away. I want what remains to be someone capable of changing the world, and, more importantly, I want to remove this part of me that can do so much damage to the most important people in my life.
At least in this film, it seems like most of that is Harmon talking specifically about his relationship with his then girlfriend, now wife, Erin.
Despite how obviously important it’s become to him to reach out to the disaffected, he can’t overcome himself, and eventually he winds up posing himself as the villain of the film’s journey. And, according to his logic, his counterpoint, the hero of the tale, must therefore be Spencer Crittenden, the Dungeon Master.
Spencer, who some of you might recognize as Annie’s younger brother from Community’s fifth season, literally became a part of the show because he wanted to meet Dan Harmon and play Dungeons & Dragons with him. Spencer’s high-level D&D knowledge made him a natural fit for the show’s D&D sessions (again, the show is recorded in a comicbook store) in a way that he never seemed to be a fit anywhere else, and eventually he became Harmon’s assistant. Though the position that Spencer is the Harmontown’s hero is a bit of a stretch, Harmon points out:
He’s been plucked from the security of his parents’ basement and whisked across the threshold into a strange land to which he has adapted, going down a road of trials, dealing with drunk dicks and adoring fans. He’s met with the goddess of unconditional appreciation, and all of this has only caused him to realize how alone he’s always going to be. It’s very heroic… sounding stuff. Much more heroic than me. Which makes me realize that I must kill Spencer… or he must kill me.
And no matter what you think of any of that, it is, at the very least, nice to see people ask for pictures with him and hug him and ask for his autograph.
I guess the point of Harmontown is that almost nobody’s happy with who they are and what they’ve become, whether it’s becoming who they set out to be or becoming who they feel they’ve had to be. Every Harmenian wants nothing more than a small measure of acceptance, but more importantly, they all want to see everybody else be happy. It’s usually the central conceit of almost everyone compelled to create that they want to share, and in so sharing become a part of the connective tissue binding us all together, no matter how much we’ve become hateful or embittered or disaffected, and in Harmontown we see a man who’s found himself able to share more than most. It’s easy to dismiss Dan Harmon and his work, perhaps more easily than most given the slovenly ways in which Harmon carries himself, but maybe we should be asking ourselves why we’re so quick to be so dismissive. Harmontown isn’t directly entertaining in the sense of queuing it up when you’re bored and have two hours to waste, but hopefully in watching it you can see that sliver of hope that has the potential to unite us all, and even if the documentary is almost exclusively for fans only, maybe after watching it you’ll wonder why you aren’t a fan.
Harmontown final score: 8
On the Edge
- As long as all goes well and the CRTC hasn’t found a way to exclude Canadians from watching American content like it always seems to and like it always gets everything wrong or Yahoo doesn’t forget Canada exists all tucked away down there like most American companies always seem to, we should be picking up Community coverage this week, season six now available exclusively on Yahoo Screen.