The creator of Community discusses the new documentary about him, the appeal of his podcast, and his irresistible impulses.
“I’m trying to be a better person. Didn’t you guys see the movie?” Dan Harmon was grappling with a moral dilemma near the end of recording his podcast Harmontown at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Saturday night. Most of the sold-out crowd had just watched Neil Berkeley’s documentary Harmontown, which chronicles the podcast tour Harmon took across America shortly after being fired from Community, the NBC sitcom he created. The live taping was wrapping up as it usually did—with another session in an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaign—and he had just managed to successfully flee from a fire creature. Now he was drunk off Mill St. Organic, vodka, and a 125-proof alcohol called Earthshine, and trying to resist the nagging urge to have his character break into a house.
A similar kind of impulse once led Harmon to play an insulting and profane voicemail he’d received from one of Community‘s co-stars, Chevy Chase, during a recording of the podcast one night. The move was partly responsible for Harmon being ousted in 2012 from the show he’d run for three wildly inventive seasons—and a prime example of the kind of behaviour that inspired recurring Community guest star John Oliver to describe Harmon in the documentary as “a human hand grenade with a predilection for pulling his own pin.”
When Harmon was hired by CBS and FOX to write separate scripts shortly after his exit from Community, he chose to try and get those done while on tour. “It was running away from that commitment that took me on the road,” Harmon told us at Hemingway’s before the screening on Saturday night. “I sat down, tried to write two pilots, couldn’t. Like, didn’t know how to begin and then went on the road. And took a crew with me to make it seem like it was a productive thing.” He hired Berkeley—who had attracted his attention with the documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing about artist Wayne White—to direct the film and gave him the freedom to make the movie he wanted. “He could have made me look terrible,” Harmon said. “More importantly, he could have made a really bad movie. And that’s what I was really worried about. Because, as I’ve said a few times, I’d rather be a bad person in a good movie than a good person in a bad movie. And my big fear was that it would be a bad movie.”
The film follows Harmon as he takes his show from city to city, each night assuming his natural role as self-appointed Mayor of Harmontown. He’s joined onstage during the tour by his girlfriend Erin McGathy, comptroller and comedian Jeff B. Davis, Dungeon Master Spencer Crittenden, and a few surprise guests ranging from Patton Oswalt to Jason Sudeikis. Always an unscripted affair, a typical night involves Harmon getting inebriated to some degree and talking about whatever happens to be on his mind at any given moment. And the unfiltered and frequently funny thoughts that he works through in front of the audience have started to fulfill an important role in his life.
“What I’ve come to realize is that it’s half of therapy,” he said. “I think the other half is someone listening, a mental health therapist. I used to denounce that in my podcast. But definitely the first half of a journey is letting your thoughts be known, exploring what they are.” Those drawn to listen to what he has to say are a group of devoted fans united in feeling like outcasts—and they’ll often end up onstage, too. Crittenden himself only became a staple after going to a show one night with the sole purpose of playing Dungeons & Dragons with Harmon, and he now also works for Harmon as a personal assistant. “It’s like the way we look at nudists or something,” Harmon said of the show’s appeal. “We tend to write them off because it turns out they’re kind of creepy, and they just want to be naked, but the idea of, what if you laid bare, what if you indulged, what if you were just yourself, would you get kicked out of humanity? And if the answer’s no, then that’s something people want to know.”
Harmon’s candour sometimes gets him into trouble, as it did in the case of the Chevy Chase incident. But he insists he only ever worries about going too far when what he says ripples through the media cycle. “After the podcast, I always feel great,” he said. “Then sometimes there will be something I’ll say in a podcast that somebody else will go, ‘TMZ took a quote from the podcast.’ And then TMZ will have a headline that says, ‘Dan Harmon Says That All Black People Like Carrots.’ And then Huffington Post will say, ‘Here’s a headline: TMZ Reports That Dan Harmon Said That All Black People Like Carrots.” Then it will be, ‘All Black People Like Carrots.’ Black Times.”
Some of the most uncomfortable moments in the film depict tension between Harmon and his girlfriend. At one point, we listen as they describe a fight they had recently. “What I see in the movie, that I never saw before, was that I’m kind of a shitty boyfriend,” Harmon said. “I think it was really hard on our relationship. I think Erin wanted personal time with me and the extent that she would continue to be frustrated by that, she would start to worry about how much she was seeming like a bitch on camera.”
The two are getting married in about a month and have started couples therapy in an effort to strengthen their bond. “I want to make sure that the day we get married, we’re like, ‘All right, not every day moving forward is going to be perfect—however, we’re also not doing this just to do it,'” Harmon said. He conceded that counselling has not been the easiest for someone like him. “I feel like I could play Minecraft for three months and then Erin would be like, ‘I haven’t seen you for three months,’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh, really? I didn’t know. I still love you.’ But it wouldn’t be enough for her.”
Harmon is also back at work on the second season of the animated Adult Swim program Rick & Morty, which he co-created with Justin Roiland. And he’ll be putting together a sixth season of Community—he returned to the show for its fifth season on NBC only to see it cancelled at the end of the year, but it’s now been picked up by Yahoo. He’s cautiously optimistic about the sitcom’s new home. “For five years, I worked for a company that kept inheriting the show year after year and wondering how to get rid of it. And now we are working for a network that actually paid top dollar for the version of the show that was disposed of,” he said. “It’s a very Daddy Warbucks situation. There are times where you wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop, but in the end, it’s like, they seem like incredibly rational, passionate people. It feels like it may be a match made in heaven.”
Although Community will now feature a couple of new actors and Yvette Nicole Brown will be leaving the cast, Harmon says audiences shouldn’t expect any drastic changes—just as he urged Berkeley not to expect any growth from him during the making of the documentary. And as the podcast at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema drew to a close—after Harmon had spent more than two hours discussing his waning sex drive with guest comptroller Bobcat Goldthwait, parsing the touchy subject of gender with a transgendered fan named Jane who’d come from New York, and welcoming his dungeon master Crittenden to the stage—Harmon found himself having to decide what his Dungeons & Dragons character should do in front of that house, and gave in to another one of his impulses.
“I break in,” he declared with only a hint of remorse.
It was just another night in Harmontown.
Harmontown will be playing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema at 9:15 p.m. on October 8 and 9.