Thursday, December 4, 2014

Hizzoner: Dan Harmon

Dan Harmon (left) with members of the cast of Community

The TV creator Dan Harmon has a devoted fan base of comedy geeks and other nerds who revere him for his offbeat sensibility—Gillian Jacobs, one of the cast members on Harmon’s best-known project, Community, credits him with “reaching out to people who aren’t used to be reached out to”—and his equally offbeat career path. Luckily for normal people who might investigate Harmon’s corpus to see what all the noise is about, he’s also a brilliantly original comic talent whose work acquired new depth over the course of the three (out of five) seasons of Community that he wrote on and supervised. When the show premiered in 2009, it looked like a scattershot gag comedy about a bunch of misfits—a smarmily charismatic phony lawyer, a sanctimonious leftie, a movie addict whose immersion in cinematic unreality is sometimes indistinguishable from autism, a fervently Christian single mom—who form a study group at a low-rent community college. Harmon gradually turned it into a forum where he could parody all manner of obsessions from science fiction tropes and role-action game playing to My Dinner with Andre, and he also dug ever deeper into the characters, using their developing relationships with one another to illuminate their fears, delusions, and insecurities.

He managed to do it without betraying his commitment to comedy and allowing things to get treacly or sentimental. He pulls the same trick in the second broadcast-channel series with his name on it, the animated Rick and Morty, which he co-created with Justin Roiland. Roiland provides the voice of the two main characters: a wild-haired, surly, aging mad scientist named Rick who’s been reduced to moving in with his grown daughter and her family, and his fourteen-year-old grandson, Morty, a virginal loser with a nervous, strangled whine of a voice. The storylines involve trips to alien planets, alternate realities, the land of dreams, and even inside the body of a homeless man; the terrors that Rick introduces his grandson to often become intertwined with the terrors of adolescence and family, which both frequently come down to a persistent fear of never receiving, or deserving, real love.

Morty and Rick on Rick and Morty
Harmon’s fingerprints are clearly visible in both the show’s twisty pop culture spinoffs and the tension underlying Morty’s constant state of hormonal panic and the rickety family dynamic. (Mom is the principal breadwinner, something that both she and her husband are always poised to overreact to in one way or another.) The show’s comedy is even more ruthless than Community’s, but it always manages to sneak in just enough reason for hope—hope that the characters really do mean something to each other—to hold the void at bay. Harmon as some of what Veronica Geng, writing about the filmmaker Preston Sturges, once described as the “supreme gift for making people laugh without representing the world as better or worse than it is.” In Sturges’ case, that meant making sophisticated slapstick romantic comedies like The Lady Eve and Unfaithfully Yours—movies that end on a triumphant note of lovers coming together in erotic, martial bliss, even as the comedy rises from the acknowledgment that people who are in love may have some very ugly things going on beneath the surface.

The best proof of how special Harmon’s gift is, and how distinctive his voice is, may be the fourth season of Community, which was cobbled together by other hands after NBC fired the beloved series’ creator but decided it wasn’t done with his creation. After that season was coolly received, the network sheepishly rehired Harmon for the fifth and final season, which immediately felt more like Community, even though two of the original cast members bailed out. One difference between Harmon and Preston Sturges is that Harmon, living in a modern age of social media and self-conscious pop culture, is not only more open about using his comedy to explore his own neuroses and dissatisfactions and other qualities than a person of an earlier generation would have been expected to keep to himself, but goes out of his way to use whatever platform he can find to conduct his self-therapy sessions, which can double as a means of connecting to his audience.

That audience comprises the population of “Harmontown,” the title of a podcast that honors Harmon with the title of “Mayor” of his own cybervillage of fans of kindred spirits. In the months between his firing and rehiring at Community, Harmon literally took his show on the road, going cross-country for a series of live appearances at sold-out venues, which in turn were turned into podcast episodes. The tour was also filmed, by director Neil Berkeley—who previously made Beauty Is Embarrassing, starring another likely kindred spirit, the pop artist Wayne White—and has been released as a documentary, also titled Harmontown. The movie is a keepsake of the tour, and gives Harmon fans a chance to see themselves or people like them flashing beatific smiles of gratitude and satisfaction at Harmon as he spritzes, answers questions, or just geeks out onstage. (The performances included a segment where one of Harmon’s sidekicks, Spencer Crittenden, would take the lead in a spirited game of Dungeons & Dragons.)

Harmon has come a long way in his writing, and he’s also come a long way in his relationship with the audience. He originally came west with Rob Schrab, his partner in a Milwaukee sketch comedy group, after Oliver Stone’s production company optioned Schrab’s independent comic book series Scud the Disposable Assassin. After being blown off in their efforts to collaborate on a Scud screenplay, Harmon and Schrab co-wrote a 1999 TV pilot, Heat Vision and Jack, a pretzel-twist genre parody starring Jack Black as an astronaut who has become freakishly smart after receiving “inappropriate levels of solar energy”—“I know… everything!” Black bellows in the opening title sequence—and Owen Wilson as the voice of his sentient talking motorcycle. (The cast also included Ron Silver, playing “Ron Silver,” a famous actor whose career is a cover for his real work as an indestructible super-villain in the employ of NASA.) Heat Vision and Jack would become one of the jewels in the crown of The Other Network, a festival of busted TV pilots sponsored by the Los Angeles live comedy venue Un-Cabaret, and Brilliant But Cancelled, a programming block devoted to underappreciated TV shown on the ambitious, short-lived Trio cable channel.

Dan Harmon feelin' the love, in Harmontown

Heat Vision and Jack is a one-of-a-kind entertainment, but it’s a little surprising to hear Harmon and Schrab saying, in Harmontown, that they were crushed when it wasn’t picked up for a series; it plays like a self-contained joke on the nature of TV, and it’s hard to imagine the world needing more than one episode of it, let alone multiple seasons. But Harmon and Schrab reaction to discovering that the film and TV industry devotes most of its energy to preventing people from getting movies and TV shows made was admirable: they started Channel 101, their own monthly festival devoted to the creation of short (under five minutes) “pilots” that may “go to series” if the reaction by the live theater audience is strong enough to justify making additional installments. (Rick and Morty has its roots in shorts that Roilams made for Channel 101 that Harmon has described as “a pornographic vandalization” of the Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd characters in Back to the Future.) The shows that Harmon himself made for Channel 101 tended to be more weird genre parodies, on budgets so low that they’re often the main joke. His biggest hit was Laser Fart, in which Harmon himself played the title character, a superhero who … well, check the title. It’s tempting to suppose that Harmon made this crude, one-joke show to give the Channel 101 audience the chance to reaffirm his faith in the viewing public by rejecting it. If so, things backfired: by popular acclaim, it was brought back for ten episodes, each of which looked a little junkier and more uninspired than the last.

In Harmontown the movie, you can see fans talking about what Harmon and his work mean to them, and you can see what their appreciation does for him: at once point, he surfs the crowd, while his announcer talks about him as “a big, hairy toddler” who charges people for the privilege of hoisting him above their heads and not dropping him, making the whole thing sound less like a rock-star mosh pit move than a gigantic trust exercise. It’s sweet and funny, but it’s also disappointing in the end, because as Kevin Courrier pointed out in a roundup of current documentaries last spring, the movie goes too soft on Harmon himself. (He’s listed as one of the executive producers.) At one point, Harmon does a show while drunk, and we see him wandering through the crowd talking to audience members (while others hide their faces, though it’s hard to tell whether they’re mortified or just camera-shy) and castigating himself the morning after. And we see him talking to the people at the next show about what he perceives to have been a disaster, and saying that he had to remove a lot of material from the version that went into the podcast because he was ashamed of it. But from what we see, there’s no way to get a sense of what actually went down: was he dull and rambling, or incoherent, or was he abusive?

Similarly, when Harmon and his girlfriend (who accompanies him on the tour) are onstage together talking about a fight they had the night before, you get the feeling that whatever happened was uglier than Harmon wants to admit, and the gap between his desire to win points for candor—opening himself up to the live audience and the camera, admitting that he’s not always an easy guy to get along with—and the movie’s vagueness about just what went down is frustrating. It’s especially frustrating because Harmon’s capacity for emotional and verbal abuse seems to be a big piece of the puzzle of his life and career. (He was hired to work with Sarah Silverman on her Comedy Central series, and she appears in Harmontown talking about how she had to cut him loose because of the unpleasant atmosphere he created when he felt he wasn’t getting his way, even though his work was so brilliant that she hated to lose his creative input.) “I went a little overboard tonight with the honesty,” he says after one show. “It’s a little self-destructive.” That seems to be how he wants to be seen, but as self-destructive as Harmon may still be, he’s learned to take advantage of editing live reality to protect his hard-won likability. He’s some kind of comic genius, but like Richard Pryor, he may have the kind of genius that doesn’t easily co-exist with stability and feelings of acceptance. When Harmon talks, towards the end of the movie, about finally having everything he’s wanted, he frames it as a mystery: why is it that, now that he has everything he’s wanted, he’s still volatile and dissatisfied. For some of us who are his fans, that’s a cheering thing to hear.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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