It's hard to know what to say about Dan Harmon that he hasn't said himself, with many levels of self-eviscerating/aggrandizing wit and aplomb. On his weekly, unscripted podcast Harmontown, recorded before a live audience in L.A., the creator of beloved TV shows like NBC's Community and Adult Swim's Rick and Morty talks brilliantly, recklessly and extensively about himself and whatever else is on his mind. There's a co-host (improv comic Jeff B. Davis), an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons game and semi-famous comedic guests, but everything is filtered through and/or instigated by Harmon, a man who once told Grantland he had “always wanted to be that guy, just sitting in front of a microphone and celebrating the fact that he doesn't deserve to be celebrated… and saying 'These are the things that happened to me.'”
In pursuing that agenda, Harmon's podcast became such an important outlet to him that, when he was fired from Community in 2012 prior to its fourth season (he eventually returned for its final season in 2013-14), he decided to spend his new glut of free time taking Harmontown on the road for a 20-city tour. He even decided to make a documentary of the experience, directed by local filmmaker Neil Berkeley. The film finally has its L.A. premiere on Monday, June 16, at LACMA, as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival.]
Speaking with L.A. Weekly, Harmon called the decision to do the tour at all a “very cowardly, petty search for comfort in the face of a transitory stage of my career” and the decision to capture it on film “an attempt to turn that petty, cowardly instinct into something that could be worth money or benefit people emotionally in some way. It was sort of a spiritual bet-hedging: 'I'm going go do this thing that makes myself feel better but let's also call it work.'”
Harmon sought Berkeley out for the project after stumbling across the director's previous documentary, Beauty Is Embarrassing, a critically acclaimed portrait of artist and Pee-wee's Playhouse designer Wayne White. “It was a really good-looking documentary about a guy I had never heard of, a previously unsung hero who was brought into the spotlight by a talented filmmaker,” Harmon said. “I connected those dots and thought 'I'll be that guy too. I'll make this [director] make me look good.'”
Berkeley knew very little about Harmon or his podcast before taking the job, but he could immediately tell that the film's focus would be on the relationship between Harmon and his fans, who “have a texture to them,” Berkeley said. “They've gone through something. And I think Dan is so honest about what he's gone through and what he's done that they breathe a sigh of relief and they say, 'oh man it's okay. We can talk about these things and then move on.'”
To that end, it was Berkeley's idea to bring along Spencer Crittenden, a 23-year-old, heavily-bearded Apple Store employee who still lived at home with his parents but had unwittingly become a recurring character on the podcast when Harmon asked for a volunteer one night to help serve as dungeon master for an impromptu game of Dungeons & Dragons. “Spencer came up and it was immediately evident he was a very interesting, very unflappable guy that people had a lot of affection for,” said Harmon. “His candor and his even-temperedness and his wit and his common sense combine with what you might say is his general nicheness or nerdiness… It's a winning combination for the audience.”
When the 20-city tour was complete, the many hours of footage depicted everything from Harmon getting blackout drunk off an audience member's homemade moonshine to the ongoing strain the journey put on his relationship with his girlfriend Erin McGathy. But through it all, it was evident in editing that Spencer was “the lynchpin that held the whole documentary together,” said Harmon. “The audience looks at him as a proxy for themselves… It's part fantasy fulfillment, it's part just he's a fascinating guy. It's part balancing me out, it's part he's kind of like a young version of me, it's part he'll never be anything like me if he knows what's good for him.”
In retrospect, Harmon said the tour was a kind of validation for him, a connection with fellow humans in the wake of one very powerful entity, NBC, making it clear they didn't want him anymore. “It was a trust exercise,” Harmon said. “It was me checking in with a bunch of misfits as a misfit who had now had his misfit status re-invoked by getting fired and saying, 'OK, so I'm a bad TV producer but am I still a good person? I may need a lot more therapy than that enabling me but that's definitely one vitamin that was needed at that time.”
Not that it's likely Harmon will go to therapy any time soon. He enjoys a weekly audience of rabid listeners, with whom he can be brutally honest with, be exactly who he wants to be, and never lose their attention or adoration. What therapist can offer that?
“I'm one of those people who the fucked up parts of him have more access to the dashboard in the cockpit than the guy who actually gets the work done,” Harmon said. “So it's going to take me a while to get into an office in a strip mall and spill the contents of my head out to a person who I consider an agent of compromise in a world that needs to change before I do.”
Harmontown screens at LACMA's Bing Theater on June 16 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the L.A. Film Festival. Tickets are $13.
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