“Harmontown” follows the creator of NBC’s “Community” as he embarks on a drunken cross-country tour recording his podcast (also called “Harmontown”), while also coming to terms with the many issues that may keep getting him fired, but also make him one of television’s most unique talents.
In the lead up to the release of the documentary, Indiewire sat down with Harmon to learn why he decided to do a podcast in the first place, the importance of honesty to him as a writer and as a person, the difference between “Community” fans and “Harmontown” fans and the battle of dollars that ensued between Yahoo and Hulu, when NBC canceled “Community” this spring.
Let’s start off by talking about the podcast, as that’s such a core part of how this came together. Specifically, what was the initial inspiration or spark behind it?
I think, throughout my life, I’ve gone through phases where due to some circumstance I’ve found myself expressing what’s going on day-to-day. And in those moments I have accidentally achieved a sort of comfort that is normally not available to me. A lot of thoughts bounce around in my head and I look back on my life and — regardless of my income level, regardless of my job prospects, relationship status — the highest-functioning I’ve been, the most clarity I’ve had, has been in times when I’ve hit a rhythm of blogging everyday, somehow just sharing what’s going on up here [points at head] with the room. And not really caring that much about who’s listening. Just getting it out there, being done with it.
So somebody suggested that I do a podcast. I didn’t really know what podcasting culture really was about or how it worked, but I was like, yeah you know what, I probably should. That might fit that slot. So I started doing it without actually podcasting it. I was just like, you know what I should do? I should do a show in that room. And people can come to it and it’ll be like Harry Dean Stanton playing jazz or something. It’ll be a thing you can do in LA: “Did you hear the creator of ‘Community’ gets up on a microphone and he says weird shit?” A private little thing, a little secret in L.A.
Then, sometime after we had a couple really good episodes, I was like, “I wish I had recorded that.” And then the Chevy Chase thing leaked, and it was like, oh, people are going to consume this if you say something scandalous. I’m not going to be keeping a cork on this stuff if people are going to be recording the show with their cell phone and leaking it onto TMZ.
So this is an opportunity for you to be completely yourself on a regular basis.
Yeah, definitely. Yeah.
That was something I was interested in, the concept of honesty for you. Because it seems like something that’s fundamentally really important to what you do.
Yeah, I think it truly is. It’s catastrophically important to me. I think it’s just like… I would say that I’m obsessed about honesty, but to me I’m so obsessed with it it doesn’t seem like you could be obsessed with it. It’s like you’re obsessed with oxygen. Yes, of course I am! If you don’t do it you will die — except, in the case of honesty, people don’t die, they just turn emotionally purple.
I feel like maybe for other people it’s possible to not hold yourself to this weird regimen. It’s like, OK, have I told everybody in the world everything so far today? But for me it’s just… I’ve experienced life not doing that — being strategic, and keeping things to myself and it’s just so miserable, I can’t even describe it.
For you, then, how does that translate into creating a fictional character? I mean, you could say that honesty is almost the exact opposite of fiction-telling.
Well, you could say that. You could also say, though I sound like a pretentious writer, that fiction is only really good when it’s really honest. But what does that mean? It means that when I write, the process of writing involves scooping up things from within myself that hopefully are things you could only find in me — otherwise, why am I doing what I’m doing? — with a healthy dose of things that everyone can understand.
And the combination of those things is connection. I am saying something that only I could say and you know exactly what I mean and that’s insane. That’s an exchange of information, that’s a connection. So that’s what I strive to do with a sitcom: How is this character me, and how are they like everybody else?
Has that always been a part of your process — digging inside yourself then putting it on the page?
Yeah, I’ve always believed that an artist’s job — probably a person’s job, because how would you stop defining an artist? If you’re making a rocking chair are you not [an artist]? You’re creating something and putting it in the world.
So I believe that a creative’s job is to, before they die, somehow cut off the top of their head and take a piece of paper and push firmly on the paper with their brain and leave behind this unique pattern that’s like, “this is how I see the universe. This is how I feel. This is what it was like to be here. I was never born before, I will never be born again. My name is so-and-so, this is what I owe. This is my homework. This is my end of the bargain for being born.”
Part of that is you have to do it, and we all struggle with that. “How do I be more productive? What do I do?” The really important half of it is, who are you? What are you doing? How is what you’re doing different than the guy next to you?
So, when you were first doing the podcast, you were doing this regular expression of yourself, as yourself — and then you were also doing “Community” at the same time. Was there any bleed between those two things?
That’s what was so devastating with the Chevy thing. [During an early “Harmontown” event, Harmon played an angry voicemail “Community” star Chevy Chase had left him.] Before that, it was this blissful compartmentalization. That’s why I felt confident enough to do what I did — which was clearly a mistake.
In retrospect, I didn’t think anybody was paying attention except for the people in that room. I thought that everybody was happy across the board. Like, the show was happy that I didn’t need to turn the show into a place where I vented my frustrations — because we had work to do there. The podcast was happy that I had created “Community,” but also happy that that doesn’t automatically make me a happy person. They like to hear the fantasy-fulfillment of, “I work in a Starbucks right now, but I really wish I was a screenwriter. But, this guy is a screenwriter and he used to work in a Starbucks and he says that it kind of stays the same except you make less coffee and make more screenplays.”
I like that. I want to hear that — because it makes things feel more attainable to me. It makes me feel like what I’m doing right now isn’t a precursor to anything in particular. It’s just one aspect of a full life.
So I thought I was nailing it, I really did. And then I was like, “Oh, Chevy left this voicemail and I want to play it for you.” And all of a sudden, for that to be the way that the “Community” world found out I was doing [“Harmontown”], it was really embarrassing, you know?
Clearly, people were interested in your work because of “Community.” But at this point do you feel like the “Harmontown” audience has a Venn diagram that’s not completely the “Community” audience?
On the one hand I think it would be silly to assume… I think somewhere around 99 percent of the reason people are coming to the door for me is probably “Community” — really because it was like a big deal, is a big deal.
At the same time I do think there’s a distinct difference between “Community” fans and Dan Harmon fans. It’s pretty big. There’s the Venn diagram center-cleavage-spot of people who love watching that show and will never stop watching it, no matter what happens, because I created it and they sense the same things that I talk about in interviews being played out on the screen and boy, they just can’t get enough of everything across the board. Those people are Christ-like in their ability to enjoy something without rejecting some aspect of it.
I think people who love a 200-employee sitcom that makes people happy and doesn’t use the F-word and has an uplifting message of “we can get through this if we stick together” that stars handsome people who have worked for a long time to be on TV, etc. etc… I understand when those people say, “I love the show. I wish the guy who created it would shut the fuck up and die so the show could be better. Because I don’t even care if it’s a little bit worse, I just want him to stop threatening it because I feel like Troy’s real and I want him to hang out with Abed and I don’t like that this person…”
So I understand that, but also I’m a big fan of myself and everything that I do. The people that come to “Harmontown,” the podcast, they like a little bit of darkness with their chocolate because they trust it more, they think it’s more real. They might not even catch every episode of “Community” on time. They don’t think that it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened, necessarily. They think it’s further evidence of how they should follow their bliss and they like to hear me talk about stuff — they’d also probably stab me in the back for a sandwich if they got too hungry. They’re atheists and they’re jaded but they love people and they want to be happy.
“Community” people are on the other end of the spectrum. They’re like, “will you sign this thing as Troy?” Everything’s a continuum. But there are people on the other end who are like, ‘Who are you? What did you have to do with this thing that’s real about people who go to community college?’ I think they’re all great.
Do you know if anyone at Yahoo has seen (the movie) “Harmontown”? Are they aware that there’s a documentary featuring you going on the road…
Drinking fifths of vodka while I talk about hating myself? Yeah, I think they’re aware of the idea, the area. I think they’re into it. I actually addressed it directly with them. I think they’re looking at it as an opportunity to raise more awareness of the thing that’s coming out. These are people who paid so much money for a television show that Hulu had to stop talking about it. And [“Community”] has made Hulu a lot of money. So at some point Yahoo found either the money or the willingness, probably both, to get Hulu out of the conversation about Hulu’s favorite show.
But Hulu had been actively bidding?
Yeah! Like forever, and in the eleventh hour Yahoo scooped it up away from the most likely candidate in the world, which was Hulu. And I’m sure Hulu was not offering a small amount of money. You’d have to talk to Sony about this. But what I’m saying is that these people, one of the things that they had to come to terms with before they made that decision is, “Okay, this is this show. I think we’ve heard of the guy that created it.”
They’ve probably heard the bad stuff. And they are very very cool, effective, smart people. So I’m not that worried about them. I don’t think there’s going to be a speaker phone call where it’s like, “uh, we just found out that you shower less than we thought.” They knew what they were getting into.