Splitsider

Monday, March 21st, 2011

The Dan Harmon School of Comedy Writing

So you love Community, not just because it's funny but because it's impressively written. It seems each half-hour episode packs in a movie's worth of story: spending time on all 8 characters, taking them on a journey away from their study group and back, hitting a joke in each line and then along the way throwing in a parody of a deleted scene from The Terminator that you thought only you saw.

In addition to that, Community jumps genres from episode to episode — one week it's zombies, the next it's a note-perfect parody of The Right Stuff or the ridiculously intricate paintball/28 Days Later episode from season one. For anyone who wants to write comedy one day, you drool at the agility of that show.

Other shows are just as impressively dense — 30 Rock, for example — but Community is unique because its creator Dan Harmon loves talking about story structure. And the main place he did that was at his labor of love, Channel101.com.

Channel 101 is a showcase of five-minute zero budget television episodes, made by aspiring writers/comedians in Los Angeles. It was founded in 2003-ish by Harmon and his frequent comedy partner Rob Schrab as a place to make videos without having to worry about pleasing television executives. Born in pre-YouTube era, when five minutes was considered a short video, Channel 101 has been a underground comedy institution with such long-running favorites such as Yacht Rock, Laser Fart, The House of Cosbys.

While fans visit channel101.com to see the videos, aspiring comedy writers plumbed the message boards and articles to read about Harmon's advice for constructing stories. Here you can see the thinking that goes into Community.

For example, in this message board post titled "Story Structure 101 – Super Basic Shit," Harmon outlines the basic skeleton of any good story:

1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
2. But they want something.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
4. Adapt to it,
5. Get what they wanted,
6. Pay a heavy price for it,
7. Then return to their familiar situation,
8. Having changed.

Like a lot of story gurus, Harmon is strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell, an English professor whose most famous work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, argued that all great stories and myths share common elements ("the monomyth"). Harmon is a lot easier to follow, however.

For a guy who likes to write about laser farts, masturbating were-lynxes, do-gooder child molesters who only molest other child molesters (removed from online), Harmon is very serious about story structure. In all his contributions for Channel101.com and Community (and Monster House and anything else he's written), he does not vary from it.

Take the famously ridiculous Channel101.com video Laser Fart Episode 1, for example. In this three minute video, a man who desires to have no responsibility eats a burrito from a malfunctioning microwave and gains the ability to fart lasers. He successfully avoids working, only to find his girlfriend raped and murdered by a psychopath who he then apprehends by farting lasers.

So that neatly fits into the above steps:

1. A character is in a zone of comfort, (man eating a burrito)
2. But they want something. (no responsibility)
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation, (can fart lasers)
4. Adapt to it, (run away to hide)
5. Get what they wanted, (no responsibility)
6. Pay a heavy price for it, (girlfriend, er, raped and murdered)
7. Then return to their familiar situation, (apprehend the criminal)
8. Having changed. (accepts responsibility)

All in less than three minutes!

Now Harmon and his writing staff honor that each episode in Community. One of the first things I realized from Harmon's posts is the main character often gets what he thinks he wants at the halfway point. Like in "Mixology Certification," Troy gets to the bar for his 21st birthday at the halfway point, but it isn't until the end of the episode that he's really gotten what he was searching for: being a man, when he has a heartfelt discussion with Annie outside of her door.

In this season's episode "Intro to Documentary Filmmaking," all 7 characters go through this arc. The story is that Pierce claims to be dying and wants to give gifts to the other members of the study group while Abed films a documentary about it. Each of Pierce's gifts causes a trauma/life lesson for each member group:

1) Brita wants to be a do-gooder, but Pierce's gift of $10,000 forces her to confront she's shallow until LeVar Burton points out she's good to her friends despite being bad with money.
2) Shirley values being sweet, but Pierce's CD recording of the group talking about her forces her to realize she uses guilt to manipulate the others, until she actually listens to the disc and hears that they love her.
3) Jeff wants to be above it, but when he learns his estranged father is visiting, becomes emotionally invested, and even though it turns out to be a hoax he is forced to admit he misses having a father.
4) Annie values being moral, but Pierce's tiara means so much to her that she gives it back, wanting to learn to not depend on being everyone's favorite.
5) Abed wants to be a filmmaker, resists the documentary format as cliche, and comes around to realizing it has its place and can be powerful.
6) Troy wants to meet LaVar Burton, but when he meets him is so scared of being disappointed that he can't enjoy the visit, and learns that it might be better if he doesn't meet his heroes.
7) Pierce want to be taken seriously, but everyone is so disturbed by his gifts that they are furious with him, and the last scene with him is acting like a father to Jeff.

You might quibble over how I characterize these threads, but there's no doubt that each one is being put through Harmon's preferred story arc — all in 22 minutes.

In contrast to his rigid devotion to structure, Harmon also preached a very "there is no tomorrow" philosophy at Channel101.com, encouraging creators to do whatever story they wanted immediately as you could be "cancelled" by the fickle audience voting each month. Shows at Channel 101 switched genres unapologetically according to creators whims.

Harmon's fourth episode of Laser Fart at Channel101.com was scheduled for October 2004, and with extremely little justification, the story was filmed in black and white and took place in a haunted house. Not unlike how in October of 2010, the cast of Community underwent a (real) zombie attack.

In regards to fun-first decisions like that, Harmon wrote a fun short essay called "The Tao of Poop" with general advice over dealing with writer's block, writing about what you love and persistence winning out over perfectionism.

Harmon writes online a lot. He was a prolific, enthusiastic member of Channel101.com's forums, he tweets a hundred times a day, had a hilarious myspace.com blog and is probably still updating a GeoCities page somewhere. But that means if you like his work, there's lots of good stuff to see. Here are all of his story structure tutorials from Channel101.com, for example.

How about Harmon's opinion on other screenwriting/story structure books? When NYC set up its own version of Channel 101 in 2005, Harmon came on that message board and gave hilarious capsule reviews.

If you want a video tutorial, you can get them thanks to Acceptable TV — which was VH1's attempt to bring the magic of Channel 101 to television. They accepted user contributions, and Dan Harmon made a series of video tutorials with Jack Black; you can get these tutorials at Amazon. You have to go through the motions of "purchasing" them, but they are free so you don't pay anything.

Or maybe the most fun way to see Harmon's obsessive story structure is watch his Channel 101 shows themselves. In this one-episode long series The Lynx (a man who after masturbating while thinking of ex-girlfriends gains the powers of a Lynx), he put captions along the way to show each step of the story structure as it occurs.

So there you go — there's a Dan Harmon screenwriting course for you. Scattered over the internet, but free and funny and amazing.

Will Hines is an actor and writer at the UCB Theatre in New York.

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    That's a pretty rigid structure to stick to, but I believe that, like in poetry, if you know the forms, any departure is that much more meaningful.

    Harmon's story structure is broad enough that you could really fill it with anything and come out with any number of amazing results. It's done him well so far. I imagine he's a pretty big fan of The Morphology of the Folktale.

    And there was really no way I wasn't going to love this post. Community is the best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Laura-Shapiro/4203781 Laura Shapiro
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Gale/1339770065 Paul Gale

    Thanks, Will. Now I know what I'll be reading during class tonight!

  • http://likeaduck.tumblr.com L Shap

    oh, this is great! I had absorbed a little of this stuff from the DVD commentaries and that one "behind the scenes" where he gave a really broad writing process overview, but this is golden. Well spotted, sir.

  • http://vimeo.com/fauxfilms Shawn McGee

    Yes! When I was a youngling in high school, I wanted to submit a pilot to ch101 so bad. I poured and poured over these tutorials. Now I'm 2 weeks away from graduating film school and about to move out to LA to start my career and no small part of it was realizing the science behind storytelling through Dan Harmon's tutorials. Much props.

  • HerooftheBeach

    I wonder if the secret to "impressive" comedy is that even if you stripped out all the funny, it would still make for an solid (if bare) story. To take the recent hospital episode, you could summarize it as "An embittered old man fakes being on his death bed to manipulate his friends and family. His machinations don't go according to plan, and everyone has a revelation about what they value in life." It sounds like Oscar-bait schlock when you put it that way, but that just goes to show that there's no reason that story would have to be a comedy. Harmon's formula is very broad, like Becca said, and it'd be a fun game to see which of my favorite movies fit into it. (Shaun of the Dead follows it to the letter.)

    On the other hand, there's a lot of great comedy that doesn't fit in at all. 30 Rock is nearly a parody of the formula, and tragicomedies like In Bruges wouldn't seem to fit either. And the theory wouldn't seem to account for just how well Community integrates its jokes into its plots. I guess I have more thinking to do about this.

    In any case, I've got my homework. Thanks for posting this!

  • Ben_Dale

    The funny thing I had never noticed Harmon's style is that it follows the same plot of the origin of Spider-man, Star Wars and any other heroes journey story. It's probably why that even when Community is brutal, the end of almost every episode is really sweet.

    Cool article!

  • http://videoshare.tumblr.com Firas Alexander

    This was really good. Community is hilarious and I love that you mentioned Acceptable TV. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person in the world who remembers that show.

    • http://twitter.com/nonvolleyball nonvolleyball

      I remember AcceptableTV! Operation Kitten Calendar & especially the Kozbeez are some of my favorite sketches of all time. &–unsurprisingly–I adore Community; I'm so thrilled it got picked up for another season.

  • http://misterhippity.tumblr.com MisterHippity

    I LOVED ACCEPTABLE TV!!!!

    I was so pissed when VH1 cancelled that show. It was the best comedy show of the past decade.

    My favorite shows on that show were "Homeless James Bond" and "Operation Kitten Calendar."

  • Edo

    Very late post from me, nice article but 6) Troy wants to meet LaVar Burton, but when he meets him is so scared of being disappointed that he can't enjoy the visit, and learns that it might be better if he doesn't meet his heroes. isn't correct. He only wanted to have his picture, he didn't want to meet him cause he might disappoint him.

    • Edo

      and that was already the case before he met him I mean.