Splitsider

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

The Lost Projects of Dan Harmon

The Internet’s been abuzz this week with the news that Dan Harmon has been let go as showrunner of his much-loved NBC sitcom Community, but long-time fans of Harmon’s work know he’s no stranger to frustrating experiences in the entertainment industry. Along with frequent writing partner Rob Schrab, with whom Harmon created the long-running short film fest Channel 101, Harmon has had his fair share of movie and TV projects that never made it to screens. Let’s take a look now at Dan Harmon’s lost projects, including the script about giant ants that landed him his first agent, his cult hit pilot about a talking motorcycle, and early plans to turn Channel 101 into a TV series.

A Scud: The Disposable Assassin Movie (in development late 90s/early 00s)
The thing that brought Dan Harmon to Los Angeles from his homeland of Milwaukee was helping his buddy Rob Schrab adapt his comic Scud: The Disposable Assassin into a feature film. Oliver Stone’s company Illusion Entertainment optioned to make Scud into a movie in 1997, and Harmon and Schrab headed west. Upon arrival in LA, the execs at Illusion told Harmon and Schrab that they didn't want to hire them to write the Scud movie because they saw them as “comic book guys.” Instead, the writer of Halloween 4, Alan McElroy, was brought on to script the movie. Scud sat in development hell for several years until the rights reverted back to Rob Schrab in the early 2000s. Schrab says he is holding onto the Scud movie rights until he gets “a deal that [has] nothing to do with money and everything to do with creative control.”

Schrab wrote a script for a Scud TV series and came close having it made in 2004, but the project hit the usual development skids, and he has yet to turn Scud into a TV series or film.

Big Ant Movie (in development 1998)
After dealing with the disappointment surrounding the development of the Scud movie, Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab wrote their first movie spec script to prove that they weren’t just “comic book guys.” The result was Big Ant Movie, or BAM, an action-comedy about giant ants that take over the world. BAM landed Harmon and Schrab an agent, and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) was so impressed with the script that he signed Harmon and Schrab to a two-picture deal. This is when the duo’s career really took off, with them landing meetings with folks like Joss Whedon, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, MTV, and the Jim Henson Company.

Rot Gut (in development 1998) and Black Octopus (in development 1998)
With Robert Zemeckis now interested in their work, Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab pitched him a number of movie ideas, the first of which was Rot Gut, about a cowboy mummy. Another, Black Octopus, followed an attractive young lady who dresses as an octopus and robs museums, banks, and her father’s friends. Neither Rot Gut nor Black Octopus were sold to Zemeckis, but he did like Harmon and Schrab’s pitch for Monster House, which sat in development hell for eight years before finally being produced and released in 2006.

Heat Vision and Jack (unsold TV pilot, 1999)
One of the most famous unsold TV pilots of all time, Heat Vision and Jack was directed by Ben Stiller, written by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, and starred Jack Black and the voice of Owen Wilson. The show would have followed Black’s character, an astronaut who becomes the smartest man alive after flying too close to the sun, with Wilson voicing his talking motorcycle, Heat Vision. Fox rejected the pilot, marking the second time they burned Ben Stiller after cancelling his critically-acclaimed, Emmy-winning sketch show a few years earlier. The Heat Vision pilot surfaced online (embedded below) shortly thereafter and developed a cult following.

On the bright side, the disappointment over Fox’s decision with Heat Vision led Harmon and Schrab to create their monthly short film festival Channel 101, which ended up serving as a springboard to most of their later successes.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (in development circa 2004)
This adaptation of the George Saunders short story of the same name was a passion project for Ben Stiller, who was looking to direct the movie version. The story follows the director a Civil War theme park who mistakenly hires a trained killer to get rid of the gangs that frequent the park. Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab were hired to write the screenplay, and Saunders later took a crack at it himself, but Stiller was unable to raise funding for what was considered to be “not a mainstream movie.”

A Channel 101 TV series (unsold TV pilot, 2004)
In 2004, Rob Schrab and Dan Harmon signed a deal with FX to create a pilot for a show based on their popular monthly film festival, Channel 101. Jack Black signed on to produce and co-host the series with Harmon’s buddy and Channel 101 regular Jeff B. Davis. This incarnation of a Channel 101 show was called a “pseudo-Star Search with competitors producing a short pilot each week to be viewed and voted on by a live audience. FX passed and Harmon and Schrab started work on The Sarah Silverman Program the following year. In 2007, they finally got Channel 101 turned into a TV show, albeit a very different one from the proposed FX series. Channel 101 served as the basis for Acceptable.TV, which had a short run on VH1 in 2007.

A Heat Vision and Jack movie (in development 2000s)
After Fox passed on the Heat Vision and Jack series, the rights were given to one of the Zucker brothers, and Harmon and Schrab were under contract to write a movie script based on Heat Vision. They submitted a draft but ended up walking away from the project as they didn’t feel the project was in the right hands. With Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Ben Stiller now mega-stars, news stories began to surface in 2005 about Stiller directing a Heat Vision movie for Black to star in, with Harmon and Schrab handling script duties. A deal for the movie was struck, and everyone signed on, but due to the four of them being some of the busiest people in Hollywood, the film was never made. In 2010, Dan Harmon gave an interview where he revealed that he and Schrab have plans to turn Heat Vision and Jack into a web series instead of a movie, but that project has yet to surface.

I’ll leave you with a funny and inspiring snippet from that above-mentioned 2010 interview, in which Harmon describes how the idea for Heat Vision and Jack came to be in the late 90s in order to get Schrab and himself out of a blind deal with the ABC network:

"When [Rob Schrab] called me on his way home one day and said, 'We’ve gotta get out of this blind deal with ABC we stumbled into, how do we do that?' and we decided that we’ve got to write our favorite TV show ever, because they’d hate it. We have to write something fucking ridiculous that makes us so happy, we have to be laughing the whole time we’re writing it… Rob called me five minutes after leaving that discussion and said, 'What if Jack Black was an astronaut…' and proceeded to describe the entire concept. And I just thought, that’s perfect. A day and a half later I’d written the first draft of that thing and was reading it to Rob off the computer screen and we were just cracking up. We spent another half day polishing it, and three hours after that we had about 200 ideas for episodes. It was like cheating. And we really only did it to scare off ABC because we’d stumbled into a blind deal, which is a ridiculously long story but we felt that we were feature writers trapped in an accidental blind deal with this TV network that didn’t like us.

So we just used that thing, we gave it to them and said, 'Here’s our thing for our blind deal,' and soon enough they bought us out of our contract after taking one look at Heat Vision and Jack. We couldn’t have anticipated that 10 minutes later Ben Stiller’s on the phone from the set of Mystery Men jumping up and down in his leather pants going, 'This is the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my fucking life.' Because Ben Stiller at that point in time was Something about Mary Ben Stiller, the phone did not stop ringing. We were nobodies at that time and we were never this much somebody ever again. It was just phone call after phone call after phone call, everybody wanted us to make sure that we knew they were always in our corner. Several studios and networks wanted to talk about making it into a show, and it was pretty crazy."

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

  • http://twitter.com/daren_gray Daren_Gray

    Understand this or don't, so called comedy experts… Channel 101 is hands down the most significant nexus of comedy talent assembled in the past ten years. On par with the greatest comedy troupes of all time. Monty Python, SNL, SCTV. That good.

    Harmon is great, but if anyone here thinks he's anything other than the tip of the comedy iceberg of Channel 101, then those anyones don't know jack ass shit about funny.

    • http://twitter.com/daren_gray Daren_Gray

      Harmon and Channel 101 could never, ever be contained by mere television.

      Television is built to murder creativity. Is there a future for Harmon-and-Friends' projects in Kickstarter, the Aziz Ansari/Louis CK model, a Rooster Teeth, Homestar Runner, Felicia Day type of endeavor?

      Finish the revolution, Dan.

      I have watched every video ever made by Channel 101 (NY and LA). I never liked Community, though I tried. I tried to like Falconer and Romanski's Blue Mountain State. I tried. Goddamn it, I tried!

      Community sucked.

      • http://twitter.com/daren_gray Daren_Gray

        Also…

        Does anyone actually read this site?

      • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

        Hahah man you flipped out for a second there!

  • http://twitter.com/daren_gray Daren_Gray

    Dan Harmon can be the new Lorne Michaels. Except of the Internets.

    Make this happen!