Talking to Dan Harmon About Harmontown, ‘Community’ Season 4, and His New Shows
It’s been a turbulent year for Dan Harmon. After being ousted from his position as showrunner of the beloved but Nielsen-challenged NBC sitcom Community, Harmon quickly sold new shows to CBS, Fox, and Adult Swim, founded a stop-motion production company called Starburns Industries that’s producing a Charlie Kaufman movie, started podcasting his live show Harmontown, released his first book, and went on a 20-city cross-country tour with Harmontown, which will be the subject of an upcoming documentary. I recently caught up with a fully-bearded Dan Harmon backstage at the final show of his Harmontown tour, a triumphant Los Angeles homecoming for Harmon and company after a month on the road. We discussed the tour, what he would have done with a fourth season of Community, Chevy Chase, and the three new TV shows he currently has in the works.
Based on how the tour’s been going, is there a particular documentary you think the Harmontown movie will resemble?
It’s hard to say. The obvious thing that came to mind was The Comedians of Comedy, just because it’s a tour documentary, but there’s been a lot of tour documentaries. Our minds went closer to Comedians of Comedy than Katy Perry’s movie or Madonna’s Truth or Dare or whatever because I’m not singing. But then again, I’m not doing stand-up. I’m doing a different show every night. Also, unlike Comedians of Comedy, I think there’s gonna be more layers to it than that. We got a bus, and we had relationships that I think have stories to them. I think that Spencer will be this very interesting breakaway character – that documentary character that steals the movie that everybody wants to know more about and becomes fascinated by. Then, there’s me being kind of emotionally abusive to my girlfriend and getting drunk and making stuff up at different venues. So, I don’t know what movie it’s gonna most resemble.
You said you’re not singing, but you’ve been rapping on the tour.
I’m rappin’. I do a little singing sometimes, yeah.
How long have you been rapping for? Has that been a hobby of yours prior to this?
It’s something that [Harmontown co-host] Jeff [B. Davis] has always forced me to do at parties and stuff just to humiliate me because he’s so much better at it. I’ve always been very terrible at it, so I’ve always been kind of afraid of it. So, being kind of self-loathing and doing an improvised show, it just seemed like a natural thing to start doing. I just slipped into it experimentally out of self-hatred, kind of punishing myself, going ‘Listen to what a dumbass I am when I try as hard as I can to do something good.’ And then, it just became a thing. It’s kind of therapeutic.
Did you ever hear back from Chevy Chase after you and Jason Sudeikis prank-called him?
I did. He called me and left a message saying, “Who was that? Was that Danny Pudi? What was going on? He was pretending to be somebody? I heard an audience laughing. What was going on?” Then, he called me later again, and I told him that it was Jason Sudeikis from SNL, that we were in New York and prank-calling him from the stage. And he said, “Oh.” And then, he pitched me an idea for a new TV show.
Can you talk at all about what that is?
Well, I don’t know if I have a right. From the description of the idea, it seems like if I described it to you, he would lose all of its value as an idea because it really is just based on an idea.
Is there any footage you’ve asked to be taken out of the documentary?
I haven’t seen anything yet, but I am a producer on it. In order to get [director] Neil [Berkeley] to do it, I had to promise him it’s his movie. “It’ll be my tour, but it’s your movie.” I’ll be very happy to help look at stuff with my comedic sensibility. If he’s like, “Isn’t this hilarious when you guys roll around in the hallway for a half-hour?” I might go, “Yeah, I really don’t think that’s actually funny for a full half-hour. Maybe we can cut that down or use a different take if you’re doing that joke there.” But what I’m really not gonna do is go, “Well, that makes me look like a bad person,” because I think a good documentary needs to have glimpses of humanity in it. It’s not always pretty, and I’m not a beautiful person inside and out. I’m a bad boyfriend and kind of self-obsessed and very emotionally detached sometimes. If there’s a little bit of darkness that slips through from me, as a producer I’m gonna go, “That makes this a better movie, so I’m not gonna ask for it to be removed.”
Do you have a highlight of the tour so far?
My mind goes to – there’s bucket list things. I crowd-surfed in Brooklyn, and I crowd-surfed in my underwear in San Francisco. But truly, the interesting thing is that for all the fun things that happened – for as drunk as I got on Nashville on moonshine and the weird rapping – I thought the most compelling [moment] and therefore the highlight of the tour was Pittsburgh when my girlfriend came out onstage and said that her feelings had been hurt by something I’d said at a show and that there was more to it than that. Then we talked for like 25 minutes or something about our relationship onstage. I think that the really cool thing about that was this isn’t a stand-up show. It’s not pre-written, therefore the best chance you have of doing something worthwhile – worth people’s money – is to give them something they can’t get in a written show. Otherwise, you’re just giving them poorly-written comedy. So, the most you can hope for, in my opinion, is to watch real emotions happening in real time. That was also the show where I made myself cry onstage to see I could, where Jeff asked me to get an erection by staring at a man in the front row. It was just a very cool mid-point to the journey. It felt very “Meeting with the Godess”-ish.
Are you gonna watch Community at all when it comes back?
Not immediately. I think that the best thing I can do is nothing at all, so that nothing I say or do can be interpreted as anything. Obviously, I’m very, very close to the show, therefore, my opinion of it now that I’m not working on it is #1 gonna be the most charged, #2 probably the least-representative of the average fan. I am the guy whose job it was to go into that office every day and – no matter how good the show was – say “I don’t think it’s good enough.” That’s arguably why I got fired and arguably why if the show is good enough and everyone’s happy with it, you don’t want to hear my dumb ass piping up about it. That could ruin everyone’s experience. So, I’m gonna wait a long time until the dust settles, until my opinion doesn’t matter so much anymore.
Did you have plans for what to do with a fourth season of the show?
Yeah, I mean, I wanted Jeff to finish his four-year story and have to make a choice between being a hero for Greendale or getting his own life back as he originally wanted and to choose Greendale. I rushed that story into the finale of Season 3 because I felt like the writing was on the wall, one way or another. It would have been cool to make that more realistic and grounded and explore it in Season 4.
Overall, Season 4 probably would have been a pilot for Season 5. It would have been a final declaration of independence from Greendale as a campus being part of the show. I’d been strategically getting them more and more off-campus: having characters move in together, exploring their home lives. So, Season 4 would have been the final tech rehearsal for a version of the show that didn’t necessarily need to be on that campus at all. Maybe Shirley would still be there and taking a class with Pierce or something, but Jeff Winger maybe would be a licensed lawyer working for Abed’s company. Maybe Abed creates a social networking site or something [or] they end up forming a company together or something like that. It was gonna be very experimental and very organic because you need the bridge in the Enterprise. You don’t wanna mess with that stuff. I was gonna be very, very careful about it, very casual.
Can you talk at all about the shows you’re developing now for CBS and Fox?
Yeah, [the show at] CBS is a vehicle for a specific actor at this point, and right now, he just has to read it and respond to it because CBS wants to do it if he wants to do it. It’s a family kind of comedy paired with a sort of Cheers-type comedy. Like it’s a workplace and it’s a home. But it’s a very, very straight-up-the-middle, character-driven, multi-camera comedy. If that’s not satisfying to the all the Community addicts out there… obviously, it can’t because it’s a completely different medium, it’s a different network, it’s a different style.
My hope is that the Fox show that I’m working on, that I’m writing would make maybe a more suitable analog for Community. I’m hoping it’ll be single-camera. It’s a workplace comedy; a group of misfits in an unlikely family. There’s more room to be more cinematic and stylized in that context. Fox is a place that does good single-camera comedies. It’s something that would maybe make a good companion to The New Girl, while still having a little bit of that Community spirit, I think.
And then, for people who still are like, “Oh well, you still sold out. It’s a Fox show,” then I’ve got my Adult Swim show [Rick and Morty], which is for the 15-year-old in all of us. It’s really cool and sci-fi-based and reboots itself practically every episode because the rules are there are no rules. It’s really fun and insane and absurd.
So, with the CBS show, is doing a multi-camera sitcom something you’ve always wanted to do?
It’s something I’ve always wanted to try to do. If it turns out that it can’t be done well, then at least I tried. I don’t know if I’m the person for the job of saving that format. I don’t know if that format really needs saving in the eyes of anybody else out there. I remember growing up in a world of really solid multi-camera shows that nobody was insulted by. We all felt like it was fine there was an audience laughing. It felt like watching a play. They had characters that we believed were real and that we tuned in to see every week. So, I’d like to take a shot at doing that while I still have an opportunity, but I’m not gonna sweat it if the answer to the question turns out to be, “Eh, you can’t do that anymore. That medium is dead to you and dying to other people. What we see is what’s necessary in this day in age.”
In your eyes, what was the last great multi-camera sitcom?
Currently? I don’t really watch any multi-camera sitcoms currently.
What was one that had a big impact on you? Or what are you trying to recreate?
Well, everybody loved Cheers. Everybody from my generation that’s writing in TV now, they almost to a man will tell you that Cheers was the best multi-camera sitcom of our time, growing up. You know, there’s Taxi and All in the Family. I want to try to bring back some subtlety to the medium.