Splitsider

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

The Annotated Wisdom of Dan Harmon

Dan Harmon has a lot of stuff in his head, stuff that he used to create and run three seasons of Community as well as found Channel 101 and create a new method for understanding story structure. In these projects as well as in older ones like The Sarah Silverman Program, his failed pilot Heat Vision and Jack, and his current live show and podcast (also the subject of an upcoming documentary) Harmontown, Harmon has made himself known for being both brilliant and hard to work with.

Fortunately for us Harmon won't stop creating any time soon, with an animated film written by Charlie Kaufman currently in progress as well as an Adult Swim cartoon and sitcoms (including at least one multi-cam) in development at Fox and CBS.

We've collected bits of his wisdom from interviews, podcasts, blog posts, and more, so that you, too, can put a lot of stuff in your head and think about it.

The Apocalypse

Of course, those things are scary because we don’t know when they’re coming. Not knowing is scary. No control is scary. And we cope with it by knowing. We write religions of different sizes and use them like screwdrivers. I don’t want to file my taxes, the CIA is flying helicopters over my house. Yes, the lady and I will have another order of potato skins, it’s almost 2012. [Myspace post, 2007]

Audience

I'm always trying to gain and keep the audience's respect. I always want them to know that the show doesn't think they're stupid for watching. [WTF, 2011]

I don’t think that pandering to them or asking them what to do and then doing it is a good idea at all, but locking eyes with them and walking backwards through the area that you’ve cleared for their tour and paying attention to their reaction as you point to different parts of it is. [Paste, 2010]

You can't tell the audience — well, you can, but I don't like to tell the audience — that anything they're watching doesn't matter. [Vulture, July 2011]

I'm bad on the phone; I'm bad at therapy; I'm bad at one-on-one; I'm bad at playing board games; I'm bad at hanging out. But I'm OK at talking to people in a big group. [Grantland, 2013]

Being Different

I always said about the show to the writers, our ultimate goal is to get people to stop, make them add a drawer to their filing cabinet. We gotta shake this tendency on the viewer and the critics’ part to file us somewhere that already exists. [The A.V.  Club, 2011]

Capitalism

I've got money coming in, supposedly, but it never really gets to me on time, because rich people are so much better than poor people at holding onto it." [Myspace post, 2008]

Money ruins everything… Money killed Heat Vision and Jack. People saved it. [XOXO Keynote, 2012]

Change

I think a good story, even if it is sad or scary while you're watching it, should always make you a little less scared after you've seen it. [letter to Kelly Oxford's daughter, 2010]

Fan Loyalty and Enthusiasm

There's only a very small percentage of the population that has so much free energy in their brain that they're actively seeking out a television show that you're supposed to taste as if it's a gourmet meal! Most people are just hungry. [Digital Spy, 2011]

There's people in this world that are like me, that agree with me, that are connected to me. That's something you can't feel by looking at a number on Friday morning that says 8 million people watched your show; that's just  saying that 8 million people got tricked into watching your show. You can't trick someone into loving your show. [pixeldrip gallery, 2012]

[reciting the speech he makes to new Community writers] Please help me make this the best show it possibly can be. Please give everything you have to it. I promise when you bleed, it will mix with my blood. I can't guarantee you'll be directly rewarded for it by the system, but I promise you it's the right thing to do. And please come to Comic Con and stand in the audience and listen to what they do when the actors come on stage. That is our God, that is the thing for which we'll be suffering. [Reddit, 2012]

Games

I've discovered a new video game called owning my home. [Attack of the Show, 2012]

Oops. Meant to DM my DM! [Twitter, 2012]

Gender

Sexists don’t believe women are capable of being like men, but I do, because they are able to create little men with their insides! Somewhere in there, all the ingredients for a whole dude are just sitting around. If they really wanted, I’m sure they could work the TiVo. Joke for sale! Are you Tim Allen? Make me an offer! [Tumblr post, 2009]

I think women are different, and I think having them in the room is crucial to a family comedy, ensemble comedy, television comedy, where half the eyeballs on your show are women. [The A.V.  Club, 2011]

Honesty

The old wives' tale among comics is, "If I stop being crazy I'll stop being funny," but the truth is if you stop being honest you'll stop being funny." [WTF, 2011]

And, for that reason, what I love is when the show doesn’t presume any factual positions on things that have any binary truth to them. “Is there any such thing as true love?” The question is the important thing. There’s no answer.  [The A.V. Club, 2011]

Humanity

…the religion of Community is that People are Good and Systems are Bad. To elaborate, that Even Bad People Can be turned Good by People Whereas Nobody's Ever Been Turned Anything but Bad by a System. [Reddit, 2012]

As humans, reality for us is largely based on other people's perceptions. If there's 20 bodies in your crawl space but you haven't been caught yet, you tell yourself you're still a birthday clown, and that's how you keep doing it. [SFBG, 2013]

There are no normal people, there are just different kinds of weird, all of it is human and all humanity is better than everything inhuman. [Reddit, 2012]

None of us are bad people. We float around and we run across each other and we learn about ourselves, and we make mistakes and we do great things. We hurt others, we hurt ourselves, we make others happy and we please ourselves. We can and should forgive ourselves and each other for that. [Myspace post, 2006]

People is more important than anything, even grammar. [XOXO Keynote, 2012]

Ideas

My idea is to have less ideas. [Attack of the Show, 2012]

Improv

"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." [Splitsider, 2013]

The Internet

When you take a people connecter too seriously, it stops connecting people. [XOXO Keynote, 2012]

Reading about ourselves on the internet is like masturbation that we absolutely can do without anyone ever knowing about. So not only can you choose to lie to others about how often you do it, you can even lie to yourself about how you do it. [SFBG, 2013]

Multi-camera Sitcoms

I don't think there's anything about the multi camera format inherently that necessitates anything you don't like about it, but I respect the audience for assuming multi-camera means stupid. I expect the audience to assume TV IS STUPID. I accept that it's my job to overcome it. [Reddit, 2012]

TV in all of its ugliness can be a beautiful thing if you're just proud of it.  [Attack of the Show, 2012]

Nerds

It's not an ugly word anymore because we are a nation of nerds and we certainly outnumber this mythical creature called the "normal person." [Time Out Chicago, 2013]

Networks

The truth is, people that make you want to laugh are on your side, and people that want to make money off you laughing kind of aren't, but they own everything and they get us connected to you. [Tumblr post, 2013]

…network TV doesn't know the internet exists yet. [Reddit, 2013]

Pets

My cat brought me a toy. I thanked her and threw it. She sat there gave me a look that made me realize people and dogs are the crazy ones. [Twitter, 2012]

Race

I technically have like eight black friends if you go by the white person criteria for black friendship, criteria I have always felt were intentionally lax, therefore, as a card carrying non-racist, when counting my black friends, I always divide by 3 and round up. [Myspace post, 2008]

Religion

Gods are personifications of that which we have yet to understand.  The fact that we are able to give That Which We Do Not Yet Understand a name and a face is the reason why we're able to confront it, atone with it, and wield its power, which is another way of saying that mythology begets science, which begets us standing around at parties with the free time and laser-corrected vision to look down our noses at personifications of the unknown created by busier people who knew less and died younger. " [Myspace post, 2008]

Humankind made these religions; that our brains are capable of doing that is neither something to take too seriously — because we also make poop, and we learned to flush that the fuck down the toilet — but it's also not something to totally disregard. [Harmontown #44, 2013]

Role Models

I grew up on Zemeckis and Spielberg, people who believed that making things for everyone didn't have to mean it was stupid. [Attack of the Show, 2012]

Garry Shandling has always been a pioneer of… meta entertainment. He's always been a defender of the creative right to use the frame as part of the painting. [Harmontown #7, 2012]

I keep the ghost of Tina Fey in my brain when I'm writing, and I keep a ghost of my mom, and I keep a ghost of all my friends in Silver Lake, and I've gotta please them all at the same time. [WTF, 2011]

Emotionally, shows like Cheers and Taxi were classic sitcoms when I was growing up. They seemed to give the audience a fair amount of credit, in spite of being television and hitting the spot. [Digital Spy, 2011]

Cheers wasn't an idea — that's a bar! [Harmontown #4, 2012]

[on bottle episodes] My passion for Star Trek is actually rooted in my love of television and the art of franchise and a premise designed to stick people together that have to figure out what to do. I think that’s just what good TV is: the Seinfeld Chinese restaurant, parking garage episodes. [The A.V.  Club, 2011]

Self-improvement

Be a better writer and be a better actor and we'll all meet somewhere in between. [Harmontown #46, 2013]

I wish people used wishes to modify themselves instead of others. Wish to be low maintenance. Wish to be autonomous, even. [Twitter, 2011]

Don't be so hard on yourself, don't put pressure on yourself, life is just a chain of experiments and results, and you'll be perfect when you're dead. [Myspace post/ book]

Self-loathing

I think that I'm a self-effacing, self-destructive person, and I think that every speech I made to my own crew and to the people above me was, "Sorry, I'm not good at this." Because I'm from Wisconsin. [KCRW's The Business, 2012]

Smartphones

I wanted to be the Bridget Jones of doing nothing at all, and I just ended up being the Forrest Gump of buying little pieces of plastic shit. [Harmontown #19, 2012]

Society 

Whereas the health of an individual depends on the ego's regular descent and return to and from the unconscious, a society's longevity depends on actual people journeying into the unknown and returning with ideas. [Story Structure 102]

Story Structure

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we'd naturally do. [Story Structure 101]

The 8 point circle is just me reducing Hero with a Thousand Faces to as simple and objectively "true" a template as possible. It was actually designed for Channel 101 directors who were letting "I'm not a writer" stand in the way of them shooting something. It was my way of saying, "look, there's such a thing as a paint by numbers story, so if storytelling isn't your passion, just get Jack up and down his beanstalk so you have something to shoot." [Reddit, 2012]

Television

A feature film's job is to send you out of the theater on a high in 90 minutes. Television's job is to keep you glued to the television for your entire life. [Story Structure 105]

All shows are like cigarettes. You watch two, you have a higher chance of watching three. They're all addictive. [WTF, 2011]

When I was a kid I never knew the difference between a sitcom and a drama. I just knew what my parents were watching and what was making them happy. [The A.V. Club, 2009]

Saying something is TV is like saying it’s a sonnet or a haiku. It’s got its rules, and those rules, when obeyed, are part of what makes the thing beautiful. [Salon, 2011]

Work

For better or for worse, my work ethic is absolutely tied to the part of my brain that generates adrenaline and love. [WTF, 2011]

I am a collaborator with everyone who agrees that I need to be in control. [Vulture, May 2011]

Writing

There are several important things you need to do [to become a writer]. First, you need a round hole in your chest that goes all the way through you. I can never stress enough to the kids, it has to be a perfect circle, about the diameter of a drinking glass rim, it has to be in the absolute center of your chest – like where a heart would go on a plumber or a woman – and it has to go clean through you. If you’re standing in front of me and I can’t see the wall behind you, you’re never really going to write much more than a dream journal, recipe book, or maybe one of those manuals that tells people what writing is. [Tumblr post, 2011]

Community wasn’t “created,” it was developed, like all good TV. It always starts with a writer but that writer isn’t doing his job if he thinks the job is to make a TV show. [Tumblr post, 2012]

For more about Dan Harmon and his thoughts on things, check out these other pieces on our site:

-The Dan Harmon School of Comedy Writing
-Talking to Dan Harmon About Harmontown, Community Season 4, and His New Shows
-The Complete Dan Harmon Channel 101 Canon
-The Lost Projects of Dan Harmon

Photo by Gage Skidmore.

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  • Justin Caffier

    I already worship at the altar of Dan Harmon, so thank you for essentially compiling a bible for me.

    • G. Willikers

      Gross.

    • G. Willikers

      Go ahead and downvote me, but you should realize how ridiculous you sound. I'm a fan of Harmon, but don't elevate a vodka guzzling, chronic masturbating, ego maniac to god-level, no matter how talented he is.

      • Justin Caffier

        I won't downvote you for your opinion. I do, however, feel like I can overlook those traits you mentioned (only one of which really seems like a flaw) because I think the man is one of the most earnest seekers and speakers of truth in the modern era. I admire the wart-and-all qualities of his soul-bearing. Sorry my fandom sounds ridiculous, but what can I say? The guy evokes feelings in me that nobody else has in a long time.

  • Nate

    You might want to look up the definition of the word "annotated."