When Sony fired Dan Harmon, it was the worst thing that could have happened to Community. It was also the best thing that has ever happened to podcasts.
‘Community’ as a mission statement
When I first watched Community, I’d never heard Dan Harmon talk. I thought the characters were all interesting and well-defined. Having now listened to Harmontown, it’s undeniable that each character is more-or-less a different facet of Dan Harmon’s psyche.
As clever and funny as Community was, it had a pretty generic gimmick. A community college study group, full of very different people who have to put aside their differences and preconceptions, and learn to get along. Naturally, they learn a lot about themselves along the way, blah blah blah. ‘Ragtag bunch’, ‘motley assortment of’, it’s a cliché, yeah. But what keeps people coming back to it (apart from a sense of humour that didn’t talk down to the audience) was this:
The characters were honest.
Their words and actions came from an emotionally honest place. If a character does something, they do it because of their own personal history and who they are and how they feel. This isn’t The Walking Dead. Characters don’t do dumb shit for the sake of advancing the plot. They don’t behave inconsistently for the sake of slowing things down so they can save the big stuff for the finale, either. The best shows of the past 15 years have been the ones where you put people in ridiculous, cartoonish situations, and have them behave like normal people would. Community got that right.
What I’m getting at is this: all the characters are Dan Harmon. And on some level, they all act like they want to be living in a world where if you follow through on your own personal honesty, then things will work out. Dan’s said before that he feels that he doesn’t understand people well enough, so he’s trying to get as much understanding and connection as he can. You can see Community as a part of this. You can see it as character study, and/or a thought experiment: ‘what happens when all the separate parts of my consciousness, including id and ego and super-ego, are forced to overlap? How do we successfully connect and communicate within ourselves, and with others?’ And while the situations the characters find themselves in are often ridiculous, at their root they do tend to spring from lack of communication, as most real-world problems do.
So, as a means of connecting and communicating with people, Dan began Harmontown. Originally, it was under the conceit of founding a colony that could live on the moon. (Joke or not, it does ask the question ‘what does it take for people to get along? how can we avoid being dicks to each other?’). So Harmontown started happening every week, in the back of Meltdown Comics, Hollywood. They started out as intimate little shows, where Dan would talk into a mic, with his good friend Jeff Davis keeping things on track (Dan gets off on a lot of tangents). What happened at Harmontown, stayed at Harmontown. It was a safe place to be honest. As he’s said many times already, Dan thinks of Harmontown as his therapy (and to be honest, I do too). And then two things happened:
First, someone put a voicemail from Chevy Chase, played at Harmontown, online. Second, he was fired by Sony a few weeks later mostly because his perfectionism, which led to a high benchmark of quality humour and genuinely likeable characters, also led to late scripts and awkward filming schedules. With the privacy perimeter breached, and bad publicity now irrelevant, they started recording Harmontown as a podcast, and putting it online.
“So what?”, I hear you say. “A Hollywood writer spends an hour on two on stage, in front of several dozen fans. Nothing new there.”
Yeah, I know. Everyone’s got a podcast these days. And there’s no shortage of Los Angeles types who need their egos stroked. But Harmontown is, on every level, different. Special. Unique.
Honesty and ‘The Hero’s Journey’
Something important I forgot to mention: when Dan wrote Community, he would use something called ‘the story circle’. Relax, it’s not a new-age thing where a dozen writers sit around some crystals and hold hands:
It’s a structure he devised after reading Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’. Campbell studied religious and spiritual mythologies from many different cultures, and he outlined the details that were constant between them, the absolute human truths of every story. Stories of the universe’s creation. Of how cultures rose up. Of kingdoms and cities, and of course, people. This monomyth is the archetypal character arc. But Dan isn’t just using it for writing characters. He’s trying to figure out what his own arc is. And realizes that to understand your own arc, you need to be completely honest with yourself and with others. And Dan does that like few other people do, and certainly more than any other person working in The Industry™.
There’s more examples of his honesty than I could possibly list, but one instance best illustrates this.
About 20 minutes into episode 6, Dan is asked how he would dress if he were a woman. From there, the conversation turns to pornography. He flits from thought to thought, and talks about some of his likes, and about fetishes. “I think your brain just pops like popcorn, and there’s a certain point, as a primate, that you’re just walking down the street and you’re gonna turn into a sexual entity, and unfortunately, whatever you’re looking at, whatever’s around you, you’re gonna end up… ‘okay, he’s a chocolatephile…’ “.
And then he talks about failed relationships, and about reading Campbell, and trying to work out who he was and what he liked. Campbell has a well known philosophy that boils down to ‘follow your bliss’. Not in a shallow way that says ‘seize the day’ or ’embrace hedonism’ or whatever, but something more subtle.
Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat-Chit-Ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.”
In the spirit of finding out what he liked, and following his bliss, Dan ended up buying a mannequin, that he, well, fucked. This prompts conversation, of course. Dan follows this with “as long as we’re here, as long as we’re down at the bottom of this fucking circle, I’ll say it: I bought a RealDoll”. Further discussion ensues. Then: “You know, what I did once that I never told anybody…”
I’ll let you find out for yourself what it is. Before Dan gets to his admission, he points out how tense the atmosphere in the room is, having established by this point that he might say anything. As Jeff put it, “I used to fuck a plastic lady, but here’s something I never told anybody…” Isn’t that amazing? The sheer, unprecedented honesty on display? Dan could stand up on stage, answer some questions about Community, tell a few stories, and then fuck off home, and people would feel like they got their 10 dollars worth. But that’s not why he’s there. He’s there to connect. And the one thing a connection absolutely needs, is honesty.
In a world where people do long-term damage by lying to spare feelings in the short-term, and in a world where it’s hard to admit that we’re hurt and scared, a man walks onto a stage and talks about buying VHS porn from a stranger like a drug deal, and being so fed up of being hurt by relationships that he tried a mannequin instead, and… well, like I said, go find out for yourself what that last admission is.
That, to me, is a person you can trust.
It’s been well said that ‘there’s such a thing as too much honesty’. Personally, I disagree, but whatever, most people seem to think so. I’ll go as far as admit that saying what’s on your mind all the time will definitely make you go off on a lot of tangents. With this in mind, Dan enlisted his friend Jeff Davis, to keep the show flowing, as ‘comptroller’. But Jeff isn’t just some guy Dan hangs out with or went to school with or whatever. The man has some serious comedy chops. He was a recurring guest on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and uses those skills to great effect. His rapport with Dan is pretty goddamn delightful, and he does an amazing job of both understanding and teasing him, based on whichever approach makes the evening more entertaining. He keeps things moving, and he kinda plays the role of the straight man. He’s also the musical director, playing the usual things like intro/outro music, segment music, ironic musical stings, and queuing up some rap beats for Dan to spit mad fire over.
Spit mad what?
Oooh yeah. As it turns out, Dan likes to rap. And believe it or not, he’s good at it. It kinda started as a joke, a spontaneous, fun way to start episode 19, by rapping about fuckin’ yo’ momma. But, you get a guy as self-aware and smart as Dan, he has to do a follow-up rap assuring the audience that it was consensual. And then of course, he calls himself out on misogyny, and redresses the balance by freestylin’ about fuckin’ yo’ daddy, immediately after which he muses on what would happen if Vincent Price did bridges for rap songs, and deciding to find out for himself. The episode culminates with a rap battle between Dan and Jeff, a crude, hilariously childish masterclass in parent-fucking one-upmanship. Hell, you can see even his rapping as a microcosm of the Harmontown ethic: you experience, you learn, you adapt, and you grow.
Despite his impressive creativeness and deliciously playful self-reference and irony, he’s not a perfect rapper. Sometimes, you don’t so much spit mad fire as dribble frustrated embers. But he knows that. It became a running gag that if Dan says ‘mouth’ then you know that something’s gonna end up going south. And like he says, “the fact that ‘nuts’ rhymes with ‘butts’ is a fucking godsend”, as evidenced by this improvised Johnny Cash song. With this in mind, over the course of the following 20 or so episodes, you can see his style evolving, sometimes improving, sometimes not, but always trying to do something different (granted, by usually rapping about fuckin’ yo’ momma. But he throws in raps about politics and race as well. Good ones!). Aware that he keeps going to the same childish well, he goes as far as to call on the help of Eric Idle, to try and write the perfect song. With impressive results.
There’s other random songs sprinkled throughout, too, like the short and bewilderingly catchy ‘Pringles dick‘, or this completely spontaneous one spurred on by nothing more than chatting to a scientist and Jeff hitting the ‘play’ button on a country-western track. To top it all off, over the course of a whirlwind 20-show tour across the states, they created a closing tune for Harmontown, each night ending with Dan singing about what he’d learned tonight and what the take-home message was. I dare you to tell me that’s something you get from other podcasts.
But you know, it ain’t just the Dan & Jeff show. There’s three other major characters: Dan’s girlfriend Erin, their Dungeon Master Spencer, and the audience.
Jeff wasn’t in town for the second episode, so Erin comptrolled, and immediately endeared herself. Their dynamic is an amazing thing to listen to. No surprise there, considering that it’d take one hell of a person to keep up with and tolerate someone as smart (and aware of that intelligence) as Dan. And Erin does not disappoint. When they’re in humour mode, their comedy back-and-forth is superb, riffing off of each other like pros.
But obviously, sometimes they argue. And because you don’t get to punch a clock in/out for a real relationship, sometimes these arguments take place on stage. But not in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. The truth is a river, and there’s only so long you can try swimming against the tide, and Dan and Erin both know this. In the episode, they even say: “there’s no good or bad in love, only honest or dishonest”. So when you hear them argue, it’s actually a reassuring thing to hear. It’s an affirmation of the idea (which hopefully we all want to believe in) that even if it’s painful, honesty is better than the alternative. I can’t think of a better example of their dynamic than this argument about romantic comedies. They argue for awhile, and you can hear frustration and defensiveness, but it ends in an improv scene about a woman-resenting mad scientist, and Erin going on an emotionally-vulnerable rebound. It’s an amazing moment. I can’t think of one other couple that could turn a fight into a sketch featuring a robot, and a woman giving it up in a parking lot, which is funny as hell and loaded with hilariously deliberate subtext. Dan and Erin, you’re an inspiration.
(Also, worth pointing out that Erin has her own podcast called This Feels Terrible. It’s about love and relationships. It’s funny and honest, and I highly recommend giving it a listen).
This is a story that is as Harmontown as it gets. In the last five minutes of episode 5, something magical happened. Dan used to play Dungeons and Dragons, so they decided to try out short, 15 minute segments where they play it on the show. The original idea was to audition Dungeon Masters (it’s geek profiling, but Dan understandably assumed there’d be more than a few in his audience), choose one, and play. The first contestant was Spencer.
And they lucked the fuck out on the first go.
Being a Dungeon Master is difficult. You have to come up with towns/villages, dungeons, puzzles, different options for different paths you choose. You have to provide a gameplay balance that isn’t too easy or hard. You have to manage combat, play the role of minor characters, introduce monsters and make sure it’s immersive, and generally keep track of, and describe, a shitload of details. And Spencer does all of this with sardonic, laconic aplomb. I doubt very highly that anyone reading this is anti-geek or anti-nerd, so I assume y’all can see the entertainment potential in D&D. But if there is any doubt in your mind, listen to this. Dan, Jeff & the audience throw made-up monsters at him and he gives them an appropriately creative D&D description. Please just trust me and click that.
In fact, Spencer was so impressive, such a great addition, that they took him on tour with them across 20 states, paying for his room and board. Guys, you have to be one hell of a Dungeon Master to warrant that.
I can’t find any sound clips of them actually playing D&D, but maybe that’s for the best. The segments obviously have continuity, and occasionally plot twists. Listening to each episode, I genuinely look forward to the D&D segment, and from time to time, I wonder what their characters are up to, as I do with TV shows between seasons. So maybe I shouldn’t spoil the surprise. Also, it’s an opportunity for them to be creative, and improvise, made all the better since neither Jeff or Erin (or occasional guests) have played D&D before, so there’s a lot of incompetent and amusing bumbling, plus Dan’s usually fairly drunk by this point in the show.
It turns out there’s actually quite a few podcasts which play D&D, but I guarantee none could possibly be as entertaining as Harmontown. I mean, on no other podcast would you hear the sentence “Last thing I remember was going into a Berserker rage, passing out, and when I woke up we were hanging out with a homophobic elf”.
Speaking of improvising, during the tour they’d bring an audience member up on stage, and just talk to them. At Harmontown, people are people, and everyone has the potential to speak into the mic. People sometimes come up when there’s an instance of ‘do we have any [blank] in the audience?’ and they chat. On the tour, which took in 20 different states, it was made clear that wherever you are, people are the same all over. Same insecurities, and hopes and dreams etc, just with slightly different flavours. Other times, people came up on stage when Dan asked ‘who tonight feels that they’re in the most pain, or most troubled?’. And again, they talk and try and make some sense of things. Sure, there are still laughs to be had, but never at anyone’s expense. People get taken seriously at Harmontown.
In most cases, after talking, Dan says thanks, and then asks ‘what can we do for you? what is it that you want?’. Given the limitations of being on a stage with an audience you don’t know, it’s understandable that Dan isn’t capable of being Oprah and giving everyone a car. Or bees. So they often ask people what their favourite film or food or whatever is, and try to work that into a 5-minute improvised film about that person’s life. Often with amazing results. I can’t find clips, but maybe that’s fair. Maybe if you’re gonna listen to a funny sketch about someone’s life, you should also be listening to them talking seriously about it first. But it’s good stuff, as most everything at Harmontown is.
And I guess connecting to the audience, to people, brings us full circle.
Freedom to live
That’s the title of the last step in Campbell’s monomyth. In his own words:
“The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become, because he is. ‘Before Abraham was, I AM.’ He does not mistake apparent changelessness in time for the permanence of Being, nor is he fearful of the next moment (or of the ‘other thing’), as destroying the permanent with its change. ‘Nothing retains its own form; but Nature, the greater renewer, ever makes up forms from forms. Be sure there’s nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.’ Thus the next moment is permitted to come to pass.”
Harmontown didn’t end after the tour, of course. Like people, it changes. Some facets stay, some go. But it keeps whatever it is that makes it what it is (what I’d be inclined to call “Harmonness” were it not for that awkward double-n). Harmontown evolves and grows, being what it needs to be. In the week-to-week reality, it needs to be something that Dan feels comfortable charging an audience member 10 dollars for. And his way of making it worth your while, is to connect with you. If you’re in the audience, he can do that directly. If you’re just listening along at home, he can still do that. Just by being honest and communicating on an honest human level.
And, you know what? Dan wrote three seasons of a sitcom that has some of the most vocal and passionate fans out there. A show that people love. With characters that people love. He’s been given a pretty decent sum of money from two other networks, just to write them a pilot. His origin story is in Wisconsin, but me made it to Hollywood. He’s surrounded by cool, creative, funny people. He has a beautiful girlfriend who loves him. Hell, he wrote a song about Eric Idle fucking his mom, then got Eric Idle to sing it. And despite all this, Dan still drinks a lot, and still has things to complain about (in fact, there’s an occasional segment called ‘Things I shouldn’t be allowed to complain about’).
If you heard that about someone, in a vacuum, yeah, your first thought would be ‘ungrateful’. But listening to him talk, it’s really just clear that ticking boxes off a list, or fulfilling some planned out dream life, is not what’s going to make you happy. And that you can have all this stuff, but still be normal. Mainly, for me, I find it reassuring that no matter how good you’ve got it, or appear to, you’re a human and we are all going through the same shit. In a way, Harmontown is Dan’s way of saying “Yeah, I’ve got it pretty sweet, but I still get depressed. What I really want is to connect with you.”
Maybe you think I’m exaggerating. Or maybe you think that this is a disproportionate amount of words to devote to a podcast. Could just be that most of the clips you’ll have seen me post on facebook were the ones I was able to find on youtube. Which, by their nature, are the ones which tend to be hilarious, but I guess, childish.
But those moments aren’t what Harmontown is about. I mean, it definitely works as a piece of funny entertainment, and I am often astounded by the abundance of off-the-cuff brilliance on display in every episode, but, ultimately, it’s a place to be human, and to show your humanity. It’s a beautiful, wonderful microcosm that I think should be shared. I wasn’t kidding when I said that Harmontown is a form of therapy for me. Hopefully, maybe you can get something out of it too.
So listen, love and share.
(And check out the podcast while you’re at it.)