Interview: Dan Harmon

I didn’t plan on going for drinks and pub grub with Dan Harmon, but I gladly went along with it. When I met him in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying, I was under the assumption that I was going to get the customarily brief 15 to 20 minute interview most subjects give to reporters. I never expected it to turn into an almost 90 minute sit down where almost nothing was off limits.

Then again, I’m not entirely surprised that Harmon, who was in a great mood as he bounded out of the hotel on the walk to our dinner time meeting with a joyous “everything from here on out is on the record,” would be generous with his time to make sure he got every last word out that he possibly could. In Toronto to promote the release of the documentary Harmontown (now available to stream online and playing at the Bloor Hot Docs cinema through this Thursday) and for a recording of his wildly popular podcast of the same name, Harmon seems every bit the person who can come across as arrogant and volatile, but also remarkably polite and giving at the same time.

That dichotomy certainly becomes apparent in the documentary from Neil Berkeley (who previously chronicled one time difficult artist Wayne White in Beauty is Embarassing), which follows Harmon after he was unceremoniously fired from his beloved television show Community (and before his eventual rehiring) as he goes out on the road with his fiancée and several friends and guests to record a podcast designed for Harmon to exorcise his own personal demons. Those faults turn out to be many, as glimpsed by Harmon’s sometimes dubious actions towards those closest to him, his drinking, and through interviews with past and current collaborators who don’t sugar coat how difficult the sometimes mercurial Harmon can be to work with. At the same time, it’s a journey of a man finding himself, coming to peace with his faults, realizing what he’s capable of accomplishing when he’s at his lowest, and finding new meaning and place in his life.

He also has a legion of fans and admirers that have followed his career and the podcast fervently, and Harmon treats those fans like gold, often engaging with the crowds who come out to see him perform his podcast or via Twitter. During our conversation, the waiter who brought over our food sheepishly and adorably stammered over his words in trying to tell an accommodating Harmon that the Harmontown podcast was “a constant source of positivity in his life.” Harmon responded with a beaming smile and a knowing nod that seemed to say, “Me too,” before making a well timed joke about the chicken fingers the waiter brought over being the best in the city.

We also talked on the evening of his fiancée Erin’s bachelorette party in Los Angeles while he was here in Toronto. (He was wearing a pair of Rick and Morty decked out shoes that she had made for him.) Just before we started in on the proper interview, he joked, “She’s really beating me at the bachelor party game. I did not put any thought into my bachelor party. I’m just going to see a pirate themed show with some friends in a couple weeks.” It’s one of the most typically Dan Harmon answers possible, funny, honest, and uniquely self-depricating.

We talked openly about Harmon’s career, his likability with some and hatred among others, and the struggles he continues to face when sharing his voice with the world.

Harmontown - Dan Harmon - Interview 1

Dork Shelf: I know quite a few people who saw the movie Harmontown who didn’t know a lot about who you were and what you did, and they said that by the end of the film they didn’t necessarily like you, but they had a real respect for you. Now as someone who in the film comes across as a person who really strives for a sense of validation, do you think that’s an acceptable form of validation?

Dan Harmon: Well, yeah. I’d rather be respected than liked, for sure. I mean, to me “liked” means there are politics involved. Everyone would like to be liked in the way that we’d all like to be sexy, but respect is earned, or at least it feels that way. If I had that choice, I would definitely go with that. I mean, you can’t choose to be liked, really.

DS: I know that to a certain degree I almost uncomfortably found myself relating to some of the darker aspects of your personality and how you deal with the things in the film, and also in a lot of the positive ways. Do you get a lot of people who come up to you after watching the film and say they see themselves in you, and how does that make you feel?

DH: It definitely makes me feel better than worse! I actually don’t hear it a ton, but I see it on Twitter a lot. People saying “Oh, I’m just like you.” I sense from the live shows that everyone feels that way, otherwise they wouldn’t participate or applaud or come up to me after the show. I think they basically feel that way.

That being said, I don’t really see that kind of attitude as a deal breaker. I like a lot of people in the world who are nothing like me, but the one thing they might have in common with me is this philosophy that you have to follow your own bliss. So if there’s some guy out there who wants to fight a grizzly bear before he dies and he puts all his energy into that, he should follow that.

In a documentary, it all comes down to how I treat my girlfriend, how I express myself, whether or not I’m a liar, and I think people who tell me the truth and who tell other people the truth and who value hearing the truth from other people, those people constitute a really important kind of team. There is another kind of team of people in the world that kind of agree with each other, whether they agree on everything or they go out and vote Democrat or Republican and they seem to agree on that, who still lie to each other. There is still a huge group of people out there who think that if you want to succeed you have to say one thing and think another. I don’t even necessarily think those kinds of people are wrong. I just don’t like them. I don’t get along with them, and I never impress them because they’re always the ones who are the most mad at me. Those are the people who are always scratching their heads and always wondering why I do the things I do, or vice versa. We just don’t get along.

DS: But then there has to be the group of people who you don’t always necessarily agree with that you can rely on because you know, for better or worse, that you’ll get the truth out of them.

DH: Yeah, and that’s valuable, too. But that goes both ways. It’s like if it were possible to have a racist friend who was constantly honest about how racist he was. I think when you start talking about things that are difficult to talk about, that doesn’t hold up all the time. But over time, if you’re honest about it, that might go away. You can’t be covered in dirt and soap at the same time. The soap would be the way that you communicate, and the dirt is all that racism and ignorance that you keep sealed off.

But I’m using that as an example, but we really pretend in our society that we have certain qualities that you can have as a person that are “deal breakers,” but we never include honesty as a potential deal breaker, and yet it’s the thing we’re often most afraid of. It’s like saying the word “romantic.” It doesn’t mean anything.

First and foremost, we reduce everything to buzzwords that shield people from problems that reduce everything without looking at issues as a whole. You can say that someone is racist, or sexist, or hateful, or unfair, these words all come before honesty for some reason. We do tend to punish people when they have an opinion about something and they express it, either rightfully or wrongly, and one of the first things we do is we tell that person that they shouldn’t have said that before we engage with what they said. We punish them outright and immediately, but all that makes someone do in that case is think “Oh, I guess I just won’t say that next time. I’ll continue to feel this way, but I’ll just find new ways to say it differently.”

DS: Especially in the age of social media where if something goes wrong or if someone says something off colour, immediately everyone else needs to weigh in on it.

DH: I mean, we see these things all the time. You see these stories where someone works for Target and they tweet something and then they get fired for it. There’s this mythology around it that keeps getting laid out, “You can’t say or Tweet something like that. You work at Target. Target’s going to fire you.” It’s odd, but to some people it’s really important. We’re at a crucial point in our development when it comes to passing judgment.

DS: So sort of coming off of that, do you think we live in a culture right now where people want to try and make failure a bigger deal than it is? It must be strange for someone like you to see a story of someone getting fired from Target because of a Tweet they made because you had something similar happen and those people weren’t the faces and mouthpieces for a multi-million dollar television series.

DH: (laughs) I just look at it all like we’re sort of insecticizing – I don’t even know if that’s a word or not – and computerizing everything and turning everything into bigger problems by not being honest and accepting of each other. We like to think that through computers we have this amazing proclivity for higher thinking, and we fail when we give ourselves over to the idea that we’re therefore supposed to be conduits of perfection for any given organization that we’re supposedly a part of. We haven’t quite grasped yet that we’re animals and that animals are irrational. We do things that don’t make any sense, and, yes, as technology increases and we’re able to keep surveillance each other more and more we become more and more casually outraged by a government and a society that increasingly keeps tabs on everything we do. But with our personal lives, we’re all worshiping that same kind of religion where we look at our neighbour and say, “That person over there is not a good person. They have failed. They have not chosen the righteous path. So now I am going to discount them.”

There’s this war going on that millions of people are losing because no one realizes we’re fighting it: the war between systems and people, and even the most noble of causes and beliefs are getting marginalized and disrespected because we’ve found a way to systematize everything without knowing it. And most people don’t realize it because it’s such a recent development in our species that we’re able to do that. And so many people must think it feels good, like how it first felt to take a dump in a toilet instead of in the middle of the street. Nobody questions the function of the toilet because it removes the horrible, primal waste out into some river somewhere because we don’t have to look at it or smell it anymore. At the same time, now with how connected and monitored and able we are to see each other at every hour of every day, I think our first instinct is to remove the poop, but the results now are dangerous because whether or not people want to openly admit it or not, poop’s a big part of who we are.

We’re systematizing ourselves. We’re engaging in little anecdotal stories about “what so and do did or how they said something in one way or they behaved a certain way, so clearly they’re gone and they stepped out of line.” The real bummer about that is that as noble as it seems in a conversation between you and another person, you don’t see that often times there are a bunch of often rich people above you that are controlling the conversation. They keep each other’s secrets because they’re above the cameras, and these are the people who laugh themselves all the way to the bank because we engineered this system where we can point fingers at each other and call people racists and sexists and humanists because we aren’t looking at anything else. We aren’t talking about classism or distribution of wealth or poverty or anything that could lead to someone becoming a sexist or a racist because that becomes tacky to talk about in polite company. It’s something you almost have to apologize for if you want to have a discussion beyond the most salacious of basics, and that’s hurting us.

It’s more high schoolish, and it feels more valuable to that part of your brain.

DS: I guess that might be a reason why your podcast has become so successful because of the whole adage that you might paint yourself kind of as the man with one eye in the land of the blind. You don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t keep secrets.

DH: There’s another guy in some story that I read, and I can’t even remember what it is now, but it stuck with me, that says that the people who are trying to bully you will bully you through flesh. If you decide that your life means nothing, then you can rule over them. There is a whole world out there that makes you want to think that there are stakes to what you do and say, and therefore self-destruction can be a form of liberation. If you wake up and you’re not dead then you’re a living person that has a lot of power.

DS: Do you think now that you look back on your career and the jobs that you had and lost prior to Community and we had social media back then if anything would have changed?

DH: Ehhh, I look back on my career and think that I’ve been getting in trouble for as long as there’s been a way to get in trouble, and I’ve been redeeming myself for as long as I’ve been able to redeem myself. I think back in 1989, I was patently unemployable. In terms of the technology back then, I just wouldn’t have been able to work for anyone else. Someone would have heard something I said at a party in those days when you couldn’t be as open with your voice, and then that would be it for me. I’m not sure thinking back now because I don’t even remember who that guy would be. I know that today, too, that in the world of blogging and Tweeting and being able to express yourself that that’s how I’ll get fired now. (laughs) I get in trouble now because my mouth is louder than it’s ever been. But that’s also why you’re not able to fire me, because you’ll know I’ll just turn around and say to people, “Hey, I got fired. Here’s why!” To me the only thing you can say about that without being overly dramatic is that I’m definitely a creature of new media. My triumphs and failures are only possible to behold because we’re all connected to computers. Otherwise I would just always stare at the floor and just mutter things. (laughs)

DS: Well, something like Heat Vision and Jack never would have been seen without the help of the internet, and that for many people was the first inclination of what a “Dan Harmon production” would be like.

DH: Exactly! And I would have thought forever that was just a bad thing that I made. I would have gone through life thinking that was this little brownie in my diaper that I had made. And it was because of the internet who went out there and saw this and thought it was interesting. It was definitely more interesting than about twenty of the pilots that had come before and about twenty of the pilots I have come up with since. It was what I was told I wasn’t supposed to make instead of what the money told me I was supposed to make. That is the internet changing reality, right there.

Harmontown - Dan Harmon - Interview 3

DS: Do you ever worry that you’re going to run out of things to confess on your podcast?

DH: (laughs) We reached that point well over a year ago that I really ran out of things to confess, so now in some respects I have to hope I screw up more to have more to talk about. (laughs) But one of the things that sort of changed about the show, and you can see it in the movie, is that we start connecting with the audience when we can. We start asking about people and what’s going on in their lives, and who’s hurting, and if there’s anything we can do to brighten that part of their day.

I just want the show to be fun, and there have been certain times where some people involved with the show have come up to me and suggested that such and such be done a certain way and I just said, “Well, then don’t do the show!” Really, I’m the only one who absolutely has to be there for the show, and if it stops being fun for you, that’s when you should step away from it. Really that’s what’s probably going to happen. Eventually it will just be me on a stage, and when that stops being fun for me, I’ll walk away from it, too. It was always meant to be this fun thing for me, and if it ever once starts feeling like a job or a chore, I’ll stop doing it.

There have already been plenty of times where I just say to myself, “Fuck, I don’t want to do the show this week. I just want to sit around and play Minecraft.” And that’s kind of just what happens. Harmontown should never be forced. I have enough other pressures going on right now to worry about forcing content every week if I don’t think I am going to have fun doing it.

DS: That focus on the other people around you certainly plays into how the film looks at how you believe Spencer (Crittenden, the show’s resident Dungeons and Dragons game leader) is the real hero of the film and of your story.

DH: Yeah, and I mean, that seems like such an obvious choice now. Neil showed me two cuts of the film before the one that we have now, and in the first cut I just looked like this awesome guy who was just a hair’s breath away from being a morning radio DJ. So I said to make it a little darker. Then the second cut was so dark that you might as well have scored Trent Reznor music to me and made it into a brooding David Fincher film.

But the whole time I was keeping these video diaries while we were on tour and I remember talking about Spencer and telling Neil that he was the guy on the real journey here. Spencer was on the young man’s journey, and even my story was just about an old guy kind of wallowing in his own misery at times. Spencer was going to complete this journey and he was going to return home to a life that was changed forever. I was going to return home and not a single thing would have been changed. There’s something about Spencer’s story that speaks to a sense of family that we tend to have, and what that means for better and for worse.

DS: When it comes to the podcast, you tend to bring on the same people for numerous occasions. Is it just a matter of inviting whomever you feel like to be on the show?

DH: Yeah. I mean people like Kumail (Nanjiani) show up because he’s smart and confident enough to stand in the back of the room and tell his wife Emily that he really liked what we were doing, and I just thought, “Yeah, let’s have Kumail on.” (laughs) Kumail and I have never had a single conversation about when he should be on the show, if he should be on the show, if he ever feels obligated to be on the show. It’s all just a matter where if he shows up, he’s on the show and everyone else just has to follow their bliss. When he’s busy, he’s gone and I miss him.

If I had some strategic foresight, I’m sure I could say “Oh! Hugh Jackman is coming around! That would be great!” But I’m also sure that that would become a part of a show that would be somehow compromised. I think that what’s nice about it is that maybe Hugh Jackman might just meet me for a beer and we’d happen to be on the way to the podcast. We were actually a hair’s breath away from Donald Glover doing that the other day a couple weeks ago. At any moment Donald Glover can walk in and do whatever he wants. It’s a great person to have that agreement with. (laughs) He’s not going to make my show WORSE by taking advantage of that agreement. (laughs)

And I mean, with Bobcat Goldthwait, who I’m doing the show with here, I just see a kindred spirit in him. He’s an old timer that’s been constantly been reinventing himself. I keep telling him that he should do a podcast. If social media were around when he was coming up, he could have easily had the same career that I have. He’s the person who should have the kind of following that I have and not just because he makes all of these different TV shows and movies now. He really has the personality and the smarts for this.

DS: On the way over here, we briefly talked about how you recently had a meeting with Yahoo about the next season of Community and how it went really well. How exactly did you come to settle on Yahoo considering that you never knew if the show was ever going to come back and with someone that wasn’t exactly known for online series production?

DH: I think that to a certain extent that when you have a show that features people as talented as Joel McHale, and Alison Brie, and Danny Pudi, that eventually this show that was really made outside of the traditional series mold in this almost post-sitcom climate that we find ourselves in, it would have needed a bigger home eventually anyway, someplace where it could go a bit more beyond the boundaries.

Now, I’m not saying that Yahoo will somehow supplant or become a replacement for something like NBC, but even after they offered us more money than NBC and Hulu combined, I’ll admit I was still skeptical. But to their credit, they came into our meeting and said almost immediately, “Look, we know what you’re thinking right now, and you’re right to think it.” (laughs) “We know this doesn’t sound like television to you. This doesn’t even sound like Google or YouTube to you. But here’s what we have.” And they laid out their assets and just how many eyeballs come through Yahoo every day, and that was impressive.

We believe that moving forward we have to be doing things that we haven’t done yet. We also believe that we’re moving into a territory where people have been doing things that we haven’t done yet. We think this is the perfect animal to put on that first vessel to be reaching their shores, to do this show with them. It was in the old world, but Yahoo laid out a very self aware pitch. They know who they are and what they are capable of doing, and they told us exactly how what they have translates to television, and they didn’t pretend to know what I know about making a television show, so all they said to me is that they will take the show that I want to make. When I hear that, I go, “Oh, well that would be everyone at Communi-con’s version of the show.” That’s their show, therefore I’m not myself, but an elected representative in this conversation. It’s like if you were the governor of California and someone from the EPA brought you into a back room and said, “Hey, I know how to save the environment.”

Yahoo offered the money to save Community, and my fantasy is that this show could run for ten more seasons and then the seasons could stop feeling like seasons. The show could be forever remembered twenty years from now and people could say “Man, I remember when I was growing up I watched this show Community,” and then other old people in the room could chime in and say, “I remember when that show first started off it was on this thing called television.” (laughs) “What’s a television?” “It was on a station called NBC?” “What’s an NBC?” “You know, the voice channel.” (laughs)

DS: When you look back on it now, do you see “six seasons and a movie” as more of a mission statement or a challenge?

DH: (laughs) I didn’t even actually write that phrase! I don’t even know now who did! But it follows me around and people took it up as their mantra. I think that was a (writer) Chris McKenna thing, when Abed starts talking about a show that Jeff says is only going to last two weeks, which is cynical, but true, and Abed just blurts that out and it certainly sounds like how long that show he was talking about, The Cape, should last. It just sounds like a rightful duration for that show. Then it’s applied to Cougar Town and other shows. It just sounds like the right amount of time!

There are shows that last for more than six seasons, and I think most people would agree that after the sixth season that season seven probably won’t be the best season. But yeah, saying “six seasons and a movie” is like saying “seventy-eight years old and three kids.” It’s the American dream.

DS: So for you, with everything that has gone on with the show, what was the best season for you?

DH: So far… I dunno… I would guess the second season, because it was 25 episodes long and you can’t compete with that in terms of job security and knowing what you’re capable of. In the third season, we did some great things, but it was also only 13 episodes and it started with the network saying “Oh, you’re not on the air anymore.” It’s just a different animal. The fourth season, obviously I’m not going to say anything about that. The fifth season, I’m really proud of, too, and I feel about the same way about that as I do the third season, but we’ll never get back to that point where we’ll feel like, “Hey! We’re like The Office! NBC wants 25 episodes of our show per year! We know such and such an episode is going to be airing at Christmas, so let’s give people a good Christmas episode!” You can’t compete with that, therefore the second season was the best because that was when it was a full time job for the entire year and the system was on board. Beyond that, who knows? Who cares? How can you really compare anything?

DS: When you have those seasons like three and five where there’s this sense of uncertainty, how do you stave off the show feeling like more of an obligation? You seem like the kind of person who when you’re forced into a deadline that you haven’t thought out or that your heart isn’t invested in it, that you can get pretty down about it.

DH: That’s where, and this is like the {podcast}, where the people around me, like the actors, directors, caterers, production designers make it feel like a family environment. I’ve had moments where I come in and think “I just want to kill myself. I don’t want to be here anymore.” (laughs) In those moments, there are so many people around me that are having a good day. The actors are creative people and the reason that we worship them so much on the show is because, well, number one, we love looking at their pretty faces, and number two, the people with those pretty faces bare all of it. They have to show up and be those characters all the time no matter what’s going on behind the scenes, and so does everyone else. I guess that’s my answer. I won’t overcome the feelings come episode nine I felt like I made a mistake coming back for Season Six, not that it would happen, but it could. I’ll feel that over and over again. (faking petulance) “I don’t want to do this show anymore.” Or “I just had a bad interview.” Or “Some fan just came up to me on the sidewalk and said season three is worse than season four.” “Who am I doing this for? This is stupid. I could be writing a movie right now.” On those days, Joel McHale just does ten extra push-ups. The net result is that the show stays good.

DS: Are you surprised when people hear of someone leaving Community or they hear something personal in your podcast, and are you ever taken aback by how personally fans can take things like that?

DH: I get all that. I understand the fixation on other stuff. I feel like there are Community fans and there are Dan Harmon fans, and obviously there’s a huge overlap, but I don’t assume when somebody’s coming to a Community channel or a screening or something like that that they just love Dan Harmon. I don’t also make the same mistake that the people who love Dan Harmon are huge Community nerds. I think that there’s a huge, huge overlap, and I understand when I meet a Community person that what drives them to talk to me is Community.

When there’s an announcement that someone is leaving the show and it maybe makes them not want to eat or shower for a few days or feed their cat, I get that. I rely on similar things in my life. If my Minecraft laptop stopped working (laughs), we’d have a situation where I would be engaging in weirder behaviour than playing Minecraft all day.

DS: I look back on your beef with Chevy Chase as something that was oddly cathartic for people. In a way, it kind of made the departure of a major character on the show somewhat blunted for them because it allowed people a glimpse behind the scenes and offered an explanation that most times people never get.

DH: (laughs) Right. That could be, but I don’t know. I don’t know what chicken laid what egg there. I don’t know why I got fired. I don’t know if it had to do with the Chevy thing or not. I really don’t know. I don’t want to ask. Because the people that fire you aren’t the kind of people you want to ask why they fired you. You don’t want to ask someone a few years later why they fired you because you’ll never get the truth. They might take advantage of that moment to tell you a bunch of fucked up shit that’s not the truth. It might actually affect you in an untoward way. I never give them that opportunity. I never ask. And since I never ask, if they even start telling me, I’ll cut them off. “WOAH, WOAH, WOAH! I didn’t ASK you for this shit!” (laughs) That’s the only power you have: don’t ask people what you don’t want to know, and if they start telling you, tell them fuck you. (laughs)

Harmontown - Dan Harmon - Interview 2

DS: So with everything that you have going on at the moment, where does Rick and Morty fit in for you given everything else you have going on.

DH: That was always my safety net. That was my emotional catch-all. I realized through how much I loved Community that around Season 3 I realized, “If they have the power to kill this show, they have the power to kill my career.” I remember when Heat Vision and Jack didn’t get picked up, I didn’t leave my apartment for a month. It affected me for years, and I didn’t want to be that kid again. I’m not that talented anymore, so why should I be that sensitive?

I became obsessed with having an exit strategy from Community; having something that when people threatened to cancel Community I could just walk away from it. “If you’re going to cancel it and you don’t like it do it. Don’t have this conversation with me. I’m not going to kiss your ass. I’ve got other shit to do.”

So that was what Rick and Morty was for me, and really, I’m a fucking genius. (laughs) That show really worked overtime in that regard. It really was like taking a nosedive off of a cliff or a trapeze into this net that I had built for myself that I didn’t know if it was sturdy or not. But it kept me from cracking my skull and I’m eternally grateful that I landed in it.

DS: It’s really a show that’s pretty go-for-broke. That’s a show that doesn’t even have its OWN safety net.

DH: (laughs) Which is why around that same time I started pitching about ten more things around town. (laughs, shouting) “Oh God! There’s no safety net under the safety net! If they cut Rick and Morty off I’m gonna die!” (laughs)

Somebody asked me on Twitter if I feel the same about Community as I do about Rick and Morty and if I love both of my kids equally or if I feel the way parents normally feel and they love one more than the other, and I said “Well, I have a one year old kid that thinks everything I say is hilarious, can barely speak, has no rules, and shits its pants every hour and makes a mess everywhere, and then I have an adolescent daughter who tried to lock me out of my house. “ (laughs) I love them both.

That’s what it is, though, and I mean, Community is bigger than me now. It’s its own thing. It punches me in the face and wishes I was dead. I can’t go on Reddit because Community might be in a conversation about me and talking shit about me. But Rick and Morty is like a game of peek-a-boo that says “I’m alive! Look at me! I’m hilarious!” I need them both in my life.