You Are Now Entering Harmontown

By: Jordan Ferguson

There’s a moment early on in the new documentary Harmontown where Dan Harmon, freshly fired from Community, the show he created, sits down at his desk to begin work on one of the two pilot projects he’d sold to CBS and FOX. He boots up his computer and types:

FADE IN.

The cursor blinks at him from the screen, a cruel god of unending hunger. Harmon looks at it dispassionately for a moment. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” he says decisively, “I should be taking a bubble bath.”[1]

This is Dan Harmon.

This is Dan Harmon.

So he does. He settles in the tub, gathers a small mound of foam in his hands and places it on top of his head. He sighs and looks into the middle distance.

“Do you remember when this was all you had to do to make people happy?” he asks the cameraman, the audience, himself.

For the next four hours at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, a packed audience watched Harmon wrestle with himself and his continual quest to bring happiness to other people, both onscreen and in person as the theatre hosted a screening of the documentary followed by a live recording of the titular podcast.

Harmontown the movie chronicles the development of Harmontown the show, which began as a monthly thought experiment between Harmon and co-host Jeff B. Davis on how to build a perfect utopia on the moon, in front of a live audience at LA’s Meltdown Comics.[2] In light of Harmon’s admitted penchant for self-destruction and a surplus of free time following his dismissal from Community, the show became more of an open forum for him to purge about whatever was on his mind, typically with alcohol as his accomplice.

In January 2013, intrigued by the growing audience coming to see the show at Meltdown and the podcast’s rising numbers, Harmon decided, despite the two pilot scripts he hadn’t yet started, to take the show on tour for almost a month, and asked documentary filmmaker Neil Blakely to tag along, since Harmon had no idea what he was doing and thought maybe a compelling story could be told from it.

For the next three weeks, Blakely’s cameras followed Harmon as he drank, vented, procrastinated, drank, fought with his girlfriend, blacked out on moonshine, crowdsurfed, drank, hugged hundreds of his fellow misfits and attempted to glean some sort of lesson from the experience.

It’s hard to say how well Harmontown functions as a film, instead of fan service. It devotes no time to the man’s extended biography, opting to focus on key moments in his employment history (the Ben Stiller-produced failure Heat Vision and Jack, his firing from The Sarah Silverman Program for increasingly erratic and abusive behavior; his removal from Community for some of the same reasons and a desire to try and give the show more mass appeal) combined with small doses of commentary from actors and writers he’s worked with.[3] While these sorts of stories are like cocaine to a theatre packed with Harmon’s fans, the story might have trouble playing to a general audience.

For all the sheer volume of alcohol he consumed in the film (and from the stage), stories are Harmon’s actual obsession. Since his days as the founder of the pre-YouTube indie video collective Channel 101, Harmon has searched for a sort of standard methodology of storytelling, a formula rooted in the works of Joseph Campbell and the monomyth,[4] with steps that any aspiring creative type could use to tell at least a serviceable story. He’s constantly aware of the ways in which these steps play out around him, that awareness is what fuels the oft-celebrated (and just as often criticized) “meta” tangents on Community. It plays just as large a part in the doc: in one of his first lines Harmon asks Blakely if he’s going to start with him or a montage of colleagues talking about him; following an awkward fight with his girlfriend he acknowledges that the actual hero of the film might not even be him, but Spencer Crittenden, the former audience member turned Harmontown’s resident Dungeon Master.

Harmon and his "Dungeon Master" Spencer Crittenden.

Harmon, D&D Dungeon Master Spencer Crittenden and filmmaker Neil Blakely.

Crittenden, a tiny hulk of a man with a ponytail and beard enclosing most of his head in hair, attended a podcast taping with the express purpose of playing Dungeons and Dragons with Dan Harmon. When Harmon and Davis polled the crowd for a Dungeon Master, Crittenden leapt at the opportunity, and quickly became a regular show highlight thanks to his quick wit and deep knowledge of the game’s conventions.[5] As they travel from city to city, Harmon relinquishes the transformative hero’s journey to Spencer: he’s the one who departs, who crosses the threshold, endures trials and returns changed, better equipped to function with the people around him.[6]  His story is the most compelling, since he acts as a mirror looking back at the audience; he’s one of them offering a glimpse of who they want to be while never losing touch with who they are.

And it’s a good thing, since there isn’t much of a plot otherwise. Blakely tries to frame Harmon’s struggle to finish one of the pilot scripts while travelling for drama, but Harmon never really seems to care about them in the first place, which makes it harder for the audience to invest: one gets the sense whether he finished them or not, he was going to be fine (and he was).

What Harmon does care about is his audience, something that is palpable in the movie and watching him live. This slouched, graying, bearded dude who never hesitates to talk about living at his lowest point surrounded by pizza boxes and wiping his ass with t-shirts, forged a successful career despite himself and manages to form intensely personal connections with the square pegs of society wherever he goes. As the movie draws to a close, Harmon’s not sure he can change the parts of his personality that push away the people he loves most, but it becomes clear he wants to try.

“I truly believe about myself and about every single person in that audience that they want other people to be happy,” he says. “It’s ego-driven, but that’s as good as ego-driven gets, when you go ‘I want to be the guy who makes people happy.’”

That’s about as mass appeal as it gets.

—————

[1] Thus summarizing the entire experience of attempting to write anything in one sentence.

[2] A location that has since become a mecca of West Coast podcasting and alt-comedy, serving as the hub of The Nerdist Network.

[3] Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver scores the best and most-quoted line, likening Harmon to “a human hand grenade with a predilection for pulling his own pin.”

[4] Which I am hereby copywriting as the name of my new folk-rock quartet.

[5] In what was the best laugh the doc scored from me, former SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis visits the show, clearly impressed as Crittenden lists the specific properties of some spell or item. He peers over his shoulder, asking if he has all that information committed to memory, prompting an instant and impassioned response from Crittenden: “I am a Dungeon Master!

[6] Even guesting on an episode of Community as Annie’s brother.

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