Contrary to the world at large’s popular belief, we geeks do leave the house for more than new comic day! On Saturday October 4th, I joined one of our head honchos Andrew Young at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema for a screening of the Harmontown documentary and podcast recording of the show of the same name. So Dan Harmon has been in the writing game for over 20 years, but trust me, anyone in attendance that night was there because they’re a fan of Community; a show that during its’ run has already achieved cult status. You either have never heard of it or know it and love it. If you haven’t, there’s no way I can explain its’ appeal in short form. No review or series/cast recap here; just try and catch a few episodes and I’m sure you’ll get hooked. Community is Dan Harmon’s baby and Harmontown focuses on a road tour of the podcast Dan took his team on (he had been doing it for about a year at Meltdown Comics in L.A.) following his being let go as Community’s head writer/show runner after season 3 in 2012. There’s plenty of in-jokes (starting with a Starburns Productions credit in the opening title), but director Neil Berkeley’s doc is a character study of the man himself, with insightful glimpses into the fan base and his supporting cast. Think along the lines of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop from a few years back, with just as many laughs on stage/behind the scenes but with the personal material a little more intense.
The overall conclusion is foregone, as fans know Harmon returned to the show for season 5 (only for NBC to finally outright cancel it, now picked up by Yahoo! Screen; keeping the show’s unofficial mantra of “6 seasons and a movie” alive). We’re given some of Harmon’s back-story, such as that he’s one of the creative minds behind Heat Vision and Jack (The notorious, never-picked-up Fox pilot featuring Jack Black as a hyper-intelligent astronaut and Owen Wilson as – yep – the voice of his talking motorcycle) and his notorious difficulty to work for or with folks. According to Sarah Silverman, his stint as a writer on her show ended when she finally had to fire him even though she was his “biggest fan” – read on for the probable why. Harmon’s personality and psychological processes are examined by those around him and ultimately, by himself. Not helping matters is Harmon’s self-admitted need for perfectionism, leading to verbally blunt, cutting abrasiveness even to those close to him, often fuelled by a heavy consumption of alcoholic libations he makes no secret of enjoying. No redemptive moments or transformation of character are coming, even after the audience is exposed to raw events such as an uncomfortable spat between Harmon and his girlfriend Erin McGathy. Harmon joked post-screening that he is “still an asshole”, but shared moments, such as a long confessional into a mirror (filmed solo and given to Berkeley for insertion during editing), show that Harmon is painfully aware this is a problem and he’s trying to come to terms with this by acknowledging that it is a cyclical problem and a burden he hates putting on others he loves. This continues into the present as Harmon and McGathy are engaged to be married in a few weeks and he volunteers that they are successfully undertaking couples therapy.
Various montages of co-workers and fans talking about Dan Harmon, cut with many shots of fans hugging him at shows, visually demonstrate how hard it is to explain what Harmon’s all about but the general love and respect that is felt for his work. The consensus with Community is that it has given a friendly voice to self-perceived outsiders in society, allowing them to embrace whatever quirks have led them to being perceived as different and to seek out and bond with those who have encountered similar challenges in their lives. This is epitomized by the tale of team member Spencer Crittendon. Plucked out of a podcast audience for his knowledge/experience with Dungeons & Dragons, he dungeon-mastered an impromptu game on stage that was such a hit with the audience, it has remained a Harmontown staple ever since. Harmon has since retained Spencer’s services and even taken him on the road for the podcast tour – yes, he was here for the Toronto show as well. Talk about living the dream. This gent, who was living in obscurity at his parent’s house a few short years ago, was even given a recurring role as Annie’s (Alison Brie) brother on Community when Harmon made his triumphant return.
I definitely got more out of it as a fan, but Harmontown is worth a view for anyone interested in the analysis, both good and bad, of a modern pop culture figure.
For the podcast itself, there were a few changes from the usual format, aside from the aforementioned Spencer eventually taking his usual dungeon-master’s seat. The self-proclaimed “Comptroller” to Dan Harmon’s “Mayor” of Harmontown, J.B. Davis, was absent and subbed for by Harmon friend and comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. Yeah, that name is associated with a lot of bad 80’s comedy, but if you can look past that (Bobcat took that bull by the horns early in the game and heartily took the piss out of it himself) you learn quickly if you weren’t already aware that Bobcat hasn’t carved out an over 30-year comedy career by accident and is still a pretty funny guy/smart writer in his own right. Extra relevant to us, the Toronto audience got a bunch of anecdotes from work he has done here and his take on some of the Canadian “experience” in general. Erin was back stateside having her bachelorette party that night, so a lucky female audience member was chosen to take her place. Rounding out the show panel was Jane, a transgender super-fan of the show who drove up with her son from New York State to attend the Toronto taping (who for good measure brought along a home-made treat dubbed “earthshine” to add to the Mill St. tallboys and vodka Harmon had started the evening with). Conceptualized as “live therapy sessions”, between joking, storytelling and whatever else regular members or special guests add to the mix, Dan discusses a mix of topics both personal to him and current issues that may be of interest to the audience. The T.O. audience definitely got its’ money’s worth, with the full taping time (which will get shaved down for actual podcast) clocking in at over two and a half hours.
My only complaint for the whole night was a shift in gears during the second hour when Jane was called up out of the audience to join them. An ensuing extended discussion on being transgender and what that means/means to society in 2014 ran a little long and I could see neighbouring audience members also getting a little restless. While definitely a valid topic worth discussing with an open mind, it kind of shut down the humorous momentum built up in the first hour by going somewhere heavy and serious. While Harmon’s refreshments may loosen him up, the trade-off is it may interfere with the tracking of time as he riffs longer on new topics. So when Spencer was finally unleashed to come out and play – a bit that people more familiar with this ritual than I was were obviously looking forward to – the D & D portion of the program (entertainingly combining the classic game with the player’s personalities and clever references to some of the day’s topics) seemed a little rushed compared to what was shown in the documentary. Also, this might have been to avoid border hassles, but there was no merch table, which was also featured in the film. A drag for Harmon & co. because I guarantee they would have made a shit-load of moolah. Sure, you can find a lot of that stuff online, but when you’re there taking part in the live experience, it’s all about the on-site impulse purchases, even if it’s just buttons and t-shirts. Maybe it was to avoid an autograph nightmare and let the theatre staff go home before dawn. While on tour, Harmon made it a point to sign every last item requested of him, but these were in comedy clubs with capacities of a few hundred less than the packed house at the venerable Bloor. A rare chance for Canadian fans to see Dan Harmon in the flesh was apparently not to be missed. Absolutely a fun night that I don’t think disappointed anyone who made the pilgrimage. Any attendees who were already “human beings” (Community fans) left as even bigger fans of Dan Harmon; and in an era of overexposure where a lot of heroes seem to eventually let their fans down, what more could you ask for?
If that evening didn’t inspire a lot of folks who already geek out to GEEK HARD, then I honestly don’t know what will…