A fun fact you may not know about Community creator Dan Harmon: he has a cult following of nerds who pay money to see him get on stage with no previously rehearsed material and talk about his life. Sometimes he’s reflective, other times he’s self-deprecating, and on one occasion in Nashville, he drank a quarter-jar of moonshine in a red sweater onstage with an audience member, and got so shitfaced he started singing country about being a bad person. However, more often than not, Harmon is completely sincere and dishes out some pretty heavy-handed philosophy on how weird it is to be alive in the world. The name of this show, and the new documentary coming out tomorrow about the artist’s relationship with his quirky underground fan club, is Harmontown.
Harmontown follows the podcast tour of the once-exiled Community creator throughout America as he seeks solace in his fans’ arms and tries to stay sober enough to write television pilots for FOX and CBS. Throughout the documentary, which also features vintage footage of Harmon’s earlier days working with comedy legends like Sarah Silverman and Ben Stiller, we see a 12-year girl with Asperger’s find acceptance among total strangers, an audience member admit his deepest fears to everyone around him, and a grown live-at-home man-child known only as Spencer trip out on pot-brownies while referring to himself in the second person. We caught up with the mayor of Harmontown to find out how to make an impromptu comedy show, what it’s like to be King of Nerds, the story behind that infamous Chevy Chase voicemail, and why Dungeons & Dragons will change your life.
What are some of the secrets to going up in front of a group of people with no pre-rehearsed material and creating a live show from scratch?
I think the big secret you see me learn early on in the film is that you’ve got to assume if you’re worth watching, it’s very specific to who you are. The biggest mistake you can make is doing your impression of what you think an entertainer should be, because now the audience is watching someone without an act and they’re not even watching anything in place of that: they’re just watching something they could do, which is wonder what to do. Consider your job to impart your brain to the group of people you’re addressing as basically as possible. By the end of it, you might find you yourself are an act.
Were there any initial roadblocks you faced?
My biggest obstacle was overcoming my fear that people were going to be walking into these comedy clubs off the street. In other words, thinking about the possibility of strangers showing up. Like, if you’re coming in expecting to see Patton Oswalt-caliber stand-up and you’re not a fan of Community, it’s going to be a disappointing evening. I don’t think this actually turned out to be an issue, but you can see me worrying about it early on.
How did you go-about approaching your audiences?
Every room you go into is different, so you have to re-adjust and embrace the chaos. You have to not think that you know what it’s going to be like up there. Audiences are different groups, there are different times of day, rooms are structured differently, the acoustics are different, the management treats the audiences differently when they come in the door, everyone’s had a different breakfast, a different lunch, a different dinner. So it’s not as simple as good audiences and bad audiences, but it is as simple as, “you better realize this audience is unique.” It’s sometimes hard to do that. You come away from Brooklyn and go to Portland, and Portland doesn’t feel like Brooklyn. But you get over that obstacle.
Let’s not play coy with each other: you have this cult following of nerds. What’s it like to be their leader?
(Laughs) It’s kind of a problem that solves itself. Nerds generally don’t trust people based on charisma or popularity. They’ll be the first to turn on you if anything goes to your head or they sense something is insubstantial. They’re just very skeptical and practical people. If you are their leader, then you’re not a leader; you’re just a nerd who they have a place for.
Have you ever been tempted to abuse this power?
Not really. But then again, I think I do sometimes without realizing it. I have 260,000 followers on Twitter. If I say I scraped myself today, I know I can get 10-15 people to tell me it’s okay to make it better. So maybe that’s abusing it. Maybe I shouldn’t be using Twitter to cuddle myself, but then again I don’t know what the hell Twitter’s for. It’s just narcissism and regurgitation.
In Harmontown, a lot of the people interviewed mentioned that you are very difficult to work with. Is there any validity to this?
I think that I’m difficult to work above and be in charge of. I do not think I’m difficult to be underneath or next to. I have a lot of people relying on me on Community and I think sometimes they find the job difficult, but they also see that I’m sleeping the least and taking it the most seriously, or at least as seriously as them. The good ones draw inspiration from that and they don’t go, “this guy’s difficult to work with.” They go, “this guy works at difficult things, and my job is difficult because we want to make something good.” But I do think there are people who control the things people watch and who are in charge of writing checks for people who create the things people watch. I guess my dad taught me not to kiss too much ass. My attitude is, “My job is to make a show for you and your job is to tell me what show you’d like, and I’ll try my best to make it for you, but ultimately you hired me to make a good show.” It could just be that I’m not a politician for people above a certain income level.
If you don’t mind me asking: what was the context of the infamous voicemail Chevy Chase left you?
The context was that I had been kind of a dick to him because he did something egregious in my eyes: he walked off the set during a joke we were going to shoot, and subsequently we had to cut it out of the whole season. I was very emotionally attached to getting it right, and he just decided he was tired and that the joke wasn’t funny. He kind of just wrapped the season on his own, while I was at dinner with my parents. I was upset with him, so at the wrap party I tried to turn it into a joke by telling the crew, that if they’d like to, they wouldn’t be fired for saying, “Fuck you Chevy.” So 200 people shouted out, “Fuck you Chevy.” I felt like it was part of my job as showrunner. He got mad and left and then he texted me an olive branch and I responded to it rudely. And then he started leaving me the voicemails because I think, from a good place, he was upset I was snubbing his attempts to bury the hatchet. The voicemails I think were an expression of his frustration that we couldn’t get past this. And then I felt like it would be kind of funny to play one of those voicemails for 50 people at the back of a comic book store. Unfortunately, one of those 50 people put it on YouTube.
How did you go from being in community college to being the showrunner of a show called Community?
It’s a simple matter of going from community college to being a writer whose pitches didn’t sell to networks and worrying about having a health plan and eventual retirement. I started pitching an idea that felt more marketable because it was more human. It was a story about me having gone to community college. The link between those two things is me thinking, “Maybe my kids are going to need to go to school, so I should stop pitching ideas about time travel.”
One final question: why should someone get into Dungeons and Dragons?
Because it’s improvised storytelling with other human beings. It’s a fantastic way to escape reality while not doing what video games and TV do to you, which is numb you. It’s as fun as videogames and TV, but it actually activates your brain. In that regard, you walk away with something that not only makes you feel better, but also smarter. And you don’t have to be smart to play, which is another reason. It can be as dumb or as simple a game as you want it to be. It’ll change your life.