Dan Harmon is controversial. But that's stating the obvious. He was fired from Community, his own show, before eventually being re-hired; his drama with his former lead Chevy Chase is no secret; and his stand up work is undeniably offensive. Less obvious? He does have a heart, and his the new documentary, Harmontown, out today, proves that.
Director Neil Berkeley (Beauty is Embarrassing) provides a portrait of Harmon that’s honest, raw, and at times incredibly perplexing. There’s not much the comedian/writer/showrunner hides. He’s showcased as a belligerent alcoholic, a hot mess, but also a comic whose work has amassed a cult following. Compassion is at the core of the film, a side of Harmon not widely seen by the public.
Here, Harmon reveals his fears around the film, finding your bliss, and his advice to this generation on indulging your destiny. For the record, Harmon is all for fighting for what you want: “When you figure out what it is, reach out and grab it and get it for your selfish-ass self.”
The word 'happy' doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
You’ve said that you reached out to Neil initially because you’d rather be a bad person in a good movie than a good person in a bad movie. What made you have this pre-conceived notion that you would be portrayed badly?
I knew that ugliness is part of my portrait. You’re not coming for me for the reason you go to Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman. If I’m on the cover of something and you buy it, it’s because you want to grimace at the something or judge someone. I shouldn’t be on the cover of anything! I just knew it was going to happen. If there wasn’t something in the movie that was like, "Ooh that must be embarrassing for him," it doesn’t make sense.
Most biopics are about unearthing secrets, but you’re already really open. What was the point of doing this with Neil, then?
I called him because I wanted to make something just funny and silly and profitable. I had no idea I was ever going to go back to Community. I figured that meant my TV career was basically over. I felt like I was gliding towards street level from a high rise that maybe I should have never been on. I’m sitting down to write a new pilot for a new network—
For Fox that you ignored!
Yea and/or CBS. Both of them at the same time! It’s like, okay, this isn’t going to get done. I’m not ready to have this conversation with myself. I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know who I am. Just to avoid the whole complicated process, I was like, "I’m going to go on tour!" Then I called Neil, “You’re going to shoot the tour because it’s not avoiding work. It’s work!” It was a dodge.
I wonder about a day in the life of this process. You don’t rehearse for your shows, there’s not a lot of prep. That leaves your documentarian having to act on his feet. What was that working relationship like?
Neil would just hover around. I’m fine with that because, I’m like, this proves that brushing my teeth is noteworthy. I think a good documentarian is more biological than anything. It’s like a dog breed. You have to be good at and enjoy being a part of the woodwork, otherwise you’re not going to get anything good. He had to be disarming and make me feel like it was okay to be myself. If a candy bar offered you that, you’d buy a thousand of them! When he was starting to edit stuff together and show it to me, I was like, "I really fucked up."
Because he didn’t know what the story was. He was looking for feedback. You literally don’t know if the movie should be just a puff piece about how I had a happy time on a bus and how my podcast makes people happy, or about how I’m a completely unrepentant binge-drinking black-out drunk misogynist who farts on people. That’s not a description of his process, that’s a description of what happened to me. For the first time in my life, I was intimately involved in something, and I wasn’t controlling it. That was a miserable time for me. I focused on Community, was doing the fifth season at the time. In the background, Neil would be emailing me going, “Can we get an interview with Sarah Silverman?” I’m like, "Oh great!" But at the same time, I thought, that might save this thing.
There are some anchors in the film. There is a scene where a girl with Asperger’s comes up to you and thanks you. That feels like the story—was it to you?
I think so, yea. My response is like, sincerely, not glib, “Oh wow. I’m so jealous. I wish I could get a doctor to say I have Asperger’s." It’s an insensitive thing to say maybe, if you choose the right words…she loves it, she gives me a hug. That is a big moment for me. It is so symbolic.
There are rooms you will be in for the rest of your life where this level of conversation will not be happening and you will be the odd man out. And then there are these other rooms where you are experiencing what other people experience when they go home for Thanksgiving, which is this sense of unconditional love and comfort with each other. When somebody waits in line for you, they’re saying something so inarticulate-able. It forces you to look at life differently.
If you follow your bliss, that means follow your heart. Following your bliss could mean you getting up in a restaurant, flipping a table over, and storming out... Indulging your destiny! Does that always look like Pharrell dancing? No.
When you say Thanksgiving, I think of going home to people that make you happy, on a good day. Being a comedian, sure you make people laugh, but what makes you happy?
Well, I haven’t heard that question, uh, ever. The word “happy” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’ve been told by different people today, “You seem unhappy in the movie, are you happy now?” What is happy? By a certain definition of what happiness, Joseph Campbell uses the word “bliss.” It takes away the pre-conceived notations that come with the word “happy,” which is like a Pharrell song. It’s synonymous with dishonesty to me sometimes.
Bliss is fleeting, too.
If you follow your bliss, that means follow your heart. Following your bliss could mean you getting up in a restaurant, flipping a table over, and storming out. It could involve you doing something crazy or angry or self-destructive. Indulging your destiny! Does it always look like Pharrell dancing? No. Sometimes it looks like that. What makes me happy? I’m doing it right now. I’m talking about this shit. Before that, it was Minecraft. If I can get out of here, I’m going to run back to that laptop. I will look like a person who is miserable because I will be hunched over a small screen breathing through my mout, but it’s absolutely want I want to be doing in that moment! I always know what I want to do, to a fault.
It makes me think of when you’ve talked about finding what makes you get out of bed in the morning. This could be a way to encourage undeclared college freshman to find that blissful destiny!
They don’t encourage it much these days. People need to be more lazy. Not in a I-expect-someone-to-take-care-of-me-way, but they need to start asking themselves if life is working for them. And if the room and the city and the streets aren’t working for them, they need to change them. They’re going to keep rubbing up against this person, or this stop sign, or this boss, or this idea. I’m changing it because it’s not going to payoff for me to keep on waiting for a payoff. Our economy collapsed while we were waiting for something to happen. If it hasn’t been made clear already, if you’re 19, you’re the only one that knows what you want to do and nobody in your life knows better.
You should read the New York Times piece on the millennial generation, it’s what you’re saying. I’m that generation.
Your generation seems very focused on politeness and teamwork and it’s like, yes, as Generation X, I would like to say I know we’re not that great-looking to the new boy scouts and star children. But one page you can take from our playbook, as people who were raised by baby boomers, is please stop giving as much of a shit about what the fucking President says and whether or not you’re using the right words to convey your meaning. Please start figuring out who the fuck you are and whether or not you want something. When you figure out what it is, reach out and grab it and get it for your selfish-ass self because you are an animal.
Meredith Alloway is a contributing writer. She tweets here.