It’s difficult to work with Dan Harmon. So difficult that his biggest fan, Sarah Silverman, fired him from The Sarah Silverman Show, where his credits included both co-creator and writer. So difficult that Harmon was fired by NBC from Community, the show where he was both show-runner and creator. It’s at around this point in his life where Harmontown, a new documentary, begins.
Harmontown is also the name of Harmon’s podcast, where we find the self-destructive writer spending his post-Community days. A live show, recording semi-weekly in the back of a comic book store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, Harmontown is where Harmon publicly played the voicemail where Chevy Chase called him an “alcoholic fat shit.” Possibly the one gig where he won’t be fired, this is a place for him to experiment comedically. Just as the film is a place for his employability to be tested.
In January 2013, Harmontown went on the road for a nationwide tour. Which meant taking one bus across the country, with more than two dozen garbage bags of luggage. This group confines may not have been the best idea when your star is a difficult, rarely-bathing, and recently fired writer, but they went anyways. The result of which is a film that’s not just for fans of Community, all of whom should make an effort to see it, but the trouble will be that it’s a hard sell to anybody else.
Harmon walks onto the bus with homework, though, as if this trip wouldn’t generate enough trouble. He’s had script revisions past-due to both CBS and FOX (NBC’s competitors). Much like a college kid who takes a reading assignment with him to spring break, though, he’ll get all that done later.
Instead, he’s got to figure out what exactly is supposed to happen on this tour. Truly an act about nothing, Harmontown becomes a repeated exercise to connect with the audience. Which leads Harmon down a number of bad decisions, including that time an audience member brought up moonshine. Which Harmon accepted, because of course he did.
Harmon’s semi-functional alcoholism is the elephant on the tour bus, which I swear to you should have been sponsored by Ketel One. As Harmon carries around a comically oversized bottle of said vodka, you start to notice it’s the blanket to his Linus. When he pours a drink, always on camera, it’s a heavy pour onto nothing but ice, which lasts for a few more seconds than feels comfortable.
This self destructive behavior even leads him to a rough patch with his girlfriend, Erin McGathy, who works as a member of the crew & their merch teams. The documentary may be about Harmon, but he does not come across as a great guy.
Instead, he’s a flawed guy who screws things up, often. His relationship with McGathy has issues, but it’s human, and shown exactly as-is.
His openness about the mistakes he’s made along the way humanizes Harmon to a great degree. For such a combative person, it’s amazing what communal experiences he has routinely set up. The Harmontown Live experience isn’t the whole of it, either. For a fuller picture, think of this in tandem with Harmon’s Channel 101 project, where he’s created an environment for anybody to pitch their own TV show. He’s got a knack for encouraging creativity, and nowhere is that more evident, though, than in his almost accidental bus-mate.
Meet Spencer Crittenden, Harmontown’s resident Dungeon Master.
No, that’s not a sex thing. Spencer’s the maestro of Dungeons and Dragons game sessions that take place on the podcast. He won the role with a combination of good timing, a voice made for campfire narration, and dry charisma.
Anybody who’s seen Community’s Dungeons and Dragons episode knows that Harmon respects the game. Spencer, though, has a mastery of managing the table-top game.
Spencer’s voyage in Harmontown is that of an introvert somehow tricked into a much more public role. Engaging with his own fans at every tour stop, Spencer’s learning about himself throughout the movie, however hard that is on a tour and film named after someone else. Almost unexpectedly, the mostly silent and mostly bearded one frequently steals the show. Director Neil Berkeley noted there was enough footage for a feature-length Spencer documentary. I’ll be curious to see what was left out whenever that comes out.
When Harmon eventually does take to working on his scripts, it’s a great look inside what passes for the creative process. It might be inside baseball for some, but I was thoroughly engaged as Harmon received criticism, took notes, and later collaborated with McGathy. Even though the film is about the podcast’s tour, it’s good that the film does show some of his work process.
With the predictable exception of Chevy Chase, the whole of Community’s cast are interviewed to talk about Harmon. While many could agree that Harmon has a self-destructive nature, there wasn’t much other consensus. Other than that he demands the best from those he works with. With that in mind, it’s not a surprise that the documentary is good. Even though he’s at times its villain, Dan Harmon wouldn’t allow it to be any less.
The film ends on a heart-warming and positive note, as Harmon is hired back by NBC, since Community sucked without him. With all the personal demons on display in the film, such a positive ending feels a little off. Maybe Harmontown 2: A World Tour featuring Spencer’s LA life and the process of Community’s sixth season could happen. As Harmon lurches towards that season, and the series ending film that fans will ask to follow, only then, maybe, would a conclusion feel authentic.
Harmontown is in select theaters for a limited run, it’s only going to be at New York’s IFC Center for the next week or so, and more screening information can be found here.