For a lot of reasons that probably have to do with shareholder value maximization, this is an era in which mainstream cinema has been eclipsed by excellent television. And you could argue that the people who make TV tend to be more interesting and complicated than those who make films. This is likely the result of creative people descending on the medium most receptive to their talents, bringing along all of the psychological baggage that talent entails. Harmontown is a documentary about being stuck on a bus with genius comedy writer Dan Harmon and all of his psychological baggage during the period after May 2012, when Sony Studios fired him from his cult NBC sitcom, Community.
By January 2013, Harmon’s post-Community life involved the things he loved most: his girlfriend (now fiancée) Erin McGathy; drinking with his friends; pitching new series pilots to television networks; and the weekly recording of his podcast, Harmontown, in front of a live audience at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles.
Harmontown: an unscripted, freeform discussion and performance show with regular guests, onstage Dungeons & Dragons, and quite a bit of freestyle rap about fucking your mother and — occasionally, in the interest of editorial balance — fucking your father. It’s also a conduit for Harmon’s psychological and emotional demons, a self-created, public talk-therapy session in which, as he puts it, he “gets drunk and talks into a microphone.”
At the weekly stage show, Harmon makes remarkable emotional connections with his audience. Back during that hiatus from Community, an immoderately bearded, twentysomething gaming enthusiast named Spencer Crittenden attended a Harmontown session with the idea that it would be cool to play D&D with Dan Harmon; in what can only be described as beautiful serendipity, Harmon decided that night to ask from the stage if there was a Dungeon Master in the house. Crittenden was an immediate hit. Thanks to his immersion in role-playing games, ursine charm, and unexpected comic and performance gifts, he became a series regular, officiating the show’s weekly D&D session.
The podcast has a sizable and self-selecting audience of sensitive nerds, alternative-comedy fans, and Community aficionados. To make connections with a wider cross-section of listeners, Harmon and his friends embarked on a cross-country tour and made a film about it. He enlisted director Neil Berkeley, who made the Wayne White documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing, and who took the job with the understanding that he would have total access and no interference with the final cut.
Fortunately, Berkeley wasn’t deeply familiar with Harmon before making the film. He maintains an emotional distance from his subject, while treating the introverts and nerds who turn out for Harmon’s shows affectionately, interspersing the film with interviews and silent portraits of audience members. He captures Harmon fans waiting in line, buying merch, approaching their hero tentatively for autographs. A young interviewer in Austin gets through a Q&A with his hero, then steps out of the room in shock, clearly starstruck. And we’re not talking about an indie band’s fan base, or even that of a performer — these kids truly love this tubby, bearded comedy writer.
If you believe Chevy Chase or TMZ, Harmon is often a difficult person, a trait his co-host Jeff B. Davis attributes to lifelong authority problems. Berkeley’s impartiality frees the director to include some of the writer’s unpleasant moments on the tour. Harmon was supposed to have completed two new pilot scripts for separate networks before the tour started; having failed that, he’s forced to work on the bus. Following an outrageous onstage improvisation about his tendencies for procrasturbation and deadline-missing, he says, “I went a little overboard with the honesty tonight. It’s self-destructive.”
By every account, Harmon drinks truly heroic amounts of vodka on a regular basis, even suggesting in interviews that he drinks Ketel One to fuel his creativity at the rate other people drink coffee. At one show, a fan brings a jar of homemade moonshine onstage, and by the end of the night, he is epically wasted. He listens in disbelief to the recording the next day, admitting to calling for some “shame-based edits” to that week’s podcast.
As a result of what he sees as several moments of self-immolation, Harmon regards himself as decidedly unheroic: “I’m not a hero anymore,” he says. “I have to deal with the fact that I’ve gotten everything that I wanted…I have to grow up.”
Instead, he suggests, Spencer is the film’s hero: “He was plucked from the obscurity of his parents’ basement, whisked across a threshold into a strange land to which he adapted, going down a road of trials with drunk dicks and adoring fans; he meets with the goddess of total, unconditional appreciation only to realize after all of this how alone he will always be…it’s much more heroic than me, which has made me realize that I must kill Spencer, or he must kill me.”
But here’s the thing: What Joseph Campbell describes as the hero’s “meeting with the goddess” is the moment when, having attained everything to which he aspired, the hero must decide what he’s going to do with it. What Harmon wants, as any Community fan knows, is real connection with other human beings; he seeks those singular moments, in his life, his work, and in his podcast, when two people experience flashes of empathy. In the film, he rents a bus and drives across the country looking for that, and whatever his shortcomings, there’s something heroic in that.