Dan Harmon discusses Harmontown | Interview
Mon Jan 21 2013
Writer Dan Harmon is perhaps best known for creating the NBC sitcom Community, but since he was fired from producing the show last year, the self-professed narcissist has found a new passion: podcasting. Recorded live at the NerdMelt Showroom in Los Angeles, Harmontown is a loosely structured show that features Harmon and Jeff Davis (Whose Line Is It Anyway?) chatting about whatever topic floats into the host's mind, frequently bringing audience members up on the stage to take part in the conversation. Additionally, Harmon and Davis conclude each episode with an installment of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, run by Spencer, a 23-year-old Dungeon Master who was plucked from the audience. Now, Harmon is touring the country with the podcast team and a documentary crew, bringing Harmontown to 19 different cities, including Chicago. After a successful show in Brooklyn the night before, Harmon called us from the tour bus to discuss the podcast.
How did the Harmontown show in Los Angeles originally get started?
It started as just a hobby, a kind of therapy for myself. I really like performing for people. I like talking to strangers. I've got a lot of personality flaws that don't make me the most dynamic person to have a one-on-one encounter with. But there's something very comforting about lights shining in my eyes and hearing my most shameful thoughts rewarded by people laughing or just listening. I just started doing it in the back of this comic book store to keep from going insane. I would always tell people in that room, "Please, whatever I say in this room, let's keep it here and not YouTube this stuff.” For almost a year, they were able to keep that agreement. But then, one fateful night, I played Chevy Chase's drunken voicemails into a microphone and someone in the audience couldn't resist the temptation to record it and put it on the Internet. After that happened, Jeff and I started thinking to ourselves, “Why don't we just record this thing and podcast it for everyone? If these things are going to get leaked, then why pass up the opportunity to have a podcast, which seems to be every American's God-given right these days?”
Why did you bring Jeff Davis in as your co-host?
Even before I did the first show, I talked to Jeff about what that show could be and asked him if he'd like to be onstage with me and help me out. The show is driven by my tendency to babble and go off on tangents, but without someone else there to remind me of what I was talking about before I started talking about something else, things can just sort of drift into pure chaos. There's a fine line between a stream of consciousness and a babbling brook to nowhere. Just being up there with his suit on, with his very professional demeanor, it helps mitigate my various disorders and keep the show just enough on track that it feels like a show. I brought him on just out of friendship and insecurity, but it's turned out to be a great combination.
What made you decide to take the show on the road?
It has something to do with turning 40 and feeling that there's not going to be another chance to do this kind of thing. My life has been in transition, as of late. Harmontown predated me getting dismissed from Community but also became a kind of island for me to retreat to when that happened. Also, the downloads kept going up and we felt like there was an audience out there.
You're about halfway through the tour, how's it going so far?
It's going great. The really interesting thing about it is—when you don't have an act, and I certainly do not—the downside of that is that you have to get nervous for a new reason with every building you go in. You're never going to feel secure. The upside of that, is that no matter what happens, we're always ready for it. Jeff is a really gifted improviser. He's afraid of nothing. I'm pretty comfortable with silence. We've done shows where there's 350 hipsters out in the audience just screaming for every word we say. We did a show in Charlotte with about 60-70 people in this dark, concrete room. We did a show in Nashville where I got way too drunk. Somebody brought moonshine up on the stage and I turned into Brian Wilson post-"Kokomo." All of the shows, in their own way, have been good. They just been all incredibly different. If you listen to each city, which you can do in almost real-time online, because we keep podcasting each recording as we go, it's like a nice little box of chocolates.
You're incredibly open about what you discuss on the podcast, from your personal relationships to being let go from Community. Is there anything you won't talk about?
I had a kid come up from out of the audience and read some of his e-mails and my brother got really sore about that, and justifiably so. I contacted him to warn him that I had done it and felt bad about it and he wrote me a really scathing e-mail back that made me start to think: “I don't get to just make other people in my life characters and broadcast their secrets and stuff. I can be as confessional as I want, but if it starts to intrude on another human being's right to privacy or image management, then I have to retreat back from that boundary.” That's a new attitude that I've taken on since the Chevy Chase thing.
What made you decide to incorporate a Dungeons & Dragons campaign into the show?
Dungeons & Dragons, even before drama club and forensics and improv and stand up, was the very first thing that came into my life that saved me from complete autistic self-destruction. It was the first thing I was able to do that demanded interaction with other people. It was one of the most important things that ever happened to me. From Dungeons & Dragons, I was able to start getting onstage in high school and do plays and do improv with troupes like ComedySportz. It completely turned my life around. I'll always be a nerd and I'll always be a misfit, but what changed through Dungeons & Dragons was the idea that being a nerd and a misfit can benefit other people. It can be a mode of connection. It doesn't have to be a reason for isolation.
Your Dungeon Master, Spencer, began as an audience member and now he's out on tour with you. Can you discuss his evolution from spectator to participant in the show?
Honestly, it was a very mystical experience. The original intention was, “Let's audition Dungeon Masters. Let's make a game out of it.” It's a very difficult thing to do well. It takes a very specific brain shape and a very specific set of talents. What I anticipated was that we would go through a lot of people that did it very badly and we'd make a joke out of searching for someone. And the first night that I brought it up, one hand shot up and it was this guy. Then the next week he was doing a perfect job of Dungeon Mastering for us, so we never really looked back.
Everything in Harmontown has a very organic approach to it. If someone wants to come up onstage they can come up onstage. Spencer even said shortly thereafter that he had been saying to his friends—apropos of nothing—before coming to the show, that he had this feeling that he should be playing Dungeons & Dragons with Dan Harmon. Not to get hokey about it, but it was a very Harmontown thing. Since there is no act, there's nothing to protect. The show becomes, I think, an environment more conducive to magical coincidence.
So, here we are in a rock & roll tour bus going around the country, which is a first experience for me and for Spencer. He's sitting three feet from me, so it's a little uncomfortable. One of the most amazing things about him as an individual is his incorruptibility. He is receiving attention right now that could unravel a normal human psyche. If he had come into this having secret cravings for fame and sex appeal and power and things that were shameful, those demons could have been easily exacerbated by a situation like this. But he didn't come into it with any of those, it turns out. He's a steadfast Dungeon Master and he continues to be a hero to all of us.
It's been really interesting to hear the audience get involved in the Dungeons & Dragons sessions. Did you anticipate that level of audience involvement in the D&D campaign?
Not at all. I thought it might end up being something serialized that you might hear on A Prairie Home Companion. We were just listening to the recording from Brooklyn and I'm listening to 350 people in the back of this very hip club, and they're un-ironically cheering for rolls of the dice. They're cheering for people pulling out certain weapons. They're cheering for spells being cast. I never anticipated any of that. It's pretty cool.
One of the great things about the Los Angeles show is the way that some of the regular audience members have become recurring cast members. Spencer is an obvious case but people like Adam Goldberg have made frequent appearances on the show.
Everything in Harmontown has a very organic approach to it. If someone wants to come up onstage, they can come up onstage. If people know that they have a right to speak when they need to, they still exercise their right to sit in the audience and be a voyeur. They don't just scramble like animals for the spotlight and ruin everything. They like the access. They value it. Along the way, you learn their names and they become characters.
Adam Goldberg is one of the most fascinating ones because he comes the closest to violating that concept. In a very delightful way people love and hate him at the same time. So many people in that audience think to themselves, “Well, there's a big plate of cookies in front of us called ‘Stage Time’ and he's taking too many. Right?” And there's that question mark after that. One really interesting thing about him is that the people who listen on the podcast, seem to across-the-board kind of love him. The people that come to the live shows almost across-the-board don't. It might be the fact that the people listening to the podcast are never going to even get to be on that stage, so they are Adam Goldberg. He's a vehicle for them to be up there.
What's it like to have gone from working behind the scenes as a writer to being onstage as the star of Harmontown?
I've always been a narcissist even when I was supposedly behind-the-scenes. I feel like my life has always been the "Hey Look at Me Show." I'm not apologetic about that. This is just turning 40 and having some money to spend on a bus and indulging myself in a big birthday present. It doesn't feel to me like transitioning from anything to anything, it just feels like an indulgence of a part of my personality that's always been there.
What do you think defines a Harmontown fan? Were they all fans of Community or is it more specialized than that?
I know that you start with the word "nerd." You have to start there and with all that that represents. It's not an ugly word anymore because we are a nation of nerds and we certainly outnumber this mythical creature called the "normal person." You build from that base and I think that you take away any anger. Fans that I meet, they're like me, they have this optimism to them. They're smart enough to know how brutal the world is and they know all the ugly words for all the things that are bad about everything, but they're compelled to want things to be better. They want to be happy. They want to like people. They want to hug people. They oftentimes don't know how to do it. And they have a lot of stories about how they failed to do it right in a world full of people that know how to hug people and take it for granted. They are misfits that are proud to be misfits, but at the same time, desperately hunger to fit in because it feels good.
Based on the experience so far, do you think there will be more touring in the future?
I think that's going to largely depend on the movie that we're making. If this movie feels really good then I think that the natural inclination for me is going to be, “Let's go to all the places that we didn't go.” If the movie sucks or is kind of boring then it's like, “Okay, we had fun. We went out on the road. I indulged myself in this fantasy and that's the end of it.” Even if that's the case, I'm still going to go back to Brooklyn a lot because that show was really badass.