Review: Harmontown

Harmontown

Trailer

Dan Harmon: the man, the legend, the asshole.

Dan Harmon: the man, the legend, the asshole.

(While Harmontown was released last year in the United States, it was only made available to Irish viewers, via Netflix, a short time ago, so I consider it a 2015 film here. Going to be discussing the film in-depth).

My opinion on Dan Harmon, the man most famous for being behind Community, is coloured by much of what I know or have read on him. He’s legendarily abrasive when it comes to things that he doesn’t like, or when he feels that he has been wronged or misrepresented. He’s well known for being very difficult to work with on sets. He’s trashed collaborators and other people in the industry publically. He has gone out of his way to insult critics on a personal level. He has a reputation for missing deadlines, and of having little care for budgeting. He’s misrepresented the things he’s wanted to make to studios, and failed to change them when asked to. He gets into feuds with people he works with, and then airs that dirty laundry in public. He has, and has had, serious substance abuse problems. He has been recorded, live, treating friends and loved ones in an appalling manner.

But.

There are two things that endear Harmon to me, and to many others. The first is that he has an extraordinary gift for comedy, especially the kind of comedy I love. Harmon is like the old pointlesswasteoftime.com/Jay Pinkerton/John Cheese/Seanbaby style of comedy, which has been left somewhat diluted by the transferring to the mainstream avenue of Cracked.com, made flesh. He’s dark, he understands and manipulates pop culture for his own comedic ends, and he can satirically eviscerate people or things with ease. Community, especially those first two seasons, are the apex of that, of a comedy mind that could come up with something as simplistic yet brilliant as the now eponymous “Six seasons and a movie” rallying cry. Beyond the many and varied misdeeds Harmon committed in the making of that show, it was a compelling and creatively successful production. And it follows in his writings online, at sites and blogs now very sadly defunct, when he demonstrated a knack for telling real-life stories, or twisted versions of the same, full of biting parody and referential comedy.

The second, is that Harmon has demonstrated an understanding of story-telling, evolving characters within a narrative framework and proper emotional manipulation of an audience that, in the words of PWOT and Cracked head honcho Jason “David Wong” Pargin, “I suspect could get him declared one of the world’s most insightful experts on the subject if he’d ever sit down and put it in a book.” A lot of that writing is now lost in an internet black hole, but it was something special to read when it did exist.

So, there are those two fluctuating sides to Harmon, the creator who is capable of amazing comedic story-telling, and the asshole who just can’t stop destroying himself and his projects (to borrow from the brilliant Dead Homer Society and Simpsons fandom in general, perhaps we can dub them “Dan Harmon” and “Jerkass Harmon”). “Destroying himself” is apt wording: very early in this documentary, when friends and former co-workers are asked “Who is Dan Harmon?” one of the answers is John Oliver’s colourful “a human hand grenade with a predilection for pulling his own pin out.”

Man, this is a long introduction, but I want to set things up right for the discussion of Harmontown, a documentary which follows Harmon, in the aftermath of his sacking from Community in 2012, as he takes the titular podcast on a road tour of the United States. By filming a journey through a crushing amount of live shows to be performed, upcoming deadlines for comedy pilots, fights with his fiancée and a great deal of introspection, director Neil Berkeley aims to find out just why Harmon is so loved by the community that has become his hardcore followers.

Berkeley has a serious task on his hands here. The recording of footage for a documentary such as this is, of course, the easy part, it’s just footage of Harmon and friends of stage, in a tour bus, or talking to the camera, with Berkeley remaining silent and unseen. It’s in the editing together that problems arise, and the main one, frequently for films of this type, is that the whole affair rapidly becomes an exercise in hero worship, of excusing flaws and making that main focus out to be a demigod, maybe with a few foibles to make him just slightly less than perfect. It’s the first thing I look out for in documentaries like this. But Berkeley, though it might take a while to get to that point completely, does manage to avoid this pitfall, and instead has managed to create something that offers a glaringly full-on depiction of Harmon in a variety of roles, leaving in to the viewer to decide whether the titular writer has enough redeeming qualities.

For me, Harmontown became an exercise in determining whether Dan Harmon and Jerkass Harmon could be separated in my mind. I often have trouble with this: I love The Pianist but I’ll never pay money to see a Polanski film, I like Jayne Cobb but now actively avoid anything Adam Baldwin is involved in, I like Wayne Rooney scoring goals, but can’t help but agree that he simply isn’t a nice person. Some say that it must be a requirement for any critic or reviewer that he separate the creator from their creations, but a large part of me just can’t do that to the extent others can. The question is, in this case, is there enough good about Dan Harmon that I can overlook his Jerkass persona, and not feel that niggling doubt whenever I sit down and watch Community now? It’s not a small concern: re-watching Community from the beginning recently, I find myself not laughing quite as hard as I did, seeing in every mean joke and derogatory statement – especially involving Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorn – the work of a man who is filled with so much self-loathing that he has to project it all out on others around him, even fictional characters.

In the actual documentary, it doesn’t take all that long to get into it. Harmon is depicted as a man who simply can’t stop himself from saying very inadvisable things in public, while he is being recorded. His podcast, especially these live shows, are a form of therapy for him, where he gets to release pent up frustrations, bask in the adulation of people who are delighted to see him let rip and generally act like the comedic maestro so many see him as. But the problem is that it’s a dangerous and self-damaging form of therapy: Harmon’s ego demands love and adoration from these public meetings, but doesn’t seem to understand that everything he’s saying is going to be aired en masse via the internet, to be dissected and put under a spotlight.

Dan Harmon is working through some stuff on stage, desperate for public adoration.

Dan Harmon is working through some stuff on stage, desperate for public adoration.

A good example, very early on, is when Berkeley recounts the Chevy Chase “incident” where Harmon felt it was a good idea to play some foul mouthed phone messages Chase had left over a private dispute between the two, which ended up exacerbating that whole feud, turning it into an entertainment news story as opposed to just some backstage rumour. But Harmon just can’t stop, during regular podcast recordings or on the road, requiring that experience on a constant basis. And it’s not like he doesn’t have other things to do: two comedy pilot deadlines approach, but Harmon dismissively insists he can do them on the road, mugging for the camera as he procrastinates from the work. It all has to go by the wayside. Harmon isn’t expressly clear about what he expects to get out of the tour, but it becomes obvious very quickly. In the aftermath of his much publicised sacking, Harmon needs to feel the love, and work will have to wait.

But Berkeley, perhaps wary of having someone as ego-driven as Harmon dominating proceedings completely, also wants to look at that fanbase, the men and women who have flocked to Harmon’s banner and express a kind of dedication I could only match for a very small number of people (and some of them are dead). But I pride myself on always allowing for criticism, even of loved creators, so there is a certain strangeness in watching the cult-like devotion that some (and only some, in fairness) have for Harmon and his team, a devotion that Harmon seems happy to obliquely encourage. Berkeley does well in showing why this happens: Harmon and his brand of comedy appeals directly to a “misfit” crowd, the best label I could take from the film. These are people who struggle(d) to fit in at school and in life, have “nerdy” tastes when it comes to pop culture, have dealt with a world where they are pressured into hiding those very tastes and enjoy a dark and whipsmart brand of comedy, especially of the improvised kind. The physical similarities across the U.S. are striking: long haired, bearded guys mix with short (dyed) haired tomboy girls. In Harmon they find a cipher for their own interests, someone to look up to, someone who, like the best comedians do for their audiences “says what we’re all thinking”. Berkeley becomes committed to showing these people in a way that matches the more famous individuals he interviews on behalf of his production, full on, in portrait, perhaps to get beyond some of that social awkwardness and humanise that otherwise anonymous crowd.

Harmon is someone who raises the misfits up, creates a community (the word was picked deliberately for Harmon’s most famous work) and speaks to them on a level that they appreciate. And sometimes, he even gets them involved. Hence, Spencer, a supporting character in Harmontown who winds up taking up a large part of the proceedings as the film progresses. Spencer is such a stereotype that part of me wondered if he was playing it up a bit: a basement dwelling, beard sporting, socially impaired, ponytailed D&D Dungeon Master, who gets a bit of attention and the chance to come out of his shell thanks to the work of Harmon, who brought Spencer up on stage at one recording of Harmontown, and ends up bringing him along on the tour for a running on-stage game of D&D.

Spencer rapidly becomes one of the most sympathetic parts of Harmontown. He’s shy, reserved and never changes the tone of his voice, but he’s the most obvious up front example of the Harmon effect on this subset of American audiences. Becoming a minor celebrity himself is endearing and strangely emotional, and Harmon is right when he points out that Spencer might just be the true protagonist “character” of the documentary (jokingly adding that this means that he must “destroy Spencer”). He’s a witness to some of Harmon’s terrible behaviour, but remains utterly unflappable about the whole thing, growing in confidence as the tour progresses, and providing the podcast with its most notable recurring segment, in some of the films funniest moments (take it from someone knows firsthand: RPG sessions can be some of the funniest places on the planet for improvised comedy). The film focused a bit on the larger crowd, but it’s good that this mass has a singular individual with which it is represented more thoroughly, as it helps to keep this aspect of the documentary firmly focused.

Back on Harmon, there are moments when you really begin to understand some of his outward problems. Before the first show, he seems unreasonably worried that nobody is going to turn up, which never seemed like a genuine possibility. He always seems worried about whether the crowd will like him or not, even putting their enjoyment of his “act” above his relationship with his fellow performers (and his fiancée at one point – see below). Harmon openly acknowledges that this is down to some severe self-esteem issues, which have left him with a deep unease about himself and his general popularity. It isn’t enough that the entire internet seems to love him, he needs that public, live adoration too, and frets about whether he is going to receive it.

But receive it he does. In one of the early shows, Harmon jokes about his self-loathing, preferring to be heckled rather than applauded (in other points, Berkeley airs skits of Harmon insulting himself, Gollum/Smeagol style), and does a fake slow motion “reach-out” moment with the front row. The crowd laps it up and there are laughs aplenty, but the viewer of this documentary will easily be more unsettled. Berkeley does a great job of contrasting Harmon alone with Harmon in a crowd, and the difference is stark and worrying. It’s easy to imagine someone like Harmon suffering from depression, of the kind that seems to plague elements of the comic community.

Amidst all of this analysis of Harmon as his podcast tour gets into full swing, Berkeley breaks to take a few trips back in time to Harmon’s earlier years, filling this slot with plenty of talking head interviews. There are big names here, like Ben Stiller and Jack Black, recounting Harmon’s first notable venture, the ridiculous comedy pilot “Heat Vision and Jack”. The short contained much of what makes Harmon Harmon, both in its comedy style and in the way it went way over budget and found no lasting success. Harmon’s former collaborators are eager to paint him as a genius when it comes to generating laughter and appealing to that certain type of market, but it doesn’t take long for the problems to also be expanded upon.

Sarah Silverman, who worked with Harmon on The Sarah Silverman Show, is the best example of many. She’s remarkably composed and non-bitter about the apparently terrible experience she had with Harmon, who acted atrociously on the set of their show, ruined his relationships with nearly everyone involved for a time, and eventually had to be fired so the production could continue without the poisonous atmosphere he had created. The nastiness continued afterward with some, now deleted, online posts that Harmon wrote that were harsh on Silverman to say the least, but the two appear to have reconciled somewhat since. Her sentiments are matched by Rob Schrab, a Harmon co-writer for a few years, whose relationship with the Community creator was left in temporary tatters after The Sarah Silverman Show.

Back in the (near) present, the tour continues, but the more negative aspects of Harmon’s personality are emerging. Amid all of the starry eyed faces of fans who have gotten the chance to meet their idol, there is also some signs of awkwardness, especially as Harmon begins to act erratically on the stage. One night, taking the opportunity to indulge in some crowd-offered moonshine, Harmon goes off the rails, capering drunkenly around the room and speaking incoherently, to the horror of some of the guests (though plenty of others are laughing). It helps that Harmon keeps up the funny, declaring that the moonshine, “tastes like a fight with my girlfriend”. The next day, a mortified Harmon is forced to make what he dubs “shame based edits” to the recorded audio to make the podcast episode somewhat listenable. It’s a disquieting episode, and it speaks on Harmon’s problems with alcohol and other drugs, that Berkeley (and Harmon as well) does not feel the need to go into too much. As with his tendency to say things he shouldn’t whenever a microphone is in front of him, Harmon’s poor impulse control in other aspects of his life is starkly demonstrated. But again, Harmon feels bad, apologises, makes a joke of it, and moves on, demonstrating another key aspect of his personality, namely an ability to seemingly forget past lapses in judgement as fast as they occurred.

A brutal interaction between Harmon and fiancee Erin McGathy stands out big time.

A brutal interaction between Harmon and fiancee Erin McGathy stands out big time.

All the while, Harmon fights two deadlines for comedy pilots he has previously trumpeted as a sort of victory over the forces that fired him from Community (brilliantly describing his solution to NBC’s demand for higher ratings as him leaving for other networks that have them). Writing on the road is a near impossible task, and when Harmon finally does send off a first draft, the scene where he takes down a very long list of suggested and demanded alterations from the studio is uncomfortable. We’ve become accustomed to seeing Harmon as the brash creative genius, then suddenly he is hunched over a small writing pad, dutifully scribbling the studio notes down as the woman on the other end of the phone lists them out. There are a lot of them, and a tone of unease with Harmon’s hither-to nonchalant attitude towards deadlines. The studio wants an updated script the next day; the second Harmon is off the phone, he’s back to being dismissive. One cannot help but feel frustrated by the priorities and actions of this man, fired several times over from TV shows because of this exact kind of behaviour. The people who are Harmon’s professional superiors can wait. As Rob Schrab says in an interview, Harmon “doesn’t trust authority just because its authority”. The two pilots end up going nowhere, one rejected and the other unfinished, to the surprise of nobody really.

We’ve gotten a fairly complete glimpse of how Harmon acts on stage and off it up to now, but it is only as Harmontown rounds the hour mark – the film is a somewhat bulging 100 minutes, but manages to justify the length for the most part – that we get to the really ugly side of Harmon and the way he tends to act, in a sequence that does more to destroy him on a personal level than anything else thus far. Berkeley just lets it happen: Harmon and his fiancée, Erin McGathy, who is also a podcaster, work out a fight the two have had the previous day on stage. The audience, and me too at first, lap it up like its some pre-arranged skit or comedic talking point, until you realise that McGathy is being more and more serious even as Harmon becomes more and more indifferent and jokey, clearly not wanting to talk about the issue with any stoicism, but just wanting to make the crowd laugh. But the laughs eventually stutter and reduce in volume as McGathy relates how Harmon, seeing her in emotional distress, reacted by levelling vile abuse at her. Harmon, sounding drunk, reacts by claiming that if McGathy left him, he would kill himself. The comment is made in a tipsily joking manner, but few in the crowd are that into it. She leaves the show early, loyally accompanied by a silent Spencer. Harmon drunkenly sings “I’m a god, I’m a god, this is Harmontown!”

Harmon’s relationship with his fiancée gets some time but in truth you never really hear all that much from her. Certainly, she’s not interested in praising Harmon to the hilt, states a belief that the nature of the tour itself is warping Harmon’s perception of others and I can’t say that the audience ever gets a firm idea of what she sees in him. After the car crash on stage, Berkeley gets the chance to talk to the two of them privately. Harmon is still trying to make light of what has happened, even as McGathy contemplates the reality that she has just informed hundreds of audience members and potentially thousands of internet listeners that Harmon called her a “cunt” in a moment of emotional distress. When he tries to joke that that was “ the best you could do”, McGathy remarks she could have said worse. When Harmon says “bring it”, she simply replies “It’s not what you said, it was some things that you did”. Mumbles and pained silence. Cut away. It was frustrating to see that comment go unelaborated upon, because it could easily be construed in many different fashions. I won’t go so far as to air suspicions of what McGathy meant exactly, but one cannot help but feel disturbed by a certain insinuation there. It’s easily Harmontown’s darkest moment.

Those moments of stark, disturbing reality are regrettably offset by some of the more plainly staged bits, such as the beginning where Berkeley films Harmon asleep with McGathy, waking up and speaking directly to the camera, a book-ended segment that got the film off to the wrong start. Some of what followed, like the numerous embraces between Harmon and his fans, also has a slightly artificial vibe to it. Ironically, after showing Harmon mocking faked moments of sentimentality between performers and fans in such productions, Harmontown goes ahead and basically does that anyway, leaving the viewer wondering if it is an ironic exercise or just some hypocrisy in action. The film is just fine visually though, nearly all hand held with skilful integration of interviews and clips from past projects. Berkeley does let Harmon have a bit of control that other documentarians wouldn’t be comfortable with – towards the end, one sequence involves Harmon speaking to himself in the mirror with a handheld camera, his own confessional that he dominates – but that’s part of who Harmon is and what the film is trying to depict about him.

The final half hour or so of Harmontown is dedicated to Harmon trying to face up to the reality of the person he has become, all too quick to become Jerkass Harmon, and just as quick to regret it later. If Harmontown has a point to make on that score, it waits till these moments to make it. It’s nothing special or spectacular, just an acknowledgement from a somewhat tortured artist that his behaviour is unacceptable, in so many respects, and that he has to try and be a better person in future: for his own sake, for his fans that love him so much, and for the many people close to him, who have far too often borne the brunt of Harmon’s lashing out.

Harmontown ends with the standard documentary crawl, and this one indicates a happy ending for its subject and his admiring fanbase: Following a disappointing fourth season under new showrunners, the people behind Community hire Harmon back. It seems as if everything has come right, and maybe Harmon will be able to take some of the things he has learned and expressed about himself through the course of Harmontown onboard.

But, unfortunately for making a complete picture of Harmon, things have been left out here. Deliberately? I’m not sure. One can’t help but think of Abed’s monologue at the end of Community’s “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” (Season’s Three best episode, easily) about how documentarians are part of the story they tell, because they choose to tell it and because they decide how it ends. Berkeley’s ending point is convenient for Harmon, because it ignores Harmon’s comments on Community’s fourth season, made shortly after his re-hiring.  He had claimed he would “not be a jerk about it” in regards the fourth season, perhaps because many of the people involved were those he had worked with on Community previously. But then the Harmontown effect took over, as he let loose with abandon at a recording of the podcast. Among other things, Harmon claimed that watching the fourth season was “like flipping through Instagrams and watching your girlfriend just blow a million [other guys]”, and “being held down and watching your family get raped on a beach” before, demonstrating a hypocrisy that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad, going on to say that “writers fighting other writers is the dream of Sony”. Even by Harmon’s standards, the apology the following day was especially grovelling. “It Won’t Happen Again Again” was a truly appropriate title for it, because who at this point really believes Harmon will suddenly start refraining from making such crass, unprofessional and insulting comments in public, to the detriment of his own creations and career? Oh hey, look, here he is, comparing that fourth season to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

And therein lies the horrible paradox of Dan Harmon, one that is as heartbreaking as it is exasperating. Because Harmon should be an inspiration to anyone who writes, anyone who dreams of making it big. He made it to the Promised Land, and has been given numerous opportunities to do something great, and he has attracted a fanbase whose devotion to him is touching and sincere. And yet, he keeps self-destructing, pulling the pin on a grenade and holding on, only belatedly realising that his words have a power beyond scripts. I love Dan Harmon’s work, but I find it impossible to love the man, and it’s depressing to see him continually court controversy when he could buckle down, create, and just be nice. Is that so bad, to want the writers you appreciate to not go out of their way to make you dislike them in public?

Community is still going, and may well achieve that cherished dream of “Six Seasons and a Movie”. It would certainly be a triumph of fanbase and fan love over cold hard numbers and network pessimism if it did. But the other side is a show that seems to be trundling a little bit, having lost much of its original cast and arguably no longer what it once was. But still, the hope for quality, perhaps the expectation of it, is still there, and it’s thanks to Dan Harmon, not Jerkass Harmon. He says, in Harmontown, that he wants to be “the guy who makes people happy”, but also acknowledges that he could easily be viewed as the villain in his own story. It’s a true dichotomy, and I’m not sure how history will look back on Harmon. Maybe, hopefully, it’ll be able to separate the man from his work. But, part of me just can’t anymore.

And, a bit ironically I suppose, it was this film that helped bring me to that point. Harmontown is a brilliant documentary though, that cuts to the heart of Harmon’s life, personality and followers, and creates a well-rounded and fascinating picture of its subject. Parts of it could do with a little polishing, but it successfully avoids being a hero worship piece, and allows people a glimpse at a truly complicated and divisive creative mind. Simply shot but intensely emotive, Berkeley, for what is only his second documentary film, should be commended for the effort he has put in here, a proper “warts and all” job, that should be a lesson to all other aspiring filmmakers on how to undertake such a production. Recommended.

A brilliant documentary.

A brilliant documentary.

(All images are copyright of The Orchard).

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One Response to Review: Harmontown

  1. Pingback: NFB’s Film Rankings 2015 – #20-11 | Never Felt Better

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