Around Thanksgiving of 2012, documentary maker Neil Berkeley got an email from Dan Harmon, the creator of Community. Harmon asked Berkeley if he wanted to make a movie about taking the popular “Harmontown” podcast on a 20-city tour in January. The two had a mutual friend and had met once before–not much of a personal connection for two people about to get real intimate on an impending month-long trip. But Harmon had seen Berkeley’s documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, about oddball artist Wayne White. As for what Berkeley knew about Harmon, he says, “I knew the Chevy Chase story, I knew he got fired, and I was a fan of Heat Vision and Jack.”
“The Chevy Chase story” being that Harmon once played a belligerent voicemail from the comedy legend, Community costar and reputed difficult man for the audience of Harmontown (back when it was only a live show in the back of a Los Angeles comic book shop), and then the entertainment gossip machine got a hold of it. The firing being that NBC replaced Harmon as the showrunner of Community at the start of 2012–for ratings and budget issues, according to Harmon–to the fury of the show’s small but zealous fanbase. And Heat Vision and Jack being the storied TV pilot that Harmon co-created back in 1999, starring Jack Black as a hyper-intelligent astronaut and with Owen Wilson as the voice of a sentient motorcycle.
These three details give a good sketch of the usual perception of Harmon: an inventive creator of cult-following-friendly television prone to self-sabotage who seems incapable of working well with others. In making the documentary that became Harmontown, Berkeley decided to examine whether this perception was fair. “I knew there was a whole group of people who might not understand at first glance why fans gravitate towards Dan,” says Berkeley. “Not that he’s a bad person; [it’s] just the content and some of the humor and some of things that he reveals, people might not understand that.”
From the film it is clear how much his fans are enamored with Harmon–loading him up with handmade art and hugs, telling him about their Asperger’s or their own problems with drinking. In a few cities they literally carried him aloft as he dove into intimate comedy club crowds. Acting as the fans’ surrogate on the tour was Spencer Crittenden, the burly, ponytailed twenty-something who serves as the dungeon master in Harmontown’s ongoing, onstage Dungeons & Dragons game.
What many of these people respond to about Harmon is that he can be uncomfortably honest during the recording of his podcast and in conversation, detailing his failures both as a person who gets paid to do a job and as a person who has to relate with other human beings. Some of those moments are captured in the film. One particularly difficult part shows Harmon recounting the dehumanizing treatment he can inflict on his girlfriend (and current fiancée), Erin McGathy, who was also along on the tour. But Harmon’s confessions don’t come in uncontrollable, unfiltered bursts. He seems to know what he’s doing and how what he says will be interpreted by others, no matter how much vodka he’s downed.
A 2011 profile of Harmon described how he obsessively applies a storytelling formula he devised to every situation on Community, from macro to micro. The key aspect of the formula is that a character must undergo some sort of transformation. Of course stocking a tour bus with booze and speaking your mind to adoring fans in the middle of winter doesn’t promise the same kind of resolutions that an obsessively-crafted script can. “It’s a different kind of movie, it’s got a hero who doesn’t really change,” says Berkeley of Harmontown. “[Harmon] discovers things, but doesn’t really learn anything.”
Harmontown was made by Starburns Industries, the production company in which Harmon is a co-partner, but Berkeley says that he, the director, was given final cut. Initially Harmon wanted the film to be more meta, with Berkeley as a character within it, but the documentarian quickly nixed that idea. During editing Harmon saw different versions and suggested how to make it better, but Berkeley says he never drove the narrative.
As to the challenges inherent in profiling someone so self-aware, Berkeley explains, “It would have been harder if he were guarded. Some people know the audible cues and they know where this is going. When Dan hears those cues (and he knows what they are), he says, ‘You want to talk about abuse? Sure. You want to talk about my childhood? Sure. You want to talk about what a shitty employee I am? Sure.’ It makes things a lot easier from a documentary standpoint, because you get all this honest, candid material.”
Towards the end of the film Harmon tells the camera that he now realizes that he’s not the hero of this documentary, he’s actually villain, and that it’s Spencer Crittenden–who has left his bedroom in his parents’ house to see Times Square, to learn to interact with strangers and to try a weed brownie–who is the movie’s real hero. As to whether Berkeley agrees with Harmon’s assessment, he says, “That’s an interesting thing for him to say, but it’s also heroic for him to say that. It’s almost martyrdom.”
In the postscript to the film it’s explained that months after the tour ended, Harmon was rehired by NBC as the showrunner of Community’s fifth season. The network has since cancelled the show, but now Yahoo has picked it up to be part of its Yahoo Screen streaming video programming. And so now there’s one more group of people who will learn how to try to deal with Dan Harmon.