Q&A: 'Community's' Dan Harmon Takes No Prisoners

The rebellious showrunner talks about the future of his metasitcom, why he's just like Denzel Washington and his new project with "Arrested Development's" Mitch Hurwitz

Dan Harmon
Jon Shapley/Getty Images for SXSW
Dan Harmon
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When Community showrunner Dan Harmon was axed from his metasitcom in 2012, it was the result of a showbiz shit-storm triggered at his oddball variety show "Harmontown." One night, in the black-box backroom of the Hollywood geek headquarters Meltdown Comics, Harmon shared voicemails in which Chevy Chase called him an "asshole, alcoholic fat shit" and invited him to "suck my cock." He was kicked off Community after three seasons, forced to watch it rebooted with replacement directors. (He'd eventually be rehired back in June 2013, in time to head up the show's fifth season.) Harmon had been booted from his baby, but nobody could touch his live show, which had quickly become the exiled comedy king's weird new domain.

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Premiering at this year's SXSW Film Festival, Neil Berkeley's documentary Harmontown tells the story of what happened in between Harmon's firing and rehiring, when the showrunner took his show on a cross-country tour with his co-hosts: the comically slick piano-man Jeff Davis, his girlfriend Erin McGathy, and the Hagrid-beard-bearing dungeon master Spencer Crittenden. "In each city, I got drunk and talked into a microphone," he says. "I crowdsurfed pantless, drank moonshine, passed out." The film is as perverse, uncensored, deeply nerdy, and spit-take hilarious as the man himself—and despite the brutal fights, drunken nights, and its subject's almost ritualistic self-debasement, the doc, like Harmon, throbs with an absurd optimism.

At an outdoor Austin café, Harmon sipped three spicy tequila cocktails as he talked for two hours, explaining why his girlfriend is "not thrilled" by the film, why he's exactly like Denzel Washington, and why he's excited about a new comedy project with Arrested Development showrunner Mitch Hurwitz.

On tour with Harmontown, you got to meet a lot of your young fans face-to-face. What do you think of Millennials?
Gen X got to rebel against the Boomers by being self-loathing, which I consider more honest than what we're doing now. We rejected Judy Tenuta; we give you David Cross. But now this Millennial movement, in order to rebel against that, has become all about social consciousness and teamwork. The kids today sound a lot like my parents, and I don't like it! 

The kids these days, they're so nice…
I'm intimidated by their sexual-social maturity. They are smarter and have a higher emotional IQ than their forbears. They're more mature about being friends with the opposite sex and breaking up. But in all other regards, fuck them. They're too judge-y and too trusting of the government. And this "teamwork" concept—that we all need to work together and think alike—terrifies me.

The clash between your ego and your self-loathing is on full display in the film. How does that relate to your childhood in Milwaukee?  
Well, if you grow up in Sparta, by the time you're three you have to know how to swing a sword. If you grow up in Milwaukee, by the age of 3-6, you realize you're not special, and nobody has a right to be, because you live in the coldest city in the country. I'm glad I was programmed with a desperate fear of pretense and entitlement.  Every time I come close to saying something that sounds like I think I'm better than other people, a bell goes off in my head and I make sure people know that I'm fat, dumb, racist and alcoholic.

How do you balance all that? 
I think probably the worst thing about my personality is that there must have been some huge dopamine or serotonin spike when I shamed my grade school principal, or the first time I told my Mom she couldn't make me clean my room. Those experiences were too emotionally formative for me. At the age of 41, I still think I'm addicted to the rush of proving to people that they can't control me. If you could turn that off about my personality, I could be President in a couple of weeks, because I think the only thing people don't like about me is that they're like, When are you gonna learn that you have things that other people spend their life dreaming about? When are you going to stop biting the hand that feeds you?

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The documentary plays into this mythology around you, which suggests that, as with other so-called "difficult" show-runners, your dysfunction is connected to your success. Do you think that if you were healthy, you'd be more creative or productive?
I think I'd be way less productive, because I'd be happy! I wouldn't be trying to prove anything, so I wouldn't have any reason to do anything. I try to be honest about myself. If I am hard-wired that way, at least I can put it into a character and then explore those things. But I can't change it. I can try to be nicer to my girlfriend…

How did Erin feel about the doc when she saw it? Your fights are a big part of the film. It mentions that you call her the c-word.
She's not thrilled with it. She's a bigger fan of documentaries and she's well-acquainted with the archetype she calls the "Documentary Wife/Girlfriend/Mother." We're not a couple who you look at across the room and say, "Oh, that's a perfect couple." But we are the couple that's going to be together forever. The movie doesn't show that she's funnier than me, and that we are really happy together, so she's a little scared her Dad's gonna see it and think, "This is the guy you're gonna marry?" I told her: It's not an accurate portrayal of our relationship, but it's a fair and accurate movie about what a piece of shit I am, which includes how cavalier I can be about you suffering in the background. 

How involved were you in the editing process?
I had to make a deal with Neil before we went out on the road that it was my tour, but his documentary. He wasn't allowed to direct me, and I wouldn't be allowed to edit the film. I had a chance to give creative feedback, but the only thing I was really pushy about was a point where Jeff Davis is improvising tongue twisters like "Dermot Mulroney." I start laughing and add, "Pedophilia's an option if you have the gumption!" Neil took it out, and I'm like, "Fuck you! You try improvising an alliterative tongue twister that is socially unacceptable! I'm gonna die proud of five things and that's one of them! Put it back!" He was laughing last night, because he can't wait to tell people that my one big sticking point was to put the pedophile joke back in. 

The film, of course, takes place after you were fired from Community and before you were hired back.
One of the unappealing things about me that threatened this documentary is that I'm pretty satisfied with myself. I didn't have an epiphany about why I got fired and what I could change about myself to get me rehired. I just coped with getting fired, stayed honest in the face of what I thought was dishonesty, and in the end, got rewarded for doing nothing! They brought me back because it was probably more cost-effective for them. No lessons learned!

Really? No lessons at all?
I did have the epiphany that I'm probably not going to change at 41, and that there are characters like that in stories. They're called mentors and villains; you get to pick which of those you are to a new generation. So that's why I made Spencer [Crittenden] my assistant and I've started an online Dungeons & Dragons cartoon with him, Harmonquest. It's Spencer dungeon-mastering in live sessions with celebrity guests, like Patton Oswalt, talking while stabbing monsters. Then we animate the action. 

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I hear the new season of Community will have another D&D episode. Is that because the network hated the first one?
Without question it was an ego-driven compulsion that fucked us up this season. It was not organic. It was really difficult to write, and it put our schedule off with these ripples of fuck-ups. But working on a show that fired me and brought me back, they were terrified to tell me I couldn't do what I want.  I'd often pump my first and talk about how the network hated the first D&D episode; "These bastards in suits don't get us!"  Now everyone loves Game of Thrones and everything with a sword in it, and I'm like "What am I doing?"  

So it's purely to prove a point? 
Absolutely. It was based on pure "fuck you." I'll absolutely deserve it if it's the worst episode of anything ever.  

Last fall, Donald Glover posted a series of distressed personal letters on Instagram. He says at one point, "I hope Dan Harmon doesn't hate me."
I think he knows I don't. I think he knows that if I did, it'd be for the most amazing reason in the world, which is that he's that valuable to me, and him walking away really hurts the show! He's one of the most incredible performers I've ever had the intimidating honor of writing for. We would joke about writing lines into the script that go, "Then Donald says something funny to conclude the scene." Then it stopped being a joke and we'd actually go, "All right, Donald, wrap it up!" Everyone in that cast is so talented and incredible, but Donald could improvise things that were funnier than what the entire writers' room come up with. I say that hoping that no one on the cast reads that. Speaking of Donald weirdness and rumors, did you see the recent thing?

What was it?
If you said you were going to see his show, he sent you an email and he put a P.S. on the end that said, "I'm going back to Community," so there were all these articles on the gossip blogs that said, "Donald is coming back." Sony called me and asked, "Is Donald coming back?" A whole studio was wondering…

So, did you text him?
Last night, when he saw the episode, we talked back and forth a little bit about how grateful I was he did an interview for the doc, how he's doing. I didn't ask about that stunt. Part of me was like, "Don't give him the satisfaction. I just want to be friends. If he's gonna come back to the show, he should probably do it through proper channels. I don't want to have to ask.

When he had that rough moment in the fall, he seemed to be feeling some of the same self-destructive, self-hating emotions you talk about in the documentary. 
Donald, in spite of being a child relative to my age, is one of my mentors. I used to do standup when I was 17 in Milwaukee, and hung it up when I moved to LA, but sometimes people invite me to perform. One day, I was going to do "stand-up" in someone's backyard at a hipster party, and I was really nervous about it because I didn't have an act. I texted Donald asking him for advice. He said, "What are you really thinking about right now?" And I said, "I hate Chevy Chase, he's really difficult on set and he's bumming me out." I unloaded about the difficulties I was having with Chevy. Donald said, "You gotta go with that. If you're funny tonight, you're funny because you're talking about what's on your mind." He was right: I went up in a backyard and I killed. Though I don't think Donald intended his advice to be, "Talk shit about Chevy and create all this trouble."
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So Donald Glover is almost to blame for it all! When's the last time you talked to Chevy?
He texted me some frustrated stuff during the episode that aired about his funeral. He said, "Why don't you tell people the truth about why I'm not on the show?" He ranted a little bit in texts about why he's not on the show anymore, and what a bunch of PR B.S. it was. I understood where he was coming from. I gave him an open invitation to come on the podcast: I said, "No one will ever stop loving you. If you want to come on Harmontown and rant about shit, people will give you a standing ovation and adore you." And he said, "Nah." I just told him I loved him and thought he was funny.

What are the odds of there being another season of Community?
Fifty-fifty. It's always been fifty-fifty. I wouldn't want it any other way now. Being a sure thing means I'd start thinking about not wanting to do it. I want it to be a surprise. I want them to fire me again, to promote me to head of NBC, I want them to cancel the show, to pick it up for 100 more episodes. It's exhilarating. It's the golden age of TV, my friend, which is another way of saying TV is dying. 

You say a couple times that writing a show is therapy for you. Have you done therapy?
I've tried.

Why didn't it work?
I know that I'm not healthy, but the definition of healthy has gotten us nowhere over 6,000 years. Therapists are agents of compromise, frankly. They want you to get through the next day, and maybe the next day isn't good enough for me to get through. Maybe the next day needs to change — or get a black eye from me. I know that I'm hurting myself by thinking that, but I also know that that's how God designed me. I'll retire later, and then I'll go back to one of these people, and go, "Keep me from doing what my parents did to me. Help me be a good dad and husband." But I gotta do that after I finish writing stuff.

Is that really the plan? To quit writing and become a healthy father and husband?
Well, now I have to face the reality. I've got a 29-year-old girlfriend and I'm 41, so it's my biological clock that's a factor. I proposed to her recently over Christmas. We're going to get married, and as soon as the ring's on her finger, I'll stop pulling out! 

When you're a father, how will you change?
My greatest fear is being one of those parents who puts frustrations/anxieties into their kid because they've got stuff they haven't dealt with yet. And I'm a workaholic, so I feel like I have to get something going so it can support a family, where I come in 9 to 5. That's my fantasy. It would be the end of the days of me going, "We have to make this thing perfect, therefore we have to stay up till 4a.m. and I'm going to rip my clothes off, start crying, and get a nosebleed…" I can't do that to a kid or a wife.

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What about the alcoholism? You're holding a drink in almost every scene. 
Have you seen Denzel Washington in Flight? I thought, "This movie might be about me. This is what they call functional alcoholism." It wasn't Citizen Kane, but I thought it was a really profound movie about a very specific brand of alcoholic, who is so good at his job while drunk that he flies a plane upside-down and saves everyone's lives. I'll snap back at any lightweight who ever makes the mistake of implying that my drinking is somehow a negative thing: "You go have nine cups of coffee, I'll drink a fifth of vodka, and I'll see you at the finish line." Prove me wrong. Do what I do better than I can do it. At the end of the movie, he says, "I have a problem, I quit, I'm going to go to jail now." I guess that moment exists on my horizon somewhere, but first I've got a couple more planes to fly upside-down. 

In the documentary, there's a night when you drink so much moonshine that the show is a disaster.
This kid brought the moonshine up on stage and it was a different kind of drunk. I blacked out. You can see me in the documentary listening to the show the next day and I'm editing stuff out of the podcast because, for the first time in my life, I'm actually embarrassed. At one point, I took the audience on a bear hunt, which is something from kindergarten! I was doing Elvis kicks, speaking gibberish. It was Brian Wilson stuff. All those people said they had a great time, but as Denzel says in that movie, "I broke the public trust." I flew the plane upside-down but I was too drunk to know if I was failing or succeeding, so I shouldn't have been up there.

Let's talk about Rick and Morty, your show on Adult Swim. 
If someone could somehow make R + M my life, I'd happily accept that. Not to the exclusion of Community; I'll see that through no matter what it takes. Someone on Twitter asked me, "Do you love your children the same amount?" I said, "I love Rick and Morty like an adorable baby that thinks everything I do is great, and I love Community like my teenage daughter who tried to lock me out of the house!" I love them both, but I have a history with the latter.

Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz recently guest-starred on Community. 
He's great. I invited him to come down on the show and then I parlayed that into what I really want from him, which is friendship, hanging out, talking about how dumb people are when they tell you what to do!

You two must have so much to talk about…
It's so great. Every conversation I have with him, I feel the way I imagine normal people feel coming out of therapy. I feel refreshed, like it's OK to be who I am. 

Will you ever work with Mitch again?
I've begged him to come to the writers' room on Community, but he has wisely declined. I don't think he'd be able to stand being on someone else's thing. He and I have talked about doing a project together, so that every time I see him, I'm like, "We weren't just drunk, we're really gonna do that?" And he's like, "Yeah."

Wait — you and Mitch Hurwitz are going to work together?
I don't want to talk about it… Okay, it would embrace the emerging mediascape, and use us both in a way that we weren't compromising each other, but are still collaborating, and giving the audience a lot to digest. That's all I'll say.

I have no idea what that means.
I know! I could lay it out in one sentence, but then it'll be on the Internet and I'm worried that that'll somehow ruin it. Right now it's the genie in the bottle, and I don't want it to come out and go away.

That sounds amazing. But, wait—earlier you said you were going to slow down and be a father and husband. Which is it? 
My agent hates this about me: I'm just now learning that I have to really strategize. I'm talking about this Hurwitz thing, and if that can ever happen, then it has to happen, and then it won't matter if my wife is pregnant. God, I see disaster down the road now that you're making me face it! 

Sorry.
I'll keep biting off more than I can chew, and my child will grow up to hate me, hate writing, love football, and turn into a douchebag. Then ironically, he will write a book about me being a bad dad that's more successful than anything I've ever written. 

I think you wrapped it up pretty well there.
I already hate this kid. I can't wait to beat him!

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