I Liked It: Harmontown
As you know, hypothetical version of my sister who has slightly more time on her hands and who is interested in what I’m into nowadays, I was into Community for a long time. We don’t need to talk about it, but still, there it is. It’s over now, which is fine, because most of the people involved seemed more than ready to move on after the sixth and final season. One of those people: creator and showrunner Dan Harmon.
Again, as you know, because I know you have a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, Harmon was fired from Community at the end of its third season, and the show limped with a fourth season that was a weirdly fascinating trainwreck before re-hiring Harmon to run the fifth and sixth seasons (which are each, in their own way, entirely separate shows both from one another and from the Community that came before). Back in 2012 when the third season was ending, Harmon had this massive public tiff with Chevy Chase, one of the cast on the show, although supposedly they’ve mended fences in the years since. Chase, famously difficult to work with (as you know, because I know you are deeply knowledgable about all the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players) walked off the set midway through shooting the fourth season and wouldn’t come back, and Harmon had nothing to do with that, obviously.
But some aspect of this simmering Chase-Harmon feud was kicked off the night Harmon played a voicemail Chase had left him, for an audience at Harmontown.
Harmontown is what Dan Harmon does instead of church. Originally I think it was his substitute for therapy: he rented a small performance space and sold tickets to offset expenses and talked to an audience, stream of consciousness, for a couple of hours on Sunday nights. People came because they knew he was funny, and some of them stayed, and eventually the weekly event evolved into a show with some kind of format, with Harmon’s friend Jeff Davis (not the Confederate leader, not the creator of Teen Wolf; he’s one of the Who’s Line improv guys) acting as emcee. Sometime after that, Harmon started recording the show as a podcast. Sometime after that, he decided to play D&D with Davis as part of the experience, and recruited a GM from the audience. Sometime after that, he went on a multicity tour, performing for wildly varied audiences across America, and brought the GM along, with Davis and Harmon’s wife (then fiance or maybe just girlfriend, I don’t recall the timeline) Erin McGathy.
Somebody else filmed it as a documentary. That documentary: Harmontown. It’s on iTunes and Netflix. It’s not bad; it’s worth your time.
I started listening to Harmontown the podcast maybe two years ago. Sometimes I consider not listening to it any more, but I still listen to every episode. There’s one where Harmon and McGathy have a fight, live on stage, about their relationship, deep in the middle of the multicity tour when they’re exhausted and drunk. There’s one where Harmon, Davis, and Demorge Brown (who replaced Kumail Nanjiani as ‘the guy who fills out the D&D party’) do a long-form improv inspired by random tracks of podsafe music coming up on Davis’s iPad. There’s one where Harmon brainstorms a pitch for a 9/11 magical-realism feel-good fantasy movie about enchanted blue jeans and a firefighter trying to make things right. There’s one where Robin Williams shows up, totally unexpectedly, and you can hear Williams shy away from the booze and the D&D as if they were one and the same thing. There’s another that was recorded a day or so after Williams’s suicide, when Davis and Harmon spend two hours eulogizing him. There are a bunch where McGathy organizes weird theater-games that don’t work, but it’s cool, their failure is at least as entertaining as their success would be. There’s one where they decide to swap from D&D to Shadowrun, because the mission-based structure of Shadowrun might allow the GM to better deal with Harmon’s blackout drunk. In that one Brown clearly has only a vague understanding of Shadowrun, as he puts together a character that is a weird melange of Gimli from Lord of the Rings and the precog from Minority Report, with a little Werner Herzog thrown in for fun. There’s one where guest David Cross denies any knowledge of Shadowrun with a vehemence that I couldn’t help finding a little insincere, although he did sing the song “Shadowrun” (chorus: baby you, you made my shadow run).
There are also more than a few episodes that end up dull, and the back half of their D&D game (which takes up the last twenty minutes or so of any given episode, a tradition the Shadowrun play continues) is a real train-wreck that it’s amazing they kept trying to push forward for as long as they did. But I’m not saying it’s perfect; I’m saying I liked it.
That Pittsburgh show is the stuff of nightmares.
I got to meet Dan after the show they did in Providence. I told him how much Julian really loved Monster House and how much it meant to me that he brought such joy to my son. Then we both kind of stared at the floor in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes and I walked away.