Dan Harmon is a genius - Interview

Dan Harmon is a genius - Interview

Last week’s conference call with Dan Harmon (Community) was amazing. Everything I always wondered about the series was explained without asking, including why the show went from using the stereotypical '80s sitcom template to absolutely fragmenting, re-forming and re-splintering it. In fact, Harmon’s energetic enthusiasm and his brilliantly off-handed sentence constructs re-affirmed my fanatic-like devotion to the show and convinced me of Harmon’s genius.

I love conference calls when the journalists/bloggers are clearly fans. However, I love even more when the executive producer/writer is clearly a fan of his work to the point he obsessively believes in and can’t stop describing it while expressing an amazing dedication to and respect of his core cast.

In fact, Harmon is so much of a genius I absolutely forgot that Joel McHale was on the call. However, even he bowed before Harmon’s infectious brilliance and actually called Harmon (and his co-stars) comic geniuses. When you’re in the same room as Einstein or Ghandi, do you talk over him or do you let him talk and only contribute to the conversation during his quiet pauses? Dan Harmon is so much of a genius that even time couldn’t contain his brilliance. In a conference call intended to end much earlier due to his schedule, he continued enthusiastically talking and taking questions until the publicist firmly shouted out last call.

Sitting on the phone with Harmon reminded me of the talks I attended in college presided by Billy Joel and in grad school, run by Kevin Smith, which literally went HOURS over their end time, until the coordinators literally pleaded with the speakers to close the talk (so they could close the building). But, such infectious energy means that Harmon literally deserves the fanatic devotion we reap upon him (even when he fears letting us down).

During the talk, Harmon discussed the rest of the season, his concerns, and his favorite characters.

Season three is darker and will surround a character’s death. Katie described the Community trailer shot-by-shot. Remember the Chang scenes? This season will surround Chang, either his death or his actions, and the group coming together around it. Harmon didn’t say which, but he continuously described death as a handy tool for comedy while referencing the Mary Tyler Moore episode with Chuckles the Clown’s death as the funniest.

While continuing to explain this season’s focus, he described dark and light moments as intertwining with darkness as a way of “worshipping the light.” (Seriously, how can you NOT call him a genius with such off-the-cusp statements?) He deprecatingly claimed he missed the ego stroke of a weekly episode and translated his anger into darkness through this season’s focus. McHale chimed in alluding to “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” as the darkest in season two. Harmon stated that corporate didn’t have issues with “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” topic, but because it surrounded such an uber-nerdy topic as Dungeons and Dragons.

What else is on tap for season three? Well, this season will focus more on the group and less on Jeff's love life and love interests. Like death, love is a viable storyline to draw viewers in, but I feel that at this point Community no longer needs to play to heteronormative love interests to pull an audience. I am so invested in the group and the individual characters that I don’t care if Jeff winds up with Britta or has sex with Annie or runs away with Shirley (in a twist revealing he had an eternal crush on Big Cheese).

While Harmon views love as a necessary narrative device, he doesn't want it to eclipse the show, especially since The Office already mapped out all angles of a core relationship with Pam and Jim. However, he hinted that if season 6 happened (6 seasons and a movie!) where he found humor in monogamy, we might see Jeff in a long-term relationship. However, he’s happiest when the show focuses on the characters.

Harmon is incredibly self-aware when describing his fears and his writing plans. He views the hiatus as the best and worst thing that happened. It awakened the intense fandom, but he fears overtly raising expectations: "What if people love this too much?" But, he admits he never really knows what will happen. And, I love that moment of honest vulnerability. He also loves the YouTube clip videos painstakingly created by fans displaying their possibly greater love of the show than his own.

I doubly love when a producer admits to watching other shows and tracking their numbers as he did with The Office and 30 Rock. Some producers have the pat answer of being too busy when asked their opinions of other series. But, he candidly admitted that 30 Rock’s difficulty in the 8:00 PM Thursday time slot revealed the issues in competing with the American Idol and Big Bang Theory juggernauts.

Throughout the call, Harmon unknowingly answered one of my unasked questions about the show’s insane development. It started out as the stereotypical 1980s sitcom surrounding the cool slacker and his misfit friends -- but somewhere along the way he threw out that construct and started creating something absolutely brilliant. Even more amazing, he never stopped varying the formula. Harmon admits he’s essentially stuck in the '80s and recreated Gilligan's Island with Ginger as a Radiohead fan. He feels his cast made the stock stereotypes multi-dimensional while McHale pointed out that Dan takes conventional sitcom constructs and re-constructs them.

Whenever McHale contributed to the conversation, I loved listening to the congenial snark he shared with Harmon, including Harmon good-naturedly asking McHale, “When's that Spy Kids film coming out?” McHale’s equally good-natured answer: “It came out last summer.” But, outside the snark, there’s open admiration for each other and the cast. Harmon calls Jeff Winger the Joel McHale of the group while McHale called his cast members “comic geniuses.”

One of my big issues with TV surrounds including more female writers to craft realistic female characters. Harmon admits the writing room’s gender balance helped create the awesome insanity that is “Britta-ing.” Although some writers will say you don't need a woman to write a woman, Harmon admitted having a writer who shared the same experiences as a character made it more realistic and ten times more awesome. Let’s be honest, without a female writer, we might’ve still had Britta stuck as the personality-less female lead in season one.

He'd love to do more stunt casting, but it just never works out. He admits they tried they've tried to get Jane Lynch (Sue Sylvester) for the holiday episode because she worked next door. Although she showed interest, contractually she couldn't.

Other things Harmon mentioned?

  • Holiday shows. He’d love to do a Scooby Doo-themed holiday episode. Surprisingly, the holiday shows receive more ratings.
  • Syndication. He receives a lot of pressure to "find the joy in templating the show.” The standard sitcom format, which does not show distinctive character changes (like Pierce’s broken leg), is easier to re-package for syndication. However, Harmon admits that for the most part executive staff will raise concerns but will allow him to do what he needs to do and, in return, he tries not to abuse that. Overall, he indicated a huge respect for Sony’s distribution capabilities and the people he works with.
  • Normalizing. People always request he make the show more normal, but he always points out that the Dungeons and Dragons episode was  most “normal” (technically) because no one leaves the study room (a fact he loved).
  • Ratings. Dan Harmon isn’t just a genius, he’s a visionary. Considering he hit his highest ratings with Community's return (greater than American Idol and  Big Bang Theory) AND received syndication on Comedy Central, all of his concerns were for naught.
  • Guest Stars. Harmon loved having Malcolm-Jamal Warner on the show.

Remember when Annie frantically calls the Dean a genius during "Documentary Filmmaking" (another one of my favorite template-breaking episodes)? Well, she's right. The D(e)an is a genius.

Dan Harmon doesn't just write brilliant comedy he is brilliant comedy. Community might be "doing weird shit," but it's "surviving" because that "weird shit" and its creator are mother-fucking awesome.

So, keep on doing what you’re doing, Dan. You're a genius. Don't let anyone tell you different.

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