Film Review – Harmontown
I am not the person to write this review. I admit to you now, dear reader, I knew very little about writer/comedian Dan Harmon before watching the documentary on him, Harmontown (2014). Everything I know comes from the periphery. I’ve never seen Community, the much troubled (but loved) television show he created, and I’ve never listened to an episode of his podcast, for which the documentary is named after. I do know of his publicized spat with Chevy Chase, and his firing (and re-hiring) from NBC. But other than that, I came in with a fresh pair of eyes. Coming out, I realized the film (written and directed by Neil Berkeley) is targeted to existing fans of Harmon. Those that love him will get what they’re looking for. Those that don’t, well, they won’t be watching this anyway.
We focus on Harmon during his short-lived firing from Community. To keep busy and earn an income, Harmon got on a bus with his girlfriend (Erin McGathy) and his cohorts (Jeff Bryan Davis/Spencer Crittenden), and went on tour recording podcast episodes in comedy clubs in front of a live audience. A lot of credit should go to Harmon, Davis, and Crittenden. They go into each show without anything prepared; completely blank and just riff about anything that comes up. Crittenden, who we learn started out as a fan and was picked up by Harmon, spends the entire time off to the side of the stage playing Dungeons and Dragons. This approach takes a lot of guts – to go in front of a crowd and start talking into a microphone without knowing what you’re going to say.
In between these scenes are splices of old video footage of Harmon working to break into the business. He’s had a difficult history getting ideas turned into reality, and the ones that do he’s had trouble keeping afloat. One sequence features a doomed TV pilot he made with Jack Black that received cult-like notoriety. In another, comedienne Sarah Silverman describes the conflict she had in firing him even though she loved his work. All the while, interviews with friends, coworkers, and fans continuously harp on how amazing and brilliant he is as a writer. Names like Steve Agee, Alison Brie, Chris Hardwick, Joel McHale, Ben Stiller, Danny Pudi, Donald Glover, and Gillian Jacobs all repeat the same word: “Genius.”
This brings out the more interesting but troubling facets of the documentary. Harmon is touted as a special talent, yet he constantly has problems maintaining steady employment. Is his work so sophisticated that detractors “just don’t get it,” or is something else going on here? The bits at the comedy clubs are funny, and Harmon showcases tremendous wit and improv skills, but I was drawn to the darker sides of his personality. He has problems with authority, does not follow directions, and has an admitted drinking problem. Instead of working on a script he comes up with an excuse to push it back. When a fan gives him moonshine, he gets overly drunk while performing. When confronted, he either enters a shell or becomes unnecessarily cruel. During a show, a conversation between Harmon and McGathy took place regarding an argument they had where he called her a harsh name (it rhymes with “punt”). Seeing this unfold in front of a crowd became uncomfortable to watch.
Harmon is clearly self-aware, and in interviews he lists off all the problems he has. This is the classic case where a person with unique gifts also comes with heavy baggage. The writer with unkempt hair and a shaggy beard has almost become a cliché – we can see him writing away on a typewriter wearing a bathrobe and smoking a cigarette. Berkeley stumbles here by not further examining the issues plaguing Harmon’s mind. Why does he hate authority so much? Why can’t he get his act together and work at an efficient level? He’s obviously keen to his problems but does little to fix them. It’s one thing to be an artist, but to exist in show business you must also be able to work with other people. He’s described as a genius, but Berkeley doesn’t support the claim by giving examples of his skill, assuming we’ll go ahead and label him as one like everybody else. It’s as though the film is afraid to explore these places. When things get too intense we cut away to another scene at a club with Harmon joking away with his buddies.
Fans describe their love of Dan Harmon because of his ability connect with them. Through his writing, audiences are able to feel ok with being different, or being a nerd, or liking things others don’t. Based on what we see, Harmon sees much of himself in the opposite fashion. I wish I can say I was more invested in his story, but the film does little to entice the unconverted. The biggest problem with Harmontown is how it so tightly keeps its boarders put up, allowing only those with the secret password to enter. Those that know little about its subject will feel lost in the commotion.