Saturday, October 11, 2014

Dan Harmon and the unstoppable forces of community

Dan Harmon (right) and Harmontown director Neil Berkeley participated in a moderated Q and A Saturday at the IFC Center in New York City.

Dan Harmon is called a lot of things throughout Neil Berkeley’s new documentary, Harmontown – a genius, an ass hole, an alcoholic, a brilliant writer, a control freak, etc. A lot of words are spent by people who know him and by the man himself to describe his effect on his fans and to describe the feeling of loving this man and his work. Ultimately, though, there is one word that covers it all: community.

Yes, that is the name of the NBC show Harmon created and was fired from before being rehired only to see it canceled. It will live again on Yahoo’s streaming service this winter. But it is more than a television show. It is a feeling and philosophy. Harmon’s show, his podcast, and his overall body of work function a bit like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster – something massive but misunderstood, capable of ugliness and beauty, but ultimately out of the creator’s hands.

Dan Harmon explains his process.
Harmon is undoubtedly a creative force whose mind is going a thousand miles per hour at any given moment. He is the man behind two cult television shows, one of which has just one episode, and a popular podcast that draws listeners from every corner of the country. But by breathing life into these phenomena, he has spawned a living entity he could never have foreseen. The community of people who listen to him speak and watch his shows and read what he writes exists because of Harmon but apart from him.

Harmon and Berkeley brought Harmontown the film to New York City’s IFC Center on Friday night and stuck around for a Q and A, but the sold-out show’s popularity was such that the IFC Center was compelled to add a second day, for which Harmon and Berkeley were gracious enough to return. The skies threatened more rain on an already damp Saturday afternoon, but the Harmon acolytes, myself among them, lined up an hour before the screening to guarantee the best seats possible for this show. It was worth it.

Berkeley’s film is by turns an intimate exploration of life on the road, a warts-and-all portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man, and a loving tribute to the community of devotees who are as unique as the subject of the film. The movie spends a lot of time with Harmon and his close-knit circle of collaborators, including girlfriend Erin McGathy, co-host Jeff B. Davis, and dungeon master Spencer Crittenden. While they all provide insight into Harmon, each is a story unto himself or herself.

Crittenden, in particular, draws in viewers, and even Harmon calls him the hero of the film. Crittenden was a fan – a Harmenian, as the figurative residents of Harmontown call themselves – whose goal was just to play Dungeons and Dragons with Harmon and Davis. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and has played D&D with Harmon, Davis, and a host of famous faces (a baffled Jason Sudeikis is a highlight of the film) across the country. Rather than in leaps and bounds, Crittenden’s growth comes in baby steps, as it does for so many of us, but to witness it is to understand and empathize.

There are interviews with celebrities such as Sarah Silverman, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, most of the cast of Community, and others, and a lot of their material is gold, but the best moments are with the fans. These people are the reason Harmon does this, and his appreciation for their support is something that sets him apart from other heroes and idols, who rarely have the time of day. Most of his fans just want to meet the man, take a picture, tell him how much he means to them, and be on the receiving end of a great big bear hug, as Harmon is wont to give.

Dan Harmon, a big hug, and me.
After the Saturday Q and A, Harmon, who must have gone through the same process the night before, made himself available to everyone who chose to stay. When told the theater needed to be cleared out for the next showing, he moved into the lobby. When told the lobby must be cleared, he stood outside on the sidewalk. When asked to come inside to sign publicity posters, he said he would prefer to meet his fans first before doing anything else.

Not wanting to hold up anyone else, I spoke only briefly to Harmon. I told him he saved my life. I told him that in the darkest moments I have had, I reached for Community. Here was a show about people who need each other, and when I just needed someone – all respect to the family and friends who were also there for me – Community was where I looked.

He told me he was glad his show was there for me to reach for and thanked me for my support. I said, “No, thank you,” and that was it. I got my picture and my hug and moved along, but the experience will stay with me, and I am sure that is true for all those who were there, for all those whose lives Harmon has touched. And what that means more than anything is that if the dark days ever return to my life or any of theirs, we can always turn to our community.

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