AUSTIN, TX: One of these days, we’ll grow to understand that strange period a couple of years back when men were fired from their entertainment industry jobs, and responded by going out on tour. First came Conan O’Brien, whose Tonight Show ouster was followed by his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” Tour and an accompanying concert documentary, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop; Charlie Sheen followed suit after his noisy departure from Two and a Half Men, though that disastrous tour went thankfully undocumented. And then there’s Dan Harmon, who threw himself into his Harmontown podcast after he was removed from Community, the television program he created. In January of last year, Harmon and his crew of misfits went on the road for a 20-city tour, playing clubs sparsely populated by comedy nerds, and documentarian Neil Berkeley came along. The result is Harmontown, a film that is far more complicated and entertaining than the fanboy home movie you might anticipate (and dread).
Berekely’s participation is the tip-off there; this is no for-hire hack, but the director of the remarkable Beauty Is Embarrassing, another recent portrait of the pitfalls of talent and genius. That film prompted a plea from Harmon to make this one, Berkeley explained at Harmontown’s Saturday night SXSW premiere, and “the reason I said yes, and the reason I’m here tonight, is that I went to Dan’s podcast, and I met the kids that were at that show… and I quickly understood why there were there. I became fascinated, I fell in love with these people that were at these shows. And eventually I realized that this movie’s not about liking or loving Dan, but understanding why these people are in that room.”
Most, it seems, are there because they see in Harmon something of themselves. He states in the film that he started doing the intimate weekly podcast not as promotion or entertainment, but as an outlet — it’s what he does instead of going to therapy. At its best, the show (and the film) burns with that kind of raw, open honesty; “Dan goes up there and he says, ‘Hey, I’m a flawed person, I have problems, I have issues, but I’m talking about them,’” Berkeley explained, “’and let’s talk about that and let’s be real with each other.’ And all these 50 kids in that room go there every Sunday because they want to be open and honest, because they’ve been quiet and scared and lonely.”
Harmontown is, in many ways, a valentine to those kids; people come up to him after these shows and pour their hearts out to him, and he hugs them and thanks them for it. It’s also something of a show-biz biography, revisiting his past failures and triumphs (mostly failures, like the network passing on his now-classic Heat Vision and Jack pilot, or his dismissal from The Sarah Silverman Show; “I’m his biggest fan,” Silverman explains, “and I fired him”). It’s a road movie, and something of a meta-movie comedy, sending up the documentary tropes (“Is this gonna be the beginning of the movie?” Harmon asks, early on, “or is it gonna be all my friends saying bad things about me?”). But mostly it’s a portrait of a gifted and talented dude who also, no matter how big the stakes get, remains a little bit of a fuck-up.
And it’s not that he’s not aware of it. Oh, it’s not like that all. “Stop saying you love me,” he chastises a shouting fan during a show early in the tour. “It’s a surefire way to make me disrespect you. I hate myself.” Reflecting on the movie at SXSW, Harmon remembered “watching early cuts and having nausea about what a dick I looked like.”
Still, he’s the first to admit that he’s not an easy target. “There’s 650 hours of footage,” he explained, and “Neil had to deal with the fact that his documentary subject was a guy who thinks he knows, at any given time, what point in the story they’re at. So there’s a lot of footage on the cutting room floor of me explaining that we’re crossing a threshold… It was important for me at a certain point to realize, okay, nothing’s happening to me, transformatively. I’m gonna be an asshole by the end of this tour.”
But that’s the essential conundrum of Harmon; he is (to borrow the title of the recent book) a difficult man, but the unguarded manner in which he shares his insecurities and idiosyncrasies is directly connected to the naked emotional honesty of his best work. Berkeley gets that, and the movie does too; it may be a cliché, but in the best tradition of the genre, Dan Harmon does learn something on the road, about himself and what he does. The film, like the podcast, sounds like blatant self-promotion, or self-congratulation, but it’s honest, and painful, and true, and kind of great. In my notes, I jotted down this quote from the film: “a very meta story about this guy who was an asshole, who learned to love strangers.” I’m assuming it’s about Community, maybe it’s about Harmontown. Not that it matters; in the end, they’re all kind of about the same thing anyway.