No Harmon Asking
Dear Dan Harmon,
Last night I had the unexpected opportunity to see Harmontown, the documentary film by Neil Berkeley that documented a whirlwind tour across the U.S. of your podcast of the same name. The tour came after your notoriously well-publicized firing from Community, a show you created and which I consider one of the finest sitcoms in television history. That firing had quite an effect on me, coming as it did at a time when I was thinking some pretty heavy thoughts about what’s become of the creative culture in America and how we allow our artists to be treated, and I wrote something about it then.
Of course, it’s not news to anyone who knows me that something you did had a profound effect on me. For the last few years, you’ve been one of my favorite writers, not just for the work that you produce, but because of the attitude you have towards it, the attitude of someone who not only has the talent to produce that great work, but the respect — respect for the quality of the product itself, respect for the people who put it together, respect for the audience you’re delivering it to, and respect for the opportunities you’ve been given — that transcends the work and makes you a person worth knowing. Very few people have had this effect on me, this ability to make me relate to them not just as the creators of great work, but as essentially decent human beings who have the capacity to bring positive things into the world over and above what they can accomplish as artists.
You wouldn’t know that, though. There’s no reason you should know who I am; to the extent that anyone does, it’s because I took my own career as a writer and flamed it out in a manner both spectacular and pathetic. I’m not special. I’m not even a good Dan Harmon fan: when you were fired from Community, it was at a time when that show had helped sustain me psychically through three goddamn brutal years of being out of work, as well as the self-caused demolition of my writing career. And yet I’d been a late adapter of Harmontown (the podcast), and I hadn’t seen Harmontown (the movie), and when it came to play in my city, at the beloved SIFF Uptown theater, I didn’t even know it was happening, because I was spending the afternoon sitting around feeling sorry for myself. But like a lot of lucky fuckers who don’t deserve it, I have some good people in my life, and two of them told me about the screening and gently suggested that going to see you and Erin and Spencer would be a better use of my time than another Saturday night of unearned self-pity.
So I went, and a bad night at the movies is better than a good night doing most other things, and it turned out not to be a bad night at the movies. Berkeley’s keen eye and sense of cinematic rhythm, combined with your talent and searing honesty, made for a fine film that justified all your instincts, and its many strong qualities managed to completely offset its few flaws (an inherently limiting, and probably unavoidable, for-fans-only vibe and a touch too much hagiography). I was moved by the film, and entertained by the podcast, and impressed by the Q&A, where so many of my questions about what it must be like to give up control of your own image, and to trust someone else to create a highly selective narrative of the events of your life, were answered with such candor. Not only were they addressed in the film itself, where you discussed the dishonesty you felt in making necessary edits to an evening on the tour that had gone alcoholically awry, but in the Q&A, when Erin discussed her discomfort in feeling like she came across in the movie as “this sad woman selling t-shirts” — a decision that probably helped tell the story that needed to be told, but that almost certainly caused real pain to someone you care about.
And through it all, something started happening that I didn’t expect: an evening focused on one of my favorite comedic writers started to put me through a genuine emotional wringer. It shouldn’t have been a real surprise; Community, for one, is somewhat legendary for its ability to deliver on all its comic promise while still doling out a solid emotional punch from the heart of the story. That’s a talent so rare that it’s astonishing to see in action, and it’s something I’ve never been able to do. And you talked about themes in your work that are incredibly close to my heart: the impostor syndrome, the fear of being called out as a fraud (which, let’s be frank, I have lived), the dread of being taken for a sucker that keeps us at arm’s length from so many rewarding relationships; the way that failure can be disastrous, but can also be transformative in a good way. And I thought about how you discussed not only your self-perceptions as a bad man trying to become something better, but the way you came to feel that you weren’t even the hero of your own journey, and how the better part of that journey was to get out of your own way and let someone else — in the person of Spencer Crittenden — benefit from the risks you were taking. That’s when I began to do something dangerous: I began to realize how much we are alike.
From the way you talked about how self-improvement is a thorny thing because you not only can’t know if you’re doing it the right way, but you can’t know if you’re even doing it, to the way you discuss your creative work with the attitude of someone whose respect for the art is so great that he’s willing to destroy relationships over doing it right, to the way you mentioned that you sometimes strike out against opponents or restrictions that aren’t really there because you can’t stop re-fighting battles that you lost decades ago, I knew that we had a lot in common, except insofar as you are a successful TV producer and I am a fat shit nobody. (Even our self-hatred is alike!) When you stood about two feet from me, coming down the aisle at the SIFF Uptown, I saw that we’re even physically similar to a surprising extent. This realization — that we look alike, we think alike, we suffer alike, we drink alike — was a double-edged sword: it made me happy to know that, even at my darkest, I have something in common with someone who made it, and who seems to be figuring it out for himself, however haltingly; but it made me feel bad, because it makes me the worst person to think critically about your work, which I love too much to see even as clearly as you do, and it jettisons what I’ve come to think of as a necessary distance between the artist and the person.
You probably don’t believe in that distance. So much of Harmontown — the movie and the podcast — is about making this vital, life-sustaining connection with the audience. The movie’s central emotional arc, the transformation of Spencer Crittenden, is based on something so insane it sounds like a joke: you pulling an audience member up on stage to tell you about Dungeons & Dragons, and him becoming a key part of your show, a friend to you and to Jeff, and a person whose life took a turn he could not possibly have anticipated. As a Community arc it would be too hokey; as an event in your life it seems perfectly natural. You have shown, deliberately, an attempt to connect with an audience — especially the most isolated, the most outcast, the most uncomfortable and cynical members of your audience, who are already probably too intense in the way they love things, too used to being rejected and scorned, too willing to believe that you can’t gain anything from opening yourself up — that is absolutely phenomenal, so key to your approach that it seems now to define you. I, too, would have loved to have met you, to have shaken your hand; I, too, would have loved to play D&D (a lifelong passion I’ve only recently been able to discuss honestly because of Harmontown) with you. And everything you’ve ever done has suggested that you would have been happy to meet me.
So why didn’t I stick around? Why didn’t I at least shake your hand?
I don’t know. Maybe some wounds are too deep. Maybe it’s because that horrible fear of being thought of as a mark that I talked about earlier; it’s endemic to our generation, and even after all those accumulated hours of seeing you talk about how important it is to you to build relationships like this, to forge communities, to tell people who don’t think anyone will understand them or give them a chance that they are, in truth, surrounded by people who want to love them, and to be loved by them, and to do wonderful things together, I just couldn’t make myself believe it, and that if I met you, you’d shake my hand and smile and still be thinking “Get this fucking asshole away from me”. Maybe it’s not even anything to do with you, and it’s all wrapped up in how my dad never cared about the things I cared about, or my relationships with women, or my own besotted career and how it’s made me think I’m poison. Maybe the fact that Mike Watt, a man I idolize and who was the most kind and generous when I stood there stammering to him how much his music had meant to me as a lonely, angry young man, would understand. But the fact is that for whatever reason, I couldn’t talk to you. I couldn’t tell you how much it meant to me to see you like that, so brilliantly unguarded, so at risk and aware and yet so willing to embrace it. It is one thing to be afraid, and it is quite another to act despite that fear. So I didn’t meet you last night, and today, I’m still taking the coward’s way out and writing this on my own personal blog where there’s zero chance that anyone will ever see it, because I’m still afraid that you’ll think I’m an asshole.
But you know what? While I was sitting there in the SIFF Uptown, watching the people in Harmontown talk about how much you had opened up their lives, when I was hearing Spencer talk about the effect the tour had had on him, when I was listening to a huge theater filled with fans cheer you, I kept thinking about how I was different, how I was special, that stupid pride that told me, none of them really get it, not the way I do; none of them really appreciate what it’s like to understand you on the level that I understand you. And that’s when I reminded myself: everyone in the audience used to feel that way. Everyone was like me. That stupid stubborn loneliness, that willingness to hold on to your shame out of misplaced pride? That was what everything you’d written was against. Every great episode of Community, every meaningful moment in Harmontown, was about getting over that arrogant desire to be alone and nurture your own entitled sense of grievance, and to open yourself up to a world of people who feel exactly the same, and who are just waiting for you to stop being such a self-worrying prick and realize that you don’t have to be alone, and neither do they. It was a lesson you’d been teaching me, and that I’d been receiving but never really learning. And who knows? Maybe next week, like every sitcom, I’ll have my character reset, and I’ll be right back to being a hostile, defensive, self-loathing jerk who throws roadblocks in all the paths that lead to him, because he doesn’t think he deserves to be happy.
But maybe not. Maybe I’ll finally learn something instead of just seeing something. Maybe I’ll think about how this one time, I got it, and I’ll finally be able to keep it. Maybe I’ll look back at this, and even if you never see it, I will. And I’ll remember.
Leonard Pierce (a fan)