Dan Harmon: The Mayor of Harmontown
Dan Harmon is the creator of seminal television shows Rick and Morty and Community. He’s found success on his own terms, but now, as he approaches middle age, he’s reflecting on how he’s gotten here.
- [Announcer] Let's welcome the mayor of Harmontown,
Mr. Dan Harmon.
(cheers and applause)
- I like making stupid things important
and important things stupid.
And I like proving that that's how good I am.
What if a werewolf landed on a moon?
Who would he be a super were wolf?
I don't care, but like, I will help you make sure
that when people walk away from
watching the werewolf on the moon's story,
that they have to scratch their heads and go,
isn't that kind of a dumb thing for a story to be about.
Why am I crying or laughing so hard?
Why did that affect me?
Hopefully, 'cause of me.
- [Tori] Dan Harmon has dedicated his life to storytelling,
but at what cost?
Harmon is the writer and creator of the hit sitcom Community
and the animated series, Rick and Morty.
The show that the Game of Thrones showrunners
called our generation's most powerful exploration
of what it means to be a person in this universe.
The foundation for all of Harmon's writing
is the story circle,
an eight step process he adapted
from Joseph Campbell's seminal model, the hero's journey.
It's designed to make a story
that is both engaging and complete.
Here's how it works.
We're introduced to a character in their everyday life
who soon discovers a pressing need.
So they go somewhere unfamiliar to search for answers.
Eventually they find the solution,
but it's never quite what they expected
and they always pay some kind of price.
Then they return home where many things may look the same,
but they have been changed.
The story circle works regardless of genre or medium.
And for Harmon, the form of choice is most often television.
- I forgot to tell you the potatoes aren't done yet.
- [Tori] Growing up in a turbulent working class household
in 1970s Milwaukee, TV was a refuge
for a young Dan and his entire family.
- We watched television together.
We watched movies together.
My dad is laughing.
He never makes these sounds when he's not watching
a Mel Brooks movie.
My parents are quoting lines from Young Frankenstein.
If Sam and Diane say, say the words, God damn
on Thursday night, I no longer get punished
for saying, God damn because the TV has now said
that it's okay for prime time.
So that means we can say it to each other in the house.
I mean, the media was religion.
I wanted to be a priest because I wanted to be important.
- [Tori] Hungry to impress, by the age of six
Harmon was already a voracious reader.
And before he was 10, avid reading had turned into
eager writing all in the hope of being called special.
- It's so funny to me because there was no passion
about the actual product
and I was a terrible writer.
It was the idea of having, having written.
It was a Dorothy Parker quote.
Like I hate writing, I love having written
and like I wanted to be a writer.
I wasn't particularly good at writing.
And so the constant theme of that was all
about other people's perception, right?
Like I was never going like,
oh you know what I really enjoy doing
or what I want to do for the world.
It was like, I want to be liked.
I want to be good.
I want to be valuable to people.
I want to be impressive.
I was having those rather sociopathic thoughts
at a very early age.
I recognize that now.
- [Tori] Harmon was a dedicated writer,
but a perpetually distracted student.
He pursued journalism in college,
but only made it one semester
before dropping out to freelance.
Between writing jobs he performed in an improv group
and got hooked on getting laughs.
In the mid 90s Harmon
and his writing partner from the group, Rob Shrob,
collaborated on a comic, Scud, The Disposable Assassin.
When it was optioned by A list movie producer,
Oliver Stone, it was time to go.
Harmon and Shrob were ambitious and had a lot to prove.
They worked together on scripts for film and television,
including the 2006 cult hit movie Monster House,
and a pilot for a promising TV show called
Heat Vision & Jack that turned out to be ahead of its time.
Harmon had become a good writer, but was hard to work with.
Soon, his reputation for excellence
was nearly overshadowed by his reputation
for being difficult,
a perfectionist and a bully.
In 2007, he co-created a sketch comedy series
with Sarah Silverman,
but was fired early in production.
- I felt like I was walking on eggshells.
Every time I walked in the office.
He said stuff that like made me feel bad inside.
So I just was like, honestly it's like him or me
because I don't want to feel this way.
- [Tori] Harmon doesn't have much of a filter
and over the years, he's struggled
to train the harsh critic in his head
to not berate the people he works with.
But even at his most toxic,
he's maintained a few key partnerships.
Most notably with his long standing writing partner,
Rob Shrob and his Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland.
Harmon has come to understand his own limitations
and knows he wouldn't be where he is without other people.
- I've always really thought of myself
as being much more of a logician and an engineer.
And so I like to partner with visionaries.
I like guys that have what I would call pointless opinions
about how something should look
or what something should be named,
because I don't have those opinions.
And that's creative death to be like
a person walks in the room.
I don't know what their name should be,
and I don't know what they should be wearing.
I just want to get to the dialogue and the story.
And like, I want that story to be structured
in a way that makes it effective.
So without someone who is pacing the room
and saying, like, make their shirt red
and don't name them, Todd,
Todd's a stupid name.
I want them to be named Shirley,
make them transgender, that's important.
That should be, there should be an Air Force Pilot,
you know, and the planes should be shaped like a shoe box.
But with these things, like I eat that up
'cause I'm like, thank God someone's
doing this heavy lifting for me,
all this stuff I don't care about.
I don't have a vision.
I have a compulsion to execute.
- [Tori] Harmon and Shrob's first mainstream success,
the NBC sitcom Community, premiered in 2009.
And despite less than stellar ratings,
this series cultivated and obsessive following
who campaigned to keep the show going for six seasons.
But behind the scenes, things were a mess.
Harmon was fired after the third season,
but the show just didn't work without him.
And he was brought back for season five.
When NBC dumped Community,
it was picked up by Yahoo for its sixth and final season.
Harmon hired a new team,
but the same old tensions persisted.
And he realized he was the common denominator.
- Everyone that I had ever worked with
that ever had a problem with the way that I worked
was gone now and I had full permission to work
however I wanted, no enemies to blame
for why this was more difficult.
And there I was sleeping on my sofa again,
unable to break a story.
And that was a big epiphany 'cause I was like,
there's literally nobody to blame for this but myself.
Like, there's nobody making this difficult, except for me.
Why am I, why is this difficult?
And you know, marking that in my head and going,
I think maybe it's more important for you
that this be difficult.
I think you think this is part of your process.
And I think you think that because
you would be embarrassed and shameful,
if you recognized that you have an easy job
and a lot of privilege,
like you don't want to wake up in the morning
and say, here I go off to be the luckiest guy
in the world again,
because I think part of me thinks,
well that's gonna kill your edge.
- [Tori] Harmon had reasons to worry.
He had built a fan base of self-proclaimed misfits,
loyal, not only to his work, but to his persona,
brutally honest, wickedly, intelligent and deeply insecure.
For eight years, he was the mayor of Harmontown,
his own live podcast,
which became a documentary in 2014.
- Do a low stakes gentle stage dive,
just going to go up to the edge and make it come alive.
Gonna crawl like a little dog paddle.
Didn't just go out there and it's gonna be like a raffle.
Very very careful, very careful.
Everyone's gonna be fine.
Everything's gonna be fine.
♪ Come on down to Harmontown
♪ Turn that frown upside down
Wait, I gotta go backwards.
♪ Come on down to Harmontown
Space cosmos, seed of humanity.
- [Tori] After earning hundreds of thousands
of fans and heaps of glowing reviews,
Harmon had finally received the mass approval and love
he had been craving for so long,
but it didn't cure his self-loathing.
- I think the honeymoon might've been over
when unconditional love was achieved
because when it became well,
whatever happens is gonna happen
and they're not gonna, they're not gonna walk out on you.
They love you.
And, then I think the tragedy of that is,
is that that makes me go
well then I can't relate to these people.
If they love me, I don't even know who they are.
- [Tori] After nearly 400 episodes,
Harmon ended his podcast in late 2019
to focus on the series that has come to define him.
Rick and Morty is an absurd yet heartfelt animated series,
driven by Harmon's narrative philosophy.
A story can be about anything
as long as it's told in the right way.
- What's new at school?
- Nothing. - Nothing.
Oh one of the the lunch ladies died.
They found her in the gym with like two holes in her neck
and all the blood drained out of her.
- Good Lord, who does something like that?
- Obviously a vampire, where's the pepper?
- Wait what vampires are real?
- Yes, Summer vampires are real who knew?
Oh right all humanity for hundreds of years now.
- Yeah, Summer it's a big universe.
Get used to it, right, Rick?
- Well what are we going to do?
- We're gonna live our lives until we die,
possibly by vampire, more likely auto accident
or heart disease, but possibly vampire.
- [Tori] Rick and Morty has enjoyed unprecedented success
for an adult cartoon.
In 2018, the cable channel Adult Swim
ordered 70 new episodes.
Now for the first time faced with job security
and acclaim, Harmon is making it a point
to tackle the destructive patterns
that have plagued him for so long.
For the new seasons of Rick and Morty,
he's trying something different.
Leaving work by 5:00 PM.
- I used to view my job as equivalent
to being a firefighter or a soldier in a war against bad TV.
And you're either on my side or you're against me.
I look back on it now with a certain amount of regret
and shame because I think that was wasted time.
Making people stay in an office 'til three in the morning
because the product wasn't perfect yet.
It's not that that time didn't yield good TV.
It's just that a good night's sleep
would have yielded the same amount of good TV.
- [Tori] Yet, Harmon has come to accept
that no amount of good TV
can substitute for healthy self esteem.
Now in his 40s, he's finally learning the difference
between what he does and who he is.
- I've now experienced more than a few times
where I'm curled up in bed with the woman
that I love and I'm more or less
having to have a conversation with her.
Like if I get blacklisted, if I can't work again tomorrow,
if we were to lose everything that I provide,
will you still love me?
And the difference isn't her saying, yes,
it's me believing it.
One day, it just clicked that that stuff is
really not controllable and is not a measure of your worth.
And it's not gonna make you happy.
You could be the best at something for 70 years
and the last thought you would have on your death bed
would be, Oh man, I really messed up.
I should have spent more time being happy.
- [Tori] Today, Dan Harmon is no longer content
just to create satisfying stories for others to enjoy,
but is focused on making sure
that his own story is that of a life well lived.
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.