The Mirror of Time

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.

Liz Lerman creates dance with purpose that fosters engagement; but, like many great creative thinkers, doubt has always been part of the process.

AIRED: November 20, 2020 | 0:27:00

- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

- Welcome to Articulate, the show

that explores how really creative people

understand the world.

I'm Jim Cotter and on this episode,

The Mirror of Time, as Tori Marchiony reports,

Dan Harmon is the creator of seminal TV shows

Community and Rick and Morty.

He's found success on his own terms

but now as he approaches middle-age,

he's reflecting on how he's gotten here.

- You could be the best at something for 70 years

and the last thought you would have on your deathbed

would be, oh man, I really messed up.

I should have spent more time being happy.

- [Jim] And Liz Lermon creates dance with purpose

that fosters engagement and like many

great creative thinkers.

Doubt has always been part of the process.

- I suppose, part of the question when you get older

and you look back for all of us is what have we done?

Where have we contributed?

Where have we been part of the problem?

Where did we not do enough.

- [Jim] That's all ahead on Articulate.

(dramatic string music)

- [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.

(upbeat music)

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.

(uplifting string music)

- [Jim] Liz Lerman is a mover and a shaker.

Who's never been content to sit still.

The groundbreaking choreographer

and Arizona State University professor

has spent more than four decades

expanding the possibilities of dance,

relentlessly pushing the form, herself

and new kinds of performers to tell stories

once thought too complicated for bodies to express.

But at the start, Lerman wasn't interested in speaking out.

All she wanted to do was move.

- I was enchanted by the physical

and happy to be in the midst of the physical.

- [Jim] Lerman was born in Los Angeles

on Christmas day, 1947 to Anne and Phillip,

an artist, mother and a social activist father

who quickly realized that their daughter

would need an outlet for her abundant energy.

The solution came at age five

when she took her first dance class.

Lerman danced through her childhood adolescence

and young adulthood,

ultimately earning a bachelor's and a master's.

Along the way, the influence of her socially conscious

upbringing began to show.

In her early 20s she decided that she needed not only

to perform, but to create dance

and not just for its own sake.

Lerman wanted to communicate,

to change notions of what and who dance was for

and what a dancer could look like.

- I'd been saying for a long time,

dance was over over-involved with technique.

And I had decided that one reason

the dance world valued it so highly

is because it was measurable

and because again, in the West this pressure

to measure, measure, measure.

Okay, this person's leg is this high,

and this one's this high, which one's better.

You can measure how high the leg is going.

You could do that kind of stuff.

And so I was really interested in countering that,

'cause I felt like we were missing so much

of what dance could be and what the,

it just, it seemed crazy to me.

- [Jim] Throughout her young life,

Liz Lerman had given scant thought to mortality

until when at age 27, her 60 year old mother

was diagnosed with cancer.

She rushed home to care for her,

but after a painful three months Anne Lerman died,

her daughter's world was upended.

To cope and to mourn, Lerman created

Woman of the Clear Vision.

In the piece she plays her mother

being welcomed into heaven by elderly angels.

Lerman understood that that young, healthy bodies like hers

couldn't know, much less tell

the truth about aging and dying.

In a world, obsessed with youth and athleticism,

these dancers broke the mold.

(dramatic music)

- Right away, out come these people.

You have to say to yourself, okay,

it's not going to be how high their leg goes

or how high they jump because they can't.

I was always so surprised.

You had people, I was working with people

who were never dancers,

who became dancers in their late 50s, 60s, and 70s

and I was also working with people

who had been dancers and were still dancing

in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.

They would both do the same movement.

One of them would be so happy

and the other one would be so mournful.

For the people who had been dancers,

you see what you can no longer do,

but the people who had never been dancers,

it's like, wow, same move.

- [Jim] For the first time, Lerman realized

how complicated the experience of aging could be.

And she set about challenging stereotypes

about what older people could accomplish

with their company, Dancers of the Third Age.

But this would not be the only way

she would reject received wisdom.

Hungry to tackle ever tougher subjects,

Lerman created a hybrid genre called docu dances.

These were thought provoking,

often satirical works about controversial topics of the day

like genetic engineering.

- So what I could imagine that dancers

would be, would just start out by

just laying dancers out end to end on the floor,

head to foot, head to foot, head to foot,

end to end on the floor.

- [Jim] The Nuremberg trials.

- [Announcer] The four great nations,

flushed with victory,

and stung with injury

stay the hand of vengeance

and voluntarily submit their captive enemies

to the judgment of the law

is one of the most significant tributes

that power has ever paid to reason.

- [Jim] The U.S. defense budget.

- In this dance, I play the Congress

of the United States.

He is Mr. Pentagon.

And this is Mr. Defense Contractor.

(sentimental music)

- The defense pieces were really

that's probably not quite the first,

but probably really the first major time

I had this idea that you could connect information

and feeling through movement.

I was on this kick that you were supposed to

get your information from the news

and you were supposed to get your feeling

from all I guess, poetry or something.

And I was thinking, why is that?

People watch the news and they're full of feeling

they're full of it.

So why would we separate that?

But it is true in that particular

there's one section in that piece,

it's about the M1 tank,

which by the way, we still use.

13 foot blind in front of that tank.

So in that one,

I sort of scurried around the floor

and I bumped my head consistently into the side of the stage

while this little voiceover was going on.

Laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh.

People are, you know, but afterwards,

oh, I mean, almost every time I performed that piece,

there would be a group of people waiting.

Is that true?

They want to know.

Is that really true about the tank?

- [Jim] These kind of responses were exactly

what Lerman was hoping for.

She wanted to get people thinking, talking,

questioning, and though she spent her life

using dance to address social and political issues,

today, she's still questioning herself.

- What have we done?

Where have we contributed?

Where have we been part of the problem?

Where did we not do a enough?

In fact, I would say the 60s is my being in your 60s

is almost entirely about regret.

It feels to me as you think back,

if I had taken a different turn,

what if I had stopped making dances

and said, I'm going to work entirely

on how this defense money's actually spent.

I mean what if I had done that?

- [Jim] What Liz Lerman has done is create

a body of work that has dissolved boundaries,

physical and philosophical.

Here latest work called Wicked Bodies

delves into the ways Western culture

has for centuries depicted women as unruly,

dangerous and grotesque as they blossom,

reproduce and age.

(suspenseful music)

- But that piece is full of rage.

Yeah, I mean not entirely but oh yeah

and I'm not the only one dealing with it in that work.

(suspenseful music)

- [Jim] Now in her 70s,

Liz Lerman has lived as long as many of the seniors

she discovered at the dawn of her career

and she's still innovating,

still pushing against convention,

still kicking.

For more Articulate,

find us on social media

or on our website, articulate

On the next Articulate,

Ellen Reed has a lot to say on the music

of this softly spoken Pulitzer prize, winning composer

speaks volumes.

- I can go into this gritty, very emotional,

very deep and raw place with my art, where I don't want

to be in that world all the time.

It's too, it's too much,

- [Jim] Vikram Paralkar would appear

to be a mass of contradictions,

a novelist whose work confronts mortality

and a cancer physician who constantly helps

others deal with death.

An atheist who is married to a minister,

yet his joy for life is palpable.

- All of us know that we are going to die.

And the fact that we do is in some ways,

both the tragedy, as well as the beauty

of the human condition,

that we know that we have transient lives.

- [Jim] I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next Articulate.

(driving string music)

- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(jaunty music)


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv