Dan Harmon Doesn't Think You Need to Be Depressed to Be Funny
The <i>Community</i> creator discusses his new documentary, addiction and going to therapy.
Photos by Ryan Carmody
Dan Harmon is the creator of Channel 101, the cult legend Heat Vision and Jack and the TV show Community. After being fired as the latter’s showrunner, he started a weekly live show/podcast/town hall called Harmontown. He and his co-host Jeff Davis have alternatively stated that the goal of the show is to “improve humanity”, “to turn a passive community into an active one” and showcase “a fat guy drinking vodka until he blacks out”.
The show quickly garnered a cult following. After roughly a year, Harmon felt they’d reached what Joseph Campbell would call “Meeting with the Goddess”: They had overcome the threshold guardians and got what they wanted. But what were they to do with it?
Harmon and Davis chose to embark on a 23-day, 20-city tour, bringing with them Harmon’s girlfriend, Erin McGathy; their fan-turned-onstage-dungeon-master, Spencer Crittendon; and documentary filmmaker Neil Berkeley. The resulting documentary is also called Harmontown.
VICE: When there’s no one around, do you talk to yourself?
Dan Harmon: I don’t. I wish I could because I think I would get more done, because I think with my mouth. I’m a very verbal thinker, but I can’t bring myself to talk to myself when I’m alone.
I wonder if that has an effect on the way you structure your show.
Yeah, the way I structure it is, I come out and I start talking. That’s why I think the show is so comfortable for me. And I think it’s why the people who like it like it: If there’s a wreck… you’re gonna be there for it. It’s not gonna get edited out.
It occurs to me when you ask that that I should actually try to start talking to myself. The funny thing about the idea of talking to myself is that the thing that scares you is that someone would overhear it, but then you wouldn’t be talking to yourself.
Do you get high every day?
Every day? No. I should, because I drink too much. If got high…
You want to offset it.
Getting high’s better for you, isn’t it? It’s not gonna kill your liver. I suppose if you get high every day, it might have an effect on your edge. I know different people who handle it differently.
Do you think of yourself as an addict?
Yeah. You joke a lot about alcoholism.
What I know about conversations about addiction is that if you deny it, then that’s when the real high-maintenance conversations start. Because people who bring it up to you, they’re not really trying to help you most of the time. So if you just say, “Yes, I’m an alcoholic,” it makes the conversation as short as it should be. Because nobody should be talking to you about what you do for longer than, like, five seconds before tending their own garden.
So if someone says, “Are you an alcoholic?” I go “yes.” If someone says, “Are you racist?” I usually go “yes." If someone says “Are you sexist“...?
They don’t usually ask those questions as yes or no questions [laughs] but when the topic comes up, I find it’s a shorter path to people tending their own garden to go “yep!” Because then they either have to help you or move on.
Whatever the ultimate goal of Harmontown is, you seem to strive to accomplish it through the tool of direct honesty, of the show’s confessional nature. What hinders that?
Having too much to say about other people. Because I don’t think that there’s very much that I could say about myself that I would hesitate to say. But I’ve learned through a couple of mishaps that, if I’m talking about other people, my right to swing my fist ends at the end of their nose. I should let them have their privacy and publicity protocols on their own, whether it’s my lover or Chevy Chase or a company that I work for.
I’m like, “Oh crap, now I’m talking about a company I work for. I gotta steer this back out into safer waters because I don’t have a right to talk about them.” That gets in the way of free flow.
There is that part of the movie where, onstage, you picked apart a fight that you and your girlfriend had gotten into. What made you decide that that was worth rehashing?
The director backstage asked the question, “Do you think there’s anything you could tell the audience that would make them stop liking you?” So I went out that night and I tried everything I could think of. [laughs] As an experiment!
[The night of the fight] was also a night when there was a very confessional tone to the show. There was just a lot of crazy stuff happening, and Erin was offended by some of it. So then I just kept moving in that direction.
Erin came out and wanted to talk about it, so we kept talking about it. I brought Erin out for a show (she was brought out for all of the shows) and she came out and said, “Is it wrong of me to feel bad about that thing you said earlier?” So we talked about it. I guess the short answer is that it was her idea.
Have you always been such an open book?
Probably more so than other people, but I definitely brought it up a notch in my 20s. When the blogging culture started to happen, I noticed when I typed things that made me feel bad about myself, and hit submit, and put them out on the public record—whether or not I had five readers on my MySpace blog didn’t really matter—what mattered was that I had divested myself of these cathexes.
I remember, one morning, opening my refrigerator and seeing a mustard bottle. I have no idea why I made the association, but the mustard bottle reminded me of the time I tried to be funny on Ben Stiller’s answering machine and made a complete ass of myself and probably made him hate me forever. I noticed that this was happening all the time. I’m by myself. I’m trying to function as a human being. I’m making a sandwich and I’m thinking about this thing that makes me a bad person. Why am I thinking about it? Why am I feeling bad about it? It already happened.
So I experimented with just going over to my computer and typing, “This is something that makes me ashamed of myself. I once tried to be funny on Ben Stiller’s answering machine. This is the context, this is the story, this is exactly what I did.” And then I just hit enter and it was like I entered a world where I could now look at that mustard bottle. The power of it was so un-ignorable that I kept moving in that direction for the rest of my life.
Do you feel like you are, block-by-block, removing the power these regrets have over you?
Yeah. I made quick work of all the backlog. And then I just adopted a policy of “If something comes into my life that’s making me feel like I have to think one thing and say another, I’m getting rid of it, I’m walking away from it, or I’m talking about it."
Do you think that that has made you a more actualized person or do you think it has only given you a way to deal with the same problems as they happen?
Definitely probably the latter. I know it doesn’t make me an actualized person, so whatever the latter is, it’s that. I’m finding out in couples therapy—Erin and I just started going to a couples therapist to prepare for marriage—I’m finding out that I’ve had an irrational phobia of therapists for a while. And that you need to actually learn tools from people who study this stuff to actually change your behavior, and it’ll actually change the way you think.
Had you not been in therapy before this?
I’d been to so many therapists; that’s why I lost faith in them. I’d been to like eight in my lifetime, and none of them were getting under the hood and helping me.
I think that the device of looking at things through the eyes of your relationship with another human being, I think that was the big missing component. I want to stay with this woman forever. That’s something I can understand. It’s harder to go into an office and say “Make me sane. Make me a better person.” How do you know how to start? How do you know when you’re finished? And how do you do that without telling someone to change?
It’s got to also be easier to put things in practical terms when you’re talking about your relationship to a different person rather than the way you treat yourself.
Yeah. I think the Midwestern kicks in and you go “I don’t deserve certain things” or “I have to go to a dark place when I write, so I’m not getting rid of this dumbass part of my personality.” But if your go “Oh, it hurts your girlfriend when you do this. It makes you feel better when you do that.” It’s like, “Oh, easy peasy.”
Do you think there is value to the idea that “I need to be depressed to be funny, to be creative”?
I think that’s a lie. I’ve met too many very happy, very ingenious people to believe in that. People have different personalities; they have different crutches; they have different processes. I think there are people that go to a dark place when they create. I don’t think that creation requires darkness.
In the movie, you say that Spencer is the actual hero of the film. I think you call him an “incorruptible spirit." You seem to be positing him against yourself. “I’m flawed and the only thing I can do is try to help and love as many other people to make up for that. Meanwhile, Spencer is this incorruptible spirit.” What is the thing in him that is different from you?
He’s younger. We look at children, we get really mad when one of them gets run over because they haven’t even had a chance to fail yet. When Spencer’s 40, he might have made all the same mistakes I have. First of all, he’s like half my age. That’s one thing right there.
I also think he is different from me. I think he’s got more integrity. He’s less defined by other people’s perceptions. And he’s come into the world and has acquired an actual, standalone, self-contained personality.
You talk a little in the movie about your mom being somewhat physically abusive.
Yeah. It was the 70s. I always cringe at that part of the movie because I feel like my parents have just about paid enough of a price for anything that they did to me. And they must be so sick of it by now [laughs] because as early as 17 years old I was exploiting their abuse of me onstage.
Do you think that that is a kernel, psychologically, of the thing of which you are attempting to divest yourself, with this ongoing process?
Of course! Yeah. I’m not a blame-your-parents kind of guy, I don’t want to be, but of course. You know, the first relationships that you have with the people that can either give you unconditional love or very conditional love, as most of us get…
Yeah, definitely. [laughs] That’s the first warpage of your personally, for sure.
I remember you saying on the podcast that you diagnosed yourself as autistic based on an online quiz.
While I was researching autism, I was taking these quizzes. And I was like “Oh, I have something in common with this character that I’m trying to get accurate.”
I definitely don’t think that an online quiz or someone’s gut feeling should be the tool used for diagnosis. [laughs]
You do have a fairly large number of fans with Asperger’s. But what attracts you to that kind of character?
I relate to them. Whether or not I actually have [Asperger’s], the shape of my personality, the condition that I’m in in my life, I relate to people who feel alienated. I relate to people who feel like they’re somehow fundamentally cut off from people on a level that “normal” people take for granted. When I found out that there was such a thing as that, I was like “I know how this feels, looking at the world through Plexiglas, hands up against it, not able to feel on a primal level what other people are feeling.”
Is it anything about the way they communicate? Is there an element of that as well?
I think they’re verbal thinkers. When I have conversations with my fans, we don’t mind staring at the corner of the table and just saying what we mean. It’s like communicating through one channel.
I like fans that are able to just be sincere and say what they’re feeling, because I don’t have that filter, so it’s nice to be able to just talk back and forth with people.
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