Salute Your Shorts: Dan Harmon's Channel 101 Shows
For any longtime fans of Dan Harmon’s work, Community is a surprise. Not the fact that it’s good, no, that’s something that we could all be pretty sure of. It’s that the show, a relatively conventional sitcom, could come from the avant-garde co-founder of Channel 101, whose prior claim to fame involves shows such as Computerman and Laser Fart. He’s long been a superstar for a relatively niche group of Los Angeles filmmakers and comedians, but his confrontational style and overall weirdness has made his crossover success come from pretty far off the radar, except when under closer examination.
After learning the ropes of improv comedy, Dan worked with the other creator of Channel 101, Rob Schrab, on the unsuccessful television pilot Heat Vision and Jack. Some time passed and Schrab challenged friends to make short films to be shown in his living room. This is documented on Channel 101’s website as “Rob Schrab makes a series of home movies about eating poop and having sex with babies. Dan Harmon, not to be outdone, makes a movie about Chris Tallman coming back from the dead and raping him in the ass.” A year later, Schrab challenged friends to perform predictions for Jaws 4’s storyline, which soon led to another short film and, eventually, more video contests.
Gradually, these grew out of Schrab’s house and became a barebones film festival called “Super Midnight Movie Show,” which lasted until Harmon asked one of the employees where it was being screened why she was “being such a cunt.” Again, it’s a big surprise his comedy has ever made it onto legitimate television.
But out of the ashes of Harmon’s comment came a reorganization of the festival, which was starting to grow too large anyhow. The pair set down guidelines where short films would be run like television shows, with shows being voted on for continuation by a live audience. Every month five new shorts would compete with five continuing shows for the five available slots in the next month’s screening, with the new five pulled out of all possible applicants by the previous week’s winners. Oh, and shows had to be less than five minutes long.
Harmon’s first show, Computerman, is a good illustration of what these constraints could lead to, given that from conception to screening each film has less than a month to polish itself. The show kicked off at the original June 30 screening of Channel 101 and, though not particularly well-developed, is probably the most high-profile of the original shorts because it starred not just Harmon, but also his pal Jack Black. Black had originally starred in Heat Vision, and while that went by the wayside, he maintained a working relationship with Shcrab and Harmon, giving Channel 101 some much-needed publicity during its early days. Its premise is simple: Dan’s computer comes to life in the form of Jack Black. Soon the pair is hounded by the government in an attempt to use Computerman for nefarious purposes.
Saying Computerman is crude is a bit of an understatement. The short takes a stupid premise and shoots it as cheaply as possible. Its graphics are both intentionally and unintentionally bad and its performances over-the-top. In essence, it looks like it was knocked together one day in someone’s basement, which it’s hard not to suspect is actually what happened. For all of its general, well, lousiness, though, Computerman has a lot of charm, some decent laughs, and is hard not to enjoy. Even when the show undergoes a sort of reconcepting as “Computerman in Space!” midway through, it’s able to maintain interest through a good-natured but crude sense of humor and its never-ending sense of fun and whimsy.
Harmon followed the show up with Call me Cobra, a short-lived detective show starring Drew Carrey that’s kind of like a low-rent version of Andy Barker, P.I. The show died after Carey took over directing and was unable to get his crew together, but its brief span is definitely worth a look. After this came what is probably Harmon’s most famous early work, Laser Fart. Channel 101 gives some backstory about the show, saying that it “began as a joke submission during a light month in 2004.” Dan stars as a man who, due to eating a microwave burrito, gains the ability to shoot lasers when farting. Needless to say, it’s about as high-concept a show as you can get. Dan becomes a superhero and fights for truth, justice and saving his wife from a notorious rapist who murders her in the first episode.
By this point in time a pattern appeared in Harmon’s works. Despite
their defiant lo-fi nature and frequently risky jokes, his series all
fall very neatly into already established genres. Computerman is both a buddy comedy and a parody of action movies where the protagonists are on the run. Call me Cobra is in many ways a by-the-numbers detective story, and Laser Fart is, well, it's just about a superhero with gas. By the time Lynx,
Harmon's one failed pilot came out, it was pretty clear that his story was
another take on the superhero genre, just with an even more insane hero--one who gains his superpowers by dressing up a mannequin’s leg in
pantyhose, rubbing its toe on his nipple and thinking about his ex
having sex with other men, at which point he orgasms, becomes really sad and is granted the powers of a lynx. My understanding is that
at this point in his life, Harmon was deeply depressed.
But this adherence to genre and cliché is oddly enough one of Harmon’s strong points. His stories both lampoon and generously homage what’s come before them. Because of this, his shows always have a strong plot, even while they have a superhero who travels the world on laser farts and goes back in time. A fan of Joseph Campbell, he’s interested in telling stories correctly even if the whole thing, from premise on down, is one big joke. His transition to sitcoms ends up making a lot more sense with this in mind.
Harmon reached either the peak or nadir of this zero-degree storytelling, depending on who you ask, with The Most Extraordinary Space Investigations. In it, he, Sevan Najarian and Justin Roiland would go on the world’s lamest, most by-the-books space investigations with absolutely no attempt at acting, writing or editing in even a half-assed fashion. Boom mics fall into frames, jump cuts or continuing after cuts are frequent, and characters forget what they’re saying. Oh yes, and the entire cast is high. Nonetheless, they complete an entire story in each episode, fulfilling a contract with the audience and “entertaining many, irritating many and confusing many more.” It’s lo-fi even by the slapdash standards of Channel 101. Also, it's incredibly funny. When Sarah Silverman joined the cast in its second episode, MESI became a landmark show for the network, and also just about the craziest thing ever made.
During the intervening time, Harmon co-created The Sarah Silverman Show before soon being fired (Schrab continues working on Silverman as the show’s director). He also created a sort of network-friendly Channel 101 spin-off, Acceptable TV, where he and some of the channel’s other all-stars would make videos of the same sort shown on Channel 101. He never stopped attending screenings and working for the channel, though, and his next two works both relied largely upon parodying Channel 101 itself. Exposure is about a director determined to get into one of 101’s screenings. Harmon plays this director while Black plays Harmon as a drunken buffoon who’s lost his touch due to success.
More interesting, though, was the wildly popular ChooseYourOwn SelectAVision.TV. In an attempt to rectify the imbalance of Channel 101’s reliance upon screenings for choosing what will be shown, Harmon and JD Ryznar set up online voting to determine which of its mini-shorts would continue on to the next episode. It effectively parodied the entire selection process. As soon as this became uninteresting, as usual, Harmon changed things up and the show became about offering even greater interactivity in movies, first with beach balls and then laser pointers that would be used at the screen to effectively make the audience interact with their shorts. The show only ended because its final episode didn’t make it to its intended screening, therefore disqualifying it from voting.
Harmon’s most recent series, Water and Power, is closest to what he’s currently doing in Community, and also probably his best. It doesn’t have the sheer creative chutzpah of ChooseYourOwn or MESI, but its characters are well-crafted, its plotlines are tight, and its jokes are some of Harmon’s best. Working with co-star Ryan Ridley, Dan stars as an employee of the utility company who focuses on water while Ridley does likewise for power. It’s a hard-nosed detective show, with the two acting more like investigators than office workers. Everything in the show is completely typical, but also rather insane due to upping the drama factor. Utility bills become life or death matters and everything is constantly on the line, for one silly reason or another.
Due to, as usual, low production values, Water and Power doesn’t look a thing like Community. But its pacing and storytelling are similar, even if they’re culled into five-minute blocks. Harmon’s adherence to convention is in place, as well as his love for taking those conventions all the way to the breaking point, illustrating how ridiculous they are while following them nonetheless. The sheer crudeness of Channel 101’s style may turn some people off, but any fans of the show should do themselves a favor and check out at least this series. Here’s hoping that as soon as Community is between seasons, Harmon throws another insane idea into the Channel 101 festival.
Extra Credit: Not only does Harman frequently play bit roles in other creator’s 101 shorts, he’s also thrown a few other odd short films onto the site. Of particular note to Community fans is "Dan Harmon’s Batman," which is his odd take on the hero done years ago. It’s not quite Abed in a Batman suit, but there’s clearly something between the two. Abed himself is likely named after a 101 friend of Harman’s as well, Abed Gheith. Joel McHale, Chevy Chase and John Oliver also put in appearances in episode nine of Water and Power.