Catching Up With... Community Creator Dan Harmon
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There’s something gratifying about seeing a person put years of dedication into their work and having it eventually pay off. That’s what happened to Dan Harmon, the creator and showrunner for Community, who spent much of his career working on independent comedy and comics while hoping for some eventual breakthrough success, which was always just shy of actually happening. His most talked about project, Heat Vision and Jack, was canned, his movie script for Monster House was butchered, and he was fired from the first series he co-created, The Sarah Silverman Program. With Community, he’s finally found a project that, while by no means a runaway success, has been a critical darling during its first season and has found a devoted audience. Paste spoke with Harmon about getting fired by Silverman, the revival of Heat Vision and Jack and what we can expect from the second season of Community.
Paste: I know I’m interrupting you working on post-production for tomorrow night’s episode. Is it usually this down to the wire?
Dan Harmon: This season, yeah. Which is something that people prefer to not have happen, but then again we haven’t really let anybody down with our seat-of-the-pants tactics over here. It tends to end up costing money, so for that reason we need to get our shit together for season two—be efficient and on schedule. But creatively, the network is so supportive anyway that working last minute gets the same results creatively that keeping them in the loop would. They don’t tend to block us, anyway.
Paste: How much interference have you gotten from the network?
Harmon: Well, I was just watching tomorrow night’s episode and I’m thinking, “They’re giving me too much space. I’m out of control.” For the paintball one, for instance, the network couldn’t be more supportive, they’re looking at it as a sweep’s week promotional thing. At no other network could I imagine that they’d consider the quality of your episode to be a selling point worth sending out to press and promoting. Just to say, “Watch Community next week, it’s gonna be extra great,” instead of saying, “watch Community next week, we’ve got another American Idol contestant on so now it deserves your attention.” That’s sort of the beast you have to deal with by default, but NBC is really different in that they’re incredibly creatively reverent. They consider it a sort of profanity to force writers to do things they don’t want to do, they consider it just not the way to do business. If you can’t tell, I’m on a pretty big pro-NBC high right now—they love my paintball episode.
Paste: Given that relationship, it sounds like you weren’t particularly surprised to have the show get picked up for a second season despite less-than-stellar ratings.
Harmon: I also wouldn’t have been surprised if they had cancelled us, but that’s only because I’m so used to everyone smiling and then shooting you in the head. I’m used to dishonesty, it just turns out they really meant it when they said, “We love your show and we’re going to be patient with it,” because that’s what they do at the network. They still believe in this old-fashioned business where you should be above board with the audience and say that, “You should like this show and eventually will because these people are interesting to watch.” TV’s in this inevitable knife-fight with basic cable and the internet that, let’s face it, all things eventually go from hot to cold and TV will eventually lose that fight and get swallowed up by what we call new media. But what I like is that they’re not going gently, they’re clinging to some dignity, to a vestige of class and writing up to the audience.
Paste: How much have you listened to fan feedback about the show’s direction? For instance, Jeff and Britta seemed set up as a relationship for the beginning but following very negative audience reactions that seems to have tapered off.
Harmon: There are things that we did do because of that, we did react to that, but we never intended to shove Jeff and Britta down the audience’s throats. But we did perceive that they were feeling like we were going to, and we did not want them to feel that way. One of the things I learned that I didn’t know previous to this is that I think the audience considers it the writer’s job to tell jokes and come up with stories and create characters, and when it comes to the soap operas and how those characters feel about each other, for lack of a better term the will-they-won’t-they’s, that’s the area of a show where the audience wants control, wants to feel responsible. They want the green-light power, they want to be able to go, “Look, I’ve been watching the show for five years and I’ve decided the butler should fuck the limo driver.” What you have to do is make all those things possible, so that they can have their choice. It’s one area that’s very easy for the audience to move like a Ouija board because everybody falls in love, everybody has sex, everybody thinks about other people. It’s fundamental. If squirrels were watching the show and it was about squirrels, that’s the one thing that would still be the same. There would be female squirrels and male squirrels and squirrels in the audience would be like, “OK, I like that squirrel being with that squirrel.” That’s a long way of saying that we would be able to get away with simply deciding that the reason you’re going to watch it right off the bat was some kind of sexual story. I never had that real intention. I just figured that would happen organically. But yes, absolutely we were completely conscious in the early stages that the audience was going, “Well they’re obviously setting this thing up that I’m supposed to care about and guess what, I don’t.” It was sort of a nightmare for me, because I knew they wouldn’t, I didn’t want them to think that I thought that they would. So one of the things that I did to send the message that I didn’t want to force anything down their throat was that I really started beating up on Britta, which was really easy to do because that character is an amalgam of a lot of ex-girlfriends of mine.
Paste: She seems somewhat like she’s from a different world from the rest of the show’s characters.
Harmon: Gillian is hands down one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with and she was cast specifically for her ability to be believable and do incredibly subtle things you don’t see outside of film. She’s usually playing strippers and junkies on hour-long dramas and movies, and here she was in this sitcom. That was always part of the plan, that I wanted this girl to feel different. We have to buy as part of the pilot story that there’s this guy who’s used to getting whatever he wants and he really wants this thing but he can’t get it. It’s kind of fun and I sort of stepped on the gas a little bit when I felt like the audience was going, “Jeff and Britta, go fuck yourself.” I really stepped on the gas, going, “No no no no, we hate her, too. Look at this bucket above the door, it’s got pig’s blood in it, and now let’s all laugh at how much we hate her.” I also knew that doing that would have the natural result of really letting Gillian shine how she shines best and also making you start to sympathize with her.
Paste: Speaking of characters, what happened to John Oliver’s, who was in the first couple of episodes and we haven’t heard from since? Where did he go?
Harmon: I hope not too far, cause I wish I could promise you that he will be upgraded in terms of his involvement next year. It’s just his schedule. Every time you see John Oliver on the screen, and he will be back for the finale, every time you see him it’s Jon Stewart doing us a huge favor by giving us this guy. It’s a huge pain in the butt for him personally but also the people for whom he’s contractually beholden to. Believe me that if we could have him in every episode we absolutely would. Next year, hopefully he’ll be in more episodes, if not every single one, but at least more than two. He’s in the finale but it’s almost sad because of how great he is. It was put to us very plainly that he wouldn’t be available for a series, but you live in denial. You think, it’ll change when the pilot gets picked up and he’ll be seduced and move to L.A. Thank Jon Stewart for letting us have him a couple times, it was very generous and he did not have to do it. Hopefully we’ll get a bigger piece of his hide.
Paste: You mentioned that you feel that TV’s slowly dying due to the internet. One of those programs that’s competing with it is the Channel 101 film competition that you co-founded. How much involvement do you still have with that?
Harmon: In terms of my passion? One hundred percent. In terms of being able to submit anything? I haven’t been able to. I wanted to submit something this last month. We started at a new venue, the Downtown Independent, which is amazing. It’s our home. You could feel the shot in the arm it was for the entire community. I gotta get off my ass, I gotta start making more stuff for this thing, because it’s never going anywhere and it’s just now getting started. The Downtown Independent is exactly what Channel 101 is. It’s the place where it should be because it is…downtown and it’s…independent. If you go there when Channel 101 isn’t there you’re going to see weird movies with Harvey Keitel in them that you didn’t know existed when you were at the Cineplex. When I was in Milwaukee those were the theaters that showed Reservoir Dogs and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, stuff that was awakening me as a young writer to the idea that I didn’t necessarily have to write Jaws in order to be a screenwriter. That’s what the Downtown Independent is in L.A. and that’s where Channel 101 should be.