Catching Up With... Community Creator Dan Harmon
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Paste: That’s also what brought you in contact with Sarah Silverman, whose show you co-created. Can you talk about what happened there and why you left the show?
Harmon: Basically I was head writer for the first order of six episodes , but I didn’t even get through writing all of those. Obviously with the pilot me, Sarah and [Rob] Schrab worked together on that. But a couple episodes into the writing process I started lipping off to Sarah too much and we…I tend to work very hard and I…I get emotional. Emotional’s not the right word either, I get obsessive. I want to make everything perfect and I have a delusion that I’m the one who has to make that happen. And when you’re working on the Lucille Ball show with Lucille Ball, that’s a pretty unprofessional attitude to take. I was not Larry David and she was not Seinfeld and I really had that in my head, that paradigm. I really should’ve been thinking, “I’m a guy that Sarah Silverman gave a great opportunity to work on this thing. It doesn’t even matter if I agree with her, and it doesn’t really matter if I agree with her. It’s her show.” Believe me, I’ve come to appreciate how important it is for a writer to think that way because now I’m in charge of this thing. When somebody underneath you is pushing back you want to murder them. It’s like, “How dare you, do you know how much shit I had to put up with to get here? I got fired by Sarah Silverman.” I guess the cycle goes round and round. What I think is really cool about Sarah is that that can happen between us but she’s so talented that I can’t bring myself to think any less of her creatively. I think she’s just one of the funniest people in the world. When I see her on TV I know that I’m going to be entertained somehow, she’s got a very unique and subtle style of getting laughs. I really admire her as a stand-up. As far as I know she’s never taken swipes at me creatively as if to pretend that the reason why I left was because I wasn’t talented or funny. As she put it, she wanted to be the only crazy person in the room, and that makes perfect sense to me.
Paste: The show’s just winding down and your old writing partner Schrab will be done directing it soon. Do you two have anything you’ll be working on when that’s over?
Harmon: Yeah, we’re going to work together on a Heat Vision and Jack web series.
Paste: So that project is still afloat?
Harmon: Yeah. Around 2002 it was like, “I gotta find a way to stop being the Heat Vision and Jack guy.” It was getting really depressing. I said to a Letterman writer at a party once, because Dana Gould introduced me as the guy who did Heat Vision and Jack, and the guy was like, “That’s great, that’s great,” and I was like, “Oh man, apparently that’s going to be the story of my life.” The guy then responded without missing a beat, “Well there’s a lifetime worth of laughs in that pilot.” That was the beginning of realizing that for whatever reasons, probably not having to do with my specialness or anything, Heat Vision and Jack is bigger than all of us. It’s one of those babies that goes out in the world and has a life of its own. I’m definitely glad it’s not my only thing, but if it’s the only thing that ever has any real coolness factor to it I’m definitely ready to accept that.
More importantly, Rob finally cracked the nut, I think. After years and years of people trying to figure out how to make it into a movie, including us, and failing, Rob came to me with this idea bout what to do with webisodes and a web series. I could have kissed him because it was perfect, which was much like his idea for Heat Vision and Jack. When he called me on his way home one day and said, “We’ve gotta get out of this blind deal with ABC we stumbled into, how do we do that?” and we decided that we’ve got to write our favorite TV show ever, because they’d hate it. We have to write something fucking ridiculous that makes us so happy, we have to be laughing the whole time we’re writing it. We both agreed that was the thing to do, but it was Rob who called me five minutes after leaving that discussion and said, “What if Jack Black was an astronaut ” and proceeded to describe the entire concept. And I just thought, that’s perfect. A day and a half later I’d written the first draft of that thing and was reading it to Rob off the computer screen and we were just cracking up. We spent another half day polishing it, and three hours after that we had about 200 ideas for episodes. It was like cheating. And we really only did it to scare off ABC because we’d stumbled into a blind deal, which is a ridiculously long story but we felt that we were feature writers trapped in an accidental blind deal with this TV network that didn’t like us. So we just used that thing, we gave it to them and said, “Here’s our thing for our blind deal,” and soon enough they bought us out of our contract after taking one look at Heat Vison and Jack. We couldn’t have anticipated that 10 minutes later Ben Stiller’s on the phone from the set of Mystery Men jumping up and down in his leather pants going, “This is the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my fucking life.” Because Ben Stiller at that point in time was Something about Mary Ben Stiller, the phone did not stop ringing. We were nobodies at that time and we were never this much somebody ever again. It was just phone call after phone call after phone call, everybody wanted us to make sure that we knew they were always in our corner. Several studios and networks wanted to talk about making it into a show, and it was pretty crazy. Anyway, that was a huge tangent, but Rob told me his idea of what to do with it as a web series and I just felt so glad now that nothing went right with that thing. His idea makes everything that happens with that pilot, including every attempt at making it as a movie and all the pain of it not being picked up, into part of the process, makes it all work for the thing. Makes it a good thing that all of that happened.
Paste: When can we expect to see any of this get made, since it’s not like either of you have a ton of free time at the moment?
Harmon: Like I said with Heat Vision the pilot, we wrote it over the weekend. When something is that joyful and Rob’s concept for the series is easily equally joyful and easy to knock out, it hardly matters when we actually close the necessary deals and get the ball rolling. It’s going to be the funnest thing in the world to do. It’s like asking me, “When will you have time to play video games?” Believe me, I’ll find the time. We don’t get started talking about Community until June. It’ll be easy.
And I kinda feel that I don’t want to get specific about Schrab’s concept because to me the enjoyment of it is how much it sort of immerses you. It’s not like it’s a huge surprise or an M. Night Shamylan sort of thing, I just feel like I want people to enjoy it as much as possible, and since we don’t need to audition or to convince anybody to check it out when we do it, they might as well know as little as possible. I think this will be a fun thing to discover.
Paste: The first season of Community’s in the bag except for post-production. Can you tell us anything about what to expect from season two?
Harmon: No, not really. There’s too much to talk about with the first season. This kind of goes back to one of your first questions, in that I have now incorporated a healthy amount of fan monitoring into how I work on a sitcom because I like it. I didn’t think I would. I thought, don’t read any reviews and don’t search for it on Twitter. You don’t want to hear people talking about your show; it’ll drive you nuts and affect everything you do and it’ll screw you up. But nothing cures you of people liking it. The more people liked it, the less it hurt when they didn’t and the more I kind of got out of the idea of taking a step back and seeing what people were saying about the show. Especially with you guys saying stuff about it, I felt like I could simultaneously work on a smart show and have fart jokes in it. That starts with synchronizing with the audience a little of bit. I don’t think that pandering to them or asking them what to do and then doing it is a good idea at all, but locking eyes with them and walking backwards through the area that you’ve cleared for their tour and paying attention to their reaction as you point to different parts of it is. Letting that have an affect on where you take them from there. That’s the secret in keeping TV relevant in this post-YouTube world.
If TV is going to be part of their lives, it has to be a little bit responsive. I don’t mean that in the cheesy interactivity sort of way, well I guess I do, but I don’t mean doing what they tell you to do. Because they’re not writers, they’re voyeurs. Knowing where they are and that they’re watching, how they’re watching and how they’re reacting and adjusting your little peep show to them, we have to at least do that. Moreso than our predecessors. So I’m trying to strike a real balance between getting excited about the second season and overplanning. I have conceptual ideas. I can tell you, for instance, something that you probably would’ve guessed and a decision you would’ve made yourself, which is that in the second season we need to start learning about these people as if they’re real people. Because we definitely proved that we can do a TV show and that these people can be funny and they can have a relationship with each other. That’s the hard part, that’s the jelly. Now the peanut butter, the part that spreads easy, is where does Britta work during the day? How much money does she have? Why is she at community college? Is Pierce rich or does he live in a shed behind the campus?
Paste: As far as its basic plot, Community is still the most conventional thing you’ve ever really done. There aren’t robots or magic or anything like that. For all the wackiness, it does end up focusing on the characters.
Harmon: That was always what I brought to my partnership with Schrab. It was always based upon Rob saying, “What if a werewolf landed on the moon, wouldn’t that make a really powerful werewolf because he gets his powers from the moon?” and me saying, “Yeah, but let’s give him some kind of complex.” The partnership was perfect in that way because we’d create these kind of ridiculous things—houses that are actually monsters that want to eat kids who trick or treat—but also asking, what does that say about people? So of course, me and Schrab working separately, which we do very successfully too, my stuff is going to tend to be about people drinking coffee and talking about their feelings because I wasn’t the guy who was saying things about werewolves, except that maybe they were jealous of vampires. And believe me, I still want to do time travel and robots and stuff like that, my next show will probably have to be an over-reaction to this mainstream delight. Maybe I’ll go to Adult Swim and do something about a dick who has a cowboy hat on it or something.