Mega ‘Community’ interview with Dan Harmon, part 1

Senior Television Writer
03.19.14 15 Comments

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On some level, I”m still having a hard time believing that Dan Harmon is back running “Community,” and that the show has been as good as it”s been for most of this season. Large entertainment conglomerates are not generally in the business of rehiring idiosyncratic creators whom they have fired, and TV shows that go off the rails as badly as “Community” did in the Harmon-less fourth season rarely return to former levels of glory.

But both things have happened. “Community” is again an unpredictable delight on Thursdays at 8 on NBC, and things are so strange at that network that I would not be in the least bit surprised if the phrase “six seasons and a movie” went from an accidental joke in the fake clip show episode from season 2 into a reality.

When I was in LA last week, I sat down with Harmon to talk at length – as in, close to two hours and 15,000 words worth of conversation – about his return to the show, and also about his fantastic new Adult Swim series “Rick & Morty.” The conversation was so long that I”m splitting it into three parts. Today, you”ll get Harmon discussing the initial process of his return, mending fences with Chevy Chase and saying goodbye to Donald Glover, among other things. Tomorrow, we”ll have a lot more on this season of “Community” (UPDATE: You can now read that part here), and then either Friday or (more likely) Monday, we”ll have some “Rick & Morty” talk as well as Harmon”s thoughts on being a content creator in a business going through massive institutional turmoil.

I don”t know that every one of you will make it all the way to the end, but I also know that there is a certain breed of “Community” fan (better known as “a ‘Community” fan”) who will probably wish for even more of this. If you are such a person, enjoy.

At what point did you start getting an inkling that parties might be interested in your return?

Dan Harmon: It was a phone call from Joel McHale, but I didn”t take him seriously. I just thought it was a very loyal, passionate actor calling an old friend to let him know that he was missed after concluding a year of work without him. I thought that Joel works hard and really beats the pavement and politics, but I never dreamed that an actor could accomplish too much more than inspiring a Tumblr blog about him, you know. I didn”t think he had that much sway. So there were a few phone calls where he would call me and talk about how I was missed and then he would say, “Would you come back if you could come back?” And I would say, “Well, I don”t need to know the answer to that question.” He said, “Well, are you open to the question being asked, if they were to ask you to come back?” And I said, “Well, if for purely theoretical reasons for this conversation, yes, if Sony and NBC both asked at the same time, yeah, I would be open to them asking. I would be able to say yes or no.” And I would get off the phone with him and my girlfriend would say, “What was that about?” And I”d tell her and I would just roll my eyes at her. There were two or three phone calls like that from Joel with increasing emphasis on the idea that he was gonna talk to so and so and he was gonna make this happen and I still really just thought it was all folly. Obviously because in 60 years of television – this is not something that happens. And if it ever is, it”s not something that doesn”t get brokered by an actor.

So shame on me for underestimating Joel McHale about the last thing in my life that I”ll ever underestimate him for. Because it appears now that he can do anything. Yeah, and then all of a sudden one day my agent called me and said, “Sony wants to know if you”re interested. They think that they can possibly goose the numbers going into a fifth season which will get us very close to 100 with the publicity surrounding your return.” So that”s typical: human beings tend to think in terms of good guys and bad guys but corporations just go, “Okay, we thought we”d change this light bulb and that it would save us money. Maybe it did, maybe it didn”t. Let”s put the old one back. That”ll save us money.”

As a side note, I think that all the speculation about why and how and what the hell happened, the most practical and insightful analysis of the whole thing was done by Joe Adalian at Vulture. It was very no-nonsense. The probable truth is probably very boring. My contract was up. A lot of peoples” contracts were up for renewal. We would have been an effective labor union going back into a fourth season. Me, (Neil) Goldman, (Garrett) Donovan, (Chris) McKenna, all of us would need to renegotiate and instead why not just turn them all against each other. See who will be willing to replace who. If that falls apart, replace them all. And that”s what they did.

So anyways, then it was just a matter of a couple more phone calls. It really took me all of probably 11 seconds once my agent told me that this was a real question that needed a yes or a no. I sat down with McKenna and we had a couple of drinks at the Formosa. The Formosa Club, not the Formosa Café. He really gets upset with the image of us sitting in a café under an umbrella somewhere. We were hard-driven, manly men in a dark booth day drinking and thinking about what we would do and how we would do this. It was easy enough – Chris and I both are programmed the same way in this regard. We will spend the rest of our lives wondering what would have happened if we don”t go back. Only if we go back will we get to find out what would have happened. And in which case it doesn”t matter as much if something bad happens or something good happens. It”s gonna be far worse if we don”t do this for us.

So at the time you”re at the Formosa Club, not the café, you had not seen the fourth season. Had Chris seen any of it?

Dan Harmon: I think that Chris maybe had seen some of the fourth season. And it was natural enough to have heard about the style of the fourth season and how it was a strange emulation of the very thing that I thought I had been doing wrong creatively – the thing that I thoughtneeded to be corrected. They had gone in that Comic-Con direction. And so I think we might have had a conversation as early as that about how if we were to do this, that the silhouette that a good fifth season would cut would start with a back to basics approach pretending that it was a new pilot for a new series.

But the more pressing issue was who the hell is gonna write the show because it happened so late in the game that we were having a conversation about whether or not we were gonna start running it about a month and a half after everyone else had been hired and had been working. So like the first act of an underdog baseball movie, we began scouting for talent among the craziest misfits and Shanghaiable sailors that we could find. Among them Erik Sommers who by sheer gorgeous fate had ended up being the only guy that Sony kept in his “Happy Endings” contract up until the bitter end and let everyone else go to work. So they let him out of it right in time for him to have no job prospects and a house in the Palisades and a kid that had just been born. And so we scooped him up. Chris had worked with him before and said, “This guy is a pro. He will do everything in his power to make you happy. He will figure out your sensibility and he will do his best to help other people deliver it to you.” And man, was that a good assessment. There”s nobody I have to trust more than Chris McKenna when it comes to recruiting writing talent. If somebody”s worked with him and he approves of them it always turns out for the best. Chris also had his eye on this guy, Dan Guterman, who needed to be seduced away from “Colbert” who was living in New York. We both liked the script by this guy Matt Roller who was a virtual baby who had just been signed at UTA. And so on and so forth. Just a lot of like smart Onion and Lampoon people that were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and walking into a show that they had already heard was gonna be hard and also knew it was gonna be weirder than any situation in history. So we really had no time to do anything – we just had to start reading scripts and having meetings back to back, these ten minute-long meetings with writers out of my animation studio in Burbank.

Chevy had already left the previous season. Donald, at a certain point, made it known he didn”t want to stick around for very long. How far into the process were you when that happened?

Dan Harmon: The Donald thing definitely happened after I signed my contract to come aboard and after McKenna did. Because I remember very distinctly us in a private moment going, “Are you thinking what I”m thinking?” We would have liked to have known before we made the full decision to come back that we were coming back to a show that was gonna have to deal with Donald”s departure and then Donald”s absence. And I have to stress that that”s because Donald”s such a passionate guy and his fans are so passionate and he writes beautiful things on hotel napkins and people Tweet me and tell me that I should make love to him because they thinks he hates me. I want to make sure people understand that he and I love each other and have never exchanged a single negative word and have only ever supported and admired each other. And there”s a big difference between that and wanting someone to leave. And I begged him to reconsider and to stick it out. But I also made it very clear to him that I would not be mad at him if he did go and I”m not mad at him. I”m bummed out to not have him around.

Buzz basically fills the same rough void that Pierce left, but you”ve now got Chang back within the group. Duncan has been much more prominent. Is part of that you saying, “Okay, we”re not gonna be able to replace Troy, so let”s just attack the problem with numbers?”

Dan Harmon: Kind of. Not that we thought quantity could outdo quality, but that we just thought, “Let”s not make people feel like they need to compare anyone to Donald. Let”s just give them more treats and more ways to love ‘Community.” And maybe one of those will sprout.” My biggest hope was that we could have made John Oliver into more of a constant presence and really paired him with Jeff so that you would lose that beloved, almost adolescent Troy and Abed, “Calvin and Hobbes” innocence, but in its place would grow this different but equally powerful older adult male friendship – drinking buddies whose friendship is the only one that actually predates the origin of the whole series. And John Oliver”s just adorable standing next to Joel and the two of them are part combative but they feel to me like Harold Ramis and Bill Murray in “Stripes,” you know. They have like this sort of tempestuous competitive history that”s based so much more on women and booze that they forget to take the time to look into each other”s eyes and say, “You”re my friend.” But we couldn”t get Oliver for 13 out of 13. We could get Jonathan Banks for almost all of them and so like, okay, could we have sort of a father figure in there. What we ended up doing not by total strategic plan but just by excitement for the character – we ended up rubbing his character up against each individual at the study room table to tell a little B-story that dimensionalized Hickey”s character and also brought the best out of whoever he was running up against.

You and Chevy had very publicly had some problems but you got him to come back for the premiere to say a farewell to Pierce.

Dan Harmon: Yeah. The reason I deemed to play that voicemail in that non-broadcast show that I was doing in the back of a comic book store is because I already had a sense of humor about it because I already had an understanding with Chevy. Chevy is known in some circles for being well, you put it best early on in the run of the first season of the show – he”s a soloist. Bill Murray is a rally the underdog kind of guy. He works best in an orchestra because we like to watch him compose and direct and rally. Chevy we”ve always wanted to watch and have always seen just being Chevy and operating in isolation from everyone else. So number one, it made him a really powerful character within the group that Chris and I really liked writing for. And number two, it had made him a comedic legend who, and number three, it made him like really confused and resentful of the grueling schedule that “Community” posed. Single camera comedy is a tough, tough schedule and it”s not like you”re lifting weights the whole time, but if you”ve been around long enough to have parades thrown for you and now you”re just being told to wait in a trailer like so much livestock because our schedule – I think gradually, the lack of appreciation and the lack of focus on him was bumming him out. We may have been okay watching Chevy as part of an ensemble, but I think he felt like he was wilting away inside. I think he felt like it was symptomatic of some kind of twilight for him, which only excited me more and made me want to focus on that aspect of his character. And, you know, Chevy and I text each other and we call each other assholes and we make dirty jokes and we open up to each other. And we write long texts where we vent our feelings about how people don”t appreciate us, et cetera. I wouldn”t dare to equate myself with him, but I would make the observation that there”s a certain clinical narcissism that we share that makes us number one, able to understand each other and number two, like sometimes it”s hard to work together.

My breaking point was him bailing on a piece that I thought was very important narratively and emotionally to the characters and to the episode, which was the video game episode which happened to be the last one we were shooting and it was the last shot before they packed the set into boxes and turned the cameras back in and locked the doors on the soundstages. And he did something that he would often do, which is not understand why the scene was funny and decide he didn”t want to do it and walk away. And I wasn”t there and I heard that he had done that and I said, “Someone go get him and tell him this is very important,” and it was too late. And that was a day before the wrap party. So I did what I always do at the wrap party, which is I turned my frustration and my anger into pleasure for others and announced at the wrap party to all these people who had put blood and sweat into a show for an entire season that I was their boss and none of them could get fired if they all said, “Fuck you, Chevy” at the same time. There would be no repercussions. It was something I could finally do and I counted to three and a roomful of happy, smiling, facetious Chevy-loving but Chevy-frustrated people shouted, “Fuck you Chevy.” And Chevy and his wife and kids who, by the way, are 48 – sometimes people go, “In front of his wife and kids.” Yeah, his kids were at Woodstock. He left with his family and I wasn”t that bummed out about it. I felt like it was like a little bit of fair play. He kind of screwed me over by walking out of that scene. It was a beautiful scene where he was gonna hug Abed. He didn”t even have any dialogue in it. All he had to do was sit in a chair and then hug Danny Pudi. It was five minutes of work. He couldn”t do it and as a result, this beautiful episode didn”t have its beautiful ending. And I was like, “Okay, so you left the wrap party early in a huff. Okay. Now you know how it feels to have your evening ruined.” So then he started leaving these voicemails and I intentionally didn”t respond to them. He would text me like, “You haven”t apologized to me yet.” And I would say, “Hey man, you didn”t apologize to me yet.” It was two guys kind of locking horns and text messages. And then he would leave these hilarious voicemails that I would play for people because it”s amazing to be called a fat alcoholic piece of shit by Fletch.

And so I very unwisely – in continuing my almost constantly backfiring but sometimes beneficial pattern of transparency with what I”m going through and what”s going on with me in the back of a comic book club – played a voicemail I thought was very funny, and in spite of a longstanding rule at Harmontown back then which was nobody could put any of this on the Internet, that it was between us in that closed room, somebody who couldn”t resist the urge to leak it – and the rest is well documented.

And yet you guys were at a certain point able to put it behind you.

Dan Harmon: Well the thing is, we had put it behind us the moment the voicemail thing started happening. Because at that point when it leaked it was no longer about us calling each other asshole and smiling and locking horns and having a battle of egos in which we both got rewarded and punished however much we deserved. It became a scummy scandalous thing and I was embarrassed about it. I don”t mind shooting myself in the foot and making people throw tomatoes at me, but I feel really bad when I accidentally affect other people with my motor mouth. So I was very contrite with him and he didn”t even care. He didn”t even hang me over a fire about it. He actually, I guess, thought it was kind of funny. And I don”t know, maybe he was embarrassed about the content of the voicemails and therefore felt like turnabout was fair play for the week. Or I think sometimes Chevy, more than almost anyone I”ve ever worked with, is really driven by public entertainment. He really likes being the reason why people are having a good time. He likes the attention and he likes people laughing around him. And so I think he thought the voicemail thing was actually kind of a nice ending to a little feud – the actual leaking of it. Whereas I was quite embarrassed about it, so that was enough for me to roll over and apologize and we”ve been friends ever since. It”s ironic that with the gossip blog cycle, the problem is long since resolved and you”re just reading every day worse and worse headlines about how things are happening. And how you”re in a feud with someone, et cetera, et cetera. So we”ve been friends ever since. And I was then not brought back for season 4 and soon after that he was out of the show as well in my absence. And that just brought us closer together. He called me immediately to tell me the story of how he was off the show now and we talked about him coming on Harmontown and talking about it. He said, “Yeah, let”s do it,” but then he”s bicoastal and he”s got a big family and it never happens.

But clearly whatever happened with him while you were away on the show was going preclude him coming back to the show in any meaningful form.

Dan Harmon: Whatever agreement he made with the suits precluded the possibility of him being on the set. Chris and I thought about the possibility of this hologram thing as being a work around and I texted him and he immediately said yes. And then we just made it work. We had to keep it secret from everybody so we wrote a scene into the first episode where the thing that turns Joel after he walks away with the power to destroy Greendale is he happens upon Star-Burns, who”s been living in a dumpster. Joel was the only one to know for a while because he had to come in and say “Pierce” to an empty space in front of a motion control camera. But everybody else was in the dark because we just wanted to control that surprise as much as we could. The press was really cool about it.

I remember you saying publicly relatively early after you came back that you weren”t going to treat the Port-Guarascio season as a dream. Was there any point where you were watching them when you started to think maybe you were too hasty in saying you were going to treat them as canon no matter what? Was there any aspect you just didn”t want to deal with?

Dan Harmon: No, there wasn”t because one of the nice things about that fourth season was it”s only 13 episodes long. And it was done in sort of a timeless vacuum and only two things of canonical importance happened. One was that Pierce left and the other was that Jeff graduated. So it was actually sort of a perfect tee up for a next season. I never thought like, “Oh boy, what are we gonna do about this terrible mess that they”ve gotten us into?” I did just keep thinking, “Why didn”t they deliver the fatal blow to my career that would have been as easy as doing ‘Scrubs” at a community college for one season?” Why didn”t they just make a delightful, funny, intelligent comedy about people hanging out at a community college and use all of this kind of anti-Harmon frustration and everyone”s desire to see drama play out behind the scenes? I was bracing myself for irreconcilable, unresolvable humiliation at the hands of this system. It”s confusing to me why someone at some point said, “You know what we ought to do? We ought to really make sure that the show stays totally inaccessible and insane.”

That was my issue with that season: it felt like they were really trying to make the Dan Harmon version of the show, but without you.

Dan Harmon: I have this myth in my head that it was Comic-Con – that they had to go to Comic-Con because we had set that up as a tradition and the last thing anyone wanted to do was send a signal before anything even started that everything was gonna be anti-fan. So, of course you have to go to Comic-Con. And then what do you do at Comic-Con? Well, you sit in front of thousands of people and there is a magic spell cast in that room which is why I always insisted for the first three seasons that all of the writers be in that room. And I always told them, “Just come down there, stand in the corner and just stare at the floor and listen. When Alison Brie comes out, listen to the sound that those people make. When Danny Pudi says something he”s been prompted to say that he”s said on the show, listen to the sound.” Because if you hear a recording of it, it”ll sound like other groups of people making this big sound. But when you”re in that room there is something communicated. Something flies through the air about the relationship with the show that its most passionate fans feel. And so I”ve created the myth in my head that they went up to that altar and they intended to respect it by sitting on it, touching it, doing a formal gesture of respect to it and touch it, only their hair stood on end and they got zapped with terrible, terrible Dan Harmon voodoo. Some God that makes “Community” hard to watch for more than two million people at a time just went into their blood. Some Clive Barker demon.

I remember they came out and they were clearly trying to throw some red meat to the audience. They said, “Do you guys like Inspector Spacetime?” And the room explodes and they said, “How would you feel about an episode at an Inspector Spacetime convention?”

Dan Harmon: Which was item number seven on a list of nine things that I left on the whiteboard.

Part 2: Re-piloting the series, taking away the Dean”s dresses, the potential reality of six seasons and a movie, and more.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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