In 2014, Comedy Central lived up to its name. Broad City and Review were immediate must-watches, while relative newcomers Key and Peele, Kroll Show, Nathan for You, Inside Amy Schumer, and Drunk History turned in never-better seasons. Even reliable mainstays South Park, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report continued to be some of the smartest source of laughs on television. It’s hard to remember a time when Comedy Central was ever as good as it is now. That’s because it never has been. If only The Sarah Silverman Program was still around…
(Also, Chappelle’s Show and Stella, but that’s for another day.)
For 32 wonderful episodes from 2007 to 2010, Sarah Silverman’s titular (she’d appreciate the use of that word) series was one of the best comedies on TV. It was weird, vulgar, cutely misanthropic, critically admired (Silverman was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, years before she made Nazi jokes in front of confused media members), and oh yeah, it had Brian Posehn as a gay metalhead. That’s good half-typecasting.
No wonder it was so good: the credited episode writers are a current who’s who of some of our favorite shows. They include Harris Wittels (Parks and Recreation); Chelsea Peretti (Brooklyn Nine-Nine); Rich Rinaldi, Dan Fybel, and Jon Schroeder (Bob’s Burgers); Eric Falconer and Chris Romano (Blue Mountain State); Dan Sterling (Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview); and Rob Schrab and Dan Harmon (Community), who created the show with Silverman.
As you’re likely well aware, Dan Harmon is as occasionally difficult to work with as he is brilliant. It’s one thing when he’s the one calling the shots, as he has for four out of five seasons of Community; it’s another when he’s working under someone, like on The Sarah Silverman Program, which is one of the reasons why, despite Comedy Central giving his and Schrab’s names to Silverman thanks to their Channel 101 work, he didn’t last very long there.
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?
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.
Harmon further elaborated in an interview with Vulture.
What’s your worst experience on a staff of writers?
I guess my worst experience was falling out with Sarah Silverman and getting fired-slash-quitting the Sarah Silverman show. The Sarah Silverman Program was a bad writers’ room experience because I was just getting my sea legs as a head writer, and several things went wrong from the get-go. One of them was that Comedy Central asked me what my strategy was going to be in the writers’ room, and I made the mistake of being sincere and saying, “Well, I’ve never done this before, so my philosophy is ‘Let’s jump in, let’s start doing it wrong and adapt,’ because nobody knows how it’s going to work.” And they smiled and nodded, and then the first day of work I showed up and there was a writer who had been hired by them without consulting me who was getting paid twice as much as me to sit there and effectively run the show from underneath me. And that was humiliating and enraging and it made everything buckle and tumble. (Via)
There’s also an episode of WTF with Marc Maron, another bearded crazy-comedic prodigy, where Harmon talks about his experience on the Comedy Central series, but it’s behind a paywall, so let’s skip that in favor of what the people in Harmon’s life have to say about him.
“Dan doesn’t respect authority just because it’s authority.” — Rob Schrab
“He’s a f*cking genius when it comes to what his vision is and what he wants done, and if it doesn’t get done the way he wants it, he explodes” — Justin Roiland
“I felt like I was walking on eggshells every time I walked into the office. He said stuff that made me feel bad inside, so I was just like, ‘Honestly, it’s him or me,’ because I don’t want to feel this way.” — Sarah Silverman
“We both had visions for the show. The truth is, every single thing he wrote was amazing. And that’s how bad it had to be that I was willing to give that up. I’m his biggest fan, and I fired him.” — Sarah Silverman
Those quotes all come from Harmontown, a recently released and informative documentary about Harmon’s popular podcast of the same name that also dips into his career, including segments on the failed Heat Vision and Jack pilot and, of course, The Sarah Silverman Program.
One interviewee says that Harmon wanted to be “the Larry David to [Sarah]’s Seinfeld” (which Harmon also mentioned earlier), a goal that, as you can tell by what Silverman had to say, didn’t exactly pan out. It’s a shame their professional relationship couldn’t work — although one of the things that makes them great (their stubbornness, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible) is why it never could — but the two remain friends. They even both appeared on Doug Benson’s Getting Doug with High, as one-third of a stoner pyramid.
Maybe it’s for the best that he was fired. The Sarah Silverman Program remained excellent even without Harmon, who had time to work on another show you may have heard of.
Harmon found himself unable to get in sync with Silverman, arguing over the direction of the show’s writing. He was let go after just a few episodes. “I was inexperienced and oversensitive,” Harmon says. “Sarah would email me notes, and they’d hurt my feelings.”
Harmon found himself once again looking for work. In the mid-2000s, he took a Spanish class at an LA community college. He thought it might be a good—if maybe a bit too mainstream—setting for a fish-out-of-water sitcom. When he heard that a producer working with NBC was interested in doing something with him, Harmon pitched the idea and sold Community. (Via)
In a way, we have Sarah Silverman to thank for Magnitude. Pop pop!