by Rob DiCristino
I’ve talked a bit in the past about my love for the work of Dan Harmon, the writer/producer behind (among many others) Community and Rick & Morty, two of the most subversive, uncompromising, and imaginative network comedies in recent memory. Both shows thrive on Harmon’s boundless creativity coupled with his crippling manic-depression, an unfortunate tendency toward chaos that has cost him his share of industry recognition. While Harmon boasts a fierce legion of fans and almost universal critical acclaim for his projects, his brutal perfectionism and unconventional work habits have earned him a reputation as a pain in the ass among network executives and creative collaborators alike. He is, by his own admission, a gigantic douche. But those sympathetic to Harmon’s goals might cut him a little slack: he isn’t merely writing comedy — he’s trying to change the way comedy is written. His “story circle” model for breaking episodes merges the conventional three-act TV structure with the themes and cosmology of Joseph Campbell. He believes that a story is a sacred vessel for human compassion and that there is a code for its perfect delivery. It’s the work of a god undertaken by a mortal man desperate to better understand his place in the universe.
Structurally, Harmontown intercuts the tour with talking heads (including Jack Black, John Oliver, Ben Stiller, and others) who recount their working relationships with Harmon, and it’s telling that so many of them are allowed to vent their frustrations with punishing abandon (Sarah Silverman confesses, “I’m his biggest fan, and I fired him!”). It’s a clear sign that Berkeley wasn’t interested in a puff piece glorifying Harmon as a misunderstood visionary, but rather in an honest exploration of the dichotomy between genius and social agency. It’s a wide gap that Harmon showcases during the tour segments: dancing around drunk with a Go Pro strapped to his head, he’s dangerously vulnerable. He’s sloppy, selfish, and frequently cruel. One recurring thread has him procrastinating on two long-overdue scripts for which he’s already been paid to write. Another details the consequences of a blowup between him and McGathy (Harmon, of course, calls a fan up on stage and asks her to decide whether or not they should stay together). But while the film doesn’t shy away from its subject’s flaws, it also carefully tracks the insecurities and self-loathing that shape his bad behavior. He refers to himself as “a little boy who didn’t clean his room” and laments that the hate of those around him is what he deserves.