'Harmontown' Explores The Good, Bad And Drunk Depths Of Dan Harmon And His Fans
Community and Rick & Morty creator Dan Harmon is a cult hero who, like many admittedly brilliant artists, has some issues. Harmon, however, has never shied away from putting them on the table, including in a new documentary about him and his closest friends and colleagues.
On Sunday nights in the back of Meltdown Comics, you can find Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon hosting his own town hall. As the mayor of 'Harmontown,' he rambles on about any number of topics, as if he is discovering his own thoughts in front of a live audience/sounding board that really, truly, fanatically loves him. He's aided by Harmontown Comptroller (and actor/comedian) Jeff Davis, his girlfriend (now fiancé) Erin McGathy, and fan-turned-Dungeon Master Spencer Crittenden.
Neil Berkeley's documentary Harmontown takes its name from the podcast and follows the writer and his co-conspirators as they take their show on the road in 2013, after Harmon was fired from his own show, but before NBC brought him back on for season five. (And before Community was cancelled, then picked up by Yahoo!) It's kind of like a concert movie, but instead of rockstars wrecking hotel rooms, we've got a bunch of self-proclaimed nerds battling inner demons and connecting with misfit fans across the country.
We see the tour stops in pieces and parts, with plenty filmed on the tour bus or backstage. While the documentary will likely appeal mostly to Harmon fans, it doesn't hide the darker elements of Harmon's personality (though he is also the Executive Producer) which he has often been candid about in his writing and podcast. The documentary shows him in uncomfortable moments, like when Harmon and McGathy are fighting, or Harmon's just too drunk for his own good. (At times, I wanted to reach through the screen and slap the drink out of his hand myself.) Interviews with those Harmon has worked with—Sarah Silverman, John Oliver, Joel McHale, among others—highlight his volatile personality and penchant for self-destruction. Silverman recalls working with him on her show, saying could be controlling and mean: "I'm his biggest fan, and I fired him," she says.
At its high points, the film focuses on Harmon's fans, a gang of misfits who have found community (no pun intended) based around the writer and his work. The podcast gang engages the fans and there's no snobbery. Harmon truly touches people, and that's apparent in each city they visit. McGathy is also an endearing character. She has her own podcast, This Feels Terrible, and likes to bake Ugly Cakes. (You can also watch her on a recent episode of Drunk History.) You feel for her when it's revealed that Harmon's called her "the C-word" in a fight, and her obvious love is what makes Harmon's diatribes about redemption seem important.
And there's also Spencer Crittenden.
Crittenden was an introverted fan who just wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons with Harmon. He ended up becoming the dungeon master of an ongoing quest that occurs each episode. Crittenden is prominently featured in the film, which is a refreshing break from the overwhelming personalities, and a true triumph for the quiet geeks of the world. There's nothing unlikeable about Crittenden, and it's heartwarming to watch him awkwardly interact with fans in his own way. Crittenden's popularity doesn't go unnoticed by Harmon, who at one point feels like Crittenden is the good guy of the story.
There's a lot of in-joking and those unfamiliar with his work might not fall in love with him or understand the cult hype that surrounds him. But much like the main character in Community, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), there's a part of Harmon that deeply wants to be liked, to be good to others and make people laugh, and that's a persisting narrative. When played out in real life by a real person and not inside of a trope (as Community so loves to do), it's a bit harder to see a certain glowing end with a warm epilogue, but it doesn't make the viewer want it any less.
Harmontown opens today (Oct. 3) in L.A. and online. The full shows from the tour can be listened to via Feral Audio (you can see podcaster Dustin Marshall several times throughout the film, at one point letting Harmon listen back the Nashville show he can't remember due to too much moonshine).