Lost and Found

Comedy writer Dan Harmon leaves behind one ‘Community’ and builds another — on a podcast and on the road

January 17, 2013
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Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s embattled cult comedy series “Community,” boarded an airplane last May, a week after the show was renewed for a fourth season. By the time he landed in Los Angeles, he had lost his job as “Community’s” head writer — and his luggage, too.

“Getting off the plane, there’s that moment when your phone reactivates and the backlog of messages comes in,” Harmon says. “That’s when I found out [I’d been fired]. Nobody [from NBC] called me and talked to me about it. I found out after the decision had been made.”

The show that he’d devoted the past three years of his life to, that he’d fought tirelessly for, was ripped away from him. To make matters worse, he had to process the news while searching for his luggage.

“So, in the immediate wake of it, I was sitting on a linoleum, fluorescent-lit floor outside a dirty little lost-luggage office, with my head between my knees,” he says. “It probably looked like I was sad, but I think you would have assumed it was because I lost my luggage.”

Harmon was thinking about the show’s fans — those ardent die-hards who don’t have Nielsen boxes — and what the change would mean for them.

“I just kept thinking, ‘This is going to be a bummer for the people who get tattoos of the characters, the people who write poems about them, who write fan fiction — they’re the ones that are going to suffer,’ ” he says.

Many reasons contributed to Harmon getting sacked. Since its premiere in the fall of 2009, “Community” has struggled to attract the kind of viewers NBC expects for its Thursday night comedies. According to Nielsen, the last episode Harmon worked on was seen by almost 2.5 million viewers — a fraction of the 14 million viewers who tuned in to the fall finale of “The Voice.”

Harmon, 40, is also a self-described “autocrat” who feuded with his bosses at NBC and whose perfectionism reportedly held up production. “The show was not the result of cooperation,” he says. Then there was his public rift with star Chevy Chase, who also wound up parting ways with “Community” after Harmon was given the boot.

But the very things that made Harmon a liability were also what helped make “Community” great. He was the show’s nerve center: Each misfit character in the show’s core Greendale Community College study group reflected a part of his personality. And despite its actual ratings, “Community” drew critical acclaim for its high-minded conceptual episodes, rich character development and meta-minded humor.

More people watch the show than Nielsen measures — they just stream it on Hulu or illegally download episodes. “Community’s” biggest fans live on the Internet, which is why Harmon’s latest project lives there, too.

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“Harmontown,” which began in 2011 as a monthly live show for an audience of 50-plus in the back of a comic-book shop in Los Angeles, is Harmon’s now-weekly podcast — a way for him to stay connected with his fans.

Most “Harmontown” episodes, which are recorded live, feature Harmon and co-host Jeff B. Davis pontificating on whatever they feel like. Episodes have included Harmon’s freestyle rapping, a discussion of the merits of the Liam Neeson movie “The Grey” and an ongoing, serialized Dungeons & Dragons quest.

This month, Harmon is bringing “Harmontown” to the people with a 19-date tour across the nation, including a stop in Arlington on Saturday. He’ll perform a show almost every night — something he’s never really done before. “I did terrible stand-up when I was much, much younger and I stopped doing it because I was bad at it,” he says.

Beyond a continuation of the D&D adventures, he doesn’t have any material planned, either.

“I would never be ready for the tour,” Harmon says. “I could spend the next 20 years sitting in a cave with a notebook and pencil and tap shoes and an overhead projector planning it and it would fall short of the possibility that exists if I figure it out each place I go.”

Davis; Harmon’s girlfriend, Erin McGathy; and a documentary camera crew (headed by “Beauty Is Embarrassing” director Neil Berkeley) are along for the ride. Each show will be released as podcasts as they travel so fans can follow along at home. (A documentary, probably focusing on the tour, will come soon after, Harmon says.)

There’s something bleakly funny about a guy who created a show that allegedly few people watched retreating to the back of a comic-book shop to preach to his followers and then taking the show on the road. Harmon has his own analogy:

“I’m like a low-rent Jesus who doesn’t want to do a Sermon on the Mount because it feels too pretentious. He’s still really into himself, so he’s walking down to meet the people and handing them the nails to crucify him with. But while they’re doing it, he’ll say some stuff.”

Rick-and-Morty
Post-Collegial Studies

With “Community” behind him, Harmon is developing three new shows. The first is a back-to-basics multicamera sitcom in the spirit of “Taxi” for CBS. The second is a cinematic single-cam show on Fox that he says is “craving an Emmy a little bit more.” And then there’s his Adult Swim cartoon, “Rick and Morty,” right, which will premiere in 2014 and is “about a scientist who invented a diarrhea ray.” If all three become series, “I don’t have any excuse to try and bite the hand that feeds me,” he says. “So if I’m at CBS and they go, ‘I don’t like this diarrhea joke,’ I’ll go, ‘That’s perfect for my Adult Swim show.’ ”

Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse, 2903 Columbia Pike, Arlington; Sat., 10 p.m., sold out; 703-486-2345.
Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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Kristen Page-Kirby | January 17, 2013