Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The neurotic genius of Dan Harmon

with 2 comments

As regular readers of this blog know, I love commentary tracks, both for their insights into the filmmaking process and for what they reveal, often unintentionally, about the people doing the talking. Nowhere is this more the case than in Dan Harmon’s commentary for the Community episode “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” a terrific episode from one of the best seasons of television ever produced. In a departure from the show’s usual style, the episode is shot in the mockumentary format that has been been all but obligatory for smart, ambitious sitcoms ever since the premiere of The Office, and while the episode itself offers plenty to talk about, Harmon spends most of the commentary delivering a humorous, somewhat self-deprecating, but ultimately totally earnest attack on the use of these documentary conventions by shows like Parks & Recreation and Modern Family, which, he implies, is the comedic equivalent of playing tennis without a net.

Harmon argues, and not without reason, that the mockumentary format basically allows comedy writers to take the easy way out: it’s much easier to make a fast-paced sitcom when you can just cut away to a character explaining what he’s thinking, underline jokes using montage, voiceover, and flashbacks, or zoom in on a facial expression or an important detail. Community, he continues, is trying to do something much harder, which is to deliver similarly dense, scripted comedy without the mockumentary crutch. He also complains, quite sincerely, that viewers and critics don’t sufficiently appreciate this. Quite the opposite, in fact: the documentary format is faster, cheaper, and wins more awards, so it’s no wonder that sitcom creators prefer it over more conventional single-camera comedy. And a subsequent interview with The A.V. Club makes it clear that Harmon means what he says:

I just wanted to [work in the documentary format] to see what it was like. You know, to take those weights off our ankles. I feel like 30 Rock and Community never get an award for doing a format that’s twice as hard. Because it really is twice as hard…Now we have to go back to playing the violin while [other shows] play stickball.

I’ve been thinking about this commentary track a lot, and not just for the obvious reasons, ever since the news broke that Harmon had been fired as the showrunner of Community. Harmon is clearly a genius, but nearly everything I’ve ever heard him say indicates that he’s an incredibly neurotic guy, competitive, perfectionistic, and insecure even in the midst of success. According to industry gossip, he wasn’t easy to work with, and his management issues may have been partially responsible for the departures of creative talent that the show had suffered in recent seasons. From the point of view of Sony, which made the decision to replace him, it probably seemed like a no-brainer: a sitcom is supposed to be an efficient machine for producing content, which doesn’t exactly describe Community, for reasons that any interview—or commentary track—with Dan Harmon will make abundantly clear.

And yet here’s the thing: Harmon isn’t wrong. What he did with Community was incredibly hard, in ways that aren’t always obvious. It’s easy to point to big conceptual stories like “Remedial Chaos Theory” or the recent “Digital Estate Planning” as evidence of Harmon’s talent, but as he points out, even the show’s more modest episodes are ambitious, complex mini-movies that consistently take big risks. They don’t always pay off, and the third season was noticeably uneven, but to even try to make this kind of television in the face of so much opposition requires the kind of combative, uncompromising personality that ultimately got Harmon fired. As he wrote on his blog: “I’m not saying you can’t make a good version of Community without me, but I am definitely saying that you can’t make my version of it unless I have the option of saying ‘has to be like this or I quit’ roughly eight times a day.” And while it’s too soon to tell whether Community without Harmon will be better or worse, it definitely won’t be the same.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2012 at 10:39 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m skeptical of Harmon’s claims that pseudo-doc is that much easier than conventional single cam. It surely allows for some short-cuts, but also constrains what can be conveyed visually, what scenes & locations might be included, and what editing rhythms might be used. 30 Rock is a good example – its use of cutaway gags is just as much of a lazy short-cut as the confessional interview, but pseudo-docs can’t do the random cutaway (or dream sequence, voice-over, slow-mo, etc.).

    If it were as easy as Harmon suggests, then many more shows would be doing it. But there are far more sitcoms using conventional single cam style today than pseudo-doc. Of course no show embraces the stylistic variety of Community, but that shouldn’t be read as a “higher degree of difficulty” than Parks & Rec (which I still find a more successful & pleasurable if less innovative sitcom). And Harmon’s framing of it in such combative terms speaks to his personality, as you point out well.

    Jason Mittell

    May 22, 2012 at 2:52 am

  2. I think it’s probably true, as Harmon says, that the mockumentary format is objectively faster and cheaper than a single-camera show like Community. Whether that makes it “easier” to create really good comedy—especially since, as you point out, a show like Community has unique tools at its disposal as well—is up for debate. (And of course, the easiest format of all, at least by these metrics, is the multi-camera sitcom, which has challenges of its own.)


    May 22, 2012 at 8:11 am

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