Posts Tagged ‘Dan Harmon’
A few days ago, while browsing through How Music Works, the engaging book by Talking Heads frontman and famous nerd David Byrne, I stumbled across this description of his writing process for the album Remain in Light:
I begin by improvising a melody over the music. I do this by singing nonsense syllables, but with weirdly inappropriate passion, given that I’m not saying anything. Once I have a wordless melody and a vocal arrangement that my collaborators (if there are any) and I like, I’ll begin to transcribe that gibberish as if it were real words.
I’ll listen carefully to the meaningless vowels and consonants on the recording, and I’ll try to understand what that guy (me), emoting so forcefully but inscrutably, is actually saying. It’s like a forensic exercise. I’ll follow the sound of the nonsense syllables as closely as possible. If a melodic phrase of gibberish ends on a high ooh sound, then I’ll transcribe that, and in selecting actual words, I’ll try to choose one that ends in that syllable, or as close to it as I can get. So the transcription often ends with a page of real words, still fairly random, that sound just like the gibberish.
Byrne concludes: “I do this because the difference between an ooh and an aah…is, I assume, integral to the emotion that the story wants to express…My job at this stage is to find words that acknowledge and adhere to the sonic and emotional qualities rather than to ignore and possibly destroy them.” And while Byrne’s chosen approach may seem resolutely oddball, it has surprising affinities with the opposite end of the commercial spectrum. Here’s a description, by John Seabrook of The New Yorker, of the creative process of Ester Dean, the “top line” songwriter responsible for hit singles by the likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj:
Dean has a genius for infectious hooks. Somehow she is able to absorb the beat and the sound of the track, and to come out with its melodic essence. The words are more like vocalized beats than like lyrics, and they don’t communicate meaning so much as feeling and attitude—they nudge you closer to the ecstasy promised by the beat and the “rise,” or the “lift,” when the track builds to a climax…
Dean’s preferred method of working is to delay listening to a producer’s track until she is in the studio, in front of the mike. “I go into the booth and I scream and sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not,” she told me. Dean concludes: “And I just see when I get this little chill, here”—she touched her upper arm, just below the shoulder—”and then I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.'” If she doesn’t feel that chill after five minutes, she moves on to the next track, and tries again.
Of course, songwriters have been jotting down nonsense lyrics to feel their way into a melody for a long time: it’s why “Yesterday” was originally called “Scrambled Eggs.” And many of the conventions of popular music, from scat singing to the repeated lines in choruses, were developed by performers who were improvising by the seat of their pants. What strikes me the most about this method from a writing point of view, though, is its similarity to what Community showrunner Dan Harmon has called the spit draft—a version of a script that lays out the structure with dummy dialogue on the level of “Here’s the point where I say that we should all go get a sandwich” or “I have a joke here.” The point is to rough out the blocks of the action in as broad a form as possible to make sure the story itself works. And sometimes, the simple act of typing, like singing nonsense syllables, results in something useful, as the writer Megan Ganz notes: “When you write really quickly, you end up writing really good jokes anyway; it’s almost as if you trick your brain into thinking that it doesn’t matter.” (Compare this to Byrne’s diligence at matching the oohs and aahs in the nonsense words he sings in his initial pass on the track. What looks like an accident may turn into a way inside, and you’ll often have better luck at coming up with something good if you follow the clues that your brain has already provided.)
I’ve found that it helps to think of any rough draft in these terms. Elsewhere, I’ve described a first draft—or, alternatively, a detailed outline—as a kind of crude sketch of the entire story, much as a painter might rough out a cartoon of the overall work on the canvas before fleshing out any specific area, and I still think that it’s a valuable way of working. When I’m writing a draft, I’m often just typing with one eye on the outline at my elbow, and the point is less to come up with a readable version than to figure out how the whole thing looks on the page: the balance of dialogue to description, the lengths of the paragraphs, the places where a block of action transitions into another. Once I have that overall shape, with the paragraphs more or less all where they need to be, it’s far easier to drill down and refine the material within each unit. (It’s crucial to note, though, that all these approaches depend on an existing structure to follow: we aren’t improvising blindly, but laying down a melody over a particular track.) The hard part is convincing yourself to fight through to the very last page, when you know that everything you’ve written will need to be revised into some other form. But if you can think of that draft as a sketch to be filled in later, or as a string of nonsense sentences that will serve as placeholders until you can glimpse the contours of the whole work, it’s easier both to get it done and to open yourself up to the music.
The best thing I ever learned about script writing has come from working on Community. The creator, Dan Harmon, had us write these things called “spit drafts,” which is basically an outline for your script. It’s the shape of that script. You write out the script scene by scene with dummy dialogue that you’ll later replace with actual jokes. For instance, the character of Jeff walks into the room, and Jeff says, “Here’s the point where I say that we should all go get a sandwich.” And then the character of Annie will say, “I don’t want to do that.” And then another character will say, “I have a joke here.” You can have them do whatever you want, but you just have to get through the scene and have all of what needs to happen in that scene baldly stated.
If you can’t get through a script that way, then chances are your story doesn’t work. If you’re stuck and you feel like you have writer’s block, this is a really helpful method because it distinguishes between, “Okay, do you have story problems or are you having a hard time writing the dialogue?” Also, when you write really quickly, you end up writing really good jokes anyway; it’s almost as if you trick your brain into thinking that it doesn’t matter.
Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season. For shows that are perpetually on the bubble, renewal and cancellation decisions can seem arbitrary or worse, but this one was especially inexplicable: Community has never been a highly rated show, but it’s still been consistent enough to think that NBC would want to keep it in reserve, along with Parks and Recreation, to fill a few slots in the spring after other shows have failed and the entire lineup is competing against football on Thursday. (Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club laid out that scenario here.) Instead, at a moment when the series seemed so confident in renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone. Later today, the network’s Bob Greenblatt is scheduled to go into more detail about the thought process behind this decision, and I’m curious about what he’ll say, even if the explanation turns out to be as boring as I expect: sitcoms still cost more to produce than reality shows, so if you’re going to hold onto a mediocre performer, better it be something like The Biggest Loser.
Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen. Shows with poor ratings but a vehement fanbase have been resurrected in surprising ways, whether via another network (Cougar Town), a streaming service (Arrested Development), or a Kickstarter campaign (Veronica Mars), and it’s easy to imagine Community taking any one of these routes. (If Dan Harmon wants my money, I’m pretty much willing to give it to him with no questions asked.) The possibility of a show returning in some other form isn’t a new phenomenon: Police Squad did just fine for itself on the big screen, while movies as different as Serenity and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me indicate that executives are willing to take a flier on a niche property for the sake of tapping into an existing audience, even if the results are never quite as successful as anyone hopes. And if we’ve learned one thing from the curious ups and downs of Arrested Development, it’s that even after years of speculation, rumor, and teasing possibilities, you sometimes do get what you want—although the form it takes may not be what you expected.
As a result, when a show like Community ends, it’s less of a full stop than an ellipsis, possibly with a question mark attached. And for a series that always had its eye so clearly on the long game, it represents a real loss, at least for now. Sitcoms have traditionally had an uneasy relationship to the very idea of a finale: since every episode was meant to stand on its own, even the penultimate installment of a show usually felt like business as usual, saving all the thankless work of setting up the ending for the following week. (“The Puerto Rican Day” episode of Seinfeld, for instance, which was the last regular episode before its finale, really could have aired at any point in the show’s run.) Aside from the practicalities of syndication, in which episodes can aired in any order, there’s a good reason why sitcoms often prefer to confine all this material to the finale: it generally isn’t a lot of fun. Community was always a little different; each season had a clear arc, albeit with room for many bizarre digressions, and even if this was designed in part to gently mock the whole idea of overarching storylines, if the show knew that it was ending for real, the tone of the entire season would have been very different.
As stands, we’re not going to get that season, and even if it materializes in some other form, it’s inevitably going to be altered by outside circumstances. (Obviously, this is nothing new to Community, which has never been as free as it would have liked to shape its stories according to their internal needs: over the past two seasons alone, it weathered the firing and return of its creator and the departure of a pair of crucial cast members, and the strain on the storytelling often showed.) It’s instructive to compare this to Parks and Recreation, which just ended its own season with an episode that felt empathically like a series finale: it found room for all of its lead and supporting characters, included callbacks to six years of history, tied emotional bows on every major storyline, and concluded with a flashforward that worked beautifully as a closing gag. Watching it, I assumed that Michael Shur and his collaborators had approached it as a potential ending while waiting on the resolution of the show’s fate, but in fact, it seems that they’d already been guaranteed a renewal. In other words, their approach was the exact opposite of Community, which structured its finale with another season in mind even as its future hung by a thread. I shouldn’t be surprised: no other sitcom on television has consistently taken such big risks. And if it had played it safe at this last, critical moment, it wouldn’t be the show I’ve grown to love.
As I’ve said here perhaps more often than necessary, television is a very strange medium, and the fact that it occupies such a familiar place in our lives can blind us to how weird it really is. It creates characters and stories that can feel as vivid as our own friends or memories, and it’s like real life in another way: sooner or later, it ends, and nobody—including the creators—ever really knows how. Even the best narrative plans have a way of going sideways, and much of the fascination of a great television show comes from how it deals with the unexpected, whether in the form of a cast change, a creative departure, or an unexpected extension or cancellation. Television can be as unpredictable and uncontrollable as life itself, except that we know, or think we know, who really pulls the strings. While it’s true that many viewers probably don’t care much about where television comes from, in recent years, there’s been a greater degree of engagement than ever before between the audience and the men and women behind the curtain. And it inevitably changes the way we experience it.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since watching “The Crash,” the latest episode of Mad Men, and reading Todd VanDerWerff’s thoughtful—if somewhat bewildered—review on The A.V. Club. (Its opening sentence: “What the ever-loving merciful fuck?”) VanDerWerff is one of my favorite writers, and I’ve been reading his articles and criticism with pleasure for years, but I was particularly struck by one observation:
A lot of the core conflicts on this show are the sorts of core conflicts one might find in a TV writers’ room, and to a degree, for the people who follow this show obsessively, its true protagonist is Matt Weiner. The question for many of us obsessive fans isn’t what Don Draper will get up to next but what Matt Weiner will get up to next.
I think VanDerWerff goes a little too far when he says that the episode seems like Weiner’s “dare to the weekly review culture,” but otherwise, his analysis is right on the mark. Weiner is the secret hero of his own show, which more than any other series in history is about the process of writing itself: Don Draper writes ads, but he’s also the author of his own life, and it’s fascinating to see how the show continues to exercise the same chilly emotional control even as Don’s story spins apart.
Every week, after watching the latest episode of Mad Men, my wife and I will play the short featurette that accompanies it on iTunes, in which Weiner and members of the cast share their thoughts on the latest installment. These videos presumably began as an easy promotional extra, but they’ve evolved, at least to me, into a weirdly exegetical part of the show itself: as soon as the closing credits roll, I just want to know what the hell Weiner was thinking. Weiner seems aware of this, too, and there’s a teasing quality to many of his comments, which are lucid and reasonable, but which also seem to explain a lot more than they actually do. They’re a little like T.S. Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land, which are less a way of clarifying the poem than an integral part of the text. Sophisticated readers and viewers know that you should never take a writer’s statements about his own work at face value, and although Weiner comes across as a smart, ordinary, entirely earnest guy when he explains himself to the camera, there’s something Nabokovian in the way he elucidates a few select points while leaving the rest of it shrouded in mystery.
And it’s made me reflect about the ways in which television is an ongoing dialogue, imaginary or not, between a creator and his audience. This isn’t true of every show, of course, and it’s never more clear than when it’s no longer there. It’s fair to say that Community‘s new showrunners are highly conscious about how the series is perceived, and they’ve been good—almost to fault—about honoring the show’s history and giving fans what they think they want. Yet that old sense of interchange or possibility is missing: you never catch the show in a moment, as you often did in the old days, in which you could almost hear Dan Harmon thinking out his next move. The result feels a lot like the second season of Twin Peaks, after the departure of David Lynch and Mark Frost: it was still weird, but in a calculated way, as if strangeness were simply a part of the premise, rather than something that the show’s creators found themselves doing while trying to tell a story in the only way they could. Mad Men is both the best and the strangest show on television, and it’s dazzling in the way Weiner lays out the pieces and dares us to put them together. He even gives us a few helpful hints. But I’m not sure if I entirely trust him.
Television is such a pervasive medium that it’s easy to forget how deeply strange it is. Most works of art are designed to be consumed all at once, or at least in a fixed period of time—it’s physically possible, if not entirely advisable, to read War and Peace in one sitting. Television, by contrast, is defined by the fact of its indefinite duration. House of Cards aside, it seems likely that most of us will continue to watch shows week by week, year after year, until they become a part of our lives. This kind of extended narrative can be delightful, but it’s also subject to risk. A beloved show can change for reasons beyond anyone’s control. Sooner or later, we find out who killed Laura Palmer. An actor’s contract expires, so Mulder is abducted by aliens, and even if he comes back, by that point, we’ve lost interest. For every show like Breaking Bad that has its dark evolution mapped out for seasons to come, there’s a series like Glee, which disappoints, or Parks and Recreation, which gradually reveals a richness and warmth that you’d never guess from the first season alone. And sometimes a show breaks your heart.
It’s clear at this point that the firing of Dan Harmon from Community was the most dramatic creative upheaval for any show in recent memory. This isn’t the first time that a show’s guiding force has departed under less than amicable terms—just ask Frank Darabont—but it’s unusual in a series so intimately linked to one man’s particular vision. Before I discovered Community, I’d never heard of Dan Harmon, but now I care deeply about what this guy feels and thinks. (Luckily, he’s never been shy about sharing this with the rest of us.) And although it’s obvious from the opening minutes of last night’s season premiere that the show’s new creative team takes its legacy seriously, there’s no escaping the sense that they’re a cover band doing a great job with somebody else’s music. Showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port do their best to convince us out of the gate that they know how much this show means to us, and that’s part of the problem. Community was never a show about reassuring us that things won’t change, but about unsettling us with its endless transformations, even as it delighted us with its new tricks.
Don’t get me wrong: I laughed a lot at last night’s episode, and I was overjoyed to see these characters again. By faulting the new staff for repeating the same beats I loved before, when I might have been outraged by any major alterations, I’m setting it up so they just can’t win. But the show seems familiar now in a way that would have seemed unthinkable for most of its first three seasons. Part of the pleasure of watching the series came from the fact that you never knew what the hell might happen next, and it wasn’t clear if Harmon knew either. Not all of his experiments worked: there even some clunkers, like “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” in the glorious second season, which is one of my favorite runs of any modern sitcom. But as strange as this might have once seemed, it feels like we finally know what Community is about. It’s a show that takes big formal risks, finds the emotional core in a flurry of pop culture references, and has no idea how to use Chevy Chase. And although I’m grateful that this version of the show has survived, I don’t think I’m going to tune in every week wondering where in the world it will take me.
And the strange thing is that Community might have gone down this path with or without Harmon. When a show needs only two seasons to establish that anything is possible, even the most outlandish developments can seem like variations on a theme. Even at the end of the third season, there was the sense that the series was repeating itself. I loved “Digital Estate Planning,” for instance, but it felt like the latest attempt to do one of the formally ambitious episodes that crop up at regular intervals each season, rather than an idea that forced itself onto television because the writers couldn’t help themselves. In my review of The Master, I noted that Paul Thomas Anderson has perfected his brand of hermetic filmmaking to the point where it would be more surprising if he made a movie that wasn’t ambiguous, frustrating, and deeply weird. Community has ended up in much the same place, so maybe it’s best that Harmon got out when he did. It’s doubtful that the series will ever be able to fake us out with a “Critical Film Studies” again, because it’s already schooled us, like all great shows, in how it needs to be watched. And although its characters haven’t graduated from Greendale yet, its viewers, to their everlasting benefit, already have.
My suggestion for young writers: find your voice and shout it. Know who you are, know what you love, know what you hate and why. Take a piece of paper and press it to the top of your brain and share that map of your universe with anyone who will bother to look at it. If that doesn’t appeal to you, the problem solves itself, because there are those among us who are compelled to do it, and they are the ones that should be doing it…
Yes, I believe in my heart of hearts that, to quote Stuart Cornfeld, a producer working for Ben Stiller’s Red Hour, “talent will out.” Talent will out. If you should be doing what you are doing, either by grace of God or the industry’s greed, you are going to be discovered. The difficulty is that you can’t control when.
Does television have a future? Fifteen years ago, it often felt as if we were all watching the same shows, or at least all talking about them: Seinfeld and The Simpsons provide a shared vocabulary of references that serve as an instant cultural shorthand for viewers of the right age, to the point where if I say “Will you please stop saying ‘gummi’ so much?” and someone doesn’t get the reference, I feel an immediate disconnect. And it’s unclear if we’ll ever see that kind of cultural landscape again. Sitcoms like Community or Parks and Recreation have their own devoted followings, and the return of Mad Men or Breaking Bad may feel like a big deal to the media elite, but as far as ratings are concerned, we’re talking about an infinitesimal slice of the viewing public. As David Foster Wallace pointed out, we tend to be more alike in our stupid, vulgar interests than in the ways we’re refined and tasteful, which means that television will probably always remain a place where a handful of good shows struggle to stay afloat in an ocean of dreck. Yet with the decline of the major networks and the balkanization of fandoms online, television’s fragmentation has only increased in recent years, to the point where the audience for good shows will only grow smaller, or at least more specialized. And the firing of Dan Harmon from Community makes it easy to wonder if there will still be a place for the kinds of idiosyncratic creative voices that have always pushed the boundaries of the medium.
Yet when I look at a Community episode like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” I can’t help but feel that television’s future is bright, at least for those willing to seek out exceptional storytelling wherever it might be found. The great strength of Community in the Harmon years has always been its way of honoring its sitcom past while looking forward to the next stage, and this glorious episode, which you can watch here, embodies most of the lessons I’ve talked about so far. With its intricate structure—a series of six different timelines at the same party, created by a roll of a die—it makes writing for television look like the greatest game in the world. It does wonderful things with constraints: seven characters, a single location, and a limited number of narrative pieces. It gradually introduces a complicated premise so that the audience is never lost, even as we jump from one timeline to another, and it does a wonderful job of using self-contained gags to convey information that will pay off in surprising ways. Many of the jokes arise from unexpected combinations of characters, and the episode both deconstructs the show and honors the conventions that it has established so far. It beautifully accelerates and decelerates the narrative, with quiet character moments standing in contrast to a shooting, a fire, and an evil Norwegian Troll. And the post-credit sequence plays both as a twisted series finale and a love letter to evil doppelgängers, complete with sinister goatees. When I watch Community, which I only discovered this year, I’m reminded that there doesn’t need to be a lot of great television: there just needs to be enough. And I expect that there always will be.