Dan Harmon Talks Anomalisa, Community Movie, Rick and Morty

Interview Joe Matar
12/7/2015 at 9:44AM

In our interview with Dan Harmon, we discuss his collaboration with Charlie Kaufman, the future of Community, and Rick and Morty.

You may know Dan Harmon as the creator of Community and co-creator of Rick and Morty, but did you also know he’s a huge Charlie Kaufman fan? Well, duh-doy. I mean have you seen how meta his stuff gets?

Now, Starburns Industries—Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos’ production company responsible for Rick and Morty, Moral Orel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, and the stop-motion Christmas episode of Community—is releasing a stop-motion film written and co-directed by Kaufman himself. December 30th is the limited release, with a wider release in January 2016.

When I previously spoke to Dan, along with Justin Roiland, about Rick and Morty, we sort of ended up talking about the topic of trigger warnings almost exclusively (something which I take full responsibility for). Happily, this time Dan was kind enough to indulge me for quite a long while indeed to discuss pretty much all of his projects ever.

Aside from discussing Anomalisa’s themes and how the film came into being, we talked about Dan’s upcoming web series HarmonQuest, which is a mixed live-action/animation show that builds upon a staple of his podcast Harmontown: a largely improvised Dungeons & Dragons role-playing campaign featuring Jeff B. Davis (Whose Line Is It Anyway?) and Spencer Crittenden as the Dungeon Master. Additionally, we touched on season three of Rick and Morty and the future possibility of a Community movie.

Hi, Dan. How’s it going?

Dan Harmon: It’s good, it’s good, thank you.

You were just in New York, right? You’re back in LA now?

Dan: Yeah, back in LA. Was I on the phone with you yesterday?

No, no.

Dan: Yeah, I was a mess yesterday while I was trying to get to the airport and my battery was dead and I was supposed to do an interview and I had to reschedule it so I was going to apologize to you if appropriate.

[laughs] Well, that’s all right, thank you. No, I talked to you and Justin [Roiland] some time back. We talked almost entirely about trigger warnings.

Dan: Yes, yes. I do remember that. [laughs]

So we’ll avoid that topic just for variety’s sake. So, about Anomalisa, the first thing I was going to ask—but then I figured it out literally five minutes ago—I was going to say how’d you hook up with Charlie Kaufman? But now I’m thinking it’s probably because he knows Dino [Stamatopoulos].

Dan: That’s exactly the case, yeah. Dino and Charlie, I believe they went to college together. They came out of Chicago and have known each other a long time. Charlie wrote on the very underrated, very historically important Dana Carvey Show with a writing staff that is basically everyone who ended up forming comedy in the 21st century.

[Ed. note: In addition to Stamatopoulos and Kaufman, other writers on the series included Louis C.K., Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Bob Odenkirk, Robert Smigel, and Jon Glaser.]

So Charlie and Dino have maintained a relationship the whole time. Charlie did us a huge favor by just donating the rights to a script we wouldn’t have been able to procure through legitimate channels on the condition that he’d be allowed to co-direct it with Duke [Johnson, director of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and the Community stop-motion Christmas episode]. And we were like, okay, fantastic, great.

So it wasn’t like—this is a funny question—but it wasn’t like Charlie Kaufman was having trouble selling this script. It was more you guys thought “this is an opportunity for us” and he agreed to it.

Dan: Well, I don’t think there was anything being done with it. It was one of his things that was laying around because it was originally just a radio play. And it also wasn’t feature length.

It was this beautiful piece that he put on with the same cast from the movie at UCLA. It was this amazing… I’ve really never seen anything as well-written, considering the full picture, because the original medium was just the actors sitting on stools and the radio play, plus a Foley artist. And, as I sat down I thought, “Well, I’ve seen this done before, you know, modern takes on the old art form, live radio with a Foley artist.” But then Charlie Kaufman proceeded to—as he always does when you look back on his career—use that medium, limitations and all, to express something about the human condition that you could only express with that medium about identity, individuality, and our fetish for difference. And it was just mind-boggling.

So I’d always mention that was, like, the best thing I’d ever seen written in any written medium, period. So I think that was part of why Dino asked Charlie, “Are you doing anything with that ever and if not can we adapt it into a stop-motion film?”

How long ago was it performed?

Dan: Gosh, when was that? I’m so bad at that. You can look it up, it was the Theater of the New Ear. [Ed. note: It was September 2005.]

When they did it in New York, it was two plays, one by the Coen brothers and one by Charlie. But when they came to LA, the Coen brothers weren’t able to do it so Charlie wrote another amazing, hilarious piece, again using the medium of the emergency of needing a play and also the actors that were up there, to do another hilarious piece that I think he probably wrote overnight or something and that was incredible. People were rolling in the aisles.

Peter Dinklage was in it, Hope Davis, Meryl Streep was up there—in addition to the cast from what ended up being Anomalisa.

Regarding themes and so forth, on the trailer I saw a YouTube comment, “It’s pretty uplifting for a Kaufman film,” which I don’t know that I actually agree with, I mean in terms of painting his films that way. Because, to me, Eternal Sunshine and Adaptation are movies that I can’t really see as negative because they’re so exciting and fun. And I’m curious, in terms of Anomalisa, or all his work if you want, what do you see in his films? I guess there are these deep, sad human truths, but what do you think it is about his work and what shows through in this movie?

Dan: Well, I think what we saw in Eternal Sunshine was it was one of the most romantic stories in cinema history. And a lot of people would say “Are you crazy? It’s so cynical and dark.” But the thing is, for me—and this is an individual thing—when you know that an artist is willing to go to these incredibly dark places, then you’re able to trust the product all the more and therefore, if they end up saying anything remotely uplifting about the human condition, it’s five-thousand times as uplifting because you feel like it’s the truth this time and not propaganda and not an attempt to just cheer people up.

It’s pretty obvious from watching his stuff that he’s pretty capable of thinking bleak things about our position in the world relative to it and each other. And so the fact that there was love in that movie, the fact that people loved each other… I walked out of Eternal Sunshine going, “That was incredible.”

We walk around in relationships going, “Well, I secretly have some pretty dark thoughts about my significant other. I’m bored to tears with her. I hate the way she slurps her cereal, etc., etc.” And we’re trained, very justifiably, to shove that stuff down because that’s our definition of romance. And you can see what a twisted, cynical, sad world we create when we do that without any relief ever.

I think that really good romantic comedies have always, in some way—even if you’re talking about When Harry Met Sally—in some way they go to the place that you were afraid to go to previously. And so there’s a romantic catharsis there, like, “I actually feel free to love again because maybe I’m not so dark and twisted. Maybe my thoughts about my significant other are just part of what makes us us.”

So that’s a terribly long wind-up to the answer to your question, which is, first of all, what you walk away from a Kaufman movie with is… it’s going to be very subjective. Have you seen Anomalisa?

I have not gotten a chance to yet, no.

Dan: In my personal opinion, there’s a lot of darkness to Anomalisa. I can understand why people that are seeing it are uplifted by it as a result. Personally, when I watch it, it’s more of a catharsis. It’s more of a tragedy than a comedy in terms of its view on how we’re all gonna end up. So, I guess that’s the best I can do to answer that question.

The trailer for Anomalisa, it doesn’t tell you a lot about it, which I admire because the standard in most trailers is to tell you the whole story. The only thing I saw about the plot—I saw it synopsized—broadly, it’s about a guy meeting a woman and reinvigorating his life, which sounds a little like the manic pixie trope, which I feel like Kaufman was kind of riffing on in Eternal Sunshine. I guess without spoiling it, do you think Anomalisa has similar themes? Or is it extremely different and how does it deviate?

Dan: I can say for certain it’s not Charlie watering down or backing off of his hatred of inauthentic characters. He’s not using the manic pixie dream girl trope after having, as you say, kind of lampooned it. It’s more an exploration of what’s going on in that guy’s life. I’m trying really hard not to… It’s incredibly, in terms of the events that occur in the film, it’s all very simple, so you could spoil the whole movie with a few poorly chosen sentences.

It’s a really ingeniously crafted portrait of what we do to ourselves and each other. And it’s definitely not a, “Hey, come watch these two adorable people make you wish that your life was more adorable.” You’re going to walk out of there thinking the people were real and having looked at yourself.

Do you think there are elements of romance in this one? Because I have questions about that but if there aren’t I don’t want to just end up talking about Eternal Sunshine and not Anomalisa.

Dan: [laughs] Yeah, I mean there’s elements of romance. By the way, you’re talking to a very recently divorced man.

Yes, yes. I’m aware.

Dan: So my take on romance itself is going to be polluted and twisted and subjective.

That’s fine. [laughs] I’m not too pro-romance as a general rule, so it’s all right.

Dan: I personally find that our treatment of romance in movies is… I’ve always hated it because I find it very, very misleading in a way that you can see playing out with our skyrocketing divorce rate and our just general sort of cynical point of view about monogamy and all these things. Because movies, in order to say, “You should go see this movie, it’ll make you feel good,” when it comes to romance, they’re telling young people things about what it is to be in love that simply will never turn out to be true. And when those people find that their own lives aren’t matching that stuff, I think that that is a huge part of our cultural divorce from marriage and romance, real romance, partnership, trust.

So I’ve only ever really trusted those few writers who do go to a pretty cynical place with topics about people being together. And certainly Charlie’s one of them.

That was almost specifically what I was going to talk about. There’s this clip from you—I think someone put it on YouTube —from Harmontown, talking about how you hate romcoms because you see the love part as just seasoning and that you should have a robot in the movie or something.

It made me think that you see romance as a plot device that should just be sort of a side thing. But, to me, Eternal Sunshine is very much just about that, about a romance. I suppose this movie is more about a personal struggle, but I’m just wondering, regarding romance as plot, are there exceptions for you?

Dan: Yeah, the exceptions are Charlie Kaufman and the Coen Brothers. Movies about two people just falling in love or falling out of love, back in again. Yeah, the Coen Brothers, Scorsese when he’s directing anything, Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman. There’s a short list of people it’s like, well, I don’t care if this person does nine-hundred things that I’m constantly preening about being pet peeves in storytelling, they’re always the exception.

One of the things that I always talk about is how much I hate voiceover and stories that open with something exciting and then say “Three weeks earlier…” in the cold open and Breaking Bad did the latter in, like, many, many, many episodes and who’s not liking Breaking Bad? So, that’s definitely the exception to my dumb, whiny opinion.

So you met Charlie through Dino as well? Was that back around Community?

Dan: Yeah. Well, I met Charlie for the first time at that UCLA thing, just backstage. I just shook his hand and ran home and wrote a blog entry about how I’d never wash it again. But the second time I talked to Charlie I was at the party we threw for the Community Christmas episode that was done in stop-motion. So that would’ve been 2010, 2011?

And really that’s about it. I’ve had one more conversation with him where he asked me a lot of questions about why it is I liked performing. When Charlie Kaufman’s asking you questions you immediately become terrified that he’s sizing you up. I felt much safer staying as far away from the process and from him as possible because what could I do but fuck it up? He needs no help. All he needs is a safe place to do his work uninterrupted. If you could provide that and then hide in a cabinet until he’s done, I think you’re doing a great thing for moviegoers.

Yeah, because I was gonna say, you’re essentially just an executive producer and you just kind of stood back on this. I guess you didn’t get to give Charlie Kaufman script notes or anything like that.

Dan: [laughs] Yeah, executive producer means far less in movies than it does in TV. Yeah, I’m very, very proud of how little I did on Anomalisa [laughs].

Duke directed the Community Christmas episode and I collaborated with him very closely on that. We were writing it as he was shooting it. And I already knew that him combined with Charlie would just be a better thing than him combined with me because it’s not like I’m bringing in a third thing in that equation—it’s just there’s an upgrade there from me to Charlie.

Because I’m such a narcissist and insert myself into everything, I really am quite proud of myself for having nothing but restraint and compassion and shyness for several years.

Do you mind if I mention HarmonQuest?

Dan: Oh, no, of course not.

Because that’s also a case where you’re stepping aside because you’ve kind of said it’s just Spencer [Crittenden]’s show, effectively, right?

Dan: Well, it is, I mean Spencer’s doing all the writing. He’s the game master so he had to create all of the situations and all of the characters so that makes him the showrunner because there are no other writers on it. There’s a bunch of what would be called, I guess, “improvisers.” But all we had to do was show up and have fun.

Spencer—imagine him going from no acting and no professional writing experience to being on five cameras in front of a 200-person audience. He’s the one whose stomach muscles had to deal with that stuff so it’s definitely his show. So he’s an executive producer on it and makes just as much as I do on it.

That’s awesome. Spencer’s kind of a great phenomenon of a person. So is that like the easiest thing you have going right now? It’s just fun for you?

Dan: Now that the animation is coming in I’m a little bit more of an active producer because I’m editing in the edit bay and helping the jokes land and things like that. But we have a brilliant team of animators working on that thing and it is worth noting how few notes I have had on the stuff that they’re doing.

I mean, I don’t really trust myself in the visual realm. I really prefer working with super-talented visual artists and just being up front about the fact that I’m a very verbal thinker. If someone really needs me to pick a color of scarf for a character and I’m being a bad boss if I don’t pick a color, I’ll do it, but I really don’t believe that I have a better chance of being right about the appropriate scarf color. I just don’t have confidence in myself in those areas. I don’t need it because I’m plenty cocky in the other areas.

So, with that being said, the remarkable thing, as HarmonQuest stuff is coming in, it’s like—we’re only in the thumbnail stage of some of these episodes, which means you’re really not even supposed to be reacting to it that much yet. It’s supposed to be the stage where you’re noticing and nipping all of the problems in the bud. So it should really just be a bouquet of mess that you trim and prune and fix. But the thumbnails for HarmonQuest are actual entertainment that I was very happy to watch several times. I was making up excuses to watch them again because the jokes were landing and the stories were being told.

And the experiment of can you do live, multi-camera roleplaying that’s unscripted and combine that with meticulous, animated depictions of the action… The experiment’s just a success and I’m very, very proud of how it all turned out because it’s just something I’ve wanted to do for years. So I just wanted to doff my cap to the people who are responsible for it being a complete success because there’s probably a thousand ways to do that show and, in my mind, there’s only one way to nail it and they’re nailing it.


I know there’s not gonna be much to say on this at all but as this Den of Geek it’s all the sci-fi nerds, it’s all the Rick and Morty fans... I know you’re crazy early into the season and, I guess, how’s it going? Did you fix all the problems at the end of season two?

Dan: You mean in terms of the story?

Yeah, with what happened with Rick. It’s all good now? It’s all worked out, I assume.

Dan: [laughs] Well, we’ll keep you posted on that in the form of our cartoon.

[laughs]

Dan: I don’t think anybody wants to do a third season that simply spends a whole bunch of episodes dealing with a situation that we created at the end of the second season. So, I think that’s a non-spoiler way of saying things should be okay pretty quickly. [laughs]

Okay. But I guess it’s going well. I’ve seen [Rick and Morty writer and producer] Dan Guterman tweeting that there’s been good days at the Rick and Morty factory already.

Dan: Well, that’s high praise coming from the Caesar of bad days. Guterman knows a bad day. He’s the Anthony Bourdain of day qualities.

No, it’s been great. We hired a bunch of new writers. There was a craving for a gender balance in the writers’ room that we had never had, but I’m also very proud of the fact that we didn’t compromise ourselves following that craving. We just looked harder and I don’t know if it was coincidence or because the show was popping up on the radar of a lot of great female writers who were noticing, “Well, they don’t have any women writers in there. I’m gonna submit something.” It was probably a combination of all those factors.

But we’ve gone from a bunch of dudes shooting Nerf guns at each other and asking each other questions about women that we don’t know the answers to to… I think it’s like a 50/50 balance now, like in the early days of Community, which is really great. Because I think the important thing about gender in the writers’ room is not representation, it’s balance. Because if somebody is in the unfortunate situation of being a so-called representative of any kind of human that person is always going to be outnumbered and filtered through this weird experience.

Real people don’t run around representing the things that they are, they represent themselves. And so if you have half women and half men, then instead of one woman who has to constantly be thinking about, “Am I representing women when I say this?” you just have a bunch of people who can do what they always do best, which is be themselves, say what they think is funny, and make suggestions for stories. And you know that, automatically, you’ve solved a problem if there was one.

That’s really interesting because, yeah, if you had one person of a gender or a race, I feel like there would also be a desire to—every time you’re writing something about a woman or a black person—to turn to them and [laughs] ask them, “Is this going well?”

Dan: Yeah, and writers are strong people and they’ve come up through the world and they’re smart so it’s not like they’re shattered by that experience, but I do think they’re probably compromised by it. I think they’re probably not going to be able to be the best writer they can be and give everything they’re capable of giving if they’re also, to any degree, an ambassador.

Right. Sort of like the Keith David situation in season six of Community.

Dan: Yeah, don’t everybody look at me because someone said the word “black,” please. I’m not taking that responsibility of, like, my humanity for an hour.

I’ll ask one more thing about Anomalisa. It was Kickstarted and I assume you didn’t have a ton to do with the actual Kickstarter, did you? I assume you just, like, endorsed it.

Dan: Yeah, I’ve never understood the range of Kickstarter. I offered some reward tiers that I’m woefully derelict in. There’s a couple of rewards I still gotta see to. But yeah, I certainly didn’t do the nuts and bolts. And the nice thing about Paramount coming into our little family is they’re a big enough and modern enough studio that they actually have people for that.

I don’t know how great a job we were doing for the Kickstarter donors. I heard some third-party, backchannel, grapevine stuff that we weren’t the greatest Kickstarter attendees in terms of letting people know what was going on. And the difficulty there was what was going on was secret. Charlie doesn’t like the open source, let-me-know-how-I’m-driving process. That’s not how you get the best Charlie, so we couldn’t just pop on there every week and say, “Here’s the deal: the budget has gone up enormously, this is a full feature film now, not a short. You did help us Kickstart this thing, but it’s now becoming a very real thing that we think could end up at the Oscars and we really want to tell you this, but we can’t.”

I won’t use that as an excuse, but the happy ending to that story is Paramount coming in and going, “We can treat this right. Let’s make sure this thing gets the reception it deserves. And also can we take over your Kickstarter and make sure that everybody is happy and informed and gets to come to screenings and gets their DVDs and stuff.” So that was awesome.

If Paramount comes in I guess it’s a very different situation. Because Kickstarter is quite a daunting notion because you’re beholden to the fans in such a different way. So I guess you haven’t had much direct experience with it, but I was going to ask… I’m assuming eventually we’re getting the Kickstarter for the Community movie?

Dan: [laughs]

I don’t know, what do you think? I’m sure there’s nothing yet. [laughs]

Dan: Yeah, I’m still reeling from the guilt of Yahoo reporting a loss on their TV venture and our biggest benefactor at the place leaving.

Well, maybe it was more Paul Feig’s fault. [Ed. note: Paul Feig also had a Yahoo original series called Other Space.]

Dan: Yeah, let’s just blame Paul Feig for things. [laughs] He’s doing well enough that he’ll take it with his usual smile in his sharp suit.

But, no, it’s been a relief to not think about Community. I don’t want to make anybody upset saying that because it’s not the same as saying I don’t like Community. It’s just it’s exactly what it is: it’s been a relief for that very reason that I really lived by the sword of the fan approval on that project. I made no bones about ringing that dinner bell and going “Guys, this is your show. This is a show for you. I am one of you. Let’s do it. Sony hates nerds, let’s get ‘em. On my mark.” So, those people not getting everything that they want is a terrible thing. Because they did so much more than people who just watch a TV show, which is really their only job. They don’t even have to do that, but they did so much more.

You get into a relationship where you feel responsible for people’s feelings. It can be a messed-up thing when you’re not the most attentive, intimate guy. I don’t have instincts for base-level friendliness and stuff. I just know how much I owe that legion. So, anyway, for that reason, what’ll feel really good is coming back at some point, going, “Okay, yeah, let’s do this.” And it’ll be when it feels right because obviously everybody on that cast needs some time to reap the rewards of their full-time service to that army.

It wasn’t like the days of Seinfeld or Friends where, because that show was beloved, they all kept getting to renegotiate their contracts or walk out into the parking lot to find a fleet of Porches one day because God forbid they got sad. These were the new days of the golden age of television, which really means, for actors, a lot of hard work for not the payment that you’d think in your fantasies. So those guys, in a lot of ways, have earned the right to just go out there and sow oats and see what they can reap.

Once they have done that and feel nostalgic enough to do something that we can all do from the bottom of the hearts and we can get them to commit to something, then I can write a movie around people that are committed. Because the last thing you want to do is write the script based on an assumption of participation and that doesn’t happen. I’d rather work with what we’ve got.

Well, I did just want to say the Community finale was fantastic. It was awesome.

Dan: Well, thank you very much. Thank you.

And thanks a lot! We’ve talked a long time.

Dan: Well, thank you. Yeah, sorry we only talked about trigger warnings last time. I hope you were able to put a trigger warning warning on that article.

We did not do that. [laughs] We should’ve, in retrospect.

Dan: All right, thanks, my friend. I’ll talk to you another time. Thanks so much for your attention and break a typewriter.

[laughs] Absolutely. Thank you very much, Dan.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.