In consuming any piece of media, the recurring question in my mind is always: “who is this for?” Who’s the audience? What type of person is going to appreciate this or, for that matter, even understand it?
This question takes on a specific significance with Harmontown, because it’s ultimately an observational, character-driven documentary with a protagonist that a good number of people have probably never heard of. Like, I know that Salinger documentary was apparently terrible, but, still, most Americans have heard of the guy. Probably they even had to read his book in school.
Dan Harmon, on the other hand, is primarily known for creating two TV shows and a podcast. Yes, his fans tend to be fervent in their adoration of the man and his work, but his following is still typically labeled a cult one. Furthermore, though there certainly is a lot of crossover between the fan bases of all the stuff Harmon makes, it’s not guaranteed. I, for example, am crazy about the things he writes—and not just Community and Rick and Morty, but also his lesser-known and quickly-canceled sketch comedy show, Acceptable.TV, not to mention a lot of his of his Internet output—but his drunken, off-the-cuff stage show/podcast that he does with his friends? Eh, I can take it or leave it.
The movie takes its title from said podcast, specifically the national tour of it that took place in January 2013, during the period in which Harmon was temporarily fired from one of the shows he’d created (Community). This ostensibly makes Harmontown a tour documentary. We watch Harmon; his girlfriend and other-podcast-runner, Erin McGathy; his longtime friend, actor Jeff Davis; and a 23-year old dungeon master extraordinaire named Spencer Crittenden ride a tour bus from city to city. In each location, Harmon meets and hugs many an awed nerd; crowd surfs; dances around like a toddler; makes up raps about poop, pee, and fucking your momma; drinks; and plays a continuing game of Dungeons & Dragons.
All that said, however, there isn’t truly a ton of footage of the Harmontown stage shows. This makes some sense; audio versions of all the performances are available for free on the Harmontown website. There’d be little point in simply offering the same content, but with visuals. So footage of the shows is limited to key moments on the tour like Dan and Erin hashing out onstage what sounds like a pretty severe fight they had. Or the night in Nashville where a fan brings moonshine to the show and Harmon gets so drunk that he edits out a significant chunk of the audio out of shame. There are also a lot of shots of smiling fans and the aforementioned hugging. Lots and lots of hugging.
Still, the film is clearly overall less concerned with the content of the tour as it is with getting to know the man at the center of it. This means we see a lot of Harmon on the tour bus, talking to the camera. We watch him pour himself many, many drinks. And we witness him and his gang hanging out backstage, chatting.
Director Neil Berkeley takes a largely hands-off approach to the proceedings, rarely asking questions. He also chooses not to force extra story where it doesn’t actually exist. Considering the relatively low stakes of this little adventure, this is probably wise, as it would conflict with the film’s generally casual tone. However, it also means there isn’t a lot in the way of narrative drive.
Most of the conflict seems to be inside Harmon’s head. Used to doing the show at the same venue in LA, he worries he won’t be able to provide the rest of the country with the level of entertainment they deserve for the ticket prices they’ve paid; he frets that continuing to do a completely improvised show isn’t going to work. But these worries prove unfounded. The people at his shows are already converts to The Church of Harmon. Even his Nashville night of drunken shame doesn’t seem to bug anyone besides Harmon himself.
There is the fight between Dan and his girlfriend (which is as dark and nasty as the film ever gets), as well as a running issue that Dan is extremely behind on delivering pilot scripts to CBS and FOX (both of which he had deals with at the time). But it’s not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff.
Harmontown occasionally dips into Dan’s past with some brief interviews from colleagues and friends coupled with archival footage, detailing such milestones as his pilot with Ben Stiller and Jack Black, his rather public controversy with Chevy Chase, or how he got fired from The Sarah Silverman Program (another show he co-created). I actually wish these historical sojourns were a bit longer since they help flesh out who Harmon is better than watching him drink and worry about things on a tour bus.
The film’s semi-formless approach is a bit surprising because Harmon himself is positively obsessed with ascribing a narrative to all facets of life—one narrative in particular, in fact: Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Harmon believes there’s a repeating cycle to all fiction and non-fiction. He even tries to recognize when he’s reaching the stages of this cycle throughout the tour, eventually coming to the conclusion that he’s the villain and the actual hero is Spencer, a young guy who once volunteered his services as dungeon master for the podcast and became a staple from that point forward.
Harmon’s reading of his own story makes some sense. While he can be a total bastard at times, Spencer is shown to be witty, but never cruel. Harmon’s also lived out his dreams already—he’s rich and got to make a sitcom on network television. Spencer, however, is still grappling with being comfortable with himself and other people.
But this reading of the film doesn’t quite hold up simply because Harmon easily gets the most screen time. The movie is called Harmontown after all and frankly there’s probably no one else on the tour willing to open up as readily and as regularly as Harmon (Spencer seems like he doesn’t talk unless the situation forces him to). So, again, your enjoyment of Harmontown mostly comes down to how you feel about Dan Harmon.
On the one hand, there really aren’t that many people in this life as bravely open and honest (stupid honest, as Spencer puts it) as Harmon is, period. I mean, the guy admits onstage (and in video and audio recordings now forever on the Internet) to once owning a Realdoll, the head of which eventually fell off from overuse. He talks about how he gets so vindictive sometimes that making his girlfriend cry feels like a victory to him. He allows the director to film him taking a bubble bath.
On the other hand, one could easily interpret these moments of honesty as incredible hubris. Who is this motherfucker who thinks he’s so goddamned great that I’d want to hear him bare his soul or watch him take a bath? And such a reading of Harmon’s character seems just as valid to me as any other. In fact, it’s one I think Harmon himself wouldn’t attempt to refute.
Dan Harmon is a decidedly interesting, eccentric guy with an extremely quick wit and a pretty damn big ego. Yes, he can be self-deprecating (looking at a marquee that reads “DAN HARMON SOLD OUT,” he comments, “That’s true in every sense of the word”). However, it’s not necessarily enough to outweigh his self-aggrandizement (he refers to the writing process as “being a vessel for God”). There’s not all that much in the way of a gripping plot here, so whether or not you’ll have a good time with this movie is based on whether or not you find Dan Harmon palatable. And, if this is your first introduction to him, you’re going to be wading through a lot of bad along with the good. Basically, if you’re not already a Harmenian, I’m doubtful Harmontown will turn you into one.