Review: ‘Harmontown’

Written and Directed by Neil Berkeley

Director Neil Berkley’s frothy, endearing new documentary ‘Harmontown offers a nearly unfiltered glimpse into a creative mind, while exploring a unique, unapologetically geektastic subculture. The film explores the inner workings of volatile TV showrunner, man-child, and creative genius (just ask him!) Dan Harmon, while following the live national comedy tour of “Harmontown,” Harmon’s unscripted freestyle comedy stage show and podcast, which started in June, 2012, and is still going on today. Berkley deftly layers moments of vulnerability and poignancy amidst the film’s consistently comic tone. The doc’s sharp humor makes it accessible to the Harmon-newcomer, while remaining catnip for the feral fan base of the famous writer and his TV cult hit Community. Harmon opens up about his creative process, insecurities, professional setbacks and personal failings.

It’s on this last point that Berkley pulls his punches a bit. The director touches on Harmon’s character flaws, but doesn’t explore them deeply, unwilling to risk turning viewers against his subject. The result is a documentary that is sweet, funny, and illuminating up to a point. If the film or the podcast itself come off as self-indulgent or egocentric on Harmon’s part, those perceptions are overshadowed by Harmon’s palpable spirit of inclusivity and never-ending quest to give outsiders and fellow nerds a place to belong.

On May 18, 2012, the dingo stole Dan Harmon’s baby, Community. Harmon’s ignominious firing from the show he created was widely publicized, extremely embarrassing, and above all painful for the arrogant yet sensitive artist. Licking his wounds, the showrunner found solace and catharsis in ‘Harmontown,’ his live comedy show and podcast (an edited version of the live show), launching a national tour in early 2013. At times shot like a concert film, Berkley’s documentary follows Dan Harmon’s cross-country tour – 20 cities in 30 days – featuring highlights from Harmon’s shows and behind-the-scenes insights.

Berkley depicts Harmon’s tour through well-chosen excerpts that are funny and capture the essence of the ‘Harmontown’ podcast. Each episode is performed before a live audience of up to 100 people and features an hour of entirely unscripted comedy from Harmon, including self-deprecating, endearingly honest personal anecdotes, ad-libbing with co-star Jeff Davis, guest stars like Patton Oswalt, and especially the audience. Harmon is so inclusive and eager to interact with his fan base that super-fan Spencer Crittenden was pulled from the crowd and turned into a main cast member, now acting as the show’s dungeon master (think D&D, not S&M). Each episode concludes with Spencer hosting a live game of Dungeons & Dragons between the various co-stars and guest stars. Spencer is one of the film’s highlights, his palpable shyness the perfect antidote to Harmon’s super-sized personality and ego.

But Berkley’s documentary digs deeper than a concert film, exploring Harmon’s psychology, insecurities, foibles, and feelings about being fired as Community’s showrunner, a post to which he’s since been restored. Berkley fleshes out Harmon’s complex personality and baggage through a host of interviews with Harmon’s friends, colleagues, fiancée Erin McGathy, and of course Harmon himself. The sweet yet complex dynamic between Harmon and Erin is well-rendered onscreen and one of the film’s highlights, along with dungeon-master Spencer’s surprising and inspiring rise from obscurity. But ‘Harmontown’ is aptly named, as Mr. Harmon’s magnetic vortex of personality, humor, self-obsession, and yes, genius, is ultimately what holds the film, podcast, and millions of fans together.10665769_711688488880217_8832084905783198860_n

Harmon remains sympathetic and easy to connect with, despite his towering ego and admitted smorgasbord of flaws, because he’s a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. As Spencer puts it, Harmon is “stupid honest.” Harmon proves this sentiment correct in one terrific scene, where he confesses—brags, really—to his Harmontown audience that he’s been brazenly ignoring his deadlines for FOX and CBS. Harmon acknowledges he’ll likely get in trouble with those networks, who undoubtedly have someone listening to the podcast. But Harmon is willing to get in trouble for the sake of his audience. Harmon’s devotion to his fans–over his bosses, his career, and even himself–is what makes him an underdog worth rooting for.

Also, did you know Dan Harmon is funny? “Stupid funny,” a certain great American might say. Everything Harmon says is funny, both on-stage and off. In one scene, as Harmon opens Final Draft and prepares to write, he announces, with irony and, one suspects, a touch of sincerity, “It takes a lot out of a guy… being a vessel for God,” before concluding, “My job isn’t to write right now… my job is to take a bubble bath.” Unsurprisingly, Harmon is hilarious in his bubble bath, balancing suds on his head like a child and cracking wise about the dual functionality of his bathtub’s air jets, just something he read on a forum of course. Harmon’s ability to provoke consistent laughs is what makes this doc a treat, and what allows the film’s unexpected moments of poignancy to land.

A lot of that poignancy comes from Harmon’s loving but complex relationship with Erin McGathy. Berkley wisely opens the film by showing us the intimacy between Harmon and McGathy, as they wake tangled in each other’s limbs. It’s easy to root for these two as a couple. McGathy is a sweetheart, supporting Harmon on his month-long tour by selling merchandise and acting as a frequent podcast guest star, while Harmon palpably adores her in return.

But Berkley isn’t shy about showing us negative aspects of their relationship. For instance, when Harmon gets angry and/or drunk, he can be verbally and emotionally abusive. In the film’s least flattering revelation, Harmon and McGathy discuss, in front of a live ‘Harmontown’ crowd, a recent fight they had, in which Harmon fired off the C-word at her. Viewers will connect with McGathy, as she admits to feeling hurt by Harmon’s abusive behavior and, at times, neglected while Harmon revels in the adulation of total strangers.

Despite Berkley’s willingness to acknowledge Harmon’s flaws—in one epically unprofessional scene, Harmon performing an entire podcast drunk—this is also the area where the film falls a bit short, occasionally holding back information for fear of depicting Harmon too negatively. For instance, Sarah Silverman discusses her well-known firing of Harmon as showrunner of Comedy Central’s ‘The Sarah Silverman Program.’ Silverman acknowledges that it was hard to work for Harmon and that he said some things that made her feel bad, but that’s pretty much it. Viewers will be left wondering what Harmon could have said to offend a comedienne so well known for her own brand of in-your-face shock comedy.

Similarly, Berkley acknowledges but doesn’t explore Harmon’s well-publicized conflict with Chevy Chase, in which Harmon used the ‘Harmontown’ podcast to humiliate Chase, leading to embarrassment for Chase, Harmon, and NBC, and possibly contributing to Harmon’s firing. Even McGathy’s revelation that Harmon called her the C-word isn’t the full truth of that fight. McGathy later acknowledges that Harmon “did,” rather than “said,” certain things during the fight, which she refrains from mentioning. I don’t want to speculate about what McGathy is referring to, but viewers will be curious. Berkley gives us enough details about Harmon’s shortcomings to make us view him as a flawed, complicated man, but is careful not to make him unlikeable. This doesn’t diminish the documentary’s entertainment value, but does belie its effectiveness as a fully open and in-depth character study.

Surprisingly, the true hero of “Harmontown”– as Harmon notes towards the end of the film–may not be its titular character, but Spencer Crittenden. Spencer, more than Harmon himself, is the embodiment of what makes Harmon’s work so easy to connect with: namely, Harmon’s universal themes of underdogs and outcasts coming together to form a family and discover their self-worth. In many ways, Spencer’s saga – a rise from obscurity and insecurity to celebrity and self-confidence – is more relatable than Harmon’s angst as a genius millionaire Hollywood writer. Plus, like Harmon, Spencer is good at his job and fun to watch work. In one uproarious scene, Harmon asks random audience members to toss made-up monster names at Spencer. “The Tooth Beast,” says one fan. Without hesitation, Spencer launches into his D&D translation, “You hear the gnashing and grinding of ivory against ivory…” Neil Berkley’s ‘Harmontown’ may fall a bit short of laying its subject’s flaws and psychology completely bare. But the film is accessible and enjoyable for Harmon-newbies and the already-indoctrinated alike due to its consistent humor, heart, and pathos.

Jason Teich

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