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Dan Harmon and the Rise of the Woe-Is-Me Comedy Tour

John Shearer/Getty Images Entertainment

When Dan Harmon took the stage at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles on June 16, several weeks after he’d been fired as showrunner of NBC’s “Community,” the mood in the room was tense. Harmon had been performing his live show, “Harmontown”—part stand-up, part confessional, part drunken pop-cultural exegesis—for about a year. But that night in June was his first performance post-“Community,” and from the moment he began talking, it was clear that the purpose of “Harmontown” was new. “Tonight is about weightlessness,” he said to the quiet crowd. “I woke up this morning and I realized I have nothing to do.” The laughs came gradually as the audience relaxed. “There is nothing left for me to say,” he said. “I am third-act—what’s his name? What’s the guy who died of heroin? I am third-act Lenny Bruce.”

With Harmon at the helm, “Community” was one of the best comedies on network television: a relentlessly strange and touching riff on the joys of communal loserdom that could not have emerged from any other brain. And in the wake of Harmon’s tenure, there is no better portal into his loopy, hyperactive, razor-sharp mind than “Harmontown.” It is a catalog of his obsessions, a safari through the innermost channels of his noisy head. He sits onstage and chats up audience members, impersonates celebrities, and occasionally spars with his girlfriend, Erin McGathy. He professes his love for video games (“where my efforts are rewarded in a linear fashion”) and his disgust with the blandness of the network TV landscape. “Harmontown” was initially framed as a town hall meeting in which Harmon and the audience jointly planned a new, utopian society, and in the beginning it was intended as a kind of private experiment: Harmon asked his fans not to publish clips of his shows on YouTube. But shortly after he was dismissed from NBC, he announced that he would take “Harmtontown” on the road for a 20-city tour and began posting podcasts of his performances online.1

Harmon is not the first figure in exile from a TV network to nurse his wounded ego by setting out on a national comedy tour. In 2010, Conan O’Brien responded to losing “The Tonight Show” by embarking on what he dubbed the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour,” which hit 30 cities and sold out repeatedly. In Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, a documentary made about the tour, O’Brien—despite his $30 million-plus payout from NBC—appeared sullen and unshaven. “Sometimes I’m so mad I can’t even breathe,” he said. His act outlined the “seven stages of grief” for deposed late-night hosts. The tour was clearly an attempt to burrow among his supporters, to seal himself off from the noise of unsympathetic voices. “The last year has taught me that at this point in my career it’s not about trying to get more people into the tent,” he told The New York Times in 2011. “It’s about trying to deepen the connection I have with my fans.”

A year later, Charlie Sheen went on his own post-professional-implosion tour after being forced off “Two and a Half Men.” Of course, Sheen is not a comedian, and his tour was a different animal: crassly and stupidly commercial, more about milking his brief notoriety for money than communing with fans. His mental instability was on pyrotechnic display. He rambled and ranted, inviting the crowd to witness “a night of absolute redemption.” “I want my job back,” he said at one performance. But even here there was an underlying anxiety to have his worldview validated. He wanted to be appreciated; he fancied himself a folk hero for the misunderstood.

“Harmontown” is not nearly as unpleasant as either of those shows. But at times it feels similarly like a campaign for ratification of his own resentments. Alex Pappedemas’s recent profile of Harmon for Grantland—for which Pappedemas spent 36 hours on the road with the former showrunner—described the tour as an extension of Harmon’s deep-seated desire to “be out there in direct communication with the small but passionate group of people who liked his TV show because he wanted to connect.” And to listen to podcasts of “Harmontown” from the weeks after Harmon’s firing is to hear a man emphatically in his element, fueled by reflected indignation, cordoned off inside a critical world of his own creation. “I probably did some stuff to get fired,” he says in one performance. “I’m sure I did. Like, I never ever did anything they wanted me to do.” The audience, of course, ate it up.

The woe-is-me comedy act has been around for a long time—it’s no accident that Harmon name-dropped Lenny Bruce, whose shtick became increasingly self-referential over the course of his career, down to an ill-fated Australia tour in 1962 that ended with his arrest. But there seems to be something particular to our cultural age about this phenomenon: the idea that a showrunner or a late night host or a TV star, banished from his network, would descend from the screen to seek refuge amid his staunchest supporters. The age of social media, of course, has changed the relationship between TV and its audience. Showrunners are encouraged to commune with their viewers, to respond to their tweets and comments and blog posts. Shonda Rhimes, creator of ABC’s “Scandal”and “Grey’s Anatomy,” retweets and replies to fans in real-time as each episode of her show is airing. “Community” viewers were small in number, but particularly active online. And Harmon has long been known for his neurotic preoccupation with keeping his finger on the pulse of his fan base. “I am a major addict of the Tumblr blog about me called ‘Having Changed,’” he declared in one "Harmontown" podcast. “You’re overly obsessive about reading the comments section in reviews of your show,” added his emcee, Jeff Davis, and Harmon laughed.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images Entertainment
Dan Harmon last November, six months after being fired from NBC

Listening to “Harmontown” is a sad reminder of the deficiencies of post-Harmon “Community.” NBC replaced Harmon with two veteran showrunners, but the show is not the same. The strokes are broader, the laughs cheaper. Its talented cast seems suddenly like kids in a school play toting too-big props, unsure of how to handle the tools and tricks they used to brandish so deftly. The season premiere featured a segment in which the show toggled between the actual characters and Abed’s imagined TV-versions of their lives: Suddenly they transformed into hammy sitcom stars mugging for a laugh track or animated babies in a “Rugrats”-esque cartoon. All the old, winking shtick—Abed’s voiceovers, Annie’s cluelessness about her sexuality, Pierce’s cheerful bigotry—is newly blatant. The best part of “Community” under Harmon was its awareness of the whole absurd project of making a TV show, its formulas and its cheesy tropes. Now “Community” feels like it is straining under the weight of its phantom auteur’s vision. Its meta-ness has gained a clunky extra layer of meta; it knows what it used to be, but it has forgotten how to be it.

We may have entered an age of TV auteurship—in which the totalizing visions of creators like Lena Dunham and Louis C.K. and Matthew Weiner are behind some of our most critically-acclaimed series—but the process of making a television show, especially a network sitcom, has always been collaborationist. There is the writers’ room, the relentless feedback from executives, the rotating cast of directors from episode to episode. And these comedy tours—live, spontaneous, unfiltered, often an unmitigated mess—are about as far from the world of network TV as possible, a clear attempt to escape the suits and the structure. They are a photographic negative of the tightly managed, processed, knee-jerk world of network sitcoms, with its corporate hierarchies and its demographic number-crunching. They feel a bit like the social-media echo chamber incarnated: the star or the showrunner immersed in self-curated reinforcement, a room full of fans sharing an intense and particular sense of aggrievement.

There is a movie coming out about “Harmontown”—not unlike Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop—which will ostensibly follow Harmon as he travels the country in the months after NBC gave him the ax. In Conan’s case, the tour ultimately bruised his image even more, making him seem peevish and sour, oblivious to his own relative privilege. Sheen’s tour played like a bad satire of himself, a desperate bid to exploit the last gasps of his fame. But listening to the odd, intense, alternately hilarious and baffling “Harmontown” podcasts is uncomfortable in a different way: It confirms both Harmon’s singular genius and NBC’s reasonable grounds for replacing him. In some ways “Harmontown” is a cautionary tale of a showrunner feeding off the hermetic flattery of a self-constructed feedback loop.

Harmon has deals with both Fox and CBS for next season, which is great news for network comedy. But in the Grantland profile, he certainly does not seem too eager to leave the “Harmontown” bubble. He unleashed a full tirade against the current television landscape. “You only have to take a couple steps back before you realize that you’re looking at a bunch of goddamn baby food made out of corn syrup,” he told Pappedemas. “It’s just a big blob of fucking garbage. The medium is dispensed to people who can’t feed back, can’t change it.” But the one person who could have changed “Community,” of course, was Harmon himself. Instead he felt the cultishness of his audience, and he reveled in it. He let it justify his iron-clad resistance to conceding any small part of his vision. And listening to “Harmontown”—its indulgence, its rancor, its charming self-deprecations and flashes of brilliance—it is hard not to think about the showrunner Harmon could be, if only he would force himself outside his own head, outside the fortifying enthusiasm of his fans.

Follow @lbennett.

  1. On Harmon’s podcasts the audience is atmospheric, part of the act itself; the storytelling and the laughter blend into a single narrative. Sometimes you can hardly tell the voices apart. “There’s people in the back going, I’d fire him, too,” Harmon joked during one performance, to drawn-out “Awwwws” from the crowd. Pete Holmes, host of the podcast “You Made It Weird,” told The New York Observer last year that “you can put out such a specific product that the podcast web can meet a listener’s needs more specifically than a TV network ever could.” Podcasting itself is a bid to cut out cultural gatekeepers, to create a direct pipeline between comedy creators and their fans.