Over the years I’ve spent hours listening to Dan Harmon’s tangent filled podcast Harmontown. It has provided me with many insights into his creative process, and many fond memories of uncontrollable laughter. Like many listeners, I’ve been eagerly anticipating this year’s documentary, chronicling his podcast’s cross-country tour, which happened in early 2013. And when I finally sat down to watch it on a tiny laptop screen in my tiny bedroom in Oregon, it was as if I was watching an intimate ninety-minute home video. My excitement remained throughout as I remembered moments from the podcast, finally getting to see my favorite moments play out on camera. It has been one of my favorite viewings of the year. But can an outsider get as much out of it as a dedicated fan? Has a home video ever been interesting to someone outside the home?
In 2009, Dan Harmon’s pilot for the NBC comedy Community got picked up. While it proved to be a disappointment for the network, Community garnered a cult following. The show went three seasons before the self-destructive creator, Dan Harmon, got fired. The show continued without Harmon for a fourth season (a money scheme by Sony/NBC, but that’s a different story). Dan Harmon was jobless and needed a place to vent. He started to record his live improv show Harmontown, comp-trolled by Whose Line’s Jeff B. Davis. It was a live therapy session, which took place in the basement of an LA comic book store. Shortly after they began podcasting, Harmon decided to rent a van and go on tour. That’s where the documentary picks up: in a cramped bus where Harmon gets drunk before shows, fights with his girlfriend, and tries to write a CBS pilot.
Dan’s original idea for the documentary was in the vein of a Comedians of Comedy, a comedic documentary following comics on the road, but director Neil Berkeley wanted to take it in a different, more serious direction. He wanted to find out why people showed up to listen to Dan’s drunken rants: a character study of a fat, self-obsessed fired, alcoholic, writer. Yet the real character study that takes place is that of Harmon’s shy dungeon master who he picked from the crowd one day. Spencer, an anxious, living-at-home viking, becomes the real star of Harmontown, providing insight into Dan: “You’re like stupid honest,” says Spencer to Harmon during a discussion of what makes the podcast interesting.
Harmontown is almost an impossible documentary to make. There’s just too much context needed to make it as personal to the podcast’s outsiders. The documentary feels rushed at times, as Berkeley tries to get the viewer to understand Harmontown. After all, there’s no act, there’s no structure; it’s just a guy on a stage. Berkeley tries to understand the audiences that come out of their way to listen to Harmon, but ends up oversimplifying them as “weirdos” or “misunderstood nerds.” The only insight into the fandom comes from a simple moment: after a fan interviews Harmon about the tour, he leaves the room, pauses for a moment, and the most honest, astonished smile shapes in his face.
While Harmontown is personally one of my most enjoyable movies of the year, I’m still not convinced it will satisfy the average viewer. After all, have you ever watched someone else’s home video?