It's hard to decide what Dan Harmon has done more of in Hollywood — engineer comebacks or bite the hands that have given him those comebacks.
The "Community" creator — the entertainment industry's id and conscience, its grenade-thrower and its truth-teller, depending on your point of view — is back in the public eye, thanks to an upcoming sixth season of his signature show and a new documentary called "Harmontown."
The episodes of "Community" — coming after he was hired, fired, rehired and then canceled by NBC — have been commissioned by Yahoo, marking a different approach to a long-running cult comedy. The documentary, drawn from his time on the road with his eponymous Los Angeles-based podcast, is also a first for the 41-year-old.
But all these new paths hardly mean the old edge is gone.
"We call it the golden age of television, which really gets me. I mean, you're already making opiates for the hearts and minds for hundreds of millions of people," he said, in one of several darts he reserves for corporate Hollywood. "You're beaming in signals, and you're engaging in crimes against humanity, and on top of that you're going to go elitist? It's garbage, and it's criminal, and it's stupid."
Harmontown can be a charged place.
"Harmontown" (the movie) arrives in Los Angeles theaters Friday, and it's aptly titled in more ways than one. Directed by the nonfiction filmmaker Neil Berkeley (the two were connected by Harmon collaborator Rob Schrab), it is named for, well "Harmontown" — a tour Dan Harmon embarked on to support his podcast, also named "Harmontown," in which he muses, often under the influence of alcohol, about the experience of being Dan Harmon and describes the fears he is gripped with being Dan Harmon.
How you feel about the movie, needless to say, will depend a lot on how you feel about Dan Harmon.
The rise of fan culture has thrust creators into the limelight more than ever. Mostly, though, these personalities occupy that space as extensions of their creations — Vince Gilligan and "Breaking Bad," for example. Harmon's persona has fully become about the man himself, in part because aspects of "Community" are aspects of his personality, but also because "Harmontown," both iterations, are about him, period.
The film focuses on the podcast that he took on the road a few years ago with Jeff Davis — McMahon to his Carson — and Spencer Crittenden, who leads the in-show game of Dungeons & Dragons, at once a strange and fitting accompaniment. Like the podcast, the appearances became wildly successful, attracting sold-out crowds in nearly two dozen cities.
Harmon is seen in highly intimate moments backstage and still-pretty-intimate moments onstage, talking about his anxieties and his desires, particularly a need for adulation uneasily coexisting with his belief that he's not worthy of any. He often says things like, "I flung myself on the sharpened rocks of my own self-hatred." There is an almost forensic documentation of his own state of happiness and insecurity.
"Self-loathing and self-worship are the same thing, really," he said in an interview last week. "I like to shoot myself with a big enough bullet that by the time their bullet gets to me it's going through space."
That said, he hangs on to plenty of bullets for others.
"I think it's brilliant and poetic that, in spite of the fact that the rich own the poor and the world is structured that way," he said of the relationship between executives and creatives in Hollywood, "They're still going to have to come to dirty gross schlubs like us for their programming. They still have to have some unlikable mutant that actually writes the things people say on their transmission."
The movie describes plenty of tension with past collaborators, from executives to Sarah Silverman to his notorious Chevy Chase standoff, in which Harmon allegedly lashed out at Chase, prompting the actor to leave an obscenity-laden message on the creator's voice mail. (Harmon has made great sport of the message at his live shows.)
"Harmontown" jumps in the wayback machine, perhaps predictably, to laud Harmon's Jack Black-starring, Ben Stiller-directed cult TV series "Heat Vision and Jack" — but also, less predictably, to recount his ill-fated turn as co-creator and head writer of Comedy Central's "The Sarah Silverman Program."
Silverman in the movie describes a level of micromanagement and condescension that grew intolerable, saying his material was great and yet still she fired him, "that's how bad it was." (Replied Harmon in the interview: "Everything she's saying about me is absolutely applicable to herself. I know I'm supposed to go, 'Terrific, I'm a bad person.' The fact is she wasn't a joy to work with.")
Much of the movie, though, is dedicated to helping understand Harmon's appeal. As much as his persona can seem like an exercise in self-reflexiveness, his fans may find in it a kind of catharsis.
"I think people are watching and thinking, 'Here's a guy who makes my favorite show, and he'll talk about fears and fetishes and ego, and no one's taking him to jail,'" Berkeley said in an interview. "Many of these are kids who grew up being told not to talk, told to their keep their D&D love a secret and not tell anyone about their comics. And here is Dan talking about all of that and making them feel safe."
Whether Harmon has changed as he's hit 40 and put the microscope on himself is an open question. He says the documentary has helped — "The thing I noticed about myself watching the movie is I never realized how tone deaf I am with the people who are closest to me" — and has found other ways of making peace with the world.
Now engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Erin, and with a new lease on creative life out of the broadcast hothouse (Yahoo will debut the new "Community" episodes after the holidays) has, if not dimmed the anger, then at least upped the clarity.
"Going through these PR debacles I've gone through in this post-TMZ Internet world, in a lot of ways that was some of my worst nightmare," he said. "It was a society gathering around me asking if I was worthy of discussion, and I wasn't able to protect myself.
"The one thing that's changed for me over the last couple years is I've become more willing to accept that not everybody's going to love me, and some people are going to love me no matter what, and it doesn't mean that the people who love me must suck and those who don't must be right."
Of course, with mellowness can come complacency, and Harmon wouldn't be the first to worry that wisdom can dull the edges. "I think about it all the time. Am I slower, less funny, less witty, less to prove now that I got more money," he said. "How much of what I was driven by a reaction to a world I didn't understand and couldn't control?" He said he hasn't answered that question.
Then again, maybe he shouldn't worry too much about losing his edge.
"The thing that has been wrong with the industry is the same thing that's taking over the world: It's the money," he said a moment later when the topic shifted back to Hollywood executives. "It's that there are ways to get paid in television without doing anything on-screen. Which is insane. If that person existed in the tuna business, he wouldn't. The tuna fishermen would kill him."