Dan Harmon is a contradiction. He is happy and sad, loving and cruel, appreciative and narcissistic – but above all, he is bitingly honest. This trait is what makes him a great writer and a compelling documentary subject. After getting fired from Community (the show he created), Harmon began the podcast, “Harmontown,” which became his form of therapy in the wake of this latest rejection.
Hamontown follows Harmon, along with his co-host Jeff B. Davis, Dungeon Master Spencer Crittenden and his girlfriend Erin McGathy, as they take “Harmontown” on the road. Harmon is also faced with writing two new pilots, one for CBS and one for FOX, which become “homework” he is constantly working on (or not working on) while on the road. Director Neil Berkeley asks Harmon at the beginning of Harmontown what he learned while on tour and the rest of the documentary works to try and answer this question.
Berkeley allows Harmon to interact with the camera and even gives Harmon his own camera, but this choice is when the film falters because Harmontown is best when documenting Harmon, not putting him directly in the driver’s seat. Harmon is known for being boisterous, which has been known to get him into trouble (a fact confirmed by many of his friends and former co-workers), but it is during his more reflective moments that Berkeley is able to capture that reveal what a tortured soul Harmon is. And the true problem is he is brutally aware of this fact.
Harmon has created a cult following for himself, not just through his work, but also through his podcast, and it is interesting how Berkeley shows how Harmon’s demeanor changes as the tour progresses. Starting off as slightly shy and almost apologetic, Harmon starts to get comfortable, gets drunk, and then gets nostalgic. But no matter what mood Harmon is in on stage he consistently delivers laughs and his misfit fan base love him – a fact Harmon never seems completely comfortable with. Harmon has some hilarious moments on stage and in the company of his tour mates, but he also knows he is self destructive and Berkeley is not afraid to push Harmon on these more difficult questions. Harmontown may not give audiences, or even Harmon himself, all the answers, but it at least sparks the conversation.
The true star is Harmon’s dungeon master, Crittenden, who has developed his own rabid fan base. Like Harmon, Crittenden has an incredibly quick wit and is very charming, but the crowds also intimidate him, as does the sudden adoration being lauded on him. It is clear Harmon relates to him on a personal level and the film works best through these interactions rather than the interview pieces with well known names Harmon has worked with and/or knows. Those who know Harmon, love him, but also find him difficult to work with and Harmontown is much more engaging when Harmon himself is questioning this rather than hearing about it from others.
Harmon may never get past his own demons, but getting out of his own head and on the road to meet the people he affects in a positive way is certainly a good start. Where Harmon asks what you do after you get everything you want, Berkeley’s Haromtown slowly uncovers that the answer may be finding happiness within yourself. The message at the heart of Harmontown shows how Harmon may have achieved certain goals, but the bigger challenge he still faces is learning to accept himself the way his audience and fans have accepted him.
The Upside: Honest filmmaking from Berkeley that slowly gets to the root of the matter without exploiting it, true laugh-out-loud moments both on and off stage, and a breakout turn from Crittenden.
The Downside: Interview pieces with those not on tour feel out of place and letting Harmon take the camera felt less authentic than Berkeley being behind it to drive the narrative.
On the Side: If you are in Los Angeles, “Harmontown” records live at NerdMelt every Sunday at 8PM, or you can listen to the podcast at podbay.fm