SXSW Film: ‘Harmontown’

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SXSW Film: ‘Harmontown’

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Dan Harmon is an exceedingly honest and open person, perhaps even to a fault. He is best known as the creator of NBC’s sitcom “Community,” which he was fired from after season three and subsequently re-hired for season five. The best example of Harmon’s self-destructive honesty came during the show’s third season, when he made his feud with actor Chevy Chase public by playing an angry, vulgar voicemail Chase had left him wherein he insulted both Harmon and “Community.”

Harmon did this during his weekly podcast called Harmontown. The podcast records every Sunday in the back of a comic book store in California and is usually uploaded online the next day. It involves Harmon talking about whatever comes to mind that night with his co-host Jeff Davis (of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), as well as sometimes inviting up his fiancée Erin McGathy. The group also participates in a long-running “Dungeons & Dragons” campaign whose dungeon master is a man named Spencer Crittenden.

With the podcast being well-received and Harmon no longer having a job, he decided to take Harmontown on tour during January 2013. They would hit around 20 cities, recording a daily podcast in different comedy clubs. Their second stop on the tour was actually Austin, down at Cap City Comedy.

Harmon hired a filmmaker named Neil Berkeley to document the entire tour, and what Berkeley captured was a hilarious and sometimes dark look at the tour and the man at its helm. “Harmontown” is a painfully honest portrayal of Dan Harmon, a man idolized by fans all over the world for creating a television show they hold dear to their hearts.

The documentary may push fans to rethink their idolization of Harmon. During one of the tour’s stops, Davis prompts Harmon and McGathy to talk about a fight they had earlier in the day up on stage, and some seriously personal feelings are put out there for everybody to hear. The documentary only shows a short portion of this discussion (which is available unedited on the podcast), opting not to show how far Harmon actually goes, resulting in making McGathy break down and cry in front of a live audience and the podcast’s online listeners. Instead, we get a lengthy shot of Harmon sitting around after the fact and doing some self-reflection, explaining to Berkeley just how horrible of a person he can sometimes be to the people that he loves the most, especially McGathy.

What makes this section of the film most interesting is the fact that Harmon is completely aware of his behavior, and he is completely aware that it is unacceptable and he mentions multiple times that he hates himself for it (near the beginning of the tour, fans are yelling at Harmon that they love him and he half-jokingly tells them that the best way for them to lose his respect is to say that because he hates himself so much). One of Harmon’s biggest struggles in the film is realizing that maybe he cannot change who he is, as hard as he tries. During the Q&A after the film, Harmon said that it took him a while to realize that he was the villain of the movie: he started out as an “asshole,” and he was still one by the end.

“Harmontown” is a fascinating look at a deeply flawed man who makes a television show about deeply flawed people. But it is not a depressing documentary by any means; the movie’s final message is actually quite uplifting, and its unsung hero is dungeon master Spencer Crittenden. It is a documentary that is definitely worth a watch, whether you are a fan of “Community” or not.