Dan Harmon: The Mayor of Harmontown
Dan Harmon is the creator of seminal television shows Rick and Morty and Community. He’s found success on his own terms, but now, as he approaches middle age, he’s reflecting on how he’s gotten here.
Dan Harmon is a writer, producer, actor, and comedian, best known for creating popular television programs Community and Rick and Morty.
Raised in Wisconsin, Harmon acted in several sketch comedy groups in Milwaukee before moving to Los Angeles to write for television. In 2002 he and frequent collaborator Rob Schrab founded Channel 101, a short film festival and online television network for undiscovered filmmakers. Harmon briefly attended Glendale Community College, an experience which inspired the cult NBC sitcom Community, which ran from 2009 to 2015. His absurdist animated series Rick and Morty, which originated with a short film that cocreator Justin Rolland made for Channel 101, began airing on the Adult Swim television network in 2013. From 2012 to 2019, Harmon hosted the popular live comedy podcast Harmontown. He won an Emmy Award in 2009 for contributions to the 81st Academy Awards telecast.
Dan Harmon: I like making stupid things important and important things stupid. And I like proving that that’s how good I am. What if a werewolf landed on a moon? Who would he be a super werewolf? I don’t care, but like, I will help you make sure that when people walk away from watching the werewolf on the moon’s story, that they have to scratch their heads and go, isn’t that kind of a dumb thing for a story to be about. Why am I crying or laughing so hard? Why did that affect me? Hopefully, ’cause of me.
Dan Harmon has dedicated his life to storytelling, but at what cost? Harmon is the writer and creator of the hit sitcom Community and the animated series, Rick and Morty, the show that the Game of Thrones showrunners called our generation’s most powerful exploration of what it means to be a person in this universe. The foundation for all of Harmon’s writing is the story circle, an eight step process he adapted from Joseph Campbell’s seminal model, the Hero’s Journey. It’s designed to make a story that is both engaging and complete.
Here’s how it works. We’re introduced to a character in their everyday life who soon discovers a pressing need. So they go somewhere unfamiliar to search for answers. Eventually they find the solution, but it’s never quite what they expected and they always pay some kind of price. Then they return home where many things may look the same, but they have been changed. The story circle works regardless of genre or medium. And for Harmon, the form of choice is most often television.
Growing up in a turbulent working class household in 1970s Milwaukee, TV was a refuge for a young Dan and his entire family.
Harmon: We watched television together. We watched movies together. My dad is laughing. He never makes these sounds when he’s not watching a Mel Brooks movie. My parents are quoting lines from Young Frankenstein. If Sam and Diane say, say the words, G** d*** on Thursday night, I no longer get punished for saying, G** d*** because the TV has now said that it’s okay for prime time. So that means we can say it to each other in the house. I mean, the media was religion. I wanted to be a priest because I wanted to be important.
Hungry to impress, by the age of six Harmon was already a voracious reader. And before he was 10, avid reading had turned into eager writing all in the hope of being called special.
Harmon: It’s so funny to me because there was no passion about the actual product and I was a terrible writer. It was the idea of having, having written. It was a Dorothy Parker quote. Like I hate writing, I love having written and like I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t particularly good at writing. And so the constant theme of that was all about other people’s perception, right? Like I was never going like, oh you know what I really enjoy doing or what I want to do for the world. It was like, I want to be liked. I want to be good. I want to be valuable to people. I want to be impressive. I was having those rather sociopathic thoughts at a very early age. I recognize that now.
Harmon was a dedicated writer, but a perpetually distracted student. He pursued journalism in college, but only made it one semester before dropping out to freelance. Between writing jobs he performed in an improv group and got hooked on getting laughs. In the mid 90s Harmon and his writing partner from the group, Rob Shrab, collaborated on a comic, Scud: The Disposable Assassin. When it was optioned by A list movie producer, Oliver Stone, it was time to go.
Harmon and Shrab were ambitious and had a lot to prove. They worked together on scripts for film and television, including the 2006 cult hit movie Monster House, and a pilot for a promising TV show called Heat Vision & Jack that turned out to be ahead of its time. Harmon had become a good writer, but was hard to work with. Soon, his reputation for excellence was nearly overshadowed by his reputation for being difficult, a perfectionist and a bully. In 2007, he co-created a sketch comedy series with Sarah Silverman, but was fired early in production.
Harmon doesn’t have much of a filter and over the years, he’s struggled to train the harsh critic in his head to not berate the people he works with. But even at his most toxic, he’s maintained a few key partnerships. Most notably with his long standing writing partner, Rob Shrab and his Rick and Morty co-creator, Justin Roiland. Harmon has come to understand his own limitations and knows he wouldn’t be where he is without other people.
Harmon: I’ve always really thought of myself as being much more of a logician and an engineer. And so I like to partner with visionaries. I like guys that have what I would call pointless opinions about how something should look or what something should be named, because I don’t have those opinions. And that’s creative death to be like a person walks in the room. I don’t know what their name should be, and I don’t know what they should be wearing. I just want to get to the dialogue and the story. And like, I want that story to be structured in a way that makes it effective. So without someone who is pacing the room and saying, like, make their shirt red and don’t name them, Todd, Todd’s a stupid name. I want them to be named Shirley, make them transgender, that’s important. There should be an Air Force Pilot, you know, and the planes should be shaped like a shoe box. But with these things, like I eat that up ’cause I’m like, thank God someone’s doing this heavy lifting for me, all this stuff I don’t care about. I don’t have a vision. I have a compulsion to execute.
Harmon and Shrab’s first mainstream success, the NBC sitcom, Community, premiered in 2009. And despite less than stellar ratings, this series cultivated an obsessive following who campaigned to keep the show going for six seasons. But behind the scenes, things were a mess. Harmon was fired after the third season, but the show just didn’t work without him. And he was brought back for season five. When NBC dumped Community, it was picked up by Yahoo for its sixth and final season. Harmon hired a new team, but the same old tensions persisted. And he realized he was the common denominator.
Harmon: Everyone that I had ever worked with that ever had a problem with the way that I worked was gone now and I had full permission to work however I wanted, no enemies to blame for why this was more difficult. And there I was sleeping on my sofa again, unable to break a story. And that was a big epiphany ’cause I was like, there’s literally nobody to blame for this but myself. Like, there’s nobody making this difficult, except for me. Why am I, why is this difficult? And you know, marking that in my head and going, I think maybe it’s more important for you that this be difficult. I think you think this is part of your process. And I think you think that because you would be embarrassed and shameful, if you recognized that you have an easy job and a lot of privilege, like you don’t want to wake up in the morning and say, here I go off to be the luckiest guy in the world again, because I think part of me thinks, well that’s gonna kill your edge.
Harmon had reasons to worry. He had built a fan base of self-proclaimed misfits, loyal, not only to his work, but to his persona, brutally honest, wickedly, intelligent and deeply insecure. For eight years, he was the mayor of “Harmontown,” his own live podcast, which became a documentary in 2014.
After earning hundreds of thousands of fans and heaps of glowing reviews, Harmon had finally received the mass approval and love he had been craving for so long, but it didn’t cure his self-loathing.
Harmon: I think the honeymoon might’ve been over when unconditional love was achieved because when it became well, whatever happens is gonna happen and they’re not gonna, they’re not gonna walk out on you. They love you. And, then I think the tragedy of that is, is that that makes me go well then I can’t relate to these people. If they love me, I don’t even know who they are.
After nearly 400 episodes, Harmon ended his podcast in late 2019 to focus on the series that has come to define him. Rick and Morty is an absurd yet heartfelt animated series, driven by Harmon’s narrative philosophy. A story can be about anything as long as it’s told in the right way.
Rick and Morty has enjoyed unprecedented success for an adult cartoon. In 2018, the cable channel Adult Swim ordered 70 new episodes. Now for the first time faced with job security and acclaim, Harmon is making it a point to tackle the destructive patterns that have plagued him for so long. For the new seasons of Rick and Morty, he’s trying something different. Leaving work by 5:00 PM.
Harmon: I used to view my job as equivalent to being a firefighter or a soldier in a war against bad TV. And you’re either on my side or you’re against me. I look back on it now with a certain amount of regret and shame because I think that was wasted time. Making people stay in an office ’til three in the morning because the product wasn’t perfect yet. It’s not that that time didn’t yield good TV. It’s just that a good night’s sleep would have yielded the same amount of good TV.
Yet, Harmon has come to accept that no amount of good TV can substitute for healthy self esteem. Now in his 40s, he’s finally learning the difference between what he does and who he is.
Harmon: I’ve now experienced more than a few times where I’m curled up in bed with the woman that I love and I’m more or less having to have a conversation with her. Like if I get blacklisted, if I can’t work again tomorrow, if we were to lose everything that I provide, will you still love me? And the difference isn’t her saying, yes, it’s me believing it. One day, it just clicked that that stuff is really not controllable and is not a measure of your worth. And it’s not gonna make you happy. You could be the best at something for 70 years and the last thought you would have on your deathbed would be, Oh man, I really messed up. I should have spent more time being happy.
Today, Dan Harmon is no longer content just to create satisfying stories for others to enjoy, but is focused on making sure that his own story is that of a life well lived.