Dan Harmon, creator and showrunner for NBC’s Community, has a lengthy resume as a sketch comedy writer, performer, comic book author, and essayist on mythologist Joseph Campbell. He also was a founder (with Rob Schrab) of Channel 101 and co-creator of Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program, where he served as head writer for just a few episodes before “creative differences” dissolved the relationship. Now he’s in comedy’s mainstream and talks to Deadline TV Contributor Diane Haithman about marrying his offbeat sensibility to a second-season primetime network sitcom about life at a community college:
DEADLINE: What would an Emmy mean to a show that is fighting for ratings and recognition, as well as doing battle each week with the behemoth American Idol?
DAN HARMON: Of course it would help. It would be a sign to some number of people out there to start tuning in if they haven’t already. That’s how I watch TV — I hear that somebody got an Emmy and they show up on my radar in a way that they hadn’t before. Even a nomination would help a great deal in just getting our name out there. The research that we do shows that there’s a very low awareness of Community, and very high repeat viewing. It’s the Krispy Kreme of TV shows: we just have to get it into people’s mouths.
DEADLINE: Is part of the problem the show’s 8 PM time slot on Thursday?
HARMON: Yeah, when you are in the 8 o’clock position, you can either be a cultural phenomenon, or you’re endangered. It’s a tough time slot. I never complain about it because, hey, I have a TV show. But the reality is you are following local programming, and people have to actually sit down and decide to watch TV at that time. As opposed to having already been watching TV, like every other time slot. But, by my observation, the thing that’s really wearing away at us is American Idol. It’s a show you just have to watch live whereas it’s easy for audiences to make the decision to catch up with us on Hulu the next day. It’s like trying to choose between going to your sister’s wedding and reading a “Spider-Man” comic book. The “Spider-Man” comic book will always be there, but the other thing will never happen again.
DEADLINE: With your offbeat sensibility, how did you end up on network TV?
HARMON: It was never my direct intention to do anything particularly medium-defying. The pitch is very network television and was designed to be that way — a real experience from the writer’s life. It’s a bunch of knuckleheads in a somewhat unique place that is somewhat familiar to TV: trying to get by. Towards the end of the first season, I was starting to get afraid there wouldn’t be a second season, so I was making my time at the podium count. And that’s when you get your ‘chicken fingers’ episodes and your ‘paintball’ episodes, things that started to make us show up on the critical radar at the end of the first season.
DEADLINE: Did it help in terms of ratings for the second season?
HARMON: It did not work in terms of ratings at all. Nothing we really do works in terms of ratings. As far as critical respect goes, you can see a meteoric upward curve happening in the second season. If I only looked at our Nielsens, I wouldn’t even know that our show was on the air, much less if it was doing better or worse, because our audience is that small. The Nielsens were invented when television was splitting 200 million people three ways. Now, if somebody’s cat happens to turn on the TV, my numbers can double. It’s almost unrelated to what’s really happening.
DEADLINE: You talk about how you had to start doing outrageous things on the show to get noticed. Is the clutter forcing everybody’s TV writing to get weirder?
HARMON: You have people saying two things that seem to contradict each other. One, that we live in a golden age of TV. The other, that television is dying. There’s a reason for that. What we mean when we say it’s dying is that it’s already way past being fragmented into little chunks. Now it’s being polarized into an aerosol mist. When you make something smaller like that, you get more surface area. There are more little points of interaction. Audiences, as they get smaller, can intensify their relationship with the product, and so can the creative relationship with the people that you are serving. The good news is that, the more shows there are, the less the conglomerates have to gain by breaking the will of each individual creative.
DEADLINE: Why did you pick a community college as a sitcom setting?
HARMON: I went to community college in Glendale when I was 32. I had an emotional experience there that I bookmarked for mainstream television. A fish out-of-water experience. I became part of a little study group in community college and started caring about strangers. It gave me insight into what an asshole I was. I saw that I had only lived half of a life. I was playing this game where I was going to be a great TV or film writer some day and there was nothing else that I thought about, including other people.
DEADLINE: Where does what the press calls the show’s ‘meta-humor’ come from?
HARMON: ‘Meta’ isn’t even a word. It’s a Greek prefix that means beyond or above. I think what they mean is there’s an element to the show that can be viewed by an academic mind almost. While we’re executing a sitcom, we’re also executing an examination of sitcoms. I always try to use my medium, and I’ve said if I get into a normal sitcom-writing contest with normal sitcom writers, I’m going to lose.
DEADLINE: In 2009, you won an Emmy for writing host Hugh Jackman’s opening Oscar number. Have you thought about doing a musical episode for Community?
HARMON: No. It’s so difficult to write good music. It’s also really difficult to think about how to do it without violating the sanctity of the fourth wall. On Community, there’s only a certain amount of stories that you can do that are going to allow for that, and most of them are snarking about Glee out of jealousy. More than anything, I’m just intimidated because I had to write a couple of songs for the Christmas episode.
DEADLINE: So what happened with Sarah Silverman?
HARMON: I just wasn’t very mature creatively yet. I hadn’t learned to detach myself from my work while working on someone else’s show. As I’ve often put it, and it’s the most apt explanation, in my head I was Larry David, and Sarah was Jerry Seinfeld. And in her head, which is much more the reality, she was Sarah Silverman and I was some guy who had caught a lucky break through her generosity and admiration. It’s so obvious to me now how annoying it must have been to have me underneath her. I thought my job was to make her seem as funny as possible, even if sometimes that meant disagreeing with her. I don’t think that’s true anymore. What really happened was a personality conflict – too many arguments, ultimately.