'Community's' Dan Harmon Reveals the Wild Story Behind His Firing and Rehiring
When Community joined such shows as 30 Rock and The Office on NBC's 2009 schedule, that type of critical adoration and a loyal fan base were enough. What the network lacked in viewership was made up for in the accolades that allowed NBC to tout itself as a home for "smart" comedy. The studio found a way to cash in, too, inking a syndication deal with Comedy Central and a lucrative pact with Hulu, which multiple sources peg at $850,000 an episode. But over time, Community failed to broaden its reach, as Harmon focused more on pleasing bloggers with episodes featuring obscure movie references, stop-motion animation and a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Sony had hoped Port and Guarascio, who worked on the studio's Happy Endings, would be able to open up Community to new viewers. But without its auteur, the series was criticized by key media -- HitFix's Alan Sepinwall suggested the new showrunners had opted to "reverse-engineer the Harmon version of Community but couldn't quite manage without the missing ingredient of Harmon himself" --and shed 11 percent of its viewership. Months later, Harmon used some choice words (more on that later) to describe his distaste for his successors' work, noting in a Harmontown show that it was "very much like an impression -- and an unflattering one."
"I wanted to kill myself constantly constantly," says Harmon when asked to assess how he handled his first stint on Community. "It's not an exaggeration to say that every single day, I was the reason why everyone above me and everyone below me had a problem," he says, his paunchy midsection peeking out from under a wrinkled shirt. As he employed phrases like "it has to be like this or I quit" often, his disdain for authority became somewhat legendary. It's all such a handful that even though they rehired him and soon will begin promoting his return, Sony and NBC execs declined comment for this story.
Harmon, who has used "rude asshole" and "selfish baby" to describe himself, admits to friction in his writers room, where he had to learn how to be both a boss and a collaborator. The Marquette University dropout didn't rise through the ranks on other people's shows the way many showrunners do. Instead he was discovered when an early comic book he had worked on was optioned by Oliver Stone, and his résumé includes film work, web comedy and a stint on The Sarah Silverman Program. Writing with others initially was a challenge. "I came in going: 'Nobody's gonna tell me how to do this. I don't care how your system does it,' " he says. "And they had a very legitimate complaint, which was, 'We're being paid a huge amount of money to help you, and you're locking yourself in your office.' " He learned to be a better collaborator, but every script still required a Harmon rewrite -- to be "Harmonized," as Community's staff dubbed it -- to ensure the show remained in his unique voice. Comparisons to Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz are made often.
On set, Harmon regularly butted heads with Chase over the direction of the actor's character, Pierce Hawthorne, a standoff that led to Harmon famously playing Chase's angry voicemails during a Harmontown show. "[Chevy is] a befuddled old man, but he's also the guy who calls you to his trailer and shakes the script in the air and says: 'I'm not a befuddled old man! I'm sexy! I could be the star of this show! I'm not gay. You're writing me as if I'm gay,' " says Harmon, noting that he'd use Chase's outbursts as story fodder. "I'd say to him, 'Do you understand that what you're saying is funny and it makes an interesting character?' He would kind of blink and stare at me and go, 'Whatever, I just don't think it's funny.' " Disgruntled, the actor has since parted ways with the show. ("Dan and I are friends again," says Chase. "He's brilliant and can be very funny. The reason I wanted to do the show in the first place was Dan's writing. And I stand by that. But I have to go now, I'm very busy writing Community's Ice Capades Extravaganza.")
By May 2012, Harmon had heard rumblings that Sony had approached Port and Guarascio about running his show. Once the news became official, he refocused his energy on a forthcoming animated series, Rick and Morty, for Adult Swim, where execs praise his lack of filter. "Dan is real in a refreshing way, which makes him interesting and his art interesting," says Adult Swim executive vp Mike Lazzo. There also was a comedy that CBS passed on and a Fox project that never got off the ground. "Fox is graciously rolling my deal because I was so paralyzed by the idea of writing the next Community, which is what I wanted to do, that I was pooping the bed," he says, noting that the flurry of interest from rival nets sustained him. "Believe me, the thing that drives me the most is other people's approval." (He has other animation projects at Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network via his Starburns shingle.)
But it was Harmon's other activity during the year away that best illustrates how brilliantly he has mobilized his fan base. Accompanied by his partner Jeff Davis, comedian girlfriend Erin McGathy (who lives with Harmon in their Los Feliz home) and a documentary filmmaker, he took Harmontown -- during which he plays Dungeons & Dragons and riffs on topics ranging from his struggles as a showrunner to his relationship with McGathy -- on the road. Hordes of superfans, or "Harmonites," turned up in every city, just as they did for Conan O'Brien when he went on the road after being dumped by NBC. Harmon's fans love Community, of course, but they also feel connected to him personally because, as he's said, he "blogs or tweets every time he wipes his butt, hugs his cat or hurts his girlfriend."
During that period, Harmon refrained from watching "new Community" and had no interaction with the cast. "I just assumed that everybody was having a big picnic without me and swapping stories about how hard it was when I was around," he says. Harmon later would learn that the actors, led by McHale, quietly were plotting to bring him back. "The show is in Dan's brain, and he's by far the only person that can do it," says McHale. Suggest to Harmon that his successors were all but set up to fail, and he shrugs: "It said 'no-win situation' at the top of the contract, and they signed it anyway," he says. (Port and Guarascio respond in a statement: "We enjoyed our time on Community, and we're thrilled it was picked up for a fifth season. We wish nothing but the best for the show going forward. It obviously could not be in better hands.")