'Community's' Dan Harmon Reveals the Wild Story Behind His Firing and Rehiring
TV's most controversial showrunner (and self-professed "rude asshole") renews his feud with Chevy Chase, recalls his attacks on NBC and Sony, reveals his regrets over the rape joke and details how Joel McHale helped him get his old job back.
In early May, Harmon got word via UTA's Gassner that Sony was entertaining the idea of asking him back. McHale reached out, too, to see whether he could have Harmon's permission to go to bat for his return. Harmon says he told his star what he had told his agent: "I'm not going to say yes to Sony so that they can go to NBC and say Dan wants to come back and have NBC dump me again. But if they can figure out what they want, I love my show, and I'm open to coming back." According to two sources, Sony execs recognized not only that the show had faltered without Harmon but also that he would be better equipped to handle a truncated season of 13 episodes. He also would bring with him McKenna, who has his respect and comedic sensibility. Ultimately, though, the determining factor for the studio -- and the primary reason NBC agreed -- was to appease McHale.
"Creatively speaking at least, his return kind of seems like the television universe righting itself," says the show's former co-showrunner Neil Goldman. "Dan is Community, and Community is Dan. Greendale is some weird manifestation of whatever the hell goes on in his one-of-a-kind brain, and each of those characters represents a different element of his psyche." Back in the writers room, Harmon is fully aware -- and ridden with anxiety -- that he's opening himself up to sky-high expectations. "Dan's untouchable right now, and if he were to go: 'Screw you. You fired me. I'm moving on,' he'd be able to keep that status," says his friend and former writing partner Rob Schrab. "But the very ballsy, Dan Harmon thing to do was to say, 'I'm going to go back and see this thing through.' "
Harmon has been back on the job for a matter of days and already, he says, he's a week behind schedule. "The feeling is familiar and delicious," he quips, noting that his first episode will be a palate cleanser, designed to reacquaint Community viewers with the characters' humanity. "I don't mean that we tasted anything bad," he says. "I just mean that because we tasted something different, there needs to be a reset." On a personal level, he's still making sense of the unprecedented chain of events, with his emotions ping-ponging between excitement and outrage. "Have you ever had a lover that breaks up with you for a year and then doesn't really tell you why, says that they're not ready for a relationship to make you feel better about getting dumped, and then you see them on Instagram hanging out at the same restaurants?" he says, adding: "When that person comes back and says, 'I miss you, I miss the way your hair smells,' how do you react to that? There's a slight feeling of vindication, but there's also a lot of 'Screw you.' "
Two days after speaking with this reporter, he acted on the latter feeling. During a Harmontown show at Hollywood's Nerdist Theater, he compared watching season four -- which he needed to do to prepare for season five -- to "being held down and watching your family get raped on a beach." The comments didn't sit well with NBC's Greenblatt and many involved with the show. The following day, Harmon was back in mea culpa mode, writing on his Tumblr: "I really need to do this whole 'saying things and thinking about other people' cycle in a different order at some point."
Asked about his recurring foot-in-mouth disease, Harmon grows serious. "I've always needed to express myself to strangers in order to feel OK about myself," he begins. But the desire -- need, even -- to air his feelings and frustrations, often at the expense of others, runs deeper: "If I'm feeling pain inside, I say what I'm feeling; and when I say it in the way that I say it, it makes people laugh, and then that makes the pain go away," he adds. "So whether it's through blogging or talking into a microphone, it's the thing that keeps me sane. I really look at it as a form of therapy."
After the latest experience, Harmon insists he has learned his lesson and won't be talking about work during Harmontown anymore, if for no other reason than he's hoping the stories about him in the coming months are focused not on controversy but on triumph. "I want to astound people with a season five that makes an unbeatable argument for a sixth season," he says. "I want the headlines to say, 'Holy crap, Dan Harmon pulled it off.' "