'Community's' Dan Harmon Reveals the Wild Story Behind His Firing and Rehiring
This story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On May 18, 2012, as Dan Harmon's cross-country flight hit the tarmac at LAX, a text message arrived from his agent: Harmon, the celebrated creator, head writer and showrunner of NBC's cult comedy Community, had been fired. Although there had been troubling signs -- Harmon often was dangerously late with scripts and led a lifestyle even his friends describe as highly dysfunctional -- the dismissal came without explanation from the network or studio Sony Pictures TV. But Harmon's initial reaction was one neither of anger nor of disappointment. "I remember feeling an odd sensation of relief, which I understand criminals feel when they get caught," he says. "Maybe my insecurity made me feel like I finally 'got caught' making a show sort of reviled by everyone paying for it, and my three-year crime spree was over." Distracted, Harmon left his iPad on the plane and would spend two hours seated on the airport's filthy linoleum floor waiting to retrieve it. "That's when I started to feel like I was the loser and the sucker, not them."
What followed was the most brazen attack by an employee on a television network since Charlie Sheen called his Two and a Half Men executives "maggots," "scoundrels" and "silly clowns": Harmon, now 40, published a bitter, passionate and widely read post on his Tumblr account, Dan Harmon Poops, in which he blasted not only the decision to force him out but also the means by which the network and studio did it. For months, lines like "NBC is not a credible source of All News Dan Harmon" were being repurposed by others in articles, blog entries and Twitter conversations as Harmon used his popular live comedy show and heavy social media presence to skewer everyone from NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt ("Darth Vader") to his Sony bosses ("They're not human").
But now, a year after being unceremoniously dumped, the irascible and often untamable showrunner has been asked back by the same executives he had railed against. In accepting their offer -- for which star Joel McHale and, to a lesser extent, Harmon's rabid fan base, are largely responsible -- he not only is being granted a rare second chance but also is providing perhaps the most tangible example yet of the power of a savvy creative as well as the forgiving nature of Hollywood. In the process, Harmon's little-watched critical darling -- fewer than 6 million viewers tune in -- has become the most captivating behind-the-scenes soap opera on TV, with its leader exalted, then killed off and now resurrected for what likely is a final act. By mid-June, he and partner Chris McKenna already had repopulated Community's writers room and begun work on the series' fifth season, which will preview July 21 at Comic-Con, where Harmon arguably is as big a draw as his cast.
However, for a journalist half-expecting an unhinged savant to appear before her for his first in-depth interview since rejoining Community, Harmon disappoints. On this June morning on the Paramount lot, where the quirky ensemble comedy about a study group at Greendale Community College is filmed, he is articulate, thoughtful and disarmingly candid. There are no signs of the rage-filled prankster who rallied his crew to chant expletives at co-star Chevy Chase during the series' third-season wrap party. Instead, Harmon calmly lays out the events of the past year with the type of frankness and wit that have charmed his 200,000-plus Twitter followers and those who consistently turn up for his Harmontown comedy shows. The only thing he can't offer is the definitive rationale for why he was replaced by season-four showrunners Moses Port and David Guarascio and then later rehired, but he insists that's because he wasn't provided one. "They never took their hats off, held them over their hearts and said: 'This is why we did that. This is why we're undoing that,' " he says. Like his firing, news of his second chance was relayed to his agent, United Talent Agency's Jay Gassner.
To date, the narrative that has circulated -- particularly in the blogosphere, where Community's creator looms large -- positions Sony and NBC as bullying Goliath to Harmon's David, but some argue it's not entirely accurate. "He wants to be the white knight, the one standing up to the machine," says one show insider. Another informed source notes that despite Harmon's vehement claims to the contrary, Sony TV's co-programming chief Jamie Erlicht called Harmon's cell phone the evening he was fired, but Harmon never got back to him.
Harmon was forced out -- a move the studio had considered making earlier -- for a collection of reasons, including erratic behavior and an oddball leadership style, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. Many say he regularly showed up hours late to work and on one occasion outright disappeared to San Francisco for a few days surrounding the SF Sketchfest comedy festival. A tug of war between his perfectionist tendencies and his procrastinator nature led to table reads being delayed -- and, at least twice, canceled -- and periodic all-nighters. (Former staffers tell tales of songs on season three's musical episode being written the weekend before shooting, and the set of the same season's video game episode still being built the morning production was supposed to start.) There was his liquor intake, which was substantial enough for Harmon to label himself a "ninja of alcoholism," and his habit of falling asleep during the workday, which his staff documented on a Tumblr account called Sleepy Harmon. Some of the show's writers insisted they'd depart if Harmon remained for season four.
But not even Harmon's biggest detractors deny his gift for crafting deeply funny, nuanced comedy, with one exec noting that he can take a good writer's script and add several additional layers and subtle jokes. "He's got one of those one-in-a-billion minds," says McHale, echoing the term "genius" that many employ to describe Harmon. Adds McKenna, "The first time I saw Dan's work, part of my brain exploded." Critics agree, with the series under Harmon's stewardship regularly topping best-of lists and THR's Tim Goodman calling it and its creator "wildly creative to the point where normal ideas and boundaries seem to bore them."