Harmontown: SXSW Review
South By Southwest Film Festival, Documentary Spotlight
Dan Harmon takes his podcast on the road and lays his psyche on the line.
AUSTIN — Three years ago, SXSW premiered Rodman Flender's Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, an account of a comedy tour the stand-up star went on after being fired by NBC. This may become a trend: In Harmontown, Neil Berkeley follows a road trip in which Dan Harmon, at the time recently booted by that network from his own Community, staged live recordings of a podcast he'd been hosting at LA's Meltdown Comics. Less laugh-packed than Can't Stop but often quite funny, the doc is more earnestly focused on the personality issues of a man seen as impossible to work with even by some of his biggest admirers. The result will play very well with the cult of fans who've improbably kept Community alive.
The loose and interactive approach of the Harmontown podcast proves challenging on the road, with Harmon fretting that what flew with a friendly local audience might not suffice for out-of-town crowds who've paid 20 bucks or more and sometimes driven hours to attend. But these fans will forgive a great deal of uneasiness (Nashville even bears with him getting blotto on a jar of moonshine), and in fact enjoy such unfettered access to his flaws and preoccupations. By the end of the tour, they're sitting in on public couples-therapy between Harmon and girlfriend Erin McGathy, who perhaps unwisely came along on tour.
McGathy is sweetly supportive, and show co-host Jeff B. Davis makes an excellent foil — the sharp-dressed showbiz pro to Harmon's unwashed boozer. But the non-Harmon star here is Spencer Crittenden, the twentysomething Dungeons & Dragons fanatic who was plucked from the LA audience one night to be "dungeon master" of a live D&D session. An extreme introvert who still lives with his parents, Crittenden comes alive in front of a crowd who identifies with him and is seen upstaging one or two of the guest stars who visit the show.
That crowd is a big part of the film's emotional import: A "Harmenian," we're informed, is "a nerd full of love" — someone who felt like an outcast as a kid and may still feel that way, who identifies not just with Harmon's postmodern humor but with the mixed-nuts characters he created on Community. They make art based on the show, come to give him hugs, and (sometimes tearfully) recount how the sitcom showed them they weren't alone.
For a man who has had that kind of effect on strangers' lives, though, Harmon has had a famously hard time getting along with those close to him. The film takes occasional (and too brief) detours to recount episodes in his career and look at some self-inflicted obstacles. On The Sarah Silverman Program, he both brought the laughs and made life hell for the star. "I'm his biggest fan, and I fired him," Silverman tells us. The film doesn't dig too deep into his firing from Community, but interviews with many actors he has worked with make it easy to guess at the tension level on set. Asked how he thinks Harmon would describe himself, John Oliver replies, "A human hand grenade who has a predilection for pulling his own pin out." The film's last half, which occasionally overindulges in offstage, exhausted-in-the-van therapeutic talk, suggests Harmon is working hard to glue that pin in place.
Production Company: Starburns Industries
Director: Neil Berkeley
Producers: Neil Berkeley, David Heiman, JJ Gerber
Executive producers: Joe Russo II, James A. Fino, Dino Stamatopoulos, Bart McDonough, Dan Harmon
Director of photography: Ryan Carmody
Music: Ryan Elder
Editors: James Leche, Kevin Andre Klauber
Sales: Submarine / UTA
No rating, 101 minutes