Rating:Harmontown begins and ends with cats. The film opens with writer/performer Dan Harmon in bed with his partner Erin McGathy and their cat. It ends as Harmon is reunited with said cat after the tour for the podcast (also named Harmontown) that makes up the bulk of director Neil Berkeley’s documentary. Truth be told, the once and future TV showrunner seems to have a lot in common with cats. They are both prone to laziness, spite, sudden fits of activity and sometimes discomfiting affection. If you gave a housecat a microphone and a glass of vodka, you would basically have Dan Harmon.
At least according to Harmon. As the writer would certainly admit, he is something of a narcissist, and the fact that his podcast is not only named after himself, but has cross-platformed into a documentary about himself is telling. Harmon is unusual in that as a (primarily) behind the scenes player, he has developed something of a cult of personality. In many ways, Harmontown is about examining how that happened: how a self-absorbed man has created a proudly inclusive show that turned the line between audience participation and performer into more of a drifting spiral.
Neil Berkeley’s film can be neatly divided into three alternating sections: footage of Harmon’s 2012 live podcast tour after NBC fired him as “Community” showrunner; talking head interviews with comedic peers; and direct confessionals from the man himself. Harmontown is a primer for Harmon’s career, which is legendary in its own way: he was the co-founder of Channel 101, a short film festival, website and TV show that spawned “Yacht Rock” (among others), co-wrote the cult FOX pilot “Heat Vision and Jack” starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson, wrote for “The Sarah Silverman Program” and created “Community.” Harmon is so well respected among the comedic world that Silverman has nothing but admiration for his talent even though she had to fire him for his toxic behavior. Ben Stiller, Dan Schur, much of the cast of “Community” and Chris Hardwick are among those who state how talented Harmon is, while acknowledging that the man can be a deeply unpleasant, self-destructive ass.
But the meat of the film is devoted to the podcast tour and Harmon’s own self-examination. It is quite fascinating to see the writer on mic at venues, essentially free-associating to adoring audiences. He is not a particularly natural performer, and makes it abundantly clear that neither he nor his co-star Jeff B. Davis prepares in any way for this, but his enthusiasm and sincerity mostly compensates. There’s a reason why he’s been a consistently known and successful comedy writer for almost two decades. Harmon is quick-witted and has a knack for absurdity that overshadows his visible flop sweat. The documentary sometimes runs itself into the ground with Harmon’s relentless need to self-examine, which never exceeds “I do things that hurt the people I care about and I don’t want to do that and also I masturbate a lot.” It’s not that Harmon’s issues are not very real or important…it’s just that they aren’t nearly as real or important to anyone except himself.
The drawback is that all of that is part and parcel of Harmon. You’re not going to get his manic stage performances without his self-loathing; you’re not going to get his humor without getting his narcissism. Harmontown frequently resembles the stellar 2011 Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which also concerned a legendary comedy writer dealing with the fallout of a public firing by a major network, a specific niche if there ever was one. Paradoxically, Harmon’s devotion to baring his soul makes him less interesting. Where O’Brien seemed guarded and thus needed to be examined, Harmon’s willingness to confess to all of his flaws borders on tiresome. But that’s what makes Harmon Harmon.