Monday, March 21, 2011

'On Writing' with Dan Harmon...

I've always said that Community's Abed is the male me, but after spending some time with Dan Harmon, I finally realized why. It is because Abed is just an extension of Harmon, and Harmon is really the male me. Well, a more successful male me who actually took a pilot and spun it into a successful television series.

Harmon attributes not only his sense of humor but also his frame of reference to the types of shows he would watch as a kid, most notably the "classic staples" like Cheers and Taxi.

"I would come home, and I wasn't a great student, and I'd have a lot of homework to do, but my parents would be sitting around watching Cheers. And that was the ultimate for me, so I'd calculate, 'Okay, I can watch this, but then this leads into this, and oh shit I'm going to be so screwed'!" Harmon clearly had his priorities at a very young age, and luckily for him, it has more than paid off!

These days he shared that he often stands in the writers' room of Community and dissolves into diatribes, quoting movies that no one has seen, and making references that no one gets. But he considers that a step up from the first season, when he wasn't sure how writing for television worked and wasn't completely willing to give up control of his show just yet.

"During the first season I did a really weird Howard Hughes thing where I'd just sit around my house in my bathrobe and write and turn in drafts and bitch and scream that if I wasn't writing fast enough they could all go screw themselves!" Harmon laughed. "But we really do have a great team of writers, and I utilize them a lot more now that we're in season two. That's why you'll always see on Twitter these mentions of all-night writing meetings."

Creativity can't be rushed, therefore, but it can't be forced, either, and Harmon admitted that having the collaboration is something he really welcomes now:

"Sometimes we'll write a really crappy line for Donald [Glover] because we know we'll do some alt-takes, and he'll come up with something genius on the spot."

Harmon is open to growing and adapting his characters, and his world, as he gets to know the talented individuals on his staff and in his cast. Many of his characters have evolved quite differently than he imagined from the pilot episode for the reason that he really listened to and watched his performers and saw where their innate strengths lay. Troy was written to be just an arrogant, lazy jock in the beginning, but because Glover himself is so artistic, those elements began to work their way in, perhaps most notably with Troy's part of the "Spanish Rap".

As a writer, Harmon pushes himself to leave nothing behind-- story-wise, joke-wise, or even homage and style-wise. He never believed his pilot would get picked up, and then once it did, he thought he had no chance to get a full season, but he did, and then the second season was still somehow a surprise. He never looks too far ahead, perhaps so he doesn't jinx anything, but also because living and writing in the moment just allow him to fully immerse in the world of Greendale and create situations that, although wacky, always feel very grounded and real.

"I can never really tell what people are going to respond to," Harmon was candid. "I went through so many emotions with the conspiracy theory episode [for that reason]. I think without the music-- you know, we laid a score under most of it because that genre is just really hard to tap into. I watched a cut of the episode before the music was put in, on my friend Dino-- Dino Stamotopoulis who plays Star Burns-- Dino's computer. It was just a rough cut and I just hit play on the computer, and I thought I was going to break television. But then the episode aired and the feedback from Twitter and those who were writing reviews loved it! Or at least they lied and said they liked it, so I guess I still don't know."

It is in Harmon's fearlessness to take such risks with strict stylization and very specific imagery and references, though, that is inherent to Community's success-- because it makes it truly unlike anything else you can find on television today, or perhaps ever. And Harmon's ideas just keep coming! One in particular that sounds interesting should they get a season three (fingers crossed!) is an episode devoted to a day in the life of Dean Pelton (Jim Rash).

"The cold open would start with the gang. They're all deciding to make changes, like maybe Shirley wants to eat something different, and Troy wants to grow a mustache," Harmon pitched. "But then the Dean would come in: 'Hey everybody!' and say something to them, and when he leaves, the camera would follow him. At the end of the episode we could come back to the gang and see that sure enough, Shirley is eating something different, and Troy has a sad little mustache, but all of their adventures were off-screen for a week."

Harmon did it before, on a smaller scale, with the in-the-background thread of Abed delivering a baby, so I know he could do it! And I know it would be brilliant!

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