Dan Harmon has blogged a lot of his thoughts about writing-- and specifically writing his NBC comedy Community-- over the last few years. As far as showrunners go, he has been one of the most accessible and the most honest about his own process versus the studio and network's wants and needs from him. He has candidly ripped apart his own scripts to his fans and followers, only for those fans and followers to still love the episodes when they air, proving that out of everyone Harmon really is his own worst critic. He has offered behind-the-scenes nuggets at every turn, educating his audience right alongside entertaining them.
Harmon has made television, and the discussion around television, a much better, more involved place. He is clearly a fan of the medium, but more importantly, he is an artist, not just a guy doing a job, looking to make syndication money at all costs. His passion for what he does rings loudly whether he's just riffing about it or if answering a direct question. And sometimes with people who internalize and deeply think through everything so much, it's better just to get out of their way. That was CommuniCon's organizer Gillian Morshedi feeling when inviting Harmon to participate in the Los Angeles fan convention weekend, and who would I be to try to do anything different?
Harmon spoke for just over an hour at CommuniCon-- about everything from pitching Community, to his writing process in general, to casting the versatile "acrobats" of actors that make up his cast. And just about everything he said was worthy of being cataloged and used to inspire and propel other writers forward, so that is what I have done here.
"Because of the nature of network TV, I sidled into a process that was about coming up with reticent ideas that would just be free form. You're driving into work, you see a billboard that says 'Q-Tips are great.' The idea could be as simple as 'Q-Tips' or 'Shirley is allergic to Q-Tips' or 'Troy and Abed build a robot with them'-- any kind of random idea. And then the next step is to see whether or not those ideas can be cleaved into the beginnings of a story. I started adapting biological nomenclature because it seemed to lend itself to it.
"First you have one cell, which is a dumb idea, just like anything...It starts as such a simple concept but the way it becomes a story is 'Can you divide it? Can you divide it between two worlds?' So if the idea is a pencil, is there a world where pencils are amazing and a world where pencils are not amazing? Is there a way to divide the idea of pencil in an ordinary world, and as Syd Field would say, a special world?
"And then from there, you kind of start to get a premise, which is like 'What if someone like Pierce thinks he hates pencils? And he decides he's going to get rid of all pencils, and we move into a world where there's no pencils.' And then from there we start to break it up into what I call the embryo, which is what I call that eight-part story circle. Pierce has a pencil, but then he realizes he needs a pen, but he can't have one, so he hates all pencils. He moves into a world where he tries to get rid of all pencils; he gets to the middle-point or the bottom of the circle where he needs one in order to get his inheritance because that's the condition of a will or something, so he realizes pencils are important, and he comes back up as the master of all pencils. You go around the circle."
(For more on Harmon's Story Structure, click here. It's the best (and cheapest) Screenwriting lesson you'll ever get.)
Harmon on the importance of improv:
"In the writers room, I think it's crucial. I think that some writers come to the table with an inherent understanding that you have to do the 'yes and-ing'. You have to not ask questions and not deny; you have to brainstorm with people. If you're breaking a story, and I say 'Okay, let's do a story about pencils. Oh, Pierce wants to eliminate all pencils.' I don't want to hear 'Well, pencils, you know, they've got lead in them, and there was that lead poisoning incident at that college last week, and we probably don't want to do that.' Get out of here. Get out of the writers room! That's not your job. Your job is to figure out how we can do a story about pencils. Bad ideas will reveal themselves to be bad ideas because you tried to make them good; you dragged them along and pumped them up on your shoulders like Rudy. 'This is the best idea ever! Pencil episode!' And let it eventually betray you. Along the way, you're going to come to much greater ideas. Improv teaches you-- it's really the only first week of an improv class that either you get it or you don't. You don't need to be a master improviser, but I would recommend you take a class so you can learn 'Stop asking questions and stop denying' when we're breaking episodes."
Harmon on the genesis of Community:
"I was pitching a story of a guy who, like me, had gone to community college and who had at one point been invited to be a part of a study group and who didn't want to be a part of a study group because he had nothing to gain from it and everything to lose from it.
"At some point in that study group, all of a sudden I started giving a crap about people I had nothing to gain from in any real sense other than a human one, and I thought cynically in my head at that point as a TV writer while I was feeling that 'This is the kind of stuff people eat up, right? This is what they're always trying to give you on TV to keep you tuned in between Snickers commercials!' People like people, and people that want to write television-- people that want to direct it, probably, too, people that want to edit it, people that want to participate in it, people that want to be a part of it-- we love people. But we're so often dedicated to our love of people that we're not actually part of people. I was one of those people, and I probably still am, but at that point I realized 'Wow, this is a weird story. This guy, he's not part of people, but he's going to become a part of people'."
Harmon on taking Community from script to screen:
"What we were looking for on Community was incredibly versatile actors because we were doing a single-camera comedy, which means it should feel cinematic. There has to be a reason why there's no laugh track; the reason has to be because it feels like a movie. You have to feel the story; you have to feel immersed; you have to feel like they're real. But at the same time, it's comedy, so you have to have that 30 Rock pacing, that cadence, which is so unnatural. It's like 'set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline,' and even more so than on a multi-cam show because there's no pause for laughter. But it also needs to feel like a Wes Anderson movie. We knew from the outset we needed acrobats. We needed people who could do a pizza commercial, or a multi-cam sitcom, or an independent movie."
Harmon on the importance of "community" in his show and beyond:
"I think the most important thing as an individual is to figure out who you are but know nobody wants to be alone...There is no one who wants to be alone-- nobody. We take hardened criminals, we put them in solitary, and they go insane. They start banging on the walls and go 'Please let me out!' They want to be let out because they want to stab somebody with a toothbrush, but they want to be let out; they want to be near somebody. I'm not saying everybody is going to hug each other when they're near each other, but nobody wants to be alone. That's a starting point; that means something; and that's what this show's about."
And on that note, Harmon on humanity:
"There is no good; there is no evil; there's just the war going on between the people who want you to think there is a war going on between good and evil, and the people who know there doesn't have to be one. There's two facts about humanity, and they're both undeniable; you are reminded of them every second, every breath you take; they're inescapable. One is that we are separate. You can't escape that; you'll never be able to escape that. The other is that we are absolutely together, and those two things are swirling and swirling and swirling around, and you have a choice with every breath you take and every sentence you make to celebrate one side or the other. You can celebrate the separation or you can celebrate the union."
Harmon on fighting for what you know is right in your art:
"The word "community" became this really meta word. The funniest thing about this whole experience was there was a point before the first season aired, where I was on speakerphone with marketing experts who told me the name of the show needed to be Community College because the word "community," algorithmically was not allowed to trend-- and there's a really good reason. Twitter's algorithm is really complicated, and if it just went with words, Twitter trends would always be "the," "a," "Bieber." They have an algorithm, so words like "community," "taxi," "cheers," "friends," you know, those words are not allowed to be trending because they're incredibly basic words. Community is used over and over and over again on Twitter. If you search for the hashtag #Community on Twitter, you're going to run up against a bunch of people saying 'Last night's sucked', 'this night was great,' whatever, but you're going to see 'The Hispanic community needs to do this...' or 'the secret to community is this...' We could go one of two ways with that: we could change the name of our show to Skittles McBittles so that we consolidate our market! Or we could make sure the show is worthy of the name Community."
In closing, #Harmon2016!