Dan Harmon is the creator of NBC’s Community and Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program. He also wrote and created one of the most famous failed comedy pilots of all time, Heat Vision and Jack (1999). Presented and narrated by Ben Stiller, the sitcom starred Jack Black as a NASA employee—specifically, the smartest man on earth—who escaped a government-controlled experiment to travel the world with his sidekick, a talking motorcycle voiced by Owen Wilson. It wasn’t picked up by Fox, for no good reason at all.
Following the show’s premature cancellation, Dan and his friend Rob Schrab created a forum for other nontraditional television concepts and ideas, called Channel 101. Since 2001, every month in a small bar-turned-screening-room in Hollywood, audiences of a hundred or so people—often in, or aspiring to be in, the entertainment industry—gather to watch mini-pilots, each up to five minutes long, of varying DIY types of production, submitted by whoever has enough spare time and interest to make them. The audience watches ten of these super-condensed shows: a CSI spoof, a surreal animation about a horde of murderous, Gremlins-esque Bill Cosby clones. At the end of the screening, the audience votes for five of these pilots to be “picked up,” or given the green light to make a new episode for the next month’s screening. Each series continues its run for as long as the show remains popular in this underground television network. Over the last decade, Channel 101 has helped launch the careers of many comedians—from Andy Samberg and the SNL digital shorts creators to Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, and Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric.
I spoke to Dan early one morning by phone and let him wax wonderfully on in his salty fish-boat captain’s voice about everything from navigating the world of sitcom producing, to big-budget feature writing, to whether or not he actually is an unsung pioneer of the Funny or Die generation.
I. THE BENEFITS OF MORE CRAP
THE BELIEVER: Do you feel at this point there’s almost too much comedy out there? What with YouTube and the plethora of comedy websites and the general ease of uploading, is the market oversaturated to the point that it’s too hard to find the good stuff?
DAN HARMON: Yeah, there’s a lot of shit out there, and it is hard to find the good stuff. But we can’t look at that as a cause-effect relationship where if we limit the total amount of stuff, it would therefore become easier to find the good stuff. Ten years ago, if you turned on a U.S. network, you might be watching a basic cable show that was supposed to be sort of edgy, but you were really just watching something by the lowest level of Hollywood insiders who got a really cheap, shitty deal. In this post-YouTube era, we can scout talent across the world. You can call a kid in Minnesota and say, “I think that video that you made is really, really funny. Have you ever considered writing? Do want to do a Scope commercial for me? Can you do subversive mouthwash advertising?” It’s the same thing that we just watched happen with music. You get more and more crap, and it seems more and more mechanical and more and more joyless in the sort-of mainstream, but then you also get hopefully more and more—I don’t know—Becks? Sure, there’s a whole bunch more crap now, but everything that makes it possible for there now to be all this crap also makes it possible for you to define yourself and pick your friends and pick your artists in a really, really specific way that you were never able to do back when there was less crap. My communications professor, before I dropped out of college, summed up the first semester by saying, “Everybody, every year, with every new invention, always tries to decide whether its effects are good or bad, and you will find that the final answer is—there’s always more good and always more bad.” There’s just more of everything. Direct-broadcast satellite, speech recognition, disposable cameras, reality TV—everything that you can name, every innovation that panics the sophisticated and excites the base elements, then flips around because someone hip from the bottom creates something that sophisticates love—all have these horrible, horrible, evil elements to them, but they also help really, really great things become possible as well.
BLVR: Coming from Channel 101—where you vote off what’s old and stale and you’re always bringing in new shows the second the old ones fail to excite the audience—could you view being canceled almost as a badge of honor? I mean, The Sarah Silverman Program felt like it was almost built to be canceled; like it was daring people—executives—to do it; like you would have been disappointed if it wasn’t canceled at some point. Almost as if, if it wasn’t killed off, then maybe you hadn’t gone far enough or it hadn’t pushed the wrong people’s buttons. How does that notion square with you?
DH: That’s an interesting perspective. I think it might be the luxury of somebody watching to feel that way. I mean, believe me, me and Schrab and even Sarah, on the inside of that thing, are really hopin’ it runs for plenty long. Artistically, what you say is sort of a valid—or at least an interesting—way of looking at it. What it makes me think of is the fact that Schrab and I always felt like when you make something for a TV audience, you always have to act like it’s your final episode. You have to act like it’s the most important thing, and you also have to walk this tightrope between a constant consciousness that the audience is the most important thing, therefore if they’re not being entertained you’re fucking up. But with the ironic twist to that philosophy, which is that the only way to entertain audiences—the most important way—is to make them feel not responsible. They just want to watch, they want to relax. Stand-up comics do this all the time. That’s what the best ones do. They’re feeling the crowd and are absolutely reacting to everything, but they’re not stopping every five seconds and going, like, “Well, what kind of joke do you want to hear, then?” So your observation is kind of valid in that philosophically, yeah, getting canceled does mean you didn’t give a shit, hopefully. Like, getting canceled with a show that made eye contact with the audience and spun its plates and its chain saws and then just went away is better than running for eleven years and then jumping the shark and fading into the sunset and being witnessed trying to hang on by having adopted black babies join the cast and stuff. That is a non-heroic death compared to being a cowboy and getting shot in the gut by the sheriff and crawling away to maybe come back another day. So far I’ve only experienced the latter, and I do like it better than the thought of doing one thing for ten years and having the last five be the most pathetic.
II. THE HUMAN PURPOSE IN ANY GOD’S MIND
BLVR: The old Channel 101 classic The Lynx was canceled after one episode. You played two parts: one, a character named—was it Doug Shoe-Hat or Doug Shoe-Had?
DH: I think it was Shoe-Had.
BLVR: And the other character you played was a man who, after masturbating with a panty-hosed mannequin leg, gains the superpowers of a lynx. It ran for only one episode. What do you think went wrong there?
DH: Why did it not get renewed? I don’t know. I hope the reason is because the audience felt that the story was complete. Had they voted the show back—which I think probably would have been a bad decision on their part—they most likely would have been subjected to either something so much the same that they might as well just watch the first one again, or something so different that I might as well have made a new pilot. Channel 101 audiences tend to have a good instinct for that. They know who, if they cancel, will just go back to the drawing board and probably make something better. They don’t tend to just make it a popularity contest.
BLVR: If each Channel 101 screening can be considered a pilot-season showcase, with the hundred audience members acting as network executives deciding what will continue to be aired, you’ve probably gone through a hundred different pilot seasons since 2001, right? What does it feel like to have seen that much content in such a short amount of time? Is it weird to think about?
DH: That’s the great thing about Channel 101. That was the thing I was most looking forward to when Schrab and I were conceiving it. We had finally created a device that would be able to squeeze a certain kind of mind like a toothpaste tube and really, like, roll it up from the end. I was very young and cocky back then. I was actually so young and energetic and cocky that I was excited about the idea of running out of ideas! These days, as you might imagine, I’m just like the older pitcher in Major League who puts Tabasco and snot on the ball and says to Charlie Sheen, “When you get to be my age, you’ll put anything you can on it.” I think it’s just a natural, sad thing about the human mind as you get a little older. You get—maybe you get bored with life? I don’t know what it is. But your brain—I hope it’s not just that your brain starts to die. That would be horrible. I think it’s that you get a little more… your taste buds have tasted lots of stuff and you’re not as needful of proving yourself, so there’s just less, like, sparks exploding up there all the time, going, “Get out there and do this thing and do that thing!” At any rate, it can’t be a bad thing to encourage creative people to get up every day, or at least once a month, and then squeeze their head like a sponge onto some kind of piece of paper or screen or easel and just keep doing it.
BLVR: And succeed or fail, just try to get some content out there….
DH: Right. I always told people, and Schrab always told people, “If you really believe that you suck, prove it. Prove that you suck. Prove it to yourself, prove it to your mother, prove it to the ghost of your gym teacher. Just, like, suck! Just show us how much you suck. Think of the stupidest thing in the world and then suck again and keep sucking.” And you’re either right or you’re wrong, but in either case it’s almost equally valid. What you do, your body of work—I mean, because we’re all gonna die, and then you’ll have this pile of stuff next to your bed, and is it really going to matter if it’s good or bad, or whom it’s good or bad to? The only thing I can think that will slightly matter is whether it exists or not. That’s the great feeling I get at Channel 101. We’re not wasting this world. We’re connecting with each other and audiences and making a bunch of crap, which, I gotta think, that’s the human purpose in any god’s mind.
III. TAKE IT SEASON BY SEASON
BLVR: If you look at NBC’s Community, it’s a show that actually lives within a real, identifiable time line. In the first season, they finish their first year of college, there’re tests, the passage of time, etc. How does that change your thinking about a series, compared to a show like The Sarah Silverman Program, where there was no time line and every episode could be its own entity? Do you start thinking, What happens when they finish their degrees? Is that the natural end? Or do you kind of ride it out until someone tells you to stop?
DH: I think about it all the time. But I look at it as part of the appeal of the show that time can’t be controlled. A school show is a very rare species: a combination of the workplace comedy and the family comedy. In the family comedy, there’s the warm feeling of “this could go on forever and only death will end it.” Sometimes there’re ups and downs, but there’s this general sort of warmth, like, “We have to struggle against the world.” Then, in the workplace comedy, there’s this “nose-to-the-grindstone, we’re in purgatory, I hope we get out of here one day but we never seem to and that’s OK, so if you’re watching and you hate your job, we’re on your side, and let’s have some laughs along the way.” The school comedy we’ve rarely seen succeed, because usually it’s about Arnold Harberger or something, and no one wants to watch a bunch of white kids sit around and earn their birthright. But the school comedy, it occurred to me while developing the show, is actually a hybrid, because there’s a ticking clock happening and the world is encroaching. There’s a transitional feeling: you’re in purgatory, but you’re there to get better and to leave, and yet we have a family there, and then that sort of giant pendulum swinging, going, “Oh, final exams. Oh, another Christmas went by. We’re gonna graduate one day.” That was the feeling that you had in high school and in college and in kindergarten, and that’s a major part of these things. If we were, this year, to start warping time in this obvious attempt to squeeze whatever we could out of the viewers, I think we’d lose half of our sort of subconscious or emotional appeal. If we didn’t have another Christmas and call it another Christmas, and if we didn’t have another Halloween and another final exams and another end of another year, we could technically be creating a sort of infinite show, but I think people would stop watching it. So that’s a huge paradox, and I’m glad that the people who make TV and pay for us to make these shows don’t think about that stuff as much as we do, because they wouldn’t have bought the pitch. They would have said, “Ah, a school show. Well, it won’t be able to run.” TV people think about the pilot, then getting it shot, then getting it picked up for a series. Then we think about the first season and we think about, you know, getting a second season. And in the second season, you think about getting a third season, and that’s a good way to work. Certainly, I’m not going to do any time-warping. It would be killing myself, shooting the show in the foot, so the answer is: I think about the fact that time is passing all the time, just like those characters do. I’m going to continue to commit to the fact that there’s a story being told that has a beginning, a middle, and a possible end. I believe that there’s a version of the show that runs seven years, believe it or not, and, no, it doesn’t involve a lot of strange or contrived circumstances that require people to become teachers or find out that their credits are invalid and they have to start over again, because that would be cheating, too. As a Channel 101 guy, I’m actually quite comfortable simultaneously knowing and not knowing that this show could run for two years and be the best show, could run for four years and be the best show, could run for seven years and actually be a better show than anyone could have imagined it could have been. I’ve learned by now how to be very, very comfortable not knowing what’s more than one hundred feet ahead. It’s a one-year-at-a-time story right now.
IV. THEN SOME UGLY JERK REWRITES YOU
BLVR: Having written the animated film Monster House, can you speak about the difference in the level of respect TV writers get versus film writers?
DH: Film is the domain of the non-writing producer and director. And they’re not on a schedule. The richer you are, the busier you are, the more you’re allowed to hold up production. The nature of TV is if you snooze, you lose, so the 73 rich people at the very top who don’t do anything creative, they have no choice but to acquiesce to the fact that, look, we got to let the people who make the stuff sort of run the stuff, too. That’s all it is. It’s just a matter of schedule and overhead and the fact that if you’re the only TV network where the people who don’t write are the ones making every single decision, your shows are going to be late and you’re going to lose money to your competitors. There’s a lot of compromising of the TV writer that doesn’t exist in features—for instance, the fact that they jam us into a room like sardines and make us work like we’re in a sweatshop. But we’ve adapted to that. We staff our shows with like-minded people, and we have a good time. We see TV as being different than movies, and we don’t consider it a transgression to rewrite each other in TV. But we do that because they say we have to, you know? In features, you’re just this troll that, unfortunately for them, is a necessary first step to the process. So some ugly jerk has to write this crap that they can then shoot any way they want. As soon as they get that script in their hands, they’re so relieved because they can go have another ugly jerk rewrite it, or they can start shooting it and just ban you from the set. Because there’s no schedule in features. There are features executives who are allowed to not make a movie for six years and still not get fired. If you have a bad month in TV as an executive, they replace you like a light bulb. In features, you’re really kicked around. I’m sure that there’re exceptions to that, like when you actually have been hazed enough—although, you know, Charlie Kaufman just had a script rejected that he was paid to write. They’re not going to shoot it, and it’s like, he’s Charlie fucking Kaufman! But that’s features. I love movies more than I love TV, as a viewer, but as a guy workin’, you only get respected in TV. You only get told that you’re valuable in TV.
V. MONEY IS THE HAND THAT FEEDS YOU
BLVR: What do you think will be required to get people to start paying for entertainment again? There’s been this trend of “all content is free,” and people keep making good stuff for free and just praying that someone will pay them for it down the line. Do you see anything in the future that’s going to reverse that trend?
DH: One answer to that question that may seem a little silly is that what we currently call “product placement” or “integrative marketing” will stop being looked at as some freak experiment. What we actually call advertising is the freak right now, because it’s interrupting what you’re watching. Today, people pick the times they watch and what they want to watch, so my general theory is that companies with money will eliminate the middleman and do something similar to what we saw in the early days of TV, which is “Crest presents Milton Burrow,” or “Hey look! It’s The Will Ferrell Show, brought to you by Charmin, the toilet paper that you love to use.” And maybe Will Ferrell will do bits about it during his thing. I think it could be a good thing, creatively, for companies that are currently sort of hypnotized by Madison Avenue to go into the ad business themselves and start having websites where they can be little media moguls. They’ve got the money! And you hardly need any. You just go to a kid whose stuff you like and say, “Hey, wanna do something for Nike? We have this Nike website where you can’t go without receiving Nike messaging, but the reason people go there is because we have this fantastic content.” And each of these companies becomes a sort of patron of the arts, and they’re pitted against each other, and what we used to call networks and what we used to call websites just become a landscape of corporations doing battle with each other, playing minstrels in these chess games against each other. In ways, it will be very similar to now, because people who really have chops will ask for more money from those companies, or they’ll threaten to walk to a different company. They’ll get bigger budgets and access to stuff that allows them to make more event-oriented things that I think a lot of people will want to watch together— because we have that human instinct. We like the idea that there’s some stuff in this landfill of scraps that has that giant Jim Carrey, Snickers wrapper, Cary Grant kind of appeal, where everyone knows what you’re talking about when you mention them. I think that will continue because we want it to continue. There will always be stuff that everyone has to see or they’ll feel left out at the water cooler or on Facebook. So—I think your question was, How are people going to start making money on entertainment again? I think the answer is that the money is going to start making entertainment again.