6th February 2013

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The Dungeon Master and the Story Circle: The story of Harmontown

I’ve spent the last few weeks all over the country, and often in a few places simultaneously.  When I was in Park City, I was in Somerville.  When I was in Fort Lauderdale, I was in Denver.  To be fair, when I was in Brooklyn, I was in Brooklyn - but I was always in Harmontown.

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Harmontown is a podcast featuring Dan Harmon, the creator of NBC’s Community, improv game impresario Jeff Davis, and a live audience. That’s kind of the whole thing.  Of course, podcasting isn’t a medium known for high concepts, but Harmontown is still crazy loose by any standard.  I spent a good portion of my January refreshing itunes in anticipation of the latest episode. Harmontown’s kind of my favorite thing.  

Ostensibly, the conceit is that Harmon and his like-minded fans are planning for a future where they can withdraw from society and form a colony on the moon, unimpeded by the bullshit of modern life.  Each episode functions kind of like an actual town meeting, where people in the audience tell their stories, air grievances and sing songs.  

But if the “colony on the moon” concept gave Harmontown a reason to exist, it certainly didn’t much impact the show itself.  With the exception of the very rare, tangential mention every dozen episodes or so, it never comes up.  The show mostly consists of the scruffy “Mayor” Harmon talking to the audience, veering off on tangents (his winking catchphrase for a short while was “I don’t want to get off on too many tangents”), and a heavy dose of drunken freestyle rap. The perpetually nattily-dressed, lanky and angular “Comptroller”Jeff Davis sort of keeps things on the rails.  Harmon describes the show as an attempt to indulge his narcissism, but it’s clearly also about an anxious nerd longing to connect to other humans in a way that’s both from a safe distance and intensely intimate.

It’s confessional, and not in a tidy way. On stage, Harmon airs his dirty laundry, talks shit and names names.  Everything is on the record.  He talks about the times he shat his pants.  About using cocaine.  He fights with his girlfriend, gets shitfaced and occasionally breaks some cardinal rules of Hollywood code.  In fact, Harmontown’s first piece of national publicity came when an audience member leaked a recording of Harmon playing this enraged voicemail from Community star Chevy Chase:

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As sort-of articulated by Chase in the clip above, the knock on Harmon is that he can be unprofessional and hard to work with.  Harmon’s the first to own that.  Community was often behind schedule and over budget.  Network notes were ignored and ratings were low.  But he needed his scripts to be perfect.  Maybe each episode was him trying to get something out.  Maybe it was all too personal, and there was no room for compromise because the creator was dealing with something bigger than a TV show. 

And when the network finally had enough, they cut him loose.  Fans (and producers) of Community reacted to the news of his ouster with acute anger and disbelief.  It wasn’t that the show couldn’t be as good without Harmon, it was more like the very idea of Community was incoherent without him.  Each of the seven principal characters in the lowly-rated, critically-acclaimed, fan-adored show could be understood as aspects of Harmon.  Their study room was his big-ass brain. A lot of the fun came from watching all those parts bounce off one another in unpredictable ways. The crusader, the goodie two shoes, the alpha, and the nerd were all Dan Harmon.

And while the archetypes were set, Community treated genre with unprecedented fluidity.  It’s a sitcom about sitcoms that was sometimes a western, sometimes a Law & Order episode and sometimes entirely rendered in claymation.  

And despite all the unpredictability around which direction any given episode of Community could take, Dan Harmon is a sucker for structure and it shows in every episode.  A champion of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, Harmon created his "story circle." 

Story CircleHere’s the oversimplified version:  The protagonist begins in a familiar zone of comfort, but is lured or tempted into an adventure.  He (or she) overcomes great obstacles and triumphs over great odds, but pays an unforseen cost. The hero assimilates the new experience and comes away changed.  

It’s a remarkable, almost breathtakingly simple explanation of how good modern storytelling works.  Here’s what the writer’s room whiteboard looked like during the breaking of one of Community’s most celebrated episodes, “Remedial Chaos Theory”:

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If it seems like a pretentious approach to a medium that has its roots in Ralph Kramden threatening to punch his wife in between soap commercials, then you’re missing the point.  The story circle isn’t about style, it’s not even really a guide for “best practices.”  It’s a big think observation on the fundamental story arc of every good piece of fiction from Macbeth to Back to the Future.  Harmon’s obsessed with journeys, and without certain key elements, a journey is nothing more than a trip.

Which brings us back to Harmontown.  Typically recorded in the back of a comic book store in Los Angeles, last month Harmon packed up his crew and took the show on the road.  They did 20 dates across the country in a rock n’ roll-style megabus, and podcasted each one.  Along for the ride was Harmon’s girlfriend, the effervescent, quick-witted Erin McGathy and a dungeon master named Spencer Crittenden.  

Spencer is kind of a big deal.

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He started out as an audience member back at the comic store.  Harmon and Davis were discussing Dungeons & Dragons and asked the audience if anyone in attendance happened to be a competent Dungeon Master.  A voice cut though the silence — it was a mild-mannered, thickly be-bearded, laid back, Apple store employee with an aptitude for 20-sided dice slinging.

What followed from that interaction was the founding of the one regular bit that Harmontown would feature in every single subsequent episode: an ongoing game of D&D, helmed by Crittenden.  

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Spencer, the very definition of a Hollywood outsider, embraced his role with aplomb.  Episode after episode, he spun the tale of a magical world to the players: the magician Sharpie Buttsalot, the barbarian Quark, and the transgendered archer Mulhraine Sedana (Harmon, Davis and McGathy, respectively.)  The game, often occupying almost a quarter of the entire show, would frequently stray from strict D&D orthodoxy.  Comic asides from the well-liquored participants would occasionally result in only a precious few arrows shot and hit points lost.  But Spencer always gets the game on multiple levels.  For sure, he’s an expert hardcore dungeon master, but he also demonstrated the ability to take the boozy craziness in stride. He played it straight, but not rigid, knowing that the comedy was what made the bit so great.  Spencer quickly became an indispensable facet of Harmontown because he understood that the fun was in the chaos, but it was the structure that made it all work.  

Yup …classic Harmon.

By the time the tour launched, it was a no-brainer that Spencer was coming along for the ride.  And just like that, the DM found himself crammed in a bus with a merry band of drunken extroverts.  Only days earlier he was working quietly in the back of an Apple store, and now he was getting standing ovations all over the country.  He’s quick-witted, and despite what seemed like a deeply reserved nature, he consistently gives as good as he gets — a big deal, considering he was dropped onto stages all over the country with a group of professional funny people in front of some very highly discerning comedy audiences.  His presence quickly expanded beyond the D&D - Spencer became a spiritual anchor — a sober counter-balance to the explosive-emotional triad of Harmon, Davis and McGathy. The Mayor gushed over him onstage.  He had fans — some of them wanted to make out with him.  But Crittenden, who lived at home with his mom, was incorruptible. 

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He took to Tumblr to blog his feelings:

when faced by the adoration of tons of harmenians, I feel like all the love and celebration I got was unwarranted, like I didn’t deserve it. Then my contrary/negative side kicked in and painted all the fans as ‘wrong,’ as ‘misunderstanding’ and that made me hate myself for failing to live up to how I thought they wanted me to be and also hate them for appreciating a wretch like me with such fiendish admiration. If I’m shit and you like it then you like shit. Which is shitty.

It kind of broke my heart when I read it.  I felt like he was talking about me.  I felt a sudden rush of concern that when I had met him briefly in Brooklyn, I had been too effusive or something.  Had I overlavished him with praise?  Had I been one of a countless number of annoying people pushing the dungeon master to be something he didn’t want to be?  Maybe.  But Dan Harmon read that same entry and saw something more fundamental.  He saw a story.  Thanks to Spencer, the Harmontown tour had found it’s arc:

Harmon recast himself as the villain.  Now he was a rich, self-indulgent, fame whore who bought himself a nationwide tour in the same way most mortals treat themselves to a fancy dinner.  And Spencer, as evidenced by his heart-rending blog entry, was the hero.  It was he who had evolved during the journey, not Harmon.  It was Spencer who was rounding the Harmenian circle chart into that final quarter.  Into growth.

The tour finally culminated this week in a massive homecoming at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles. Two of the attendees spent 1000 bucks each on Kickstarter for VIP tickets and a chance to play D&D with Harmon and company.  At the conclusion of that show and the tour, one story circle was definitively closed.  

Harmontown will return to its weekly home at Meltdown Comics.  Dan Harmon, isn’t really a villain, of course.  He’s got new comedy pilots in the works for both Fox and CBS.  And this week , the almost-cancelled Community returns for its fourth season, for the first time without it’s creator.  Again, it’s hard to not be reminded of a closing story circle.

Spencer will return to the back of the Apple Store, but he’s a new man.  And if Dan Harmon is right, the dungeon master is truly a hero, and a new circle is about to begin.

Tagged: harmontowndan harmoncommunitydungeons and dragonsharmoncountryjeff daviserin mcgathyspencer crittendenpodcastsstory circle

  1. wysard reblogged this from winrosenfeld and added:
    Dan Harmon, Community, and Harmontown was the thing that united all of the things I liked and helped me figure out my...
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    Yes of course I am reblogging this tumble blog OF COURSE
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    Seriously, flat out obsessed with this Podcast. Stories....love them! Stories!
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