Yesterday I heard Dan Harmon speak at The Writers Guild Foundation, the non-profit component of the Writers Guild of America. I have a page full of teeny-tiny, smudged pencil scribblings to prove it, and I hope to distill a few of Harmon’s main points, as well as my subsequent thoughts.
Despite his reputation as the brains behind the incredibly popular television show Community, Harmon works hard to maintain an everyman schtick in which he attributes his success to good timing and a fair amount of luck. Harmon discusses the necessity of fair and inclusive hiring processes in both casting and the writers’ room, but his often erudite diction and complex, but coherent, strains of thought belie his calculated persona of averageness. Sure, Dan Harmon got lucky, but his assertion that anyone can write decent television is perhaps too forgiving. Harmon’s evident intelligence and fluidity with language are not innate in all television writers.
Harmon is an engaging speaker, but he revels in presenting the writer as a desperate figure who agonizes over scripts in his pajamas, rarely leaves the house to buy groceries, and consequently wipes his ass with t-shirts when an aired pilot episode isn’t well-received. I find this characterization frustrating for several reasons: Perhaps this is indeed how Dan Harmon behaves as a writer, but when he strives to present himself as a relatable guy who just happened upon success, his representation of the writer comes to depict all writers. If Dan Harmon describes himself as a writer who has similar skills and ambitions as all the writers in the audience, then his “…pursuit of minimal work for maximum reward” (and I’m quoting from the event program) becomes our archetype for success.
I know this may sound pedantic, but when a writer like Harmon addresses an audience that mostly consists of aspiring writers, he shouldn’t be afraid to confront the framework of his success. Don’t tell us we can all be president one day; tell us that it was hard as hell, but that you worked your ass off to get your show made. You can still be a man of the people while being honest about your efforts in writing. When you make it seem like anyone can take a great idea and turn it into a great show, you trivialize the work of other writers, and most importantly, you trivialize your own work.
Aside from this excessive grievance, I really enjoyed Harmon’s talk. I feel like there should be a Part 2 to this post so that I can discuss Harmon’s thoughts on good writing emerging from “structure and chaos” and the hilarious house/basement metaphor that he used to great comedic effect.
But I’m still on East Coast time here, and my bedtime has definitely come and gone. In closing, and in the unlikely event that Harmon peruses this entry, I would just like to congratulate him on the success of Community, and offer my support for its repeated renewal. I believe Harmon said that he would like to do six seasons, and I sincerely hope he gets his wish. Television needs more dedicated and skilled writers, even if they like to pretend they’re not. Stay tuned!