Just Shy of Genius: An Advanced Dan Harmon Fan’s Journey into Harmoncountry
The line leading to the main stage of Cap. City Comedy in Austin, TX begins at the end of a short hall lined with glossy photos of the most famous comics working today. And, appropriately enough, at the stage door. The line makes a sharp left about halfway down the club's south wall, where a table has been set up to display flyers and postcards and assorted knick-knacks that promote the club's upcoming shows. Things that probably have a lot more to do with modern stand-up comedy than the often eclectic and frequently electric podcast/stage show of Dan Harmon, creator and former showrunner of NBC's "Community." Bobby Lee's perpetually bewildered face is everywhere, as is its wont. But his isn't the show we're all in line for, continuing past the table to snake around the bar. We're here for Harmontown, the live show and podcast hybrid normally based out of Meltdown Comics in L.A. -- a comic book store, not a comedy club. Yes, Harmontown, where not everybody knows your name, but, if you find yourself there, you tend to belong just the same.
Not a single person in line looks over 35 and most are assuredly in their 20s, many still in college. Those nearest the front of the line are the most stereotypically nerdy -- pasty, somewhat haggard (if male, definitely bearded), wearing thick-lensed glasses with thin wire frames -- or trying so hard to be real hipsters they've circled back to ironic -- also pasty, stylishly haggard (if male, the beards have product in them), and lots of thick-framed glasses with useless or non-existent lenses. Eventually the two just sort of merge together, with hipster sisters escorting their nerdy younger brothers, until the non-tumblring, non-instagramming fans arrive merely minutes before the doors open. I'm at the table, much closer to the beginning of the line, glancing back and forth between the door in front of me and the one behind, at the main entrance where tickets and merchandise are sold. It's during one of these backward glances when the man himself enters the club.
In chinos and a plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves (not unlike nearly everyone in line), Dan Harmon seems both taller and smaller than imagined. This, despite having seen him in interviews with both Kevin Pollack and Joel McHale, who apparently aren't the definitive height-based reference points they would seem. The writer, who has been a called "genius" not insincerely, almost stumbles in, but not drunkenly or for lack of grace. He stops as suddenly as he started, at the precipice of the club and methodically taking in his surroundings. First straight ahead at the mass of fans in line, then at the merch booth, and then at me. At the table. The avatar of what's blocking him from barreling straight onto the stage. For a half a second we make eye contact, and it's almost like he can see through to my soul and he gets me but isn't sure how to feel about it. Which, incidentally, is not unlike seeing right through me to some other goal beyond.
The moment passes, and just as it seems like he was going to fruitlessly head in my direction to determine where he's supposed to go, someone in his crew moves among the throng, ninja-like toward backstage, and grabs his attention. Immediately, he bolts in that direction. It's only then that I manage to nudge a friend and say, "Holy sh!t, that's Dan Harmon." Everyone around us looks, but he's already gone, lost in the crowd, camouflaged in his bearded disheveledry. He disappears backstage and sooner than later, the doors finally open and we head inside.
It takes about forty minutes, but everyone files in and finds the best seats left available to them like survivors in a post-apocalypse scavenging supplies and safe places to hole up. Unlike those survivors, though, we have a two drink minimum. Conversations seem to drift from "Community" to past episodes of the podcast, and there's a palpable excitement in the room. Having just listened to the self-inflicted awkwardness of the tour's first stop in Phoenix, I'm a little nervous that the whole thing is going to blow up in Harmon's face before it even gets started. That show in Arizona wasn't bad but the psychic fall-out could go either way. When the lights fade to black and Harmontown's co-host and comptroller Jeff Davis takes the stage to start the show, everyone already is on their first round and, based on the volume of the applause, more than at least one of us is on their second.
One thing is certain: all anybody in this audience wants is for everything to go well, and almost entirely for the host's sake. This show starts off differently from Phoenix immediately, with the TV mastermind thanking and engaging the audience rather than storming headlong into a patented Dan Harmon "F*ck Yo' Mama" Freestyle Rap. As is his wont, Harmon tackles his own insecurities about Phoenix right away and what he learned from that first show. For anyone who listens regularly, it's obvious that Harmon is looser and noticeably excited tonight. In fact, he seems thrilled to be here, right now in this place, performing whatever the hell it is he calls "Harmontown."
Within the first half hour, he's already talked about "pooping with Jeff" for the first time in their 15-year friendship due to this tour, the delights of Tito's vodka over Kettel One, their Dungeon Master's webbed toes, how he's so liberal that the Confederate Flag doesn't bother him at all, and why Jeff loathes both Jimmy Page and "Hey-Ya" by OutKast. Feces, alcohol, race, and honesty in the face of popular opinion. All things that mark a great episode of the podcast, and none of which seems inorganic or quite like any previous Harmontown. By the time they do get to their first rap -- about President Obama and his mama (a rhyme scheme that would be criminal not to abuse) -- and bring back the choral refrain devised the night before, Dan Harmon earns the slo-mo "Bon Jovi audience high-five sweep" he tried to create falsely in Phoenix. By the time they get to this show's installment of Dungeons and Dragons, they can do no wrong.
Which is good, because not everyone on the stage is a fan of what happens next.
If you've never heard or seen an episode of Harmontown, it's probably impossible to understand why Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular bit. Jeff and Dan's avatars are a barbarian gnome named Quark and a human mage named Sharpie Buttsalot. They've had adventures ranging from killing dark wizards to healing the emotional wounds between the mage and his barbarian clan-leading father, with a sexually permissive Unicorn played by Greg Proops and Ryan Stiles' inscrutable halfling merchant fitting in there somewhere. Jeff Davis comes from "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" you see. It's probably terrible DnD that's saved only by their totally legit DM, Spencer Crittenden, but it's always hilarious and being clueless is only the weakest reason why.
Tonight turns out to be an extended riff on the origin story of the character played by Dan Harmon's girlfriend, Erin McGathy, an elf, male archer who shouts "Adventure!" whether it makes any sense or not. But after reading through an impressively detailed diary, brilliantly put together during the road trip's long hours (Spencer really is legitimate), it turns out that this male archer was actually a mother, whose children were slaughtered by an unknown force that seems to be the overarching threat to the gang's quest. The turn is tragic to be sure, but it's so perfectly overwrought about a magical sex-change-causing belt and the desire to reverse it that it veers back into comedy. The lute-playing callbacks to Led Zeppelin and the asides about strap-on dildos from the barbarian gnome certainly don't hurt.
After the show, when standing in line at the merch booth, I get the chance to tell both Erin and Spencer how great DnD was because of their collaboration. That's when Erin tells me that Jeff was not amused by any of it, except for his own one-liners. That the tension was real was only vaguely apparent on stage, but it wouldn't be an episode of Harmtown if Jeff and Erin didn't metaphorically, or otherwise, fight over the attention of Dan the Man himself. If it weren't the conclusion of a Kevin Smith movie, I'd suggest a threesome to resolve all that tension, if only for the inevitably great story in a future episode. That any of the funny people involved in the show would take any of the stage magic too seriously is more tragic than any DnD adventure. After all, it's the combination of divergent sources that make a trip to Harmoncountry -- live show, podcast, under-performing sitcom -- such a worthwhile experience. Hey, that reminds me of a TV show you've probably heard of but probably don't watch.
But it doesn't matter what drama might go on backstage or in the tour bus tomorrow, because it is abundantly clear that Harmontown fans are attached to this guy and his idiosyncrasies; perhaps even more so than the show that spawned the rabid devotion. As evidence of this, the show tonight concludes with a sing-a-long of the new, aforementioned Harmoncountry refrain and just about everyone in the audience joins in. Silly and hopeful, crude and melodic, it goes a little something like this:
"Come on down to Harmontown, turn that frown upside down. Pee is yellow and poop is brown, come on down to Harmontown."
If the crowd weren't too awkward or too cool, there would be a standing ovation. The show certainly deserves its raucous applause more than the half of that Paul Simon concert I saw in the late 90s, and just as much as either of the Bob Dylans. I'd love to relay that to Dan Harmon in person, or at least just high-five him for creating one of my favorite TV shows and the, ahem, community that popped up around it.
Yet, I've already talked to Erin and Spencer, and had them sign all the swag I could get my hands on, and still high on adrenaline (and drinks) from the show I absentmindedly leave the club before Dan or Jeff even come out for the standard post-show meet 'n' greet. By the time I realize what I did, I'm in the parking lot and my spot in line has been feverishly filled. Because I'm one of the awkward nerds, I say "f*ck it," and we head back to the hotel with memorabilia in hand.
This happens to be a boon, because as the never-aglow Days Inn sign looms in the distance, I suddenly regret ordering that third Jack and Coke. The rest of the night is somewhat less fun and spent hovering INSERT PREPOSITION HERE the hotel room's toilet. I feel better in the morning and can't force myself to regret leaving the club too soon, because that wouldn't have been good for anyone. Had I stayed, there's a better-than-decent chance I would have ruined more than my own night. I didn't get to meet my hero, to shake his hand, to thank him, but we did share a unremarkable moment. Nothing more than that, and that's okay. You can't disappoint a picture.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He wishes he could do the Harmoncountry tour like some sort of Dead Head, but one show is better than none.