Until I started watching NBC’s (now Yahoo! Screen’s) Community during its premiere episode in 2009, I had no idea what a “Showrunner” was, nor had I ever heard the term. I got an inkling of what it meant just from the word—a person who runs a series, and is usually responsible for the show’s creation. However, it felt more like a Hollywood business term thrown around as industry short-hand. However, with Community’s showrunner Dan Harmon becoming so inextricably tied to any conversation about the series in the press, the term has become more commonplace than ever. In fact, Harmon is so intimately tied to Community that it’s easy to forget that he had a career before the Little Series That Could became a cult phenomenon. With Harmontown—the documentary that follows Harmon on the road following being fired from Community at the end of the show’s third season—now available in theaters and VOD, I thought I would look back at the Writer/Executive Producer/Showrunner’s body of work that led him to his place in pop culture now.
Heat Vision and Jack
One of the first pilots that Harmon created, along with his collaborator Rob Schrab, was the one-and-done Heat Vision and Jack, created to air on Fox. The sci-fi/comedy hybrid starred Jack Black as Jack Austin, a former astronaut who gained superintelligence when exposed to off-the-scales amount of solar energy. Owen Wilson co-stars with Jack Black as Heat Vision, Jack’s roommate who merged with his motorcycle after being hit by a ray. I’m incredibly torn on my feelings on Heat Vision and Jack. On the one hand, if the pilot had been picked up by Fox, we may never have had Community or Rick and Morty. On the other hand, I would totally watch the adventures of Jack and his talking motorcycle roommate. It’s like Knight Rider, but a thousand times more awesome and you don’t have to pretend to care about David Hasselhoff. Also: Ron Silver plays an evil Ron Silver. Come on, people. GOLD.
When Heat Vision and Jack wasn’t picked up by Fox, Harmon and Rob Schrab created Channel 101, which let filmmakers show works to an audience of other filmmakers to suss out what worked and what didn’t in terms of adopting and utilizing storytelling tropes and ideas into their works. A few pieces of gold were eked out of those Channel 101 days, most notably the Chad Vader series that made the rounds on YouTube a few years back. Another series that made its debut during those days was Laser Fart, which is exactly what it sounds like. This was a crucial time in Harmon’s life, as it helped him get an idea of what kind of writer he wanted to be, creating his own storytelling method that is loosely based on Joseph Campbell’s hero myth cycle. He would later employ this method in crafting episodes of Community. Harmon’s time with Channel 101 was also crucial to his career trajectory, as it was during that period that he worked with Sarah Silverman.
The Sarah Silverman Program
Harmon co-created The Sarah Silverman Program, which starred comedian Sarah Silverman. He served as head writer for the show for many of the Comedy Central series’ episodes, but his contentious attitude on the set made him difficult to work with, according to Silverman. She was tired of having to walk on “eggshells,” as she recounts in the Harmontown documentary. This eventually led to Harmon being fired from the show, which even he admits some culpability in the decision. As he told Wired back in 2011, “I was inexperienced and oversensitive. Sarah would send me notes, and they would hurt my feelings.”
Come on, you know Community. The series about a study group attending Greendale Community College is likely the show that Harmon is and will forever be most closely linked with. Starring The Soup’s Joel McHale as a disbarred lawyer who has to go back to college to earn his bachelor’s degree in order to practice law again, the series has become a cult classic not just for the genre episodes that crop up every so often—which employ sitcom tropes like bottle episodes, flashbacks, and themes focusing on paintball or westerns or Star Wars. Rather, the heart that Harmon injects into the show, driving home the theme of creating a community of friends and family from those around you, has turned a series that could be a tiresome gimmick into a work that fans (myself included) deeply identify with. As Harmon acknowledged in Harmontown, the sitcom seems to give hope to people who don’t quite fit in that they can find their place in the world. Of course, the series is just as known as being on the cusp of cancellation by its home at NBC over and again until finally getting the axe after its fifth season. However, Sony Pictures, the show’s distributor, made a deal with Yahoo! Screen ensuring that a sixth season will premiere early next year.
Rick and Morty
If there was ever a series that was a polar opposite to Community, it’s Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty. Created by Harmon and Justin Roiland, the animated series follows the adventures of the alcoholic scientist Rick and his grandson Morty. The show goes full-tilt on some of its plots, just like Community, but I’m pretty sure that Jeff Winger never time traveled to destroy his past self. Also: the bit with the flu-hating rapper is genius.
Harmontown is now available in select theaters, on iTunes, and on VOD. The sixth season of Community hits Yahoo! Screen next January and the second season of Rick and Morty will premiere sometime next year.