"I DON'T have any success with individual therapists," says writer-cum-performer Dan Harmon, speaking from a tour bus that's somewhere between Bloomington and Chicago. "I don't trust them," he explains. "I don't think they're smart enough."
He's accounting for the creation of Harmontown, his variety-formatted stand-up show and corresponding podcast—co-hosted by Jeff Davis (Whose Line Is It Anyway?)—that's currently touring the country.
"I find that audiences are very trustworthy because they have no agenda other than, I dunno, a human one, and so if you can stand in front of some bright lights and a microphone and kind of bare your soul... you're back on honest ground,"says Harmon. "It's always been very therapeutic for me. I'd been doing it since before Community let me go, so when Community did let me go, it made a natural place to lick my wounds."
Even before Harmon's controversial firing as the head writer of Community—a show he created for NBC that ran for three seasons under his leadership—he's been familiar with the creative salves necessitated by professional failure. You might even say he's made of career of such band-aids.
Back in the late '90s, Harmon co-created a show for Fox called Heat Vision and Jack, starring Jack Black, that filmed a pilot and was never picked up. In its wake, Harmon co-founded the groundbreaking film festival and web TV station Channel 101 (who remembers Yacht Rock?)—a platform for short, homemade television pilots which, upon airing in front of a live audience, are voted into future production or cancellation by viewers.
It was only after the success of Channel 101 that Harmon went on to help create The Sarah Silverman Program, and later, Community. But with Community came creative pressure, and with creative pressure came the need to, once again, experiment outside the professional pen.
"Writing is the thing I'm supposed to be the best at," says Harmon. "There's no room for experimentation in my own mind—and I get paid a lot to do it—so performing is something I'm allowed to be bad at, I'm allowed to flounder, I'm allowed to experiment. It's a non-profit, passionate venture for me, and it's also very therapeutic."
But to simply describe Harmontown as public therapy or stand-up would be an oversimplification. Yes, there are freestyle raps about banging people's moms and longish, self-reflective rants, but at the core of the therapeutic lulz, Harmontown is a thought experiment: The show centers around the hyperbolic goal of starting a colony on the moon.
"We're living in this giant concrete honeycomb and our government has become this ridiculous thing," explains Harmon. "You feel trapped and you feel alienated and suffocated and you want to get away, and the safe way to say that is, 'I want to go to the moon,' because if I say, 'Let's go to Afghanistan,' I'll be arrested, and if I even say, 'Let's go out to an oil platform off the coast of America and form our own government,' I'll probably be arrested. So if I say, 'Let's go to the moon,' it's poetic, it's just outside the feasibility level to make it something we can yearn for."
But while Harmon recognizes his moon colony as a farfetched, poetic goal, his show has hosted jet propulsion experts and ethnologists—various consultants with whom Harmon discusses the realities of an extraterrestrial Harmontown. He's even worked with audiences to devise a Harmontown constitution, which currently consists of a single law: Everyone can do anything they want as long as it doesn't inhibit others from doing what they want.
It's all very idealistic, sharing philosophical headspace with the Libertarian and Tea Party movements—though the goal isn't so much to actualize a new political system, but to talk about a new political system.
And as history tells us, political reform isn't something that starts in the hermetically sealed halls of a legislative body. It starts in the open air of public conversation. It starts with something like Harmontown. It starts with therapy.