Hot Docs 2014 Review: Harmontown
The word ‘artifice’ is fascinating, because it has both a positive and a negative meaning, yet both definitions essentially mean the same thing, a sort of trickery. Artifice comes to the forefront when viewing Neil Berkeley’s documentary, Harmontown, which captures creator of Community, Dan Harmon, having to step away from the show, and figure out what to do with his life. What he comes up with is Harmontown, a sort of hybrid live performance / unscripted stand-up comedy act, which is also a podcast.
Harmon decides to take the show on the road, (in January, of all times), and much of Harmontown then becomes very much about the nature of artifice. Not only is the filmic audience present to watch performances along stops of the tour, but within the show, Harmon makes reference to the nature of performing the shows, makes frequent call-backs to previous performances, looks for meaning in the tour itself, mentions that the tour will be incorporated into the movie, and Harmon is even shown watching his own performances, and worrying about which parts to feature in the later podcasts.
Of course, the most ironic aspect of Harmontown is that Dan Harmon is perhaps the least interesting character within the performances. Thankfully, both Berkeley and Harmon himself allude to this fact. The film shines most when Harmon’s girlfriend Erin McGathy, a preacher’s daughter, improvisational host, Jeff Davis, and especially, Dungeon Master Spencer Crittenden, a one-time audience member, appear. At one point, Harmon muses that he is the villain and that Crittenden is the hero of this story, which may be close to the truth.
Harmontown begins by asking those that worked with Harmon how he would describe himself, and from this, it is clear that artifice permeates throughout. Fans of Community, (and The Sarah Silverman Program, and Heat Vision and Jack), would be surprised, though, to see that Harmontown ends on a note of sentimentality, unbridled by the distancing effect of artifice, different than how Harmon’s creations tie up the proceedings.