Dan Harmon on Continuing ‘Community’ and Bringing Role-Playing Games to TV
There aren’t many people who can make role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons into programming that appeals to thousands, if not millions. But Dan Harmon was able to do it with two D&D-centric episodes of Community. Now, he’s taken a concept he started on his HarmonTown podcast and taken it to the Seeso streaming service. HarmonQuest is a ten-episode series where Harmon and friends—podcast co-host Jeff Davis, ex-wife Erin McGathy, and game master Spencer Crittenden — in a continuing quest, taped in front of a studio audience. Along the way, guest stars like Aubrey Plaza, Thomas Middleditch, Paul F. Tompkins and more join the game as characters the group finds along the way. The funny game play is then animated, with action alternating between animation and live action.
It may sound strange, but it works, mainly because of the funny people involved, including Crittenden, whom Harmon plucked from his podcast audience. Harmon talked to TV Insider about the show, which debuted on Seeso on June 14, and if there’s any hope at all his pride and joy, Community, is coming back.
People who know you from Community know you’re a fan of role playing games. How long have you been playing role-playing games and how did you think of this idea that made it into a show in front of an audience?
I played them pretty avidly when I was younger. I went through big bursts. One when I was at twelve years old is when I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and then I kind of became a Dungeon Master that designed dungeons that did not have anybody that wanted to play, so I just kind of spent years designing things. Then in high school I met a group of guys who were role-players and introduced me to some other variations on Dungeons and Dragons like Middle-earth Role Playing and other types of games.
Throughout high school I played it and then once I was out of high school never again really until adulthood on the podcast when I thought it might be fun as an experiment. I got different results than I thought I would. I thought it would be funny to treat dungeon mastery as if it was like Top Chef or something like that. It was just kind of self-satire with the podcasting and the role playing. But the Dungeon Master that we got from the audience was this guy Spencer who did a great job and people loved him and the gaming session on the podcasts were turning out pretty good. Once I realized you could play this game in front of the audience I kind of combined that with my love of the Ricky Gervais podcast show on HBO. Then it was Evan Shapiro from Seeso who said, “why don’t we actually shoot the live action component instead of making it audio only and get famous people? That will help bridge the gap a little bit.”
So Spencer is someone you just found in the audience to your podcast? He’s not like a writer you knew or anything like that?
Yeah that’s right. He was just in the audience and I said, “Do we have any Dungeon Masters in the audience?” and his hand shot up. I thought there’d be more, but it was just him.
Watch the full first episode of HarmonQuest:
I notice he has a whole book with him. Is that book that he reads from, is the completely filled with situations and worlds and characters and things like that?
Obviously if I ever saw inside that book he’d have to kill me, so I’ve never actually… I don’t know how full it is. I think it’s probably full of sort of little maps and probably little monologues whenever a character needs to give them like exposition and stuff.
What was it about what Spencer was doing that made it entertaining? Was it he was particularly funny? He was able to roll with whatever you guys gave him?
I do think the secret to his success on the podcast has been his somewhat tolerant understanding of non-expert role playing comedians. Kind of following a slightly different agenda than a role player might follow. In other words, I think he’s got just enough ability and appreciation of improvisational comedy itself and the needs of a comedy show or a show in general, so he doesn’t get frustrated when we’re not necessarily playing the game correctly. It’s basically like being a referee for the Harlem Globetrotters. I think you have to accept that it’s not a real basketball game.
So the show will be one long game, and you encounter the guest stars’ characters along the way?
Yeah. It’s one long serialized epic quest. We try to make each episode its own story and that we tend to arrive at a new location and we meet a new guest star and have a little self contained adventure but it’s definitely meant to be viewed all ten episodes in a row.
Do you sit with Spencer and say, “Hey this is going to be the events of episode one, episode two, etc.” or do you just let him do it and you guys are just taking whatever he throws at you?
Definitely the latter. I had to insist that I not know anything about the adventures going in. We consulted with a couple friends for fresh eyes so Spencer wasn’t working in a vacuum, but he really did all of the work himself. There was a little oversight from Amy Carlson at Universal Cable Productions who wanted to make sure, with her kind of relatively mainstream fresh eyes, that these adventures were hitting the cravings of a potential casual viewer. Which is to say “are we spending ten episodes in the same dungeon or are we going to see a variety of set pieces and things?” She brought a TV viewers eye to the whole thing with a couple of calls with Spencer. He probably could have done it on his own but I was impressed with how invested and how helpful she was. I just got to hire Spencer and show up for the gaming sessions as far as how the story’s unfolded.
Was it always the goal, just like you did when you did the Dungeons and Dragons episodes of Community, to make it accessible to people like me who never played the game? I don’t know any of the details, but know the mechanics of the game.
Yeah, exactly. I think the goal was to make sure that anybody that was going to be left out was only going to be left out because of their own taste not because of anything that they needed to understand. I kept comparing it to watching poker on TV, not that I would choose to do, but it’s a matter of taste really. Then again, also if I watch a poker game on TV there’s a million things that I don’t understand and someone might explain to me, but they don’t necessarily really get in the way of me know what’s going on. It’s kind of being explained to you contextually the whole time.
So I knew that there wouldn’t be a technical alienation of anybody but I was also realistic about the fact that it’s not going to be the way some people want to spend a Friday night; But I did know that anybody that was familiar with improv or a fan of it or even anybody that was even familiar with video games because there’s so much–it’s such an easy point of access if you’ve played video games because video games that simulate fantasy medieval environments, all of their mechanics are just automations of rules that were created in the late ’70s with these games.
It’s also funny when there are guests like Aubrey Plaza who are just going to be like, “Okay whatever I’ll just go and do this,” and they’re not really role players. It seems that kind of dichotomy makes for a funny show too.
Yes, absolutely. I mean you can sit at a table with five people and stick to the general etiquette of performance which means try not to talk over the other people, give and take, say yes and know what the other people are doing, don’t ask too many questions, don’t say no to people all the time and negate what they’re doing. If you just stuck to those rules, you really wouldn’t need the dice and the pencils and the maps and things because if someone said, “I explore the room,” Spencer could make up a description of a room and keep track of where the doors were and we would all kind of achieve a collective make-believe game, which is something we all did on the playground before our gym teachers ruined us with organized sports.
I remember before I ever knew the words “dungeons” or “dragons” I was on the first grade playground and I would gather with the nerdier kids and we would just run around the playground and one kid in particular, who was chosen by instinct, was the one who was calling out where the dinosaurs were, where Jaws was, which parts of the floor were hot lava, and you just kind of obeyed their rules and all work collectively together to overcome obstacles. So I mean that being said I knew it would probably work and not fall apart like if we were playing Monopoly or something.
Do you at all expect Community Season 7? Do you expect a movie? Are you putting it aside for now? What’s your thought because everybody obviously is doing their own thing now.
I’m in the holding pattern. I’m working on other stuff. I’m not actively doing anything to make it happen. The day the call comes, in which I would expect would be from the business side of things, then there would be a real crossroads to deal with there. But I don’t know if I stood up from my desk right now shouting “I want to do a Community movie!”, I don’t know what would change. I’m not really actively doing anything except pursuing avenues of my career that I guess in the long term would make it easier for my name to sweeten the kitty for a Community movie. In other words if I do a good job on other movies maybe it’ll be easier for me to be the one to say “Let’s make a Community movie right now.” Otherwise I’m just kind of waiting for the planets to align.
How do you feel about the fact that Yahoo Screen was shuttered almost immediately after Community Season 6 ended, and one of the reasons was that the show was too expensive?
I wasn’t really privy to the actual deals that were made between Sony and Yahoo. I think that there was an article that came out where the details were published and I certainly marveled at [them] like a lot of people. But I don’t think Yahoo was ever engaged in the attempt turn an easy profit by launching their TV wing. My perception it was a high-risk, high-yield tentacle that they were putting out there.
With Community in particular the goal was to take a show that had a high compatibility with an internet audience and a built-in audience at that and use that as a land bridge to bring people in to watch something more affordable, a show with Tom Arnold as a basketball coach or something. When it failed, when Yahoo closed the TV down I definitely had a pang of everywhere I go I just make things bad. I’ve found my peace with it. I think it was a combination of things that made thing go afoul there. I feel real bad that Community couldn’t be the blessed ray of sunshine that turns people’s businesses around. I felt a lot worse, to tell you the truth, when Comedy Central got a syndication package of Community and they ran a marathon of it and then showed it on Friday nights or something and nobody was showing up to watch it on Comedy Central and they just king of stopped showing it. I felt bad because that was kind of a more direct measure of like, “Aw, your show sucks, and it lets people down when they actually believe in it.”
HarmonQuest, Season 1, Streaming on Seeso.