January 23, 2013

Personal essay: Why 'Harmontown' is the Best Podcast in the US You're Not Listening To.

Harmontown

So have you heard yet about this sorta new podcast called Harmontown? It's by Dan Harmon, the guy who infamously created and then got fired from the cultishly loved TV show "Community;" and that's the big guilty confession I need to make and be done with right away, that I've never actually been much of a fan of "Community," which I find okay but just a little too silly for my tastes, which with my new commitment in middle age to just be watching less television overall has meant that I've missed most of the episodes. But "Harmontown" is a very different thing than that, and something much more up my alley; it's what Harmon calls his version of seeing a therapist, a daringly confessional and often blackly dark Spaulding-Grey-like dialogue he has on stage at a storefront theatre every week (literally the back room of a comic-book store in Los Angeles), riffing with a number of sidekicks like improv actor Jeff Davis (acting as Ed McMahon, DJ and time-keeper simultaneously), his girlfriend and fellow podcaster Erin McGathy, and an RPG "dungeonmaster" named Spencer who they literally pulled randomly out of the audience one week, who they now play Dungeons & Dragons with on every single episode, which under a litany of guests from former Whose Line Is It Anyway alums turns into a hilarious long-form improv bit each time.

Harmontown is 'edgy' in the best and most classic sense of the term, that you literally do not know what might happen from one moment to the next, with episodes that have sometimes devolved into all-out relationship fights between Harmon and McGathy on stage; and Harmon has the courage to talk about a lot more personal stuff than the usual "Hollywood" person, a self-diagnosed "semi-Aspergers" sufferer who more than once has talked at length about the full-sized "Real Doll" sex toy he bought in his youth, various things he's stuck up his ass over the years, and the complicated relationship he has with both his family and the mainstream entertainment industry. And whoo boy, do they all drink a lot, an integral part of the show's mythology and a refreshing change from all the twenty-something artists I know these days, who all seem to be responsible little married teetotalers; but Harmon is always very smart and very, very funny, having an innate sense of what makes a show like this entertaining to a live audience, and subtly always tweaking the details of how the show works. And so all these factors added together make for a perfect podcast, which is why a rapidly growing amount of people like myself have become obsessive fans of it over the last six months.

Harmontown in Chicago

Harmontown in Chicago

So I was as excited as everyone else when the group announced earlier this year that they would be embarking on a national tour, and even taking Spencer along; and not only that, but that they'd be joined by some indie filmmakers putting together a documentary about it all; and not only that, but cutting the live recordings together while on the road, and literally releasing them 24 hours after each show throughout the tour, so that the podcast subscribers could follow along in almost real time, aided profoundly by a busy Tumblr account full of road photos and daily short videos. And so not even counting anything else, this alone is something the Harmontown team should be commended for, bringing this kind of tech-savvy idea to a "major" podcast and a mainstream audience in the same way that Louis C.K. brought the idea of direct-pay web sales to a mass audience; this is a huge commitment, as any artist who's been on the road and has tried maintaining even a Facebook feed can tell you; and it has paid off for Harmontown in this profound way, in that you can't help with this schedule but be an obsessive fan who excitedly anticipates each new episode, literally feeling sometimes like you're a vicarious ghostly traveler with all these people as they cross the country twice by bus, a powerful aspect of podcasting that you can't get with traditional broadcasts or "parked" media like YouTube, and that most podcasts don't get to utilize because they simply don't have the kinds of resources that Harmontown does (like sold-out shows in comedy clubs all around the nation, which gives them the kind of money to be able to hire a tech person to come with them, who's there for no other reason to cut together episodes and post media).

Harmontown in Chicago

Harmontown in Chicago

But it was while actually attending the Chicago show last night that the final piece of the puzzle finally clicked into place with me: because actually seeing Harmon perform makes you realize the almost childlike excited glee he has about being there, the optimism he simply has about life and all the potential chaos that can happen in that life, in a way you don't sense from just the audio of the podcast, or the sometimes bleak subject matter itself. Being there, and seeing the kind of trust and enthusiasm he has for the live audience, makes you realize how he's able to pull off one of the most flabbergasting details about the podcast -- that they encourage random audience members to speak up whenever they want, often pull those audience members onto the stage, yet almost every time end up with a fascinating character who was well worth the time to speak with, which to my cynical ass is a miracle I can't figure out how they get away with time and time again. But being at the show, you understand that Harmon and co. are creating a space where only these people feel the desire to speak up in the first place (well, for the most part), where the audience is packed with these kinds of people; in fact, here at the Chicago show, Harmon literally gave the floor to this incredible 16-year-old kid and "Harmon mini-me" fan who he had met before the show while hanging out in the lobby, there with his father so he could get in underage, who talked just like Harmon and even kind of looked like him, and this turned out to be one of the most charming things Harmon could've done, and what I thought was a real highlight of the entire national tour.

It's such a difficult combination to pull off, this earnestness yet cynicism about the world, which is the key to "Harmontown" being so unique and memorable; and it makes me understand better why "Community" fans love that show so passionately, and why the live audiences for this tour have mostly looked like rooms full of "Community" extras. Just like we currently look at people like Sid Caeser and Lucille Ball and consider them the people who "created all the rules" for the television that came after them, so too are we right this second watching the web's Jackie Gleasons creating the rules for podcasts and YouTube channels that will still be guiding the medium 75 years from now; and "Harmontown" is absolutely one of these rule-defining shows, one of the first big-audience podcasts to both understand the kind of special content you can only present in this medium, and how to take advantage of the low-to-the-ground benefits from being a mobile little media team like this. I highly encourage you to become a fan soon, if you've never listened before.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:32 PM, January 23, 2013. Filed under: Arts news | Chicago news | Events | Profiles | Reviews |