Is it possible to care about a show too much? If so, Dan Harmon is the guy who does it. The creator of Community sweats every detail of the show, putting his own money into completing episodes — he paid for the revamped Halloween-themed title sequence of this year's zombie episode, sprung to fly Kevin Corrigan out to play Professor Professorsen in the conspiracy-theory episode and even ponied up a cool $100,000 to complete the animated Christmas special.
As Community returns Thursday with new episodes — this week, Malcolm Jamal-Warner joins the cast for three installments as Shirley's (Yvette Nichole Brown) ex-husband, with whom she has gotten cozy anew — TV Guide Magazine chatted with Harmon about the extent of his obsession with his ratings-challenged show and its rabid cult, what American Idol joining the Thursday-at-8-p.m. fray means and what Chevy Chase could learn from a monkey.
Harmon monitors Twitter feeds when his show is on the air.
"I'm watching every single comment. The most important thing are the lines people are quoting. That's saying, 'I'm having a positive experience here.' I'm whizzing past all the good ones because those are free passes and I'm checking out whenever someone has something bad to say.
"People say I'm swinging for the fences. The idea is that you're not afraid to fail. That's what I do. My biggest fear is 'meh.' If I'm in that area, I'm never gonna win. There are shows that start with 'meh' and build 'meh' into 'mega-meh.'... That won't work for me — I'm too self-destructive, I'm too self-loathing, I'm too frenetic, I'm too (screwed) up, I'm always infantile. I need pass or fail. I don't want to hear, 'You're fine.' My worst nightmare is people tolerating me."
American Idol represents a weird perfect storm for Harmon's martyrdom.
"It's a win-win-win for me, personally. There's the version where we hold steady in the face of adversity. I'll tell you the God's honest truth — I think that's what's going to happen. Not because I think we're so awesome, but when your numbers are that small, the only thing they're measuring are people who cannot live without your show. They're not measuring people who are casually watching your show."
"I'm not threatened by American Idol. People who are into that show are into popular things. If I'm being Pollyanna about it, and the morning after they debut in that time-slot, we have a .7 rating, that's one of the wins in the scenario. We're getting our ass kicked here, how many juggernauts do they have to move into this time-slot before they cancel us? I can't think of an archetype I'd rather play than the underdog. I do not want to become Mike Myers, not knowing whether I'm a genius or an idiot because I can't get a straight answer out of anybody."
Community's next genre parody is a Dungeons-and-Dragons episode.
"Right now is the witching hour with that. We're consumed with what's in front of us, and we'll very soon be rising to the challenge or realizing that'd be a very dumb thing to do. It'll be determined by something as joyless and unromantic as money. You have a budget for a year and you play games with it. You're buying on credit."
"I ran hot for the first half of the season. It was very deliberate — when CBS announced Big Bang Theory was moving to our time slot, my reaction, as a soldier, was, 'I'm going to give NBC unprecedented muscle — we'll become David and Goliath and the story will work in our favor if I stand our ground.' So that's why the first six episodes — Betty White, spaceship, zombies — I came out swinging like Rocky in Rocky III. Rocky doesn't do that well in that round. The idea was to blow your mind and quick. But then, I'd just spent a ton of money and now had to throttle down. The cool thing is, we did the bottle episode and started saving money. But I liked that anyway — it's like when your parents would ground you, but you liked staying in your room."
Every show needs a performer as skilled as the bottle episode's monkey.
"Watching that monkey — she was given two takes, but she got it one take. Chevy was so jealous of that monkey — people were so stoked by her nailing it, and the next thing you saw was him skulking about. It's not an exaggeration to say he was jealous of that monkey, and he should have been. He should have been more jealous of that monkey. He should have gone home that night and asked himself, 'What's that monkey doing that I'm not doing?' And the answer? Preparation."
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