Only in its second "season," CommuniCon has already become one of the most fascinating fan conventions out there not only for the creativity of the fans who show up in costumes or with fan art to sell, video games to demo, and web series to screen, but also because of the personalities who attend. There is a panel dedicated to the writing staff, as well as one for the supporting actors-- from the beloved but then never seen again Greg Cromer as Dr. Rich, to the recurring Greendale sweethearts Neil and Vicki (Charley Koontz and Danielle Kaplowitz)-- and there is even one for the crew, ranging from Casting to Costumes to MakeUp, to Production Design, Art, and Construction. But undoubtedly the event that brings the biggest buzz is "Dan Harmon and a Microphone," an unmoderated, unprecedented candid conversation and question and answer with the creator of the show. That format is unique enough to set the weekend apart. And this time around, Chris McKenna joined Harmon for a very special two men and two mics panel that offered some fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses into the way the Community writers work and just how far Harmon himself as come as a showrunner.
The following is as close to a transcript as we could get for the session. Admittedly crowd response was raucous enough at times to overtake even those who listened to Harmon's pleas to "eat the mic" so everyone could hear. This is Part 1, when Harmon and McKenna just riffed freely. Part 2 will contain the audience Q&A and follow shortly. Enjoy!
HARMON: "I don't know how many of you traveled how far, but even if one of you came from a block away, it's what we work for. Other people work for other stuff; we're not presumptuous about it; but Chris and I are transparent with each other and everyone that talks to us about how it's a compulsion. We have no choice about it; it's probably from vanity; it's probably from ego; we work for approval from other people. And we don't care where it comes from, that's why we do what we do."
MCKENNA: "That's why neither of us became stockbrokers, right? If we wanted to just make money--"
HARMON: "Yeah if we were obsessed with making the best money ever."
MCKENNA: "I'm one of you. I was a fan before I was ever a writer on the show. I became obsessed with it when I got a hold of the pilot. Before it was even shot I got a hold of a script by Dan Harmon, who I had known of from Heat Vision and Jack. I read this thing, and I was going around prophetizing, 'Have you guys read this? Have you read this!?' And then I saw it. And I said this before: I had an old Tivo that someone had given me, and there was little data on there. There was just room to save two of my favorite shows without deleting any of them, and it was Community and Mad Men. And I didn't get hired on Mad Men!"
HARMON: "For me that was the puberty of the show. There are probably people in the room that would think what was the first six episodes of Community were--"
MCKENNA: "I came on for the Jack Black episode in the first season."
HARMON: "Right. There were great episodes-- they were a great part of the show-- but I just thought the show transformed in something weird and sentimental tonally. But I feel like qualitatively, in terms of how good the show was, there was a point where it could have just faded into obscurity, and then the other road in that fork was Chris McKenna coming aboard. Because that was the first time anyone had seen the first batch of episodes and was enthusiastic about it, came on board the show, and that led to me learning how to collaborate with people.
"I told the story before, and to tell the story of McKenna-- why is he up here; why is he so important? I remember distinct moments. I remember being woken up by a phone call from you about a sound mix and actually getting to hear myself say for the first time to another person 'It'll be all right. It can wait til Monday.' And getting off the phone and my girlfriend at the time going like 'Did you hear what you just said?' 'Yeah there's another guy on the show that's crazy now! I can kind of sleep a little bit, I guess!' And then being in the edit bay and seeing a joke that you had rewritten-- it was Abed saying 'Everybody needs to know...on Cheers, it's Cliff, on such and such it's such and such-- a horribly scripted joke-- on Entourage it's Drama, or Johnny E, or Turtle, man that show was sloppy.' And I didn't know when he was on set he had fed that alt line to Abed, or Danny we call him, and so I was seeing it for the first time. I was watching a television screen with the character of Abed on it at the study group table doing a moment in the show that I had written and yet the thing that he was now saying was not something I had written and yet was making me laugh out loud. I was such a selfish person before that because I didn't come up through the trenches and stuff, and I was like 'What happened down there? What was that?' And the answer was Chris McKenna, and ever since that day, that's been-- he's been the entire show, which is exactly why with my personality-- just for those of you who are tracking that story about what a reprehensible person I am and how everybody who is above us would really love it if I fell down a flight of stairs because if you don't care about anything other than getting through the day, I guess I'd be a horrible person to be on your payroll-- I specifically said to those folks on Mount Olympus when I saw the writing on the wall, at one point I said, 'Please just don't kill the show. I know that you don't like me. If you ever feel like you hate me so much that you need to take it out on something, get rid of me and please put McKenna in charge because he's the only person that would be able to do this show.' And the irony of it is I think the thing that makes him the only person who could have done it is the thing about it that made him say no. And so you were gone for a season and to be able to come back is just a beautiful end to a really weird, no eye contact story."
MCKENNA: "You heard me say all this last weekend at McKenna-Con. You know, we were off doing other things. It became this weird movie where we were working under cars for a year until we somehow came up to each other simultaneously while we were working under cars, I don't know how that works, to go 'Hey, I guess we're back in. I guess we're doing this thing.' And we're back because of you guys. You guys kept the show alive, and we're having a great time. Thanks for having us here."
HARMON: "I do just want to make sure that my sort of characteristic, weird, hyperbolic ranting style-- you know, when I'm saying weird shit about the show that makes me sound like a huge, weird, petty child, it's because I'm a huge, weird, petty child. And like a huge, weird, petty child, I'm not in those moments thinking about what anyone else has done for the show and how they might feel. Because I do a little bit justifiably, I'm very, very passionate about the show. I'm safe to say that without being punished for it in a room full of people that bothered to come to a place because they're passionate about the show. You guys know that you feel maybe not differently but in different amounts of something about this show than the people that didn't make it into this room, so you know how I feel. I read your emails and your Tumblrs and your sonnets and your haikus. I watch your videos. I know how attached you are to this thing, and therefore I know you must know how attached I am, so if you combine that with being a huge petty child, and my forty year policy of saying how I feel, then every once in awhile I'm going to sound a lot less like Mitt Romney and a lot more like Charles Manson-- who by the way, for all intents and purposes, got elected. Think about it: Mitt Romney got the approval of millions of people and didn't get the job. Charles Manson focused on eight or nine people, so they employed him for a short time period.
"Anyways I lost my train of thought while imagining the Vulture headline tomorrow about my mixed metaphor. It had something to do with this, which is if anyone ever asks me, and believe me you can-- on Reddit, you can probably figure out my email address, you can come up to be on the street, you can see me huddled over a bar all too often-- if you have 100% access to me and you ask me whether or not anyone who ever worked on anything that I ever was involved in was a good person or a bad person, the answer's going to be that they were a good person. But I also am not going to stop saying how I feel when I watch shit, so just buckle up. I'm my own worst critic, too."
MCKENNA: "I think that's also an interesting segue into the creative process on Community...The way the system's been set up is you can't-- they won't allow you to make a network show where it's just you going off and Howard Hughesing it, which is the way I was introduced to the show. My first episode that I worked on was you were holed up in your Howard Hughes mode, and it was like 'Okay, he wants us to build a giant airplane out of a scene', but to that I think you started realizing how to not be afraid of insulting people if you say 'I don't like this scene' or 'I don't like this script.' I came into the dust storm of changes with that episode, and when I first started, it was one of these things where...I showed up to work, and you weren't there; you were off writing the Jack Black episode. And I was just told 'Oh we need a scene here,' and I think, though, after that process it started changing. When you started trusting that you could just be open and go 'I hate the scene' or 'I hate the script', it was like 'Okay, then we can actually have a conversation.'"
HARMON: "There's a maturity level to the common, the average staff writer of the TV industry that I hadn't acquired at the executive producer level because I hadn't been a staff writer. You have to learn coming up through the trenches like Chris did that if you're attached-- if you consider the words on paper or the joke, the way you phrased it, to be an extension of your value as a person, you're setting yourself up for failure. Because you're working within a system that has a lot more variables than what you want."
MCKENNA: "Everything gets changed; everything gets rewritten. Everyone gets their skin hardened, and you go 'Okay yeah let's just not be lazy. If this isn't working, let's just keep on working, working, working and make it good.' So it seemed like it was taking a tour into a realm where you could be on tour and also be honest in terms of 'Okay, let's farm out some work' and choosing the work and see if it was still serving the voice of the show."
HARMON: "Yeah and if somebody writes it that way there's still sort of a breed of writer that's sort of the anti-Harmon that's just as good. I wish we could fast forward to the end of season five that you're about to see and have this guy Erik Sommers up here whose name, if our saga continues, you'll be hearing with as much affection as I see Chris'. I hope, if for no other reason, that these conventions continue so people who worked on season five, which is going to be I think monumental, can come up here and get that kiss that you gave us. Erik Sommers is really unfairly paid for the amount of work he does. I don't know, I'm all over the place on that one. There's this guy Erik Sommers who works for the show."
MCKENNA: "We're so excited about what we're doing. We're about to shoot episode eight tomorrow, but you know Dan and I have been active since mid-May assembling this incredible team. We started early June and we wrote nine stories that we broke, which is sort of unheard of for the show, and then once production started, it becomes Community in terms of it's so detail-oriented that we're just now breaking number ten."
HARMON: "Which does not mean that we don't re-break every story the week before shooting. That's the Harmon guarantee!"
MCKENNA: "We assembled such an incredible team with Sommers and so many other great people. But Sommers was someone I worked with on American Dad and is just a superstar. His episode will air third. It is going to be-- it's one of my favorite episodes of all time."
HARMON: "Yeah definitely guaranteed to be one of those classics that's going to be one of your top fives...That is the other important thing for you Community historians-- those of you sitting there working on a coffee table book-- Chris McKenna's huge influence is the amount of-- the people that you were able to bring in. It became a more beneficial thing to go with Chris' previous relationships as a writer in terms of bringing in new talent. 'I think this person is going to be good or not', that's still a coin toss. I mean, congratulations on writing a good script, but it is impossible to look at a really well written script and look at it page by page and determine whether or not that person is going to fare well. But turning to somebody that gets it and that understands the job from top to bottom and has worked with people for his entire career and then says 'There's this guy; his name is so-and-so; he's great, I promise you'-- just taking that and flying that person in has paid 100% dividends for the show. I just want that for the record!"
MCKENNA: "It's interesting because one of the things I grew up on in TV on American Dad was a lot of these incredible people and some of them we've been able to have on the show, like Matt Warburton who came from The Simpsons and then came to Community, Matt Fusffeld, now Erik Sommers, people I've worked with before, it's one of these things where when I was on American Dad, we had a story room; we had a punch-up room. And now this year we're actually doing that: we have a story room and sometimes two punch-up rooms going on. And we have just incredible joke writers that are churning out jokes for us as we're forming episodes. I'd say systematically as we're writing this season, it is becoming a different beast because we did so much incredible work before production with breaking nine episodes and getting so far ahead and having like seven scripts. The 30 Rock model, as I've heard it from people, is they have on day one of production, they have nine scripts, meaning they have nine writers' drafts. And so you have these great embryos that you can turn into something else or sometimes they're fetuses that you can carry.
"We are now farming out a lot of jokes in a systematic way in this incredible room bloom. Writers-- we have a ton of Onion writers; we have Colbert writers; we have incredible writers that are just working in this sort of system who can create amazing stuff. It's working in a comedy machine in a good way without being sort of systematic and soulless. Having rooms who, they're only gear that day, they're not worrying about story; they're not worrying about plot points; it's just 'How do we make this the funniest joke ever?' And we're getting great, great stuff out of them."
HARMON: "It doesn't feel like a dystopian pod! ...I do lurk the forums and conversation threads and stuff and a thing I see very often that I do want to chime in about but if I do chime in about it, I'll sound like the worst person in the world, is when you guys are comparing writers as if they're like race horses. 'Andy Bobrow, I mean yes he did this, but then he did that, and I was very disappointed with that!'"
MCKENNA: "I thought you were talking about going back for season four."
HARMON: "Okay that's fine, a traitor's a traitor."
Editor's Note: Here Harmon specifically asked whoever was transcribing to point out that people laughed. It was a joke!
HARMON: "When you guys are going like 'Well, Megan Ganz this, and Andy Bobrow that, and David Schwimmer-- I think he wrote our show'...I did the same thing. I was like 'Holy shit, who's this Vince Gilligan guy on The X-Files? His episodes are the best!' And sometimes then you'll see that play out; 'Oh shit, he created Breaking Bad.' I don't know how other shows work, but I can tell you please don't punish the writers on Community like that ever. If their name was on a good episode, yes it was because they're a good writer. They're on Community because they're a good writer. If their name was on a bad episode, no way did it have to do with whether or not they're talented because it's just this firehouse, and the better we get at what we do, the more we're working together.
"The new writers, their wide eyes start to take on kind of a weird look the day they realize every single word of their script is going to change from top to bottom no matter how hard they work on it."
MCKENNA: "Asterisk. "Remedial Chaos Theory." Every word was mine."
Editor's Note: Again, jokes, people.
MCKENNA: "It's funny, though, because the great thing about having "Written by" is that then people lock in and they know that they are owning that script. They have to own it from idea, embryo, to writer's draft, to then the rewrite. Things that they're precious about-- and not just thing they're precious about but logical things-- they're absolutely engaged; they're really zeroed in on stuff. So then you find that passion and you go 'Oh yeah, that passion's actually right in that moment.' And then they're passionate about carrying that thing through production. And production's this whole other beast, which we can talk about or not, which is now seeing what we all knew in the writer's room as 'This is funny; this is comedy', now has to go through 250 crew members who all have different jobs and make sure this thing comes through that process and hopefully better as it goes through. That's why, to Dan's point of 'Oh yeah, don't punish people', it is absolutely a group effort. But at the same time you are giving writers these things that they become burdened with, and they'll be texting you in the middle of the night going 'I don't know about this; I don't know about this idea or this scene or this casting.'"
HARMON: "And that happens with good writers and bad writers and sometimes just like an actor who is really concerned with what their character might or might not do is doing a wonderful thing for a show and sometimes they're just slowing everything down. But in either case, you know they're totally invested. I guess what I'm saying is are there better writers than other writers in the world? Of course there are. I can imagine there must be some hierarchy somewhere, but I can guarantee you that the thing that ends up on the screen for you to enjoy, it's impossible to look at it like a sportscaster. That would just make me feel horrible. There are so many other variables. But I'm talking about that too long; this isn't WriterCon; this is CommuniCon!
"I think I saw myself making this point in my head about how the writers are a microcosm of the fandom and also of humanity, because there's supposed to be this human, heroic element of like 'Don't tell me what to do!' How would you ever tell another writer what they should or shouldn't do? That's how I came into this show feeling, which made me Howard Hughes it and be in my office and obsessing about the show-- okay can't fault me for that! Loving the show-- okay can't fault me for that! With a million dollars worth of writers in the office next door feeling like terrible human beings, wanting to help me out, wanting to know what I like and don't like, and being abused by me in any way. And that's bad. And then the show got good. The show that you like. Most of the reason that you're here and the costumes that you wear and the tattoos that you got and the birthday cakes you design, they're all based on the period of this show that exploded after I learned how to work with other people-- after I learned that I wasn't all that and a bag of chips."
... Stay tuned for Part 2 ...
Community will return to NBC on January 2 2014 at 8 p.m.
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