Jumping the shark
Fading into the sunset
Trying to hang on by having adopted black babies join the cast
Dan Harmon is the creator of NBC’s Community and Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program. He also wrote and created one of the most famous failed comedy pilots of all time, Heat Vision and Jack (1999). Presented and narrated by Ben Stiller, the sitcom starred Jack Black as a NASA employee—specifically, the smartest man on earth—who escaped a government-controlled experiment to travel the world with his sidekick, a talking motorcycle voiced by Owen Wilson. It wasn’t picked up by Fox, for no good reason at all.
Following the show’s premature cancellation, Dan and his friend Rob Schrab created a forum for other nontraditional television concepts and ideas, called Channel 101. Since 2001, every month in a small bar-turned-screening-room in Hollywood, audiences of a hundred or so people—often in, or aspiring to be in, the entertainment industry—gather to watch mini-pilots, each up to five minutes long, of varying DIY types of production, submitted by whoever has enough spare time and interest to make them. The audience watches ten of these super-condensed shows: a CSI spoof, a surreal animation about a horde of murderous, Gremlins-esque Bill Cosby clones. At the end of the screening, the audience votes for five of these pilots to be “picked up,” or given the green light to make a new episode for the next month’s screening. Each series continues its run for as long as the show remains popular in this underground television network. Over the last decade, Channel 101 has helped launch the careers of many comedians—from Andy Samberg and the SNL digital shorts creators to Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, and Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric.
I spoke to Dan early one morning by phone and let him wax wonderfully on in his salty fish-boat captain’s voice about everything from navigating the world of sitcom producing, to big-budget feature writing, to whether or not he actually is an unsung pioneer of the Funny or Die generation.
THE BELIEVER: Do you feel at this point there’s almost too much comedy out there? What with YouTube and the plethora of comedy websites and the general ease of uploading, is the market oversaturated to the point that it’s too hard to find the good stuff?
DAN HARMON: Yeah, there’s a lot of shit out there, and it is hard to find the good stuff. But we can’t look at that as a cause-effect relationship where if we limit the total amount of stuff, it would therefore become easier to find the good stuff. Ten years ago, if you turned on a U.S. network, you might be watching a basic cable show that was supposed to be sort of edgy, but you were really just watching something by the lowest level of Hollywood insiders who got a really cheap, shitty deal. In this post-YouTube era, we can scout talent across the world. You can call a kid in Minnesota and say, “I think that video that you made is really, really funny. Have you ever considered writing? Do want to do a Scope commercial for me? Can you do subversive mouthwash advertising?” It’s the same thing that we just watched happen with music. You get more and more crap, and it seems more and more mechanical and more and more joyless in the sort-of mainstream, but then you also get hopefully more and more—I don’t know—Becks? Sure, there’s a whole bunch more crap now, but everything that makes it possible for there now to be all this crap also makes it possible for you to define yourself and pick your friends and pick your artists in a really, really specific way that you were never able to do back when there was less crap.
My communications professor, before I dropped out of college, summed up the first semester by saying, “Everybody, every year, with every new invention, always tries to decide whether its effects are good or bad, and you will find that the final answer is—there’s always more good and always more bad.” There’s just more of everything. Direct-broadcast satellite, speech recognition, disposable cameras, reality TV—everything that you can name, every innovation that panics the sophisticated and excites the base elements, then flips around because someone hip from the bottom creates something that sophisticates love—all have these horrible, horrible, evil elements to them, but they also help really, really great things become possible as well.
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