There was a time, not too long ago, when Dan Harmon shared absolutely everything.
His bowel movements inspired tweets and Tumblr entries, his dysfunctional relationship with his then-partner powered hours of podcasts, and his firing from , his own cult TV creation, fueled a 21-city bus tour and later a documentary. A life of transparency, he reasoned, was therapeutic, healthy even for a guy who’d routinely describe himself as self-loathing and self-destructive.
Then the culture changed. “It stopped being punk rock to just say anything,” says Harmon. And he changed, or at least he tried to change. He embraced actual therapy and largely retreated from the public eye, shuttering both his popular podcast and his prolific Twitter feed. He found love in his personal life and balance in his professional one, and then he watched it all come dangerously close to vanishing as his past caught up to him. But now, at 50, he’s eager for an audience again. He misses that “parasocial relationship” with an army of devoted strangers, and the platform to share whatever it is he’s thinking as he’s thinking it. Harmon misses holding court.
So, here we are, sitting face-to-face at a North Hollywood restaurant for his first expansive profile in years, and he doesn’t want to fuck this up. In fact, before he Ubered over, he even sought counsel from ChatGPT. “What is your advice for a showrunner sitting down for an interview with The Hollywood Reporter?” he asked. It immediately spit out some tips, 10 of them in total. He rattles off a few.
Familiarize yourself with your own show, its themes, characters and the latest developments.
“ChatGPT thinks we’re here to talk about one show. I should have said, ‘As a mogul,’ ” jokes Harmon, whose animation empire includes three shows — Apple TV+’s Strange Planet, Fox’s Krapopolis and the seventh season of his Adult Swim juggernaut Rick and Morty — all premiering within the span of two months. There’s a Community movie coming, too, which Harmon fans have been clamoring for ever since the series wrapped in 2015.
Show enthusiasm for your project and the industry.
“And there has never been a better time to be passionate about the industry,” he jokes once more, referring to the many issues — including the very use of AI — that have prompted two major Hollywood guilds to strike.
Over the next six and a half hours, as servers cycle through and Negronis flow freely, that is the only piece of the advice he heeded.
The last time I sat down with Harmon was in a very different Hollywood. It was the summer of 2013, and he’d just been rehired at Community, his perpetually endangered, critically adored NBC comedy, a year after he was famously let go. At the time, he insisted he was never given an explicit reason for his firing, nor his rehiring, but the stories of toxicity in his writers room, where all-nighters were customary and his liquor consumption was substantial enough for Harmon to call himself a “ninja of alcoholism,” were open secrets. There was also his public feud with his cantankerous star, Chevy Chase, and no shortage of online jabs at the network and its executives, who were always on him for being over-schedule and over-budget.
Harmon reread the piece I wrote — “The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Dan Harmon” — before seeing me again, or he read as much of it as he could stomach. He says he got to the part where two days after we had spoken, he stood onstage at one of his Harmontown live shows and compared watching the season of Community that he hadn’t participated in to “being held down and watching your family get raped on a beach.” Unsurprisingly, the comment didn’t sit well with his bosses at NBC or studio Sony, and he was forced to issue an apology.
Unbeknownst to me at the time were the panic attacks that Harmon was regularly having during that period. “At one point, I was sure I had either a tumor or that I was going to have a heart attack, and my wife at the time [fellow comedian Erin McGathy] kept saying, ‘You got fired from your NBC show and you haven’t acknowledged it yet,’ and of course she was right,” says Harmon. “I wasn’t acknowledging that I was hurt. I never would have wanted to admit that. Instead, I was so offended by the idea that I was that trite a character. Having dizzy spells [because I lost my job?] Like, I’m not written by a hack.” A doctor ultimately alleviated his fears, and the spells stopped — but Harmon’s relationship didn’t endure. He and McGathy ended their marriage after just 11 months; all that remains is a couples therapist, whom Harmon now sees on his own. As he puts it, “Once it was clear the marriage was never going to work, I asked her, like, ‘Do you do this with individual people? Because I’m kind of married to the world, and you seem to understand that I need more of these tools.’ ”
It’s not hard to see that Harmon views the Community movie as his chance to right some of his wrongs — both with the show’s fans, whom he acknowledges have endured more than they likely bargained for in supporting him and his “drama queen” ways, and with his cast, all of whom (save for Chase) are set to return. He and one of his former Community writers, Andrew Guest, still need to hole up for a few days and finish the script. They pitched it to buyers, pre-pandemic, as a Greendale Community College reunion, and they’re committed to getting it to a place where they can shoot it as is — or as close to as is as possible without rewrites. “I don’t want these now-superstar people, like Emmy-winning Donald Glover, who are bothering to gather out of loyalty to this thing, to come back and once again be getting blue pages run down by an intern that totally contradict what they spent all night memorizing,” says Harmon. “I want to have a veneer of, ‘Here’s your reward.’ I don’t want them to go, like, ‘Oh, he’s learned nothing, he’s treating us like cattle again.’ ”
By all accounts, Harmon has learned plenty. He’s in a considerably healthier place in his life, and not just because, as his assistant-turned-producing partner Steve Levy describes it, he’s “no longer slamming McDonald’s cheeseburgers.” The new Harmon, who is noticeably thinner than the old one, is even seeing a nutritionist, with whom he regularly shares a food diary. Today’s entry would include deviled eggs, a chopped salad and a few Negronis. (Yes, he’s still drinking. “If I didn’t, I’d look like Jack LaLanne,” he jokes.) He’s also eight years into a stable relationship with his now fiancée, Jury Duty showrunner Cody Heller, whom he calls the “woman of my dreams.”
He and Heller met through a mutual friend, and they both acknowledge that there were red flags, beginning with the very weekend they got together. He had flown to New York with a buddy for what was supposed to be a first wedding anniversary trip with McGathy; Heller, who’s 12 years his junior, was there working on Deadbeat, a comedy she’d co-created for Hulu. “I mean, it was red-flag city,” she says now, “but we wound up falling crazily in love.” They spent their third date in Kansas City, celebrating Thanksgiving with Heller’s family, which Harmon, who’s largely estranged from his family, has embraced as his own.
The two will eventually get married, though neither seems interested in replicating the kind of big, fancy wedding that Harmon had the first go-round. As the story goes, he wasn’t going to bother proposing because he thought he’d lost all credibility once his first marriage quickly imploded. “I said to Cody, ‘Me standing up there going, like, “Oh, this time I really mean it,” who would believe me?’ ” he says. So, Heller proposed instead, with a gold band she’d drunkenly bought off Kay.com. The inscription reads Dan Heller, which still tickles the feminist in her.
At the urging of his therapist, Harmon has tried to prioritize his mental health and his happiness in ways he never had before. In fact, he no longer allows himself to work more than six hours a day, and his rooms have hard outs after only four. “I don’t have to be any less neurodivergent than I ever was, but I’m also not going to self-destruct by slowing everything down anymore,” he says, suggesting that he gets to be more of a Willy Wonka character now, swooping in and out as needed. It’s a marked change for a guy whose eleventh-hour rewrites, or “Harmon passes,” were once the stuff of writers room lore.
“I used to think it was part of the job to have your toothbrush at the office and that a good employee did the same and you tried to reward that person with an Emmy or a credit that would allow them to launch their own franchises,” he tells me. “I thought the best I could do was win wars and my soldiers would thank me later, or at the very worst, they would have sacrificed themselves for a noble cause, and that’s a world where making a bad TV show is worse than hurting a human being, which doesn’t make much sense to me anymore.”
It turns out, Megan Ganz was one of those human beings. In early 2018, as the #MeToo movement was still gathering steam, she probed Harmon over social media about her mistreatment during her time as a writer on Community. He had been reckoning with his past in therapy for years already, but now he was being asked to do so before an audience of nearly 700,000 followers on the platform then known as Twitter. In a series of posts, Harmon accepted that he had treated Ganz “like garbage” after she had rejected his romantic advances, acknowledging that he’d been “a selfish baby” and “an awful boss.” A week later, he devoted seven minutes of his podcast to the subject, giving a full account of his wrongdoing. As his entire career hung in the balance, he took complete responsibility, detailing how he had failed her and had justified it to himself. The following day, Ganz forgave him, first privately, then publicly, calling Harmon’s admission a “masterclass in how to apologize.”
Reflecting on it now, he insists he’s glad it all came to light. Ganz’s narrative has been returned to her, and his stomach is no longer in knots. And though his lawyers advised against his lengthy apology, he’s glad he did that, too. “I felt like I owed honesty there,” he says. “You make your fucking brand about talking about your shit and calling yourself an asshole, and then you’re just leaving these parts out?” It’s the same impulse that he says stopped him from writing a book of essays that Doubleday had commissioned a few years before. It would have been his second book. His first, You’ll Be Perfect When You’re Dead, was a collection of musings from his old blog, Dan Harmon Poops. “I basically got to that chapter,” he says, referring to the period that included Ganz, “and I just stopped writing and gave the money back.”
Half a year after his first brush with cancellation — and a matter of days after his second (this time for a nearly decade-old parody video featuring a baby rapist that resurfaced online) — Harmon shut down his Twitter account. He jokes now that he should have done so the day politicians like Barack Obama got an account: “Someone smarter would have been like, ‘OK, the squares are here, let’s get out.’ ” The following year, after 360 episodes of his Harmontown podcast, which he taped live before a coterie of superfans, he signed off that, too. To him, it felt like time. “I used to think not only was I doing something for myself by babbling into a microphone, but I was also doing something for everyone else, because everyone could benefit from this idea that we all need to be more honest with each other,” says Harmon. “But there’s a very fine line between that and becoming a brand that advertises selfishness and saying it’s rock ’n’ roll not to consider others. And when there’s a choice between that and me being incredibly boring by saying into a microphone, ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about others lately,’ silence is easier.”
Rick and Morty was supposed to be Harmon’s reward. He’d all but killed himself making Community, only to feel like he was constantly letting people down. Now, he had a partner in Adult Swim, the nighttime arm of the Cartoon Network, that actively wanted to be in business with him. In fact, executives there had courted him with the promise that they’d love him the way that NBC didn’t. And in the early days, working on Rick and Morty was blissful, or as blissful as any Dan Harmon production can be. It wasn’t until season two that everything started to change.
Let me back up here and tell you that Harmon has never seen Rick and Morty as his show. When Adult Swim first approached him, he figured he’d be six episodes and out unless he enlisted a subversive animator like Justin Roiland with big, crazy ideas. He had met Roiland through Channel 101, the experimental film festival that Harmon had founded in the early aughts, between co-creating Heat Vision and Jack and The Sarah Silverman Program. “It’s not that I’m bereft of ideas, but I wouldn’t know where to begin,” explains Harmon. “I’m a character person and a story person and an I-just-want-people-to-like-me person.”
It was Roiland who suggested that they revisit one of his zanier shorts, an off-color parody of Back to the Future’s Marty McFly and Doc Brown, which he’d drawn for Channel 101 back in 2006. Harmon loved the idea, and the two hired their 101 pals to work with them. Initially, there was some pushback from Adult Swim about Roiland voicing both leads — in this case, a narcissistic, alcoholic genius (Rick) and his bumbling grandson (Morty) — but the network ultimately caved and the series premiered to widespread critical praise in 2013. And though the pair shares a co-creator credit, Harmon has always been sensitive to Roiland’s contributions. After all, they were his voices and his characters, even if many of the show’s writers suggest they’ve modeled Rick after Harmon. (Not all of them, however. Heather Anne Campbell, who joined the show in 2020, says the two have diverged over time: “Rick may be very intelligent and caustically funny like Dan, but the character is a callous, terrified man and, at least in the time I’ve been working here, Dan is open and almost recursively self-aware.”)
What happened next still rattles Harmon, which is one of the reasons he’s never publicly addressed it until now. When the show scored its second season, Harmon was eager to staff up, filling out their ragtag cable team with Harvard-educated Community writers. If they were going to make a play for network primetime audiences, he reasoned, they’d need network primetime writers. “If I had felt like I was imposing something, I would have never done it,” he says, having played the whole thing back in his head countless times over the past decade. He can see now how Roiland must have felt that that transition was about making the show more Harmon’s than his, but he insists that was not his intent.
“If anything, what I wanted was for Justin and I both to be able to be increasingly lazy and not show up for work. That was the dream,” says Harmon. “We’d be these rich idea men. He could roll around and go, like, ‘What if a genie had a butt instead of a dick?’ And I could be like, ‘Yeah, and plus, we’re going to make people cry about it, and that’s going to make them freak out. It’s a story about a genie butt dick, but then we’d win an Emmy, and it’d be more ironic than ever.’ And then I’d come to find out later that it was like, ‘Oh, Harmon brought in his Harmon writers,’ and, man, that is not how I saw it.”
Roiland started to pull back during season two. By then, the room was working considerably longer hours, as Harmon obsessed over the show’s quality, and the environment was no longer as much fun. After the season wrapped, Roiland sat down with Harmon and acknowledged just how miserable he’d become working at the show. The implication, according to Harmon, was that it was his fault. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure what he was saying,” recalls Harmon, “other than, maybe, ‘I feel like I’m in your shadow and I wish I wasn’t.’ ”
Mike Lazzo, who was running Adult Swim out of Atlanta at the time, was aware of the growing tensions insomuch as he’d see signs when he came to visit. “Dan would be in the writers room and Justin would be running radio control cars around the studio,” says Lazzo, who gives Harmon the lion’s share of the credit for Rick and Morty’s success: “It’s so dependent on writing and character, and those are Dan’s strengths. I remember I’d get frustrated waiting on his scripts, but then they’d arrive and they would be masterpieces.”
At some point in season three, Roiland simply stopped showing up. A mediator was ultimately brought in, but the exercise went nowhere. “I always felt like Justin wanted everybody to make him feel more comfortable, and I was just like, ‘Everybody wants to make you comfortable, communicate, tell us how to do that,’ ” says Harmon, who acknowledges: “I was freaking out about the whole thing because I wanted the partnership to function. I wanted him happy because when he’s happy, we have a hit on our hands.”
As drama waged behind the scenes, the show’s ratings continued to soar. Rick and Morty had quickly become the most viewed comedy among millennials in all of television. It was easily the most watched series in Adult Swim’s history. After season three, the two even managed to put their differences aside long enough to secure an additional 70 episodes, which was more than double the amount that had already aired. “It was like Justin and I were in love again, because we were dealing with the powers that be and talking about how rich we might be if we negotiated together,” says Harmon. But the moment was short-lived.
The last time he and Roiland spoke was over text in 2019, a conversation that left Harmon in tears. “He said things that he’d never said before about being unhappy, and I remember saying to him the last time we spoke in person, like, ‘I am worried about you, and I don’t know what to do about that except to give you all the string and also just say I’m scared that you’re not going to come back.’ But then this conversation became unprecedentedly confrontational.” Harmon stops himself there. “I think that’s as far as I get to take the story. At that point, we’re no longer both there for it, and it starts to become not only unfair for me to continue but totally uncomfortable because, from there, a friendship goes away, and I still don’t fully understand why.”
The 70-episode deal proved transformative for the show and for Harmon, who used the opportunity to hire “a real showrunner” in Scott Marder. As Harmon explains it now, Marder brought a level of professionalism and structure to a production that sorely needed it, and it enabled him to relax his grip for the first time in his career. Rick and Morty writer Rob Schrab, whose friendship with Harmon dates back to their time on the Milwaukee comedy circuit, insists it was one of the smartest moves he’s made. “Dan is great as the person that’s going to sit on top of the mountain demanding quality, but the day-to-day management of the show needs to be done by somebody with a very special skill set,” says Schrab. “Honestly, I don’t think there’d still be a Rick and Morty if it weren’t for Scott Marder.”
The way that Rick and Morty is run now, Harmon believes it could mirror The Simpsons and continue for decades — though they’ve only aired 30 of the 70 episodes, and he’s been around the business long enough to know that nothing is promised. Adult Swim’s latest owner, Warner Bros., and its CEO, David Zaslav, whom Harmon has not yet met, could decide to pull the plug tomorrow. And in fact, there was a moment, earlier this year, when that felt plausible in a way that it never had before.
On Jan. 12, NBC News reported that Roiland had been charged with felony domestic violence in connection with a 2020 incident, which sent everyone involved with the show, many of whom have never actually met Roiland, into a tailspin. Roiland was later cleared of the charges due to insufficient evidence, but Adult Swim had already severed ties with him. When Rick and Morty returns for its seventh season Oct. 15, it will do so without Roiland’s voice. They’ve hired two young, unknown voice actors for the roles of Rick and Morty, a process that Harmon says he largely avoided, mostly out of denial. “It’s all just sad because the goal is for it to be indistinguishable,” he says, “at the same time, it would be absurd to suddenly decide that the entire foundation of your creative project was, oh, coincidentally, unimportant.”
But a few days after my time with Harmon, the same outlet published a new report featuring nine separate accounts of Roiland’s alleged misconduct, which range from sexual harassment to sexual assault. To lure these women, Roiland, who has denied the allegations, reportedly leveraged his affiliation with the show and its success on social media apps and on dating apps. When Harmon and I connect again, more than a week later, he’s read the piece and he can no longer stay quiet.
“The easiest thing for me to say about Justin has been nothing. Easy because he isolated so well and easy because I’m nobody’s first choice as a judge of anything or anyone. This is where I’d love to change the subject to myself, to what a piece of crap I’ve been my whole public life,” he says. “I would feel so safe and comfortable making this about me, but that trick is worthless here and dangerous to others. It’s other people’s safety and comfort that got damaged while I obsessed over a cartoon’s quality. Trust has now been violated between countless people and a show designed to please them. I’m frustrated, ashamed and heartbroken that a lot of hard work, joy and passion can be leveraged to exploit and harm strangers.”
If you spend enough time in Harmon’s company, retirement will come up. “I fantasize about it every day,” he tells me more than once. It’s not like the guy is looking at condos in Boca Raton, but he’s not so sure he is wired to thrive in today’s Hollywood, either. And from my very informal polling of the industry, plenty of suits still see Harmon as a liability. “He’s preternaturally gifted, but he’s also a lunatic,” one tells me; “I’m surprised he never got himself canceled,” says another. It may explain why he was never offered a nine-figure overall deal when Netflix and those trying to compete with Netflix seemed to be handing them out like candy. For the record, Harmon would have signed one in a heartbeat.
“I would have loved to tether myself to a place. I always used to joke, like, ‘Where do I sign up to sell out?’ ” he says, though he acknowledges there are real benefits to being a “redheaded stepchild,” which is how he characterizes himself and his patchwork of shows and lucrative distributor deals. He has one with Fox, for instance, which preemptively ordered two more seasons of his new animated comedy, Krapopolis, and has been marketing it on his name. His affiliation was also used to lure an impressive roster of guest stars, including former Harmon collaborators like Joel McHale (Community), Susan Sarandon (Rick and Morty) and Ben Stiller (Heat Vision and Jack).
Pre-strike, Harmon even had a serious conversation with executives at Warner Bros. about a Rick and Morty feature. He says they were all aligned on a kind of “super episode” conceit, the way that Matt Stone and Trey Parker approached the South Park movie years ago. He has plenty more percolating in development, too, including a musical and a multicam. “I’d have to check with my accountant, but it may be possible that the grand total of all these things is similar enough to the net of an overall deal that maybe I can finally go, ‘All right, that’s television, folks,’ ” he says. (To be clear, Harmon has had more than enough success to be financially secure for the rest of his life — but not necessarily the way that he’d like to live it. As he puts it, “I want to not worry about things, and I think that’s pretty expensive.”)
But the job itself has changed along with the culture, and Harmon has struggled to find his place. “I kind of feel like my job these days is to log in to a Zoom and tell younger, smarter, funnier, more conscientious people a bunch of bibble-babble about my personal life in reference to the story we’re trying to break, and their job is to patiently wait for me to leave the room so they can get back to work,” he says. “Because what else am I going to do? Go, ‘You’ve been awful quiet over there, Scott. Tell us about when you pooped your pants in the sixth grade.’ He can file an HR report about that now, and I can’t say that he’s wrong to do that. So, I just have to lead by example and go, ‘Here’s a story about me being a horrible person,’ and then leave it up to them. They’re the ones that are going to get canceled. They’re the ones who have to worry about their future careers. So, they listen and then they write things that are wonderful and funny in their own way, and it’s a good time to retire.”
Harmon has considerably more agency at home, where he’s been spending more and more of his time in what his friends endearingly refer to as his bunker — though bunkers would be more appropriate since Harmon now has two windowless workshops on his and Heller’s sprawling Valley Village property. He gives me a tour of one via FaceTime, showing off any number of woodworking projects that have him excited. “I think it’s part of Dan coming to terms with who he is and finding joy and an obsessiveness over his free time even,” says Guest. Schrab offers another theory: “If you see a pile of wood, and at the end of the day it’s turned into a desk, you have control over something. You’ve accomplished something,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’ve made this wood into a desk, and nobody told me the legs have got to be so long. It’s my desk, and I can make it any shape I want.’ ”
Everywhere you look, there are cameras, and they’re often rolling as Harmon works. At one point, he found himself performing for them and wondered if the behavior was worrisome. His therapist said no. “She was like, ‘It’s obviously you taking ownership over a medium that otherwise is defined by compromise, and maybe cameras are your god,’ ” he says. Looking forward, he’ll have to figure out how exactly to release himself into the world again, though it may just be him babbling into one of those cameras from his workshop.
He’ll have boundaries this time, that much Harmon’s certain of. His family, for one, will be off-limits, he tells me. He has no relationship to speak of with his brother, and his sister’s been hospitalized with a rare neurological disease for as long as Harmon’s been alive. And though he says his mom was “always so supportive of this idea of [him] being creative and special,” his communication with her and his dad consists largely of a few texts during the holidays. “I think it could be me and not her,” he says. “I think maybe I’m not good at intimacy, I don’t know. I don’t think she is, either.”
Strangers, it turns out, are easier to connect with, or at least to talk at. So, that’s what Harmon will do. And maybe it’s even healthy for him to get the thoughts out of his head. It certainly makes him happy. “I swear, if I was stranded on a desert island, I’d have a little bamboo theater and an audience of coconuts with little faces on them,” he says. “It would be the saddest thing to find underneath my carcass, once they finally tracked me down. They’d be like, ‘Oh, he really started to lose it toward the end,’ and my secret would be, like, ‘Nah, that was the second thing I built after my rain catcher.’ ”
This interview was coordinated through Harmon’s personal PR in accordance with a WGA ruling during the writers strike. Two of Harmon’s three TV series, Strange Planet and Krapopolis, are not covered by the WGA.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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