Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Message for Dan Harmon

Aaron Sorkin, in a recent magazine article talked about leaving WEST WING. (I don’t remember which magazine. There was about a three-week period where he did pieces for every magazine in the world including maybe HOT ASIAN BABES.) Anyway, after he was uh… replaced on WEST WING he received a call from Larry David. Having left SEINFELD, David had some advice. He told Sorkin not to watch the new version of WEST WING. If it was bad that would be upsetting, and if it was good that would be upsetting.

Still, curiosity got the best of him, and Sorkin did check out WEST WING. It only took him a few minutes to realize Larry David was right. He turned it off and claims he never watched another minute of the series.

I could have given him the same advice. After my partner David Isaacs and I left MASH I found it extremely difficult to watch the last three years. Not so much because it was better or worse; just that it was different.

I became hypercritical. That edit is abrupt. Would like to see a reaction of Alan there. Was that Loretta’s best performance on that line? Start the music sooner. We need more jokes in this scene. You get the idea.

The series definitely took a turn after we left. It became much more earnest and mining comedy was harder and harder. Was it a good direction? The ratings were higher than ever. And the writing staff they assembled was the best in TV.  Creatively?  You tell me.

But it was different. So it was tough for me to watch.

So here's my message to Dan Harmon: Don’t watch COMMUNITY next season. Trust me, buddy. You do not want to go down that road.

What felt very weird for me on MASH was that for several years the shoe was on the other foot. I was the guy who replaced the creator. And not just any creator – the Mozart of television comedy (Larry Gelbart).

I can’t tell you how many times I’d screen a final edit of one of our shows and wonder, “What would Larry think?” I mean, on our best day we weren’t as good as Larry on his worst. I had never met him at that point. Meanwhile, there was radio silence. He didn’t seem to be in communication with anybody – not Alan Alda, not Gene Reynolds, not Burt Metcalfe.

I thought there was one of two explanations: He either didn’t watch the show at all or he did and hated it.

A year after we left MASH David and I did finally meet Larry. He was effusive in his praise. We were beyond stunned. I asked why he never said anything during the time we were there. He said (and this is so Larry) that he didn’t want to influence us. I’m sure there were creative choices along the way we made that he wouldn’t have. But he didn’t want to be a backseat driver. Now, I assume if he thought we were totally destroying his baby and our ineptitude would cut short the series and deny him millions from the additional seasons we might’ve gotten a little note. But he genuinely seemed to approve of what we were doing. Enough that when he sold AfterMASH he asked us to collaborate on it with him.

One of the true blessings in my life is that Larry Gelbart became a friend and mentor. Thank you for not taking Larry David’s advice. That said, Dan Harmon – still, go play poker on Friday nights, bar hop, join a bowling league, anything – just don’t watch COMMUNITY.


wldmr said...

I don't know if I could not watch if I were in his place. If I have a wound, I absolutely have to take at peek under the bandage, at least once. And I assume with TV shows it's basically the same.

Chris G said...

I hope he doesn't watch. The show as it was in the first three seasons was so clearly and deeply personal that I can't imagine it wouldn't feel anything other than completely and utterly wrong. Besides, the last episode of season 3 provided a get-out-of-continuity free card for anyone who finds the new Community unwatchable.

Anonymous said...

Is it normal to just remember snippets of the first three seasons and not a single episode in it's entirety? I can't even remember the last episode. I like the show, but... I guess I don't care?

Kirk said...

Great story about Larry Gelbart.

Unknown said...

have you listened to Harmontown, his weekly podcast version of his appearances at mindmelt? available at itunes.

GRayR said...

Thanks again Ken for sharing your insider knowledge with us groundlings.

I think checking on how others do their work is universal. As an engineer with a welding background I am always checking the welds on everyday items. I know, strange.

When my old friend who is a full-fledged senior welding engineer and I would travel together we would stop along side the road to look at the welds on bridges. Drove my wife batty, “You guys are not stopping to look at that old bridge!”

We could not even walk by a metal railing without one of us saying, “look at the porosity of that weld, the welder did not use the right rod (or amperage, or cover gas)”.

It seems very human to compare our work with others.

And I always thought you had the right cover gas. ;-)

Ane said...

So getting a writer to enjoy a spec of his show must be hell

Michael said...

Ah, but now we need to know: did Sorkin mistakenly think that The West Wing was better without him or did he see, as the rest of us did, that the new people in charge took the heart out of it?

Ben K. said...

Ken, what do you think of this? A Chinese comedy called "iPartment" has been accused of stealing jokes directly from American sitcoms.

It has a familiar set-up -- young adult pals live in neighboring apartments in Shanghai.

According to Time magazine, "viewers have taken to message boards and China’s Twitter-like social media service to allege that entire scenes have been lifted word for word right out of American sitcoms like 'Friends,' 'How I Met Your Mother' and 'The Big Bang Theory.'"

According to the UK "Daily Mail," a spokesman for the show "denied stealing from Western shows - and instead blamed the similarities on a lack of imagination in resorting to sitcom clich├ęs.

'We didn't copy the American sitcom,' he said. 'Comedies have stereotypes, like the handsome man, the gorgeous woman, the cheap man and so on. They have that in many comedies.

'Our creation is not plagiarism, but more a homage to the American sitcom.'"

So would a writer see it as theft or an "homage" if his or her jokes ended up in a Chinese sitcom?

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

"So here's my message to Dan Harmon: Don’t watch COMMUNITY"

I've been taking your advice to Dan Harmon since my first gag reflex at seeing Chevy Chase.

By Ken Levine said...

Ben K,

Thanks for alerting me to this. I will write about it in depth next week. But the short version -- it's reprehensible.

John said...

Ken Levine said...

Ben K,

Thanks for alerting me to this. I will write about it in depth next week. But the short version -- it's reprehensible.

8/08/2012 3:39 PM

...but not surprising, given China's respect for copyright and patent laws in the past. If you feel you don't have to abide by international law on producing thousands of counterfit DVDs of the newest hit movie or knockoffs of the latest hot software, you're not going to give a damn about swiping scenes word-for-word from U.S. TV shows.

(...and for what it's worth, in the reruns of M*A*S*H I tend to change the channel nowadays once your name and David's leave the credits. Season 8 was still OK, but IMHO, Seasons 9-11 don't stand up to repeated viewing the way the earlier years do).

Oliver said...

On KCRW's The Business, Harmon has already said he's planning to watch the show, saying it'll either make him rich or he'll look like a genius, so he considers it a win/win.

On a related note, Harmon has two blind scripts deals (with Fox and CBS) for multi-camera shows. He has said he grew up with All in the Family, Taxi and Cheers and wants to vindicate the format and prove it isn't "cancer". I suspect you'd approve.

Jake Mabe said...

Such a great story about Larry Gelbart. I had the great honor of corresponding with him briefly before he died. Seemed like such a nice man. No question seemed to be too trivial.

"M*A*S*H" is my favorite show. It changed my life and I say that with no hyperbole. I love it, especially from "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet" onward. (Although, there's one show in the first season I downright hate...("Major Fred C. Dobbs.")

I am an unabashed fan of the "later episodes," both during the Ken Levine/David Isaacs "era" and through those last three years. One of my top five favorite episodes, "Hey, Look Me Over," came from Season 11.

All this being said, your advice to Dan Harmon is probably sound.

NYC Ken said...

Hi Ken, I just watched the sneak preview of "Go On" on NBC. Have you seen it (or, more accurately, will you watch it, since it'll air in about an hour from now out west)? I was wondering what your take on it was. I have some thoughts about it, from a simple viewer's point of view, but would love to hear from a pro.

Johnny Walker said...

For anyone who wants to watch iPartment and make their own minds up, here's a link to the first episode:

I've no idea if this is funny in China, but it doesn't really play to Western audiences.

Anonymous said...

I always felt Dan Harmon's adventures perfectly paralleled "The Man Who Would Be King."

The natives thought he was the second coming, eventually realized he was actually a bigger asshole than THEY were, and events followed inevitably.

The only exception in Dan's version was he gets to perform "the bridge walk" a couple more times.

Kit said...

"Harmon has already said he's planning to watch the show, saying it'll either make him rich or he'll look like a genius, so he considers it a win/win."

In the interview, when asked if he'll watch, he says "of course, I'm a fan!" (And as well as being a fan of the show, one imagines he has interest in seeing the work of his friend/protege Megan Ganz, and the acting of his friends.)

Interesting details that hadn't come out before, as far as I know, were 1) that McKenna had been asked if he could take over Harmon's job, and replied "well, I wouldn't..." --and took this as a cue to find his new job, and 2) that neither Sony nor NBC have yet contacted Harmon to let him know he's been replaced.

JJadziaDax said...

He addresses it again today in a reddit IamA
"I'm going to wait a few episodes, maybe the whole season, and see how other people react. If people love it, then I'll be able to safely watch it with an open, friendly heart, because the whole point is whatever makes the audience happy. If they say it's good, it's good, and I can watch it and even say it's good. But I'm not going to be part of any campaign to convince anyone - me or others - of anything, good or bad. I've received a lot of advice from a lot of creatives that in a situation like this, it's best for everyone on all sides that I make a clean break and not look back. I'll be one of the very last people you hear weighing in on New Community. It's the most practical, healthy decision I can make for its audience. Here's an important related question: DO I HOPE IT'S GOOD? The honest answer is yes."