Dan Harmon's Counterintuitive Training For Writing 'Community'
The most important moment in Dan (Rick and Morty, Community) Harmon’s comedy career? He says it was a meeting at his Wisconsin high school where a man named Bob Orvis introduced him to something called ComedySportz.
"It was probably the most important thing that ever happened in my life,” Harmon told OnMilwaukee. “He came to Brown Deer and was talking to me as if I was an adult."
If you live near any big city, you probably have heard of ComedySportz, the competitive improv venue where two teams compete in a variety of comedy games. An impressive list of comedy talents have ComedySportz on their resumes, including Jason Sudeikis, Iliza Shlesinger, Nick Swardson, and Wayne Brady.
Started in Milwaukee back in 1984, ComedySportz has more than 25 locations around the country -- and Harmon was among its early comic competitors.
He calls Orvis his Obi-Wan Kenobi for teaching him to use improv as a writing tool. It also helped him be OK with the idea of actually performing before a live audience. "It made me feel comfortable on stage," Harmon told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I don't have to pretend I was an actor. What I'm doing is writing.”
Performing competitive improv, says Harmon, helped develop his sitcom scripting skills. “It's practically the same thing,” he says. “You're performing as your write, so you have to adopt these very basic principles: don't stand around asking each other questions, make something happen, speak in declarative sentences, endow the world around you with attributes. Somebody says you're a zebra, now you're a zebra.”
"That is exactly what you do in the writers' room. You just keep saying 'what if?' over and over and over again.”
It’s a different kind of comedy sport to make fun of improv’s “yes and” axiom, but don’t do it in Harmon’s writing room.
"I'm always smacking writers on the back of the head,” he says, “to remind them that there are no wrong answers.”
Dick Chudnow, ComedySportz co-founder and an early collaborator with the Zucker brothers, agrees. He recalls working with a creative who would hold down a “wrong!” buzzer when writers pitched their jokes, calling it “the worst creative experience I've ever had.”
Successful comedy brainstorming, says Chudnow, requires writers “who are totally accepting of everything and build off of each other.” When it works, it’s “an incredible experience.” Does that mean every idea is gold? Of course not, but Chudnow offers “yes and”s cousin -- “No but …” That means not necessarily running with every idea but finding the bit that works in any given suggestion and building forward from there.
So it’s more than learning how to develop characters, build dramatic tension, and find the inherent humor in everyday life -- learning improv is also about functional collaboration.
That's how it worked for Harmon. “The way I learned how to function as a human being, how to write, and how to collaborate—as much as I can—with other writers and producers, it’s all based on the principles I learned as a high schooler in ComedySportz.”
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Top image: Sony Pictures Television