Monday, December 2, 2019

Harmontown Is Ending on a High Note

Harmontown Podcast Is Ending on a High Note

After seven years of almost-weekly recording, the podcast Harmontown is coming to a close, but it’s ending on a high note. Or at least, it’s trying to - high notes are hard to hit, and despite the name “Harmontown,” the cast of the show is not good at harmonizing.

The fourth of November was the fifth-to-last installment of the seven-year series. All remaining show recordings have been sold out as super-fans try to experience the show’s intimate, improvisational live sessions. Harmontown has never been scripted, and it showed in the bizarre turns taken in the making of the episode “MC Live.” The 356th episode began inauspiciously, with host Dan Harmon getting stuck in an Uber and arriving over a half-hour late, leaving the other cast members (Rob Schrab, Jeff Davis, and Spencer Crittenden) with an impatient, fidgeting audience.

Harmon finally emerged to a thunderous applause and a generic rap instrumental. Egged on by Davis and Schrab, he immediately began trying to rap to the beat… poorly. The strange, impromptu musical intro ended up being the perfect foreshadowing for things to come. Settling in after a stage hand brought a plastic cup and a bottle of vodka on ice for him (to the cheers of the enthusiastic audience), Harmon went on to give his thoughts about tax and estate preparation, and a news story about a cat on a football field.

Despite being recorded at its home base, Dynasty Typewriter - a theater with less than 200 seats on a length of Wilshire that manages to simultaneously smell like fresh laundry and stale urine - the show was sold out, with audience members from Montana, New Jersey, and Australia. In lieu of a celebrity guest, Harmon instead decided to call an audience member up on stage, selecting a 23-yr-old woman from Cambridge, England with a shock of short, bright blue hair. The show didn’t truly find its footing until about 30 minutes (or two plastic cupfuls of vodka) in, which is when Harmon invited the fifth person onstage.

Umnia Neil introduced herself as a long-time fan: “This podcast has been a part of my life since it started. I came specifically [to the United States] for this. I became a fan of the podcast from the moment it started. I go to sleep to this podcast every night. ...It’s a para-social thing. I know you guys, even though I don’t know you guys,” said Neil.

Neil remained onstage for the remaining ninety minutes of the show, which was largely focused on music. Neil, an aspiring musician with a podcast called Nerd U, discussed the difficulty of breaking into “the industry” with Harmon, and her own experiences with running a podcast, producing music, and monetizing online with platforms like YouTube and Spotify.

Her mother joined at the halfway point of the show. Sarah Neil wore a puffy iridescent coat. A jazz singer and pediatric doctor, she and her daughter sang Dinah Washington songs in harmony, to the delight of Harmon, who tried to harmonize with them - with disastrous results. The other cast members chimed in, earning cheers from the audience when Spencer Critterden, who has been seated silently on stage for the entirety of the recording, began intoning his own name in a drawn-out baritone.

Later, Harmon tried to engage with Sarah Neil in a rap battle. Neither is a rapper, and the stumbling, childish ineptitude of both parties had the audience roaring with laughter.

The show ended with a story about Kanye West. Harmon has been teasing since May, that West might be getting his own episode of Rick and Morty in the upcoming season. This was the first time he’s discussed meeting with West about the fabled episode. He relayed to the audience how, in a private meeting in the writer’s room, West professed his love of hoodies as the greatest clothing item of all time, a “great uniter” of socioeconomic class, then went on to borrow Scrab’s thin H&M hoodie and throw it into the trash. “Like it was a dirty Kleenex,” joked Schrab.

Audience members in attendance overall gave the episode positive reviews. “I think the podcast used to be more about the audience and I missed that about it in the past couple years. It was the best episode I’ve heard in a long while. It made my heart full,” said fan Brandon Chilcoat.

But reviews to the release of the podcast online were mixed.

“We’re down to the last handful of episodes and there’s zero prep and effort going into this. Let’s just have some random audience person up for 40 minutes and try to launch her YouTube career. Dan isn’t about to start actually trying to help people. He’s winging it with the absolute minimum amount of work. The raps were great but, man, [I’m] disappointed to see so much of the last bit squandered,” said Christian Pally on Reddit.

Another fan, Andrew Katz, said, “It’s not personal in any way. She was interesting to listen to for about five minutes, but then I was like ‘OK, I’m here for Dan Harmon and friends, not this random lady who showed up to the show.’”

Kyle Alexander had a different take on his disappointment with the episode: “I wasn’t that into it, but I’m man enough to admit that I’m probably just jealous.”

Although the primary focus of the episode was music, with Harmon and the Neils trying to harmonize and rap with each other, the show’s upcoming ending hung heavy over the entire show and was frequently mentioned. This lent itself to occasional moments of surprising insight between the “yo’ mama” jokes and the sips of vodka.

“You don't know how lost I feel sometimes,” confessed Harmon. “I act like 46 and I don’t suck my thumb about it anymore, that’s part of my struggle, too. I’m like, ‘Dad, you’re 46, you’re not allowed to suck your thumb.’ I’m not allowed to be a baby anymore. That’s not inspiring.”

Davis asked if that was part of the reason for the podcast ending, and Harmon immediately responded, “Yes. Because I don’t think that it’s appropriate to go, ‘nyehh nyehh, it’s hard to be me.’ I don’t find that-- it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong, objectively. That’s not valuable. I don’t feel right doing that anymore. I don’t like it.”

Umnia suggested that Harmon might be too hard on himself, to which Harmon responded: “I think we’re too hard on each other.” (And to which Schrab responded, “I think it’s fair to say that Dan paid Umnia to come tonight.”)

The podcast’s roots were visible in this episode. Originally, the show had started with the idea of Harmon examining social issues and addressing them in an attempt to create a hypothetical Utopia. (This is where the show gets its name, “Harmontown.”) However, its focus has since shifted, and Davis has since described it as “live therapy sessions” for Harmon, who he has called “self-destructive.”

Addressing Harmon’s self-critical attitude, Umnia said, “When you’re talking about these issues, you’re worried about how moral you are, or how woke you are. And I think sometimes you worry too much.” Her gentleness toward Harmon was supported with long, loud applause breaks from the audience.

As for what comes next, Harmon has no answer. “I need to hit the bench and think about it,” he said. But he and the rest of the show’s guests are optimistic about their ability to find material wherever it may come, and their familiar, easy riffing with Umnia and Sarah Neil demonstrated this ability to find comedy and wisdom from any source.

“Nothing has to last forever,” said Davis as the show drew to a close. “Whatever comes after [Harmontown] is going to be amazing.”

Although Harmon shrugged off most of Umnia’s praise and appeals to be less self-critical, he did speak to how he feels that he’s grown in the last seven years, since the show’s creation. “This podcast was founded-- I don’t want to be that guy. I started this podcast from a standpoint of like, the joy of going, I’m a baby, I’m crying out. And the world shifted under my feet. It’s not right and it’s not charismatic to be the baby that I was five years ago,” he said. “And that is a credit to the world that we live in. An absolute credit.”

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