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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Harmontown is my new Best Show

When Tom Scharpling’s Best Show on WFMU broadcast for the final time last December, I, like any other FOT (Friend of Tom) with some variety of blog, wrote a tribute to the radio program/podcast/way-of-life that had steamrolled into my heart five years earlier.  The Best Show enriched my life in so many ways—introduced me to artists like Ted Leo, Kurt Vile and Ty Segall; gave me a second chance to embrace the wit and weirdness of Jon Wurster (that story will have to wait for another day, I’m afraid); provided me a respite from the drudgery of working a stressful job that I pretty much hate.  Most importantly though, The Best Show provided for me a place in which I felt like I belonged.  I’m not comfortable in a lot of places—I can probably count the public, non-restaurant spaces I semi-enjoy hanging out in on one hand—but I always felt comfortable when The Best Show was on.  Is that weird?  I don’t think so.  It’s probably a little weird. Look, The Best Show meant a lot to me, OK? 
I never posted the tribute on Giant Electric Penguin because it was a rambling embarrassment, unworthy of The Best Show.  Said tribute will more than likely never pop up anywhere, unless it is posted posthumously against the expressed wishes of my last will and testament.  In essence, it expressed what I put in the preceding paragraph, just in a more roundabout, poorly-written way.
When The Best Show went away, I didn’t have any designs on filling the void with something else. Nothing could replace The Best Show, and nothing had to.  There are thousands of hours of Tom Scharpling, Jon Wurster and the oddball citizenry of Newbridge, New Jersey still kicking around in The Best Show archives at right this very second.  You can, and should, listen to them right now! So, replacing the Best Show wasn’t, and isn’t, a goal of mine, but I did wonder if I would ever discover a pop-culture entity that would ever mean quite as much to me.
Then, lost, hungry for laughs, and seeking the spiritual guidance of another curmudgeonly comedy writer, I stumbled into Harmontown.

Harmontown, for those who don’t know, is a weekly podcast, recorded live at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles, CA (“The Podcasting-est City in America”), starring the creator and re-instated showrunner of NBC’s Community, a show I can proudly say I’ve watched from the very beginning, and his longtime friend, actor/improv comedy guy, Jeff Davis.  The show is, in essence, a town meeting, where Davis acts as comptroller and Harmon as mayor of the titular city (sort of like a real-life Newbridge, only populated by tangible weirdos).  Audience members are encouraged to interact with the hosts (when appropriate), and are often invited onstage and handed a microphone.  Various topics are discussed, dissected, then discarded, always in a way both hilarious and oddly compelling.  Harmontown is a place chock full of jokes, but it can also get pretty deep, depending on the current level of drunkenness .  I often find myself communicating out loud with Dan and Jeff as if the three of us are sitting in my office at work or driving around in my car or lying in bed next to my sleeping wife—the office, my car, and the bedroom being the three primary places in which I listen to Harmontown—before realizing I probably sound and/or look like a crazy person.  “Good point,” I’ll say, as my wife grinds her teeth peacefully beside me.  “He’s right you know,” I’ll remark, nodding knowingly at the confused elderly person sitting in traffic beside me.  “Hardy-har-har!” I’ll laugh uproariously behind my closed office door, my co-workers huddled in the hall outside, convinced I’ve finally lost my mind.
The last twenty to thirty minutes of every Harmontown is devoted to an epic Dungeons and Dragons campaign, masterminded by dungeon-master Spencer Crittenden, who, if I’m understanding the whole history of the show correctly (I’m listening back through the archives, but I’m doing it in a weird order that doesn’t even really make sense to me), was an audience member who simply had the thought one night, “I want to play D&D with Dan Harmon,” and, boom, now he does. 
That’s kind of the beauty of Harmontown.  It’s a place where anybody can come and be accepted and celebrated, no matter what.  If you have something to get off your chest, there’s a good chance you’ll be invited onstage to talk about it.  If you just want to hang out in the back and enjoy the show, you can do that to, and you’ll probably get a free-style rap about Dan Harmon having sexual relations with your momma to cap things off.
Harmontown and The Best Show are two different entities entirely, but there are enough similarities that I was compelled to write this post.  Here now is a list of these similarities, as I think said similarities provide an insight into why both shows appeal to me so much.
1. The lovable curmudgeon as host: Tom’s stories about the everyday nuisances he bumped up against at, say, a local buffet or convention for Beatles fan or a chance encounter with Mickey Dolenz, provided some of the best moments in Best Show history.  Like Scharpling, Dan Harmon plays the role of the lovable curmudgeon on his weekly show.  He complains, but there is something more to his complaints then just “wah-wah-wah things aren’t the way I want them to be.”  I mean, he regularly voices said complaints in a loose segment he calls “Things Dan Harmon Isn’t Allowed to Complain About.”  Scharpling and Harmon, while wildly successful comedy writers, largely remain outsiders, and that legitimate outsider status is what makes their examinations of the minutiae of daily life so relatable.  
2. Best friends working together: As The Best Show’s almost-weekly phone conversations between Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster as one of the oddball citizens of Newbridge proved, when best buddies get together with a common vision, comedy magic is bound to occur.  It is the same with Harmontown.  Dan Harmon and Jeff Davis's mission appears to be the proliferation of the philosophy of Dan Harmon, and at this, they are very successful.  When Dan strays from the path of a story or an important philosophical bon mot, Jeff is right there with a question or an improv scenario or a rap beat.  They work together like a well-oiled (yet somehow still squeaky and spark-puking) machine and the results are never not entertaining.
3. Comedians!: Tom had a lot of comedians/humorists regularly on his show (John Hodgman, Patton Oswalt, Kurt Braunholer, Todd Barry, Julie Klausner, Andy Kindler, etc.).  They would promote things, sure, but first and foremost, they were on the show because of their admiration for Tom. Harmontown does have the occasional guest from the comedy world, but a semi-regular co-star (regular enough to have his own player in the weekly Dungeons and Dragons campaign even) in Kumail Nanjiani, one of my favorite stand-ups. (FYI: Nanjiani's D&D character is Chris de Burgh, the singer-songwriter behind "Lady in Red.")
4. The regulars: Not only were people from the comedy and music world regular guests on The Best Show, but Tom had some regular callers as well.  Many of them were weirdos (Spike, Fredericks from New Port Richey, 10-year-old Milo), but lovable weirdos you looked forward to hearing from week after week.  Others were just FOTs checking in with a story or for the pleasure of being GOMPed by the King of Free Entertainment.  Harmontown has it’s regulars as well.  The aforementioned Spencer; Dan’s fiancĂ©e, Erin McGathy, who tries to solve nearly every conflict in Dungeons and Dragons with rom-com tropes and the suggestion of “let's put on a show” (McGathy is a hilarious delight during her turns at D&D, especially when Jeff grows irritated by the complexities of her non-sensical moves); and a handful of audience members (Adam Goldberg, Anatoly, Beef-Fungus Bill, Tyler, etc) that pop in from time to time.
Look, I’m going to be an FOT for life, but I would very much like to apply for dual citizenship as a Harmenian as well.  Both programs provide a safe place for weirdos to congregate and complain and crack wise and hash shit out.  Both worlds are worth your time, so get immersed.  Do it!

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