Not Without My Show: Dan Harmon’s Ascent to Greatest Showrunner of His Generation
An essay considering if Fred Willard had been cast as Pierce, and how his arrest would have sealed Dan Harmon as this generation's greatest showrunner
From the meta social commentaries to the bold choices of its showrunner, Community remains the most influential show of the 21st century, after only 3 seasons on the air. With a mythology richer than Lost and with more critical aclaim than Arrested Development, Community has risen to the top supported by the sheer briliance of its showrunner, Dan Harmon. The Fred Willard starring NBC sitcom has been elevated to the status of Must See TV by Harmon's bold choices of casting and taking the show in unexpected places. Perhaps the defining moment in Dan Harmon's showrunning of Community entails the arrest of one of its cast members and the scandal that ensued.
Fred Willard, winner of three Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, all thanks to his deeply nuanced portrayal of Pierce Hawthorne on Community, is perhaps the show's biggest asset, following Dan Harmon, almost universally considered the greatest showrunner of his generation.
Willard's arrest, for engaging in a lewd act at the adult-oriented Tiki Theater in Hollywood, California, shocked both the public and the show's production company, Sony. Dan Harmon's revelation was even more shocking. The actor exposed himself to hidden cameras as Dan Harmon had already started shooting the fourth season of Community. NBC has refused to air the footage.
"I wanted to explore the sexuality of the elderly in a purely meta fashion, breaking this tabu of modern society in my usual eight step narrative", Harmon revealed. Sony and NBC's outrage at the stunt led to Willard's firing from the show, despite Harmon's pleas. Harmon's bold move in replacing Willard was as successful as it was unexpected. During the 2012 SDCC, Harmon revealed his vision of Community sans-Willard in a way many have called a genius defining moment, worthy of the title of the greatest showrunner of his generation. Willard's replacement on the show was not simply one actor, but a concept.
Dan Harmon chose to make a powerful statement against Sony, NBC and society itself by replacing Fred Willard with Peter Dinklage, standing on the shoulders of a chimpanzee, in a rain coat. This puzzling choice needed no explanation for the connoisseurs of the French New Wave, but Harmon explained it in detail for the regular hard-working Americans: "I wanted to express the animal side of human sexuality and the fracture that so often separates reason from the basic urges of man".
Unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with the way chimps behave around little people, the casting choice led to numerous interruptions as the chimpanzee Cornelius Crane repeatedly tried to kill Peter Dinklage, but was shot with tranquilizers as soon as it became violent. In another meta moment on set Cornelius started to fondle co-star's Alison Brie's breasts before being drawn by Yvette Nicole Brown's even more generous cleavage.
Over the past decade, other showrunners have laid claim to the title of greatest showrunners of their generation. Matthew Weiner's bold choice to include a laugh track in season 5 of Mad Men, every time January Jones' Fat Betty took a bite of food was supported by critical acclaim, in a manner similar to Mitchell Hurwitz's shocking reveal that George-Michael and Maeby are actually biological cousins, moments before their explicit sex scene in the revival of Arrested Development. Lesser showrunners have shown promise, such as Ryan Murphy casting Jessica Lange as a 12 year old seductress in season 2 of American Horror Story or Chuck Lorre convincing Ashton Kutcher to go full frontal for Two And a Half Men ("I wanted to show I could find as big a dick as Charlie Sheen and then shove it in the face of the viewers who claimed the show couldn't go on without him", explained Lorre), but none truly rose to the level of Dan Harmon's dedication and vision towards Community.
Despite losing the talent of Fred Willard, Community marches on with a fresh approach and has secured guest spots for Bill Murray, John Cleese and Patrick Stewart for its 25 episode fourth season that will include a live episode. After the 3rd season finale drew ratings of 10+ million and high critical acclaim, Fred Willard's departure has only cemented Dan Harmon's status as the greatest showrunner of his generation and NBC finally has a post-Friends flagship show.