Dan Harmon, Do More

A few thoughts about his profile in The Hollywood Reporter.

Dan Harmon, Do More
Image via Gage Skidmore.
I'm chatting with WGA members and pre-WGA writers for a strike retrospective. If that describes you and you're interested in answering a few questions, please get in touch!

I was interested to read The Hollywood Reporter’s profile of Dan Harmon this week, apparently his first in years. I haven’t watched his new show, something called Krapopolis, but I’m a fan of Community and Rick and Morty—well, certain seasons of them—and I’ve always found him to be a fascinating person, in good ways and bad: an immensely intelligent and creative person with a great deal of self-consciousness about his failings, and who clearly illustrates the limits of that self-consciousness when circumstances call for something… more.

In the profile, Harmon addresses the spate of recent allegations against Rick and Morty co-creator and star Justin Roiland, including charges of felony domestic violence (which were dropped due to insufficient evidence) and accusations of sexual harassment and assault. To wit:

On Jan.  12, NBC News reported that Roiland had been charged with felony domestic violence in connection with a 2020 incident, which sent everyone involved with the show, many of whom have never actually met Roiland, into a tailspin. Roiland was later cleared of the charges due to insufficient evidence, but Adult Swim had already severed ties with him. When Rick and Morty returns for its seventh season Oct.  15, it will do so without Roiland’s voice. They’ve hired two young, unknown voice actors for the roles of Rick and Morty, a process that Harmon says he largely avoided, mostly out of denial. “It’s all just sad because the goal is for it to be indistinguishable,” he says, “at the same time, it would be absurd to suddenly decide that the entire foundation of your creative project was, oh, coincidentally, unimportant.”
But a few days after my time with Harmon, the same outlet published a new report featuring nine separate accounts of Roiland’s alleged misconduct, which range from sexual harassment to sexual assault. To lure these women, Roiland, who has denied the allegations, reportedly leveraged his affiliation with the show and its success on social media apps and on dating apps. When Harmon and I connect again, more than a week later, he’s read the piece and he can no longer stay quiet.
“The easiest thing for me to say about Justin has been nothing. Easy because he isolated so well and easy because I’m nobody’s first choice as a judge of anything or anyone. This is where I’d love to change the subject to myself, to what a piece of crap I’ve been my whole public life,” he says. “I would feel so safe and comfortable making this about me, but that trick is worthless here and dangerous to others. It’s other people’s safety and comfort that got damaged while I obsessed over a cartoon’s quality. Trust has now been violated between countless people and a show designed to please them. I’m frustrated, ashamed and heartbroken that a lot of hard work, joy and passion can be leveraged to exploit and harm strangers.”

It’s a confusing statement. One, I’m not sure what exactly would be the problem with “making it about [him]self” and accounting for his own role in enabling his colleague’s alleged behavior—much of which occurred in the workplace, according to THR’s reporting. Two, in his refusal to make it about himself, he still declines to make it about Roiland, whose conduct he shrouds in the passive tense: safety and comfort got damaged. Trust has been violated. Hard work, joy, and passion can be leveraged. What are we talking about, exactly?

Harmon’s rhetorical framing of the allegations is important because Roiland and his representatives have adamantly denied them. What we know, generally, is based on the anonymous accounts of his purported victims and employees, anonymous due to the obvious risks in attaching names to their stories. If Harmon believes they’re telling the truth, he should say so. If the reporting on Roiland’s behavior at Rick and Morty’s offices are true, he should say that too. It would be an enormous service to everyone involved and to the general public. Vaguely acknowledging that safety got damaged means little from a man who has the money and power to support the people his colleague allegedly hurt, especially when those people include his own subordinates—not just the “strangers” who spoke to NBC, but people whose safety Harmon was directly responsible for.

Obviously it’s not fair to expect Harmon to know about Roiland’s relationships with fans, but it’s also not fair to suggest Roiland effectively “isolated” his misconduct from Harmon’s view, given how Roiland apparently acted in the workplace. (Indeed, the line about obsessing “over a cartoon’s quality” seems to imply that Harmon would have seen what was happening if only he looked up.) This is from THR’s report in February:

To many of Roiland’s colleagues, the criminal charges came as a shock, but they also point to workplace behavior that has made them uncomfortable for years. According to multiple sources, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, Roiland once paraded a high-profile porn star through the Rick and Morty writers room, openly discussed threesomes and was involved in at least one instance of alleged sexual harassment during the show’s third season, notably its first with female writers. In 2020, Cartoon Network, for which Adult Swim is the nighttime arm, conducted a formal investigation that examined Roiland’s inappropriate workplace conduct. It’s uncertain what, if any, actions were taken. Cartoon Network declined to comment.

Harmon’s statement is confusing also because it’s not exactly his first rodeo. As the profile recounts, in 2018 he made a lengthy apology for sexually harassing writer Megan Ganz when he was her boss on Community. She accepted the apology, describing it as “a masterclass in how to apologize,” which it has more or less been heralded as ever since. Again, the man is nothing if not capable of self-diagnosis—in retrospect, at least.

Most harassment apologies are just damage control. Dan Harmon’s was a self-reckoning.
Why the Community creator’s apology for sexually harassing writer Megan Ganz led to her forgiveness.

A question that often comes up in conversations about quote-unquote Cancel Culture is, roughly, “What do you think the rules should be?” In other words: by what unifying standard should we evaluate the wide range of behavior that falls under the umbrella of "sexual misconduct," and by what unifying standard should we determine the appropriate penalties for each behavior? The question is reliably a red herring—a way of saying without saying, “I don’t think X conduct is all that bad”—and usually coincides with a belief that mass opprobrium and the loss of employment opportunities are tantamount to incarceration. But in some cases, at least, I think it speaks to a deeper fear of what systemic change would actually require. If the problem is indeed so bad and so widespread, if it indeed involves so many layers of complexity, then fixing it would really be quite a bit of work, and there wouldn’t be much time to do anything else. Mightn’t it be easier, all things considered, to defer to the existing rules?

My answer to this question is usually that I think we can safely take things on a case-by-case basis. History seems to bear this out: very few “canceled” celebrities have suffered lasting professional or reputational damage, many are doing quite well for themselves, those who have suffered lasting damage are generally the very worst offenders, and Harmon’s case in particular shows that it’s possible for the public discourse to honor the complexities of a given situation. These discussions are rhetorical exercises anyhow; few of us actually have the power to mete out punishment. What we’re actually doing is asking for the existing rules to be applied fairly, without favor; for the textbook definitions of “sexual assault” and “grooming” and “workplace harassment” to also be the popular ones. This is the easy way. It’s the one that asks people who do have power to adjust the way they use it. So what if it’s not always polite? Neither is sexual misconduct.

Comedy Is a Safe Space for Abuse
Some thoughts about what’s happening.

At the same time, I wonder if there right be one rule worth applying: people who abuse power should be kept from power, at least for a period of time. It seems pretty sensible to me. If you’re a reckless driver, you lose your license; if you’re a bad boss, you don’t get to be a boss again. Certainly there's more complexity when you factor in the forms of power that aren’t tied to a workplace—being a famous actor-writer-animator, for instance—but surely we can agree that, as a bare minimum, people who admit to harassing subordinates, however contrite they might be, shouldn’t have access to subordinates for a while?

This is why I never quite shared in the enthusiasm about Harmon’s apology to Megan Ganz. He offered a deeply thoughtful, specific accounting of what he did and why, the ways power clouded his behavior, the lengths he went to delude himself—and then he carried right on being CEO of a massive company, Rick and Morty. It's absolutely important that this was enough for Ganz to feel vindicated, and it’s probably fair to use it as an object lesson in what an apology should look like. Still, we are dealing with the abuse of systemic power here. Accountability cannot simply be a matter of personal contrition. It’s one thing to describe in self-castigating detail how you used a weapon to hurt someone, another to continue holding that weapon during and after your confession.

But Seth, what are you saying—Harmon should have quit Rick and Morty and left everyone to deal with Roiland on their own? And what could he have done about Roiland’s actions outside the workplace anyhow? First of all, Roiland was reportedly uninvolved in the show’s day-to-day affairs by 2018, and clearly Harmon’s presence was hardly a mitigating factor to begin with. No, what I’m saying is this: until powerful people like Harmon understand sexual abuse as a systemic problem that depends on the silence of people surrounding abusers, it will continue flourishing in the spaces they’re supposedly in charge of. (Here it’s probably worth mentioning that Mike Lazzo, the Adult Swim head who oversaw Rick and Morty, has interesting views about women in comedy, and the network under his leadership had a huge gender disparity.) I don’t know what he knew or when he knew it, but it beggars belief that he was naive to the red flags so many of his staffers have risked their livelihoods to describe. He was in a position to do something. What did he do? Could he have done more? If yes, why didn’t he? If no, what forces prevented him? In a just world, a world less tolerant of sexual harassment and abuse, would he have been given the opportunity to create a TV show with Roiland in the first place?

Seeing No Evil
Conceptualizing “network silence.”

These are difficult questions. It would be very meaningful for someone in Harmon’s position and of his intelligence to engage with them. What duty do we have to police our close associates, to ensure that our creations are not used for ill purposes? While it’s unfair to hold individual staffers accountable for their association with Roiland, as some did in the initial wake of the controversy, I’m not sure the same is true of the man who helped give him his fame, the very power he allegedly used to target young women and nonbinary people. We can and should argue over the degree to which associating means enabling, and one fact will remain constant while we do: Justin Roiland could not have done what he allegedly did without Rick and Morty, and Rick and Morty would not exist without Dan Harmon, who sexually harassed an employee in his previous job. At the very least this merits more than a vague, passive comment in a magazine cover story promoting his new television show.

Is it rude to ask someone to provide a public accounting of his knowledge of a business partner's behavior? Yes, of course, but he’s the one who wants to keep running TV shows and (by his own admission to THR) making lots of money. We need to reckon with these things, the way power flows from one person to another, if we have any hope of creating a safer industry, a safer world. If there’s more to the story, Harmon is uniquely positioned to take the risk of saying so, which means he should say so. It helps no one for the truth to emerge piecemeal through anonymously sourced reporting years after the fact. Maybe he did everything he could to isolate Roiland from his subordinates, but it wasn’t enough. Maybe he recognized red flags of Roiland’s private conduct, but ultimately wasn’t in a position to do anything about them—at least, not without endangering hundreds of people’s jobs. That would all be well and good and it would still raise one little question: what will he do the next time this happens?

Because there will be a next time. That’s the whole point. Hollywood doesn’t just attract abusers, it lavishes them with money and power and makes it damn near impossible for anyone to stop them, even the good people with money and power. Harmon is smart enough to know this—that if he can use his position to hurt someone, and if his onetime friend can use his position to hurt people, then something must really need fixing. He could do a lot of good if he devoted his infamous perfectionism to fixing it.

Keep it going for your host!

Humorism is fully reader-supported.

Leave a tip