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HarmonQuest: Dan Harmon talks bringing Dungeons & Dragons to life

New series combines animation and live-action role-playing

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Seeso

Thursday marks the premiere of HarmonQuest, Dan Harmon’s latest TV foray into the various corners of nerdland. Where Community was a longform investigation into internet pop culture fandom (among many other things) and Rick & Morty continues to interrogate every science-fiction trope imaginable, HarmonQuest takes on Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D, for short). Once again, he’s brought some friends along for the ride: Erin McGathy, Spencer Crittenden, and Jeff Bryan Davis, along with rotating guest comedians like Paul F. Tompkins and Aubrey Plaza. The show features this eclectic group playing D&D in front of a live audience, interspersed with an animated adaptation of their games. Ahead of HarmonQuest‘s July 14 premiere on Seeso, EW talked with Harmon about the genesis of the show, his formative experiences playing D&D, and the evolution of nerd culture (as well as a quick update about Rick & Morty season 3). 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first start playing D&D?

DAN HARMON: Around 12 or 13 years old is when I played for the first time. There was a new kid in the neighborhood who was cooler than all the other kids. He was from California, we were in Milwaukee, and he smoked pot and had a skateboard. All the other kids my age liked to play baseball. Even doing the summer when you could do anything, they wanted to keep doing the s— the teachers made them do at school, like hit balls with sticks. But this guy was like, why don’t we go to my house and play D&D? He had this cool abbreviation for it that I’d never heard before, and he started handing out these intricate sheets of characters, piles of these huge hardcover books, and all these weird dice. I’d never seen a die that wasn’t shaped like a Yahtzee die until that day. We all had a blast, me and all the baseball kids, but I was the kid, just like with booze and every drug I would encounter from then on, I was the kid who reacted way bigger to this experience, and never drifted back to baseball.

There’s something about all those books and dice and information that can be really mesmerizing to a certain kind of kid.

It’s not rocket science to see the analogue of rock & roll when my parents were kids, or gangsta rap. You need a certain membrane of alienation and intimidation in order for something to become uniquely your culture. It needs some element of being scary to some people. Back then, there were urban legends of kids killing each other on the streets because of taking D&D too seriously. It was just perfect. If you wore a D&D shirt, it said to the kids around you, “Yes I am a nerd, don’t bother talking to me, but know that I might be a devil-worshipper.”

What do you enjoy most about playing D&D?

The most valuable thing about it is its incentivization of collaborative, spontaneous storytelling. It really blurs the lines between reality and fantasy in your mind in the way a video game being realistic simply can’t do. When you’re with your friends, or even just other human beings, and you’re talking about what’s going on, and a qualified game master is keeping track of what’s going on and allowing you to collectively participate in an imaginary event, it really takes the pressure off being in the line at the bank the next day. You start to realize this is a collective story too, there’s just more evidence we should take this seriously. But if we can’t make our own happiness, where’s it going to come from? I just like the invitation to create your own world.

How did you go about translating that collaborative experience into an animated show?

Falling back on my improv comedy experience was helpful there. Like in Who’s Line Is It Anyway, where the host says “ok you guys are having a party. One of you is Fat Albert, one of you is jazz, and one of you can only talk backwards. Go.” It’s something that has a lot in common with fantasy roleplaying. You have a live audience for that, and people enjoy things being made up as they go. So I thought that unmistakably spontaneous nature plus a live studio audience to underline that where you can hear them reacting to it, plus animation with all its meticulousness. The thing about fantasy role-playing is you almost enjoy it most after it’s finished. You go, remember when we were in the labyrinth and your pants kept falling down because you were trying to cast that spell but you didn’t understand the pants were getting bigger and…” You go back over with your friends about what happened. That’s what animation gets to do in real time. They have six months to draw what happened as you were making it up. I thought the combination all rolled down at once would create a cool effect.

You’ve got some guest stars, like Paul F. Tompkins in the first episode. Is it difficult navigating the disparate level of D&D experience among the players, or is the connection to something like improve comedy enough?

It’s definitely enough. I’m pretty sure a comedian who wasn’t trained in improv still comes to the table with an innate sense of, “Hey, man, life is a game and I try to do it right,” whether it’s by being conscientious, hilarious, or caustic. Every comedian has their own strategy of survival in a conversation. All of them have balls of brass or they wouldn’t have pursued the craft of stand-up, which is incredibly lonely and competitive and high-pressure. Even a non-improv comedian sitting down to play a fantasy role-playing game in front of an audience, it works quite well, as I suspected.

You mentioned getting into D&D when it still had that weird aura around it. There are now people who used to make fun of D&D players obsessed with Game of Thrones​, this huge fantasy show. How do you account for that change?

The Lord of the Rings was a hugely important thing to happen. It’s hard to say which chicken laid which egg for this whole nerd culture we saw erupt. I think you have to think of it as once upon a time, life was like the end of Revenge of the Nerds in the ’80s, where the revelation is that all us people who are scared and different, we vastly outnumber the fictional, theoretical construct that is the so-called “normal person.” Before the two-way connection that was the internet, the only prime-time soap operas had to be about oil tycoons, because the only thing that people thought was that normal people wanted to be rich, and all of these things. The internet exploded around the time Lost was on TV, and people were picking that apart. You had a mainstream puncture and realization that, Oh, we’re all nerds, we all want to obsess about things. That’s all a nerd is, it’s not about IQ or different characteristics, it’s all about obsession and focus and taking something seriously. Once you realize you like toothpicks a lot, you can respect somebody in a conversation about stamp collecting or D&D or Marvel comics. The internet really allowed everyone to realize that everyone was a nerd. So now Marvel is making the most successful mainstream movies.

With Game of Thrones, they did a great job of starting that show and weaning you onto dragons and stuff. They just dressed some great actors in long robes and had them argue about power and politics for a few episodes while they slowly crept in the magic. And your biggest in-road to that show was Peter Dinklage, who had the authenticity to bridge this gap and made you realize that when we talk about orcs and goblins and swords and castles, we’re talking about power constructs. So if we’re talking about someone who the world regards as an “imp,” even within their own family, everyone realizes oh this is just Dallas, this is a telenovela, I love this. Definitely Game of Thrones once and for all put to rest the really dumb theory that the physical trappings of the universe in which you’re telling stories necessitated being one kind of story or another.

What do you like about the live studio audience aspect, since D&D is usually played in a friend’s living room?

For better or for worse, the live studio audience helps the viewer of a finished product understand that at the moment of the taping, things were being made-up. If there were no audience there and we were just playing D&D in a recording booth … there’s a successful show there too, but it would have a different tone. After HarmonTown, I went with what I knew, which was if you have a small audience there and you can hear them laughing, it works because the two elements of a fantasy role playing as being presented in the show are 1), it was happening at a table among friends, and 2), it was later handed to a team of professional craftsmen who added sound and video to it. To separate the two things. I wanted to create an in-the-moment-ness as much as possible with the live-action component.

One quick Rick & Morty question for you. I’ve seen conflicting reports of season 3’s return date. Do you guys have a hammered down date, or is it just kind of vaguely set for later this year/early next year?

It’s vaguely set right now. Third seasons are harder than second seasons, and Rick & Morty has always been harder than other things. Trying to do more episodes this season, trying to keep our game up and even top it, and then you add into that the business of strategy, which is out of our jurisdiction, the most advantageous time a network sees to release a show and that stuff. Between all of those variables, we’re still a while from being able to announce a hard date. What I can say is we’re a solid halfway through writing all the episodes, if we are indeed doing more than 10, and probably less than halfway drawing and animating it.

Are you trying to do more episodes due to popular demand, or does the season 3 story require it?

If we’re doing it, it’s out of a continuing desire to bridge this gap that I think Justin and I both feel, which is this is the thing we really love doing, but it’s not the thing that pays our mortgage. Adult Swim isn’t Fox, prime time, so how close can R&M get to being The Simpsons, where we actually have a season of 25 episodes? Because if that was somehow possible, that would mean everyone could do Rick & Morty as their only job, and that would mean all kinds of wonderful things. We’re spending this season trying to figure out if we’re able to do more than we’ve done, and get some data about whether that makes the show worse, how much more expensive it makes it, etc.