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Dungeons & Dragons: Apatow & Harmon Rewrite the Roleplaying Geek

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Judd Apatow, Freaks & Geeks, 2000

Since its creation in 1974, the fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons has become the go-to signifier of geek culture. Today however, the geeks have inherited the Earth as media producers, casting their formative geek pastimes into the mainstream and ushering in an era of geek chic.

Two prominent examples of geeks turned media moguls are Dan Harmon, writer and creator of NBC’s Community; and Judd Apatow, director, writer and producer of the cult series, Freaks & Geeks and just about any movie starring Seth Rogan and James Franco. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both Harmon and Apatow count Dungeons & Dragons among their influences, since the game revolves around storytelling and character development.

Harmon records a weekly podcast called Harmontown, in front of live audience in the back of a comic book store, which celebrates many aspects of nerd culture, most notably Dungeons & Dragons. During one of Harmontown’s first live tapings, Harmon happened upon Spencer, a 6’4’’ Dungeon Master in the audience, with a 20-sided die at the ready. Spencer became the first DM to join a comedy tour across the country as part of Harmon’s podcast, and is now a geek god in his own right.

Dungeons & Dragons Dice, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Dungeons & Dragons Dice, courtesy Wikimedia Commons (Wikimedia Commons)

“Back before I knew what Dungeons & Dragons [was] we used to just play pretend, you know? But we’d do the same basic things and then someone was like, ‘Hey, have you heard of Dungeons & Dragons?’ and we were like, ‘Wow. Let’s make this more complicated,’” Spencer recalls.

Harmon identifies these increasingly complex games of make-believe on the playground as the genesis of role-playing games.


Segments of Dungeons & Dragons are now permanent fixtures of Harmon’s show and any special guests are invited/forced to make cameo appearances within the world. Because as Harmon explains, “If there’s one contingency, we of the role-playing ilk have to prepare ourselves for, it’s less people showing up than we thought.”

Aside from podcasting, Harmon has also broadcasted Dungeons & Dragons on his subversive sitcom, Community. Two episodes, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons satirize the trope of the ostracized D &D nerd. And while D&D players are not known for their diversity, these representations show different races, genders and ages engaging with the game.

The first episode begins with the following narrative, “Gather close that you might harken the story of Fat Neil. Born stout of heart but large of bone, his adolescent years were shadowed by scorn and mockery. Outlets of fantasy afforded him some escape from the darkness throughout high school and as a man he traveled far to a new school and a new beginning . . . or so he thought.”

Apatow depicted Dungeons & Dragons with less tongue in cheek humor and more heartwarming empathy in Freaks & Geeks: his short-lived series about high school in the early 1980s starring James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Martin Starr and others who would go on to become successful actors. IFC describes this episode of Freaks and Geeks as, “the most noble depiction of a Dungeons and Dragons game ever.” This episode and the entire season are available on Netflix instant watch.

The tension that built between the freaks and the geeks throughout the school year comes to a détente in this finale. James Franco’s bad boy character joins the geeks for a game of D&D as Carlos the Dwarf. To everyone’s surprise, he enjoys it so much that he asks to play again the next night. After he leaves the room, the geeks conference to make sense of what just transpired,

“Does him wanting to play with us again, mean that he’s turning into a geek or we’re turning into cool guys?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll go for us being cool guys.”

“Yeah, I’ll buy that.”

“Yeah, definitely cool guys.”


To explore the world of Dungeons & Dragons, visit the official website. However, the common consensus among D&D nerds is that the 3.5 version is the last version worth playing.

Additionally, the game requires a good-natured Dungeon Master. If you don’t already know a Dungeon Master, ask around your local hobby gaming store, which often have bulletin boards where you can post a call for one. (Just beware the power hungry types.)

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