Dan Harmon, Justin Roiland talk bringing absurd to ‘Rick and Morty’
The manic will soon return to Mondays.
“Rick and Morty,” Adult Swim’s wacky animated half-hour from “Community” czar Dan Harmon and actor/writer Justin Roiland, returns with new episodes Monday at 10:30 p.m. PDT.
The deranged comedy, currently in its first season, centers on mad scientist/drunken sociopath Rick and his woeful grandson Morty and their loony adventures -- a sort of unhinged spin on the Doc Brown-Marty McFly relationship in “Back to the Future.”
It was recently renewed for a second season. As the series returns with new episodes, Show Tracker spoke with Harmon and Roiland about the show’s genesis, bringing a longer format to Adult Swim and female disparity in the writers room.
“Rick and Morty” is definitely one of the bolder animated series out there. Talk about coming up with the concept, Its rooted in rejection, right?
Roiland: Yeah. I mean, the original concept was just me screwing around. I would go through phases in my involvement with Channel 101 [a nonprofit short film festival started by Harmon] where I would make stuff that was kind of intended to just shock people -- a lot of screaming and people covering their eyes, groaning. This was one of those things. It started just for me, doing these two voices, really bad impressions of Doc and Marty from “Back to the Future.” Skipping forward now, it’s completely different. Our show is so far removed from that [the Channel 101 pilot “The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti”], but some of the raw energy behind the voice performances is sort of still intact, especially for Rick. That’s the beginning of it. And me sort of falling in love with it over the short period of time I made it - -I think I made it over a period of two weeks. It had originally started as this thing I didn’t give a ... about at all, and by the time I was finished, I really had grown to like it. I was hoping the audience would vote it back. I had very little hope that they would because of the content, but I really did have this energy to continue telling stories with these two guys.
So, Dan, when Adult Swim says they want to work with you, what was it about this project that you thought would work?
Harmon: I knew I wanted to work with Justin if I was going to work at Adult Swim because, the truth is, my sensibilities left to their own devices are pretty bad. I’m not a huge animation guy by nature. I’m not tremendously visual, in terms of how I think. I tend to think in terms of dialogue and character and story. Adult Swim wanted to work with me but I knew that anything I did with them alone would probably be short-lived because I’d be removed from the tumultuous, passionate, rebellious, fiber of most of their audience because I own a home. And so I thought about Justin because he is the Adult Swim brand. He is the target for a lot of their stuff. And he’s also, like me, really passionate about story and franchise.
He mentioned these characters that he had been doing for so long on the Internet that had just been really vile -- just vandalization of Doc Jones and Marty McFly that he had done to get the steam off of his chest from a long time ago. Every time I watched them, I always found myself laughing hard. It was because the person behind them was doing something important to themselves. It was punk rock. It didn’t matter if it sounded enough like Mozart to register as proper music, what matters is the humanity behind it. I knew that developing that into a half-hour sitcom, which was what Adult Swim wanted, would be the same amount of challenge as a guy going to community college -- it’s the same amount of work shaping something into something resembling a Snickers bar -- you’re developing it into something appealing, digestible. What excited me about it was Justin was always laughing and having a great time with these characters. I think we wrote the pilot script in six or eight hours.
Roiland: Yeah, we broke the story the same day that we pitched it to the network and then went and drafted it up right after that. It’s not always that fast. It was kind of lightning in a bottle. Dan was kind of ready to call it a day and I just felt it. I was like, “It’s in my head now.” And I will procrastinate pretty bad. But that day, for some reason, I was like, we need to do it.
Harmon: We literally had just sold the idea to Nick Weidenfeld [then head of program development for Adult Swim] and he was walking out of my unfurnished, empty “Community” office where I pitched it to him. We were sitting on the floor, cross-legged with laptops and I was about to get up and go home and he said, “Wait, if you go home, it might take us three months to write this thing. Stay here right now and we can write it in six hours. He just had a premonition about that. It was between Seasons 2 and 3 of “Community.”
So would you say getting an animated series off the ground is more difficult than a live-action series?
Harmon: It feels more difficult to me.
Roiland: It is. When Dan called me and said Adult Swim had this interest of him doing a show for them, at the time, I was developing my third animated Fox pilot after coming off the heels of two failed ones. It’s the salmon run and jumping through a bunch of development loops and trying to navigate those waters to get to the point where something will be seen by people on television. That phone call couldn’t have come at a better time because I was getting very sort of burned out on development. I did keep on these Rick and Morty voices -- the voices only, really. I did keep packaging and plugging them into all my projects as I was developing, even if they were tertiary, they were always in there. But, yeah, it was super, super difficult to get anything on the air. And then this thing comes and it was sort of like, “Take it if you want it” from Adult Swim -- that’s how it felt: if you guys want to do something, uh, go ahead. It was the complete opposite from what I was used to. It was such a rare, specific instance. It had everything to do with the success of “Community.”
Adult Swim traditionally is known for its 15-minute animated series -- which some writers in animation prefer, in terms of storytelling. Was the task of doing a half-hour series daunting or did your background on “Community,” Dan, make it feel right?
Harmon: For me, it was the same old muscles. I was actually really excited about it. I had to acquire the A-story, B-story, 20-minute discipline over a couple of years of “Community,” which is sometimes, I don’t know, just a strange particular set of muscles. But here was an opportunity to do it with no regard for so many things. ... It was like being offered the chance to play basketball on a court made for children in terms of what you could do. I know how to do 20-minute A-story, B-story and yet, over at Adult Swim, you can have people’s brains being blown out, you can have people defecating on screen. I shouldn’t have said basketball court for children, that was a bad metaphor. It was more like kicking weights off your ankles or playing basketball on Venus. The exciting thing about it was what it meant to Adult Swim because they hadn’t done it before, and you could tell that they were gearing up for something special and they wanted us to be it. We had to operate at a slightly tamer rating than most Adult Swim content, also. It was TV-14 instead of TV-M, which freaked us out a little at first. But we found out we could still do plenty of disgusting things at that rating. But the reason why they wanted that is because they wanted to be like, “Well, look, I think what we’ll eventually do is start creeping into primetime with our programming and we could see this show being at 10 o’clock and competing with major stuff.” That really excited me.
Talk about the atmosphere in the writers room.
Harmon: It’s eerie how identical it is to the “Community” writers room, except it’s less people. Also we have no female balance on the “Rick and Morty” staff -- there’s just less resources to work with. It was really hard at “Community” that second season to read enough scripts and have enough meetings and find enough people to have a balanced female-male writing staff. When you’re under the gun, your default is to have a bunch of white dudes because that’s unfortunately the default within the industry. It’s the button that gets hit when you’re in a hurry, those are the scripts on your desk. Because there’s nobody in there that we’re afraid is gonna be horrified, it’s a little [more] rough and tumble verbally than in the “Community” room. There’s a lot more Legos and Nerf guns.
From there, the differences end because the process is the same. We sit around and we pool thoughts. There’s no wrong answers at all, we’re just talking about things -- even things that have nothing to do with the show because when you start talking about your day or something that happened to you when you were 6 years old, at the point when you get really excited, you automatically say, “Oh, what if Morty got caught in a Venus flytrap.” It starts from pooling thoughts about sci-fi, thoughts about our lives. The things that spike in those conversations that cause this rush of adrenaline, those things make it on a short list and slowly we start to identify ones that might be breakable into stories. If it becomes too difficult and convoluted, I’m a big fan of bailing on it. But if you do that too many times or you spend too much time on one, then you enter the dark days because then your schedule is off, and you’re pursuing something that doesn’t want to be pursued. There’s nothing to make you feel good except a Nerf gun and a pile of Legos, which are really just taunting reminders of your lost youth. You argue a bit, you have breakdowns. The nice thing with “Rick & Morty” is those meltdowns can sometimes just become the story.
Does the fact that the show isn’t union create any challenges? How do you feel about operating in that area?
Roiland: Yeah ... I think so. It’s always tougher to get the cream-of-the-crop talent. If you have someone who has a kid and a family, and there’s a union job that’s going to accrue them the hours to keep their insurance, no matter how much they love your show, it boils down to survival. And you lose out in those cases. Season 1 we were lucky to get insanely good directors, art directors, storyboard guys. We just had it firing on all cylinders. Going into Season 2, the challenge is going to be, how many of these people can we get to come back. How many of them are already on union jobs? And how many need to go to union jobs in order to keep their insurance. That’s definitely, in my opinion, the worst thing about it: less money, no benefits for your crew.
Harmon: Yeah, it’s a bummer. It’s the dirty little secret of all these wonderful things that we can’t see that makes us go, “Oh, that’s so awesome. That’s so underground. Why can’t all of TV be this way?” It’s easy to overlook the fact that a lot of those people aren’t being fairly compensated or getting the benefits they could working on something some might consider watered-down and mainstream. And that’s not cool. But could Adult Swim exist if we forced the issue -- I have no idea how that stuff works.
Dan, you’ve got your hand in a lot of things. You returned to the helm of “Community,” which gave some people whiplash...
Harmon: The only reason I wouldn’t come back would be wanting to start a family or not losing my girlfriend. Since I knew that my girlfriend would stick by me, I knew I had to come back. Because it wouldn’t be a middle finger to [NBC and Sony]. They would’ve just put out a press release that said “We asked him back and he didn’t want to come back.” And everyone would’ve read it as Dan Harmon ended “Community.” But even forgetting about that, living in my own skull, there’s absolutely no way I could’ve ever been happy wondering what would have happened had I have gone back. Now, if the season ends horribly and everyone hates it, that’s a thing that happened. It’s a glass of spilled milk. It happened and it’s there and it’s reality and it can be dealt with. What can’t be dealt with are the ghosts in your head, the “what ifs.”
At the Television Critics Assn. press tour in January, NBC boss Bob Greenblatt more than assured “Parks and Recreation” would return, but was extremely vague about the future of “Community.”
Harmon: I’m laughing because I love watching Greenblatt when he’s asked about “Community” because you can never tell if his hesitance is due to him having made a decision and not wanting to admit it, or him having made a decision and not wanting to go through with it. You can definitely tell that he doesn’t want to be cornered on it. That’s why I’m laughing. I’m just remembering the transcript of that. Of course I hope it comes back. When I think about the possibility of a sixth season, the first thing that comes into my head is looking my fiancee in the eye and telling her, like a cop in a serial killer movie, “I’m going back on the case,” and seeing that reaction in her eyes where she knows she has to support me, but she knows it will suck because she won’t see me as much. With “Community,” I don’t care if it crashed into a wall and explodes, I have to be gripping its handlebars as it happens. I gotta steer this thing into the sun.
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