Ever wonder how BACK TO THE FUTURE would've been different had the Doc Brown-Marty McFly relationship been psychologically abusive? Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland apparently have, as this is essentially the hook for their animated Adult Swim series RICK AND MORTY (premiering tonight at 10:30 PM). Rick is an alcoholic mad scientist who drags his puberty-stricken grandson Morty from one insanely perilous adventure to another - much to the chagrin of Morty's father, Jerry, who correctly believes the old man to be a danger to his family. Though the show goes to some dark places, it does so with a cheerfully rambunctious spirit; like Harmon's COMMUNITY, it's a fast-paced, tightly-structured twenty-two minutes that trades in the absurd, but never at the expense of narrative coherence. By the end of the second episode, I found myself completely involved in the bizarre world Harmon and Roiland have created. It's a strong start for what's already one of the funniest shows on television.
Adult Swim is so confident in the show's quality that they've posted the pilot online in advance of the official premiere. Here it is in all its supremely whacked-out glory...
I chatted with Harmon and Roiland (who brilliantly voices both lead characters) last week about the inspiration for the show, and how they managed to make Rick such a likably awful human being. This isn't hyperbole. Rick isn't your standard-issue elderly curmudgeon; he's a straight-up psychopath who literally gets away with murder in the first episode. But the world is so clearly defined that it's all totally palatable. We also touched on their writing process, and whether the hyper-intelligent dogs featured in the second episode could legitimately carry their own show (my opinion: they can and they must).
Mr. Beaks: What was the initial idea that brought this show into being?
Justin Roiland: Probably just Dan and I having this subconscious desire - maybe conscious even - to work together over all these years, and being provided with the opportunity to develop something... almost like a blind deal in a weird way. Dan just called me and said, "Do you want to develop something with Adult Swim? They're interested in working with me." I enthusiastically responded "Yes!", and we landed on this concept just because the two main characters were these voices I did in previous works for Channel 101, which Dan created with Rob Schrab. Dan was familiar with the characters and really responded to my joy in doing their voices, and how tickled I was by them. That was our launching-off point. We got together, collaborated and built a whole family and world around them. The rest... it was kind of just following our writer instinct, and Dan guiding me - this being officially the first show I've ever done for TV, running the writers room, and growing the show organically over the course of writing the first season.
Beaks: I love that there's a network where you can pitch a show about a puberty-stricken boy and his drunken reprobate grandfather going on adventures, and they'll be welcoming of it. Was there anything about this show that you had to hold back on?
Dan Harmon: Not really. It was more about building something outward from a core that was largely just a thing that Justin used to do to blow off steam online. Thinking about how you sustain it for a half-hour, we said, "Let's add a family that we can cut to so that we're not watching the same two characters for that entire thirty minutes. And let's make sure that everything that we know is for sale with Rick and Morty - all the absurdity and juvenility and sci-fi. And let's go basically the opposite route with the family, and have them be a potting soil for anxiety-driven relationship stories, things where nothing gets crazier than someone hurts your feelings." That was the original intention, that we would cut back-and-forth between these two differently scaled universes. But very quickly it turned out, "We don't have to keep these things separate. We're getting much better results introducing sci-fi elements to the family, or having other members of the family getting sucked along into sci-fi adventures." There was nothing that we had to pull back on. It was a very supportive development process from the network. It was incredible. We weren't being told "You have to do this" or "You have to do that". We were just given the freedom and ability to build this thing as we saw it fit to be built.
Beaks: The layering of the jokes and the frequency... they just keep coming at you. It's a little bit like what you do on COMMUNITY, Dan, where you have to watch the episode a couple of times to pick up every joke. It's so dense. How long does it take to write these scripts?
Roiland: With animation, we have the luxury of multiple checkpoints in which we can assess the episode and add to it, change it and make it funnier. I think the initial scripting phase is standard what you would have on COMMUNITY - the difference being that on COMMUNITY they go right to shooting. On our show, we do a voice record that becomes a radio play that we can then scratch in new dialogue and pick up later with the voice actors. What you just described about watching the show, about it being dense and filled with jokes, Dan is just incredibly talented when it comes to taking a scene that is part of a larger story and then rewriting it in such a way that it is a setup-punchline driven sequence as opposed to just exposition or plot development. The setup-punchline integrated into a forward-moving conversation... I'm very much in awe of Dan's ability to do that. My contribution is the voice acting and, if there's a scene with Rick and Morty, Dan has afforded me the freedom to, on a case-by-case basis, just throw the script out and improv the two characters. There's something very interesting and unique that will often surface as a result of me tapping into that part of my brain where there's no filter and I'm just... talking to myself. it's weird. It kind of makes the characters feel alive, and brings a different sort of dynamic to the table. I think the sum of those parts is something really, really special. Across the season, it was a really fun and positive collaboration between the two of us.
Beaks: Two episodes in, there's already an endearing quality to the show. I really do enjoy these characters - despite the fact that Rick essentially commits murder in the first show. Something like that can happen, and you just shrug it off. What's the secret to making that work?
Harmon: You have to draw a frame around it and say, "That's how you're supposed to feel." That's what the audience needs. They need to be told. They audience is offended by things that they think are propaganda. "You're trying to make this person seem like a good person, but I know he's a bad person." There's a resistant read that a viewer has. Everyone starts watching something with their arms folded, and you have to do a mating dance to get them to open their arms. What you do is you engage in a very systematic agreement of mythical vocabulary. You say, "This is a good thing, and this is a bad thing. This is an embarrassing thing, and this is an enraging thing." As the audience starts to realize that you are not going to jump into their brain and rewire it or drag a cheese grater over it or kick anything inside of it, they say, "Okay, I agree with you that that's red, that's blue and that's black." By the time Rick freezes that kid, you already know through the eyes of Chris Parnell's character and Morty that you're allowed to think that he's a bad person. It's all about perspective. If you show the audience a frame with three characters in it, their minds will drift toward one that they're comfortable sitting in the brain of, and they'll perch there like a cat. They look for high ground, where they can see clearly everything around them. You create a breakfast scene where one guy's burping and offending people and saying God doesn't exist, you can let the audience go, "You know what? He might be right about the God thing." Or half the audience is going, "Atheists! I hate them!" You let them think whatever they want to think about Rick, because the more important headline is that you are not Rick. You would be any of those other characters before you were him. You create that safe distance. That's my very enthusiastic answer. I'm glad someone finally asked that!
Beaks: Because Rick basically tells Morty, "We're going to go on all of these adventures, and you're going to keep your mouth shut." Rick's essentially operating with the mindset of a child molester, right?
Harmon: (Laughing) I've never heard it put that way, but I guess that's true. But he doesn't tell him that if he doesn't keep his mouth shut that something bad will happen to him. He's telling him "We're going to go on more adventures. You screwed this one up. I had to waste my seeds making it seem like you're smart."
Beaks: At the end of the second episode, you make the joke that you could do a spinoff about these hyper-intelligent dogs living in another dimension. It seems almost genuine. I love these dogs so much that I think I'd like to see that show.
Harmon: Justin has a Cartoon Network pitch called DOGWORLD. We're doing the thing there that STAR TREK did at the end of the Gary Seven episode.
Roiland: "I wonder where those characters are going to go to?" I had a pitch called DOGWORLD that just kind of fell apart. You know what sucks? I saw a FAMILY GUY episode last week, because I've just been watching a lot more Adult Swim, and they had a segment that was exactly what DOGWORLD was. I was like, "If I'd known that I wouldn't have wasted my time!" It's not what we do on RICK & MORTY; it's just a flip role-reversal thing. But, yeah, I'm glad that you noticed that. It's one of my favorite little moments.
RICK AND MORTY begins what will hopefully be a very long run tonight on Adult Swim at 10:30 PM. Please watch it.