During the yearlong break when he and Community agreed to see other people, Dan Harmon kept busy by developing Rick and Morty for Adult Swim. Co-created with Justin Roiland — best known for his cease-and-desisted web series House of Cosbys — the unhinged animated comedy takes a Doc Brown–Marty McFly–type relationship (making them a grandfather-and-grandson duo rather than intergenerational BFFs) and sends the titular Rick and Morty to outer space, other dimensions, and even the inside of the human body. We checked in with the show’s creators before Monday’s new episode, “Rick Potion #9.”
The two of you met through Channel 101 (a monthly short-film competition/festival co-created by Harmon), where Justin launched House of Cosbys.
Harmon: We had been doing shows for about a year when Justin began submitting sick and twisted stuff that the audience didn’t really get but we loved, so we kept bringing him back.
Roiland: Making something once a month and seeing what worked and what didn’t was better for me than any film school.
Harmon: House of Cosbys was where Justin blossomed into a viable threat. A couple of years later, I had a short-lived VH1 show called Acceptable TV which was similar to Channel 101, with viewers voting and picking which segments would come back with new installments. The first thing Justin and I did together there was a cartoon called Mister Sprinkles, which the audience loved. We had to keep coming back with five-minute segments each week.
Roiland: After the pilot, I was so busy running the animation that I barely had any time to be involved in the writing. With today’s hardware it would be a little easier, but back then, on a four-day turnaround? It was nuts.
Do you have more time on Rick and Morty?
Roiland: It’s more traditional, more like a network show in terms of its schedule. We have time not to kill people. On Acceptable, the team was burning out by the end. All said and done, it’s a year, but there are various episodes in the pipeline simultaneously.
How do you maintain consistency with so many moving parts?
Harmon: It’s run the way I learned to do stuff at Community. Writers pool ideas and the things that make us laugh and jump up and down, we break those episodes down. Then someone gets the unpleasant task of taking the broken story to an outline. Then we do passes, go to drafts, and either Justin or I is the last one to go over the final draft.
Roiland: In one episode, we had a story plotted and it just stalled out in script. Dan’s advice was “go fucking insane” — that there were no wrong ways to go — and be brave enough to keep the stupidest stuff in the world.
Harmon: With Justin in the voice-over booth, we had to acquire a disciplined lack of discipline to look at the script and throw it away. You can hear him stumble on words, which gives an organic, infectious feel to it.
Justin works overtime voicing both of the leads, but what about the vocal stylings of Dan Harmon?
Harmon: I’m one of those doughnut tires in the trunk.
Roiland: Dan actually does a bunch of voices on the show. And if there are lines that have to be temped, especially if it’s a line that he wrote, I love having Dan’s take to lean on. He also recorded the scratch track for Beth [ultimately voiced by Scrubs’ Sarah Chalke] all through the season, and we almost forgot it was him until Sarah came in. It was kind of jarring.
As you got deeper into the season, did you rework earlier episodes to match the tone that developed?
Roiland: We definitely did some tinkering in terms of air order. “Rick Potion #9” was the second episode we wrote, but as things shook out it made more sense for mid-season. So in that case it isn’t that we went back to change anything, we just had to tell the overseas studio to hold off on that one and do the other episodes first.
“Rick Potion” features Morty’s latest, desperate attempts to get a girl. Given that he doesn’t appear to have any moves whatsoever, he’s done pretty well in some episodes, especially “Anatomy Park” [a Fantastic Voyage–meets–Jurassic Park hybrid]. What’s his secret?
Harmon: He does get pretty far in that one … puberty is a magical time. As a young nerd I would somehow still manage to stumble into sexual situations … where I would be terrible. [Laughs.]
Roiland: I was drawing XXX-rated comics, but in those pre-Internet days I didn’t even know what a blow job looked like. I love that the network has allowed us to portray a young kid character so honestly.
Harmon: We often say that this show is inspired by more British-style storytelling. Not the sterile, rubber-lined room of American children’s or family TV. The older world of storytelling — children’s stories were the most brutal playground, written by sociopaths or psychopaths. They give children more credit.
You’ve mentioned The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who as influences on the show, but the lead characters have an obvious similarity to Back to the Future ...
Harmon: The characters started out as Justin’s punk-rock maligning of the Back to the Future relationships. When we were talking about doing something for Adult Swim, these guys came up and I said “yes” immediately because it’s hard to find things with so much passion invested. People don’t understand … they think TV is all about plot or the premise. You can put a cop in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t tell you if Ironside will run four episodes or 40. Development and enthusiasm are incredibly important.
Coming back to Community for its fifth season must offer some major contrasts to working on Rick and Morty, which is more of a start-up, even if it has already outlasted the new Ironside.
Harmon: The tools are similar — the same kind of structure discussions, the same whiteboard as on Community. It’s actually kind of eerie how much the same the rooms are. As for what’s different, Community’s been blessed to be on so long that in some ways it’s like writing Star Trek. It’s so easy to mess up the treatment of Britta in the eyes of feminists, or Jeff and Annie in the eyes of their “'shippers.” Starting fresh with new characters, there’s a lot fewer ways for me to screw things up.