Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland on How Doctor Who, Beer, and Their Moms Influenced Rick and Morty

Photo: Paul A. Hebert/Corbis

Pinning down the influences for a show as densely allusive as animated sci-fi-comedy Rick and Morty is a challenge. This is partly because co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon avoid Family Guy–style winking throughout their series, which follows the adventures of supergenius/dick Rick (Roiland) and his pubescent grandson Morty (also Roiland). Instead, Roiland and Harmon take The Simpsons’ approach to pop-culture name-dropping: references to other works are never the punch line, but rather the setup to rich, silly commentary. Vulture talked to Roiland and Harmon about the show’s various influences, an eclectic list that includes Roiland and Harmon’s mothers, Doctor Who, and rap music.

The Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy
Justin Roiland
: I think it’s more of a general Western animation influence. Anybody in animation today would be lying if they said they weren’t somehow influenced by The Simpsons to a certain degree. Except for the shows that go out of their way to look as far from The Simpsons as possible. But any of the mainstream stuff — Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy — any of those shows. I wasn’t looking back at The Simpsons when I had my sketchpad out to design our characters. But the idea was: “Hey, what is a marketable, successful, Western animated-character design? What things are important when you’re looking to have a broad, mass appeal?” I think people subconsciously say The Simpsons. There are unique elements that make them cartoons. But their bodies … they’re really relatable, nothing that puts you off, or [makes you] feel weird, or unsure of how you could put yourself in their shoes. My characters were me doing my own thing. But I definitely think the DNA of The Simpsons is in my subconscious. There are also certain things I pulled from Ren & Stimpy, particularly the little “W” [facial expression characters make when they’re crestfallen]. That’s a famous thing John [Kricfalusi] would do with Ren. That was kicking around in my subconscious when I was designing the characters. I didn’t even really realize that that’s where I pulled that from either.

Our Mothers
: We want the show to appeal to everybody. Or as many people as we possibly can. Not just the Adult Swim audience. When we’re firing on all cylinders, somebody could show their mom an episode. Dan always references: “Would our moms get this? Would they be entertained by this?” We’re not constantly thinking about this, but it is a measuring stick that we use from time to time to recalibrate things. The show is still our sensibility — crazy chaos — but we have to make sure we’re not being insane for insane’s sake.

Dan Harmon: And what we really mean is the mom in everybody. It’s about creating a framework that’s clean enough, and then having all the insanity going into it. And by the way, my mom loves the show. [Laughs.] I think she loves it more than Community.

JR: My mom texted me on Saturday, just appalled with [the “Get Schwifty” episode]. She was like, “That’s so gross! Wasn’t Dan there to rein you in? Was Dan gone that week?” I didn’t really get into what she was referring to, but I think she talking about the lyrics, like, “shitting on the floor.” She was like, “That’s the kind of garbage you would do in high school. You’ve evolved.” She was critiquing the episode.

South Park and Saturday Night Live
: The industry comes preloaded with the software and the hardware [to prepare you for what you can and can’t say on TV] these days. Our job is to write a script, and we fill it with as much naughtiness as we feel is enough to make us laugh. And we rely upon a fairly sophisticated system of checks and balances. When South Park was first on, I remember hearing a funny story about how they had to use Saturday Night Live as a shield. They have a person that goes through and tabulates the number of times a word like douchebag or penis or vagina or whatever is said on Saturday Night Live. And that person isn’t someone who wants you to have less fun, they’re just a person who wants to figure out how to justify letting you do what you want to do. But these days, they’ve gotten it down to a science. They’ve slowly moved the line. We don’t really have to push our pull in any given direction.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
: Hitchhiker’s Guide is the most blatant influence when it comes to my contribution to the show. It was, more so than Dungeons & Dragons, a safe place for me [at Morty’s age]. Douglas Adams’s books go into this universe that is bigger, louder, more scary than junior high. But at the same time, it was for me. And the humor of it all was a wink and a joke between me and the author. It was a lot like a dad kicking you out into the woods and saying, “Look, here are the keys to the kingdom.” It’s like, when you’re going through puberty, having an old nerd draw you a map of the cosmos and say, “Everyone’s full of shit, life means nothing, therefore, anywhere you go, you’re at the center of the universe. It’s fucked up and then you die. But it’s funny, and booze tastes good, and just have at it. The best thing you can do with your brain is have a good time.” The map of Rick and Morty’s cosmos is just lifted from Douglas Adams. With all apologies.

Doctor Who
With Doctor Who, it’s the idea that you can have a protagonist that isn’t necessarily our definition of likable, or even understandable, as long as he has companions that question his judgment. That’s it. That’s the end of my sentence.

Beer and Water (to achieve Rick’s belches)
: I’ve tried soda before, but it’s just a bunch of sugary syrup. I hate soda, it’s the fucking worst. The carbonation is foamier. It doesn’t break up in your stomach and become a larger bubble of air that you can burp up. It just stays all foamy. It’s fucking disgusting; it’s vile. Beer, for some reason … I think it’s just the lack of so much sugar being in it that it carbonates differently. I also use water. And on some days, I’ll drink a regular beer, like a Newcastle. Because who gives a shit? I’m gettin’ wasted today!

: I like Zardoz. It’s an insane film. At the beginning of the director’s commentary, John Boorman says, “Hello, I’m John Boorman. In [1974], I made a movie called Zardoz, and it’s kind of got away from me.” [Laugh.] It’s so ambitious … it has so much crazy shit in it. For that reason, it’s stuck in my brain alongside classics that have supposedly earned it, like Citizen Kane, or Moby Dick, or whatever. I’m referencing Zardoz more often than people know.

Dr. Who, Beer, and Other Rick & Morty Influences