The Inspired Madness of ‘Rick and Morty’

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s quirky new sci-fi toon, takes viewers along for a fantastic ride.

Time and space continuum-bending heroes are a familiar staple of science fiction books and movies, but what if the galaxy-trotting lead is actually a nutty older man who drags his grandson along for the ride? That’s the premise behind the hilarious new Adult Swim animated series, which is exec produced by actor/producer Justin Roiland (Fish Hooks, Adventure Time) and Dan Harmon, the man behind NBC’s popular sitcom Community.

Roiland, who voices both grandpa Rick and grandson Morty, recalls getting the call from Harmon a while back to come up with a show for Adult Swim. “I was so excited when Dan called me to collaborate with him on the series,” says Roiland, who also produced the animated webisodes for The Sarah Silverman Show. “I just get so inspired when I think about these two very different characters and how they relate to each other. When I’m in the booth doing these characters as they talk to each other, my brain shuts off and it taps into something else. I think that’s where the magic comes from—the way Rick and Morty riff back and forth. I just go crazy, and it’s really fun!”

“I think it’s most important to make sure that the idea is the most joyful, organic and spiritual thing possible. Justin has been making videos with these characters forever—and he makes me laugh. I like to say that there’s natural gas there—that’s a good place to build a casino!”
— Creator and exec producer Dan Harmon

Harmon also believes that the success of a comedy show depends more on what he calls “the creative bliss,” much more than the actual premise. “That is the most important thing: You know right now they’re probably working on the Slinky movie somewhere, and they hired a writer to find the story behind that concept. But that’s a creative mistake. They’re starting with a product instead of creative joy. I think it’s most important to make sure that the idea is the most joyful, organic and spiritual thing possible. Justin has been making videos with these characters forever—and he makes me laugh. I like to say that there’s natural gas there—that’s a good place to build a casino!”

Rick and Morty, as Harmon sees them, are two sides of the human brain: One is the childish, naïve part that is constantly asking questions, while the other part is this gruff, selfish thing that never apologizes for anything that he does. “It creates a perfect battery because it has two perfectly charged ends that power the storylines.”

The duo’s adventures begin when Rick arrives at his daughter Beth’s (Sarah Chalke) doorstep looking to move in with her and her family after a 20-year absence. He soon converts the garage into his personal lab and decides to drag along his grandson on his poorly conceived adventures and inventions.

Interestingly enough, Harmon also likens the tone of the show to great British sci-fi franchises such as Dr. Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “There’s something about those British shows. They are able to give audiences so much more credit to be able to handle darkness or edginess. The lead characters are often assholes who always know more than you, and don’t care how long it takes for you to catch up,” muses Harmon. “Maybe it’s because America became flooded with money, and our storytelling for children became capitalized, as if we have to protect our children from the harshness of the world.”

He further explains that the sidekicks on these shows are the stand-ins for the viewers. “We identify with them because we can’t really connect with the guy who knows everything, but we look up to guy who knows everything just as the innocent character on the show does.”

The production pipeline of the show is also built in a way that encourages more loose improvisation and on-the-spot inspiration. The animation, which is done with Toon Boom Harmony, is split between Burbank-based Starburns Industries and Vancouver studio Bardel Entertainment. Roiland says the storyboards, designs, color keys and backgrounds are all done in Burbank and then assembled in Vancouver, with some production help in the Philippines. “Our animatics are so tight they can almost play by themselves,” he notes. “When we get into color, we’re three steps ahead of other animation shows in terms of production. What’s interesting about Harmony and our pipeline is that the show’s supervising director and I can follow each show along the way. By the time you get to take one, you’ve been able to catch a lot of mistakes that otherwise would have slowed down the process. It takes us about six to eight weeks to get things back.”

On Rick and Morty, the script and the actors’ radio play is used to provide guidance for the storyboard team, while on many of the other toons, the storyboards are done by the time the actors get involved. Roiland believes that this allows the actors and the writers to really drive the storyboards.

One of the main things that Harmon loves about working in animation is the control the writers have over the final product. “When you are working in live action, there’s a disconnect between what you have in your head and how it will play on TV. You can be on the set, have a great director and a fantastic actor, but the final result may not be what you wanted. You get to follow your bliss more in animation. The director can’t come in with a completely different vision and set up a long panning shot because they think it’s going to be funnier. In animation, you can control the reality.”

Harmon does point out that in both live action and animation, the animation and line producers tend to act similarly towards the demands of a scene. “When you have a character walk into a room full of people, they react the same way because in terms of resources, it’s going to be almost as difficult to have all those new characters designed and animated as to find a whole bunch of actors to play the scene.”

Past Favorites

Both of the show’s creators name John Kricfalusi’s Ren and Stimpy as a big inspiration on their new series. “I was only 12 when that show first came out and it had a huge impact in shifting my perception about what could be done stylistically and tonally in animation,” says Roiland. “Of course, Beavis and Butt-Head was also really funny, and established these two central characters who were idiots as they fumbled through life and everyone else in the world played the straight man in their world—and of course, Mike Judge voiced both of those characters, which is something that I also do in Rick and Morty. South Park also was a great model because you could see how far they could push the envelope, not just in terms of tone, but also legally get away with in terms of likenesses and product names.

Roiland also mentions some of his favorite childhood toons like Inspector Gadget, The Transformers, Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as leading him to his show today. “Another great one is Animaniacs,” he says.” That’s why we made sure we cast as many people from that show as we could. To have stars like Rob Paulsen, Jeff Harnell, Maurice LaMarche—we even got Tress MacNeille for an episode—is insane to me, because it was such an honor to have them on our show.”

When we ask Harmon about his favorite toons, he turns the conversation back to Inspector Gadget. “I’m not that good with visuals—I can’t even name my favorite painter,” he admits. “But I do love working with visually gifted people because so much of that part of my brain is squelched. I really enjoyed watching Inspector Gadget when I used to come home from school. I was also a big fan of that professor Keenbean on Richie Rich who could apparently invent anything. I didn’t care at all about Richie Rich, who had this scientist on his payroll. In fact, I really wished the scientist would kill Richie Rich and just take over so the show would be all about him.”

“When you look at what a show like Star Trek was able to do, the devices and science it focused on all applied to theoretical physics. You can trace all of those things to real science. We wanted to do the same thing—to have our characters play in the same sci-fi space.”
— Creator and exec producer Justin Roiland

These days, Harmon doesn’t have to dream about the demise of Harvey Comics’ spoiled rich boy. He is quite pleased with seeing his flawed character drag his poor grandson to the far reaches of a very surreal galaxy. “I love Rick’s character—there’s something so liberating and provocative about him,” says Harmon. “He’s a great metaphor for mental illness. He is all about science and is so smart that he wants to beat God at his own game. That’s why we love Dr. Who—this idea of a scientist/craftsman who doesn’t fall back on religion or relationships with others. He’s playing checkers with God and he’s going to win. I also love the fact that we didn’t have much trouble with creating the show we had envisioned. The notes we got from the censors were very minor. Like, ‘If you really have to have that much diarrhea on the screen, can you at least please make it purple?’ or ‘If you need to blow this guy’s brain out, can you make his brain not flesh-colored?’”

Roiland brings up one last point that stresses the science fiction aspect of the series. “When you look at what a show like Star Trek was able to do, the devices and science it focused all applied to theoretical physics. You can trace all of those things to real science. We wanted to do the same thing—to have our characters play in the same sci-fi space. And I have to also say that the show’s animation, visuals and colors are also incredibly beautiful and cinematic. We wanted every episode to feel like a mini movie.”

Rick and Morty premieres on Adult Swim on Dec. 2 at 10:30 p.m.