CS Interview: Explore the Multiverse with Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland
Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland are back on Adult Swim as Rick and Morty season three premieres this Sunday!
Almost two years after the end of the hit animated series’ second season, Rick and Morty is finally back this Sunday! While fans got a surprise early season three premiere as part of an April Fools’ Day gag, July 30 sees the new season begin in earnest with the second of ten all-new episodes. To celebrate the show’s long-awaited Rick-turn, CS caught with creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland for a sneak peek inside their creative process.
Featuring Roiland as both intergalactic scientist Rick Sanchez and his grandson, Morty, Rick and Morty also stars Sarah Chalke and Chris Parnell as Morty’s parents, Beth and Jerry, and Spencer Grammer as Morty’s sister, Summer. Created and executive produced by Harmon and Justin Roiland, the half-hour animated series airs Sundays at 11:30pm ET/PT on Cartoon Network‘s Adult Swim.
CS: When you’re looking at plotting out the third season, do you first approach it episode by episode or do you look at a bigger arc for the season?
Justin Roiland: We had some ideas, but we didn’t really have a plotted arc as far as how it’s going to end. That sort of happened organically throughout the course of writing. That’s safe to say, right? We didn’t really map an arc on the outset, did we?
Dan Harmon: I think we tend to pick one thing that is going to be a little serialized. That was the story about Beth and Jerry’s marriage. I think we had some conversation, but that’s a conversation we would return to and change. We would talk about it and go, “Maybe we should have them officially divorced after being separated for a season” or “Maybe we should have them get back together at the end of the season.” You just let that be a thread. You don’t know where it’s going to end. It can just be a flappy thread because, when you’re searching for an ending to your season, you can tie it into whatever the last episode is. I think that we collectively think about serialization as the equivalent of dirt that builds up in an air filter. But that’s a bad example because dirt is negative. It’s just something that’s going to happen whether you like it or not and, therefore, why design your engine saying, “Let’s not forget about that dirt that’s going to build up!” You just know it’s going to happen, so if you try as hard as you can and try to build an engine that doesn’t have any serialization to it — if you try to make the perfect television show — and try to make every episode completely stand alone, you’re going to always have this buildup of canon. If you have rule that says you can’t retcon anything, you’re going to learn someone’s shoe size in episode one. Now we know his shoe size. You can address that either he can change the size of his feet and make that canonical — He’s a foot size changer! He changes his foot size! — or it’s always going to be eleven and a half forever. In a world where that’s always going to happen, that’s how we look at it. It gets more complicated than shoe size when you can change realities with a device. We try first and foremost to make really fun episodes and then we deal with the seasonal story.
CS: What is the process for exploring science fiction concepts? Do you actively see elements in say, “Star Trek,” and think, “Let’s explore that with a ‘Rick and Morty’ lens?”
Justin Roiland: It’s less active, conscious searching. It’s usually more discussions in the writers’ room about one story or another that elicits a connection in one of our brains going, “Oh, that reminds me of an episode of ‘Buffy’!” or whatever. Then we’ll go, “Okay, what happened in that episode?” “There’s a character who shows up and the audience doesn’t know who they are, but the cast and everyone on the show love this character. They’ve been around for the whole show, but they’ve never existed on the show before.” That was something we learned as we were working on the parasite episode in season two. Mike McMahan pointed out, “Yeah, there’s this Buffy thing.” The big difference there is that this character on ‘Buffy” was a very benevolent, good force that was sort of using the cast to protect itself, I guess. I need to watch ‘Buffy.’ It’s on my backlog. But that’s Mike McMahan. He’s this encyclopedia of sci-fi books, movies and tv shows. He’s just insane. He knows everything. We were just so excited about doing the concept of something similar, but different in that our is a parasite. It makes you think you’ve known it forever. It’s for nefarious purposes. They just spread and take over a planet if you don’t contain them and figure out who’s real and who’s fake. That’s one very specific example of how sci-fi tropes or sci-fi concepts in general will come up in the writers’ room very organically. I feel like there’s a few times, like the “Inception” thing. That was kind of a joke. We were thinking about “Nightmare on Elm Street” and then we found out that “South Park” did an episode.
Dan Harmon: I think you’ll notice that, after that first season, we tried to actively avoid direct homage or parody of individual franchises. We would stick to genre and go, “We haven’t been to a post-apocalyptic Earthbound dimension.” You’re in a competition you’ll never win with “South Park” when you get into a conversation about specific pop culture phenomenon or public figures and things like that. You’re just asking for trouble. They can make that show in 12 hours if they need to. You’ll be two years into your big Ted Kennedy episode. Mike McMahan is a fountain of science fiction tropery. He’s more up to the minute than Justin and I. I think that Justin and I are kind of like Seth MacFarlane in that. The references on “Family Guy” sort of stop where Seth MacFarlane stopped taking in pop culture. I think that Justin and I stopped taking in other people’s stuff sometime around puberty. We have a lot of classics stuff like “The Fly” and the original “Star Trek.”
Justin Roiland: TerrorVision!
Dan Harmon: A lot of the time it’s just sci-fi concepts: teleportation or super powers or shrinking.
Justin Roiland: We spent a lot of time in season one just amassing a list of sci-fi gadgets, some of which we never got to. If you watch season one, almost every episode has something invention-based. The story is built around some kind of invention, but we kind of got away from that in season two. The Meseeks box is a weird sci-fi contraption or the shrinking ray or the dream inceptor. I feel like there’s even more than that. We have such a general, broad love of sci-fi that we love just taking anything sci-fi and figuring out how our characters would be involved. How would they react? How can we do something different with this classic sci-fi thing? I really love that shrinking episode, “Anatomy Park.” It’s a little “InnerSpace.” It’s a little “Jurassic Park.” It’s a little monster movie.
CS: We’ve seen with Rick that, when things are going well, he’s kind of frustrated. He closes “Curse Purge Plus” when it’s a success and quickly gets tired of dealing with the planet that Unity took over. Is there at all a similar sense of, “Now that we’re a big hit, do we even want to do this anymore?”
Justin Roiland: No, there’s just too many stories to tell. We have such fertile soil for telling stories. It’s boundless.
Dan Harmon: I’ve been as lucky as they come leading up to “Rick and Morty.” Justin has had more pilots that didn’t go or presentations that didn’t become pilots. I think that, for both of us, I just can’t conceive of a better sandbox. Sometimes, that alone can freak you out. You go, “This is a huge responsibility that I can’t squander.” Nobody gets this. Nobody gets a show where the protagonist can literally do anything. So I think it just drives you nuts. I don’t think it makes you unhappy. It doesn’t make you apathetic. It fills me with anxiety. It’s like, “You’re getting the perfect life, so whatever you do with it is going to make the difference between God hitting you with lightning and you getting a Tesla,” or “You’ve just been given a straight flush, so you better play your cards right.”
Justin Roiland: It is tricky sometimes, the idea that Rick can do anything. When we started the series, I thought that we were going to spend a lot of time in the high school. When we did the pilot, I thought about a third of the show was going to take place there. I don’t know why I was thinking that but, as we got into it, we hardly ever see the high school. We know it’s there. Marty is 14 and he’s in high school and Summer is there with him, but we hardly ever go there because there’s so much we can do. It’s limitless. Sometimes having a box around you with limits can actually be a good thing. I will say, as long as we’re having fun making it and making each other laugh, it’s going to be a joy to work on.
CS: It’s interesting you say that because the changes themselves actually lends to the rewatchablity of the show. It’s fun to go back and watch the first season and see that the show is a little different than it has become.
Justin Roiland: Sure. And I think there’s definitely some untapped, fertile soil at the highs school and I think we will go back there. The Tiny Rick episode was so f—king funny and that was set at high school. Tiny Rick is really, really popular character. That’s one that people always ask about, “Is Tiny Rick going to come back?”
Dan Harmon: That’s one that has a lot of high school in it, but it really has more to do with Morty and Summer. It’s one of my favorite episodes. We were forcing ourselves to think of high school stories and that path never gets anywhere. But then the strangest of sci-fi tropes wound up focusing on Morty’s character. He’s at the high school, but the story is really anchored by Morty’s adolescence as a student and as a person with a crush on Jessica.
Justin Roiland: The mistake we made was trying to think about “DeGrassi” storylines and how to force them into our show.
Dan Harmon: Yeah, the “Rick Potion #9” episode begins with sort of a classic sci-fi trope and high school was just the perfect place to play it out. Whatever, Harmon. Tell it to your shrink.
(Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TBS)