‘Rick and Morty’ creators: At its best, ‘It almost starts to feel like the television is broken’

The future of Dan Harmon's “Community” remains very much up in the air (at this point, if Yahoo orders another season, it would likely be a “Community: The New Class” approach, with Joel McHale, Jim Rash and a bunch of newbies). The future of Harmon and Justin Roiland's Adult Swim series “Rick and Morty,” on the other hand, seems so secure that, in an interview earlier this week, the two creators made several casual references to things they intend to do in season 3.

“Rick and Morty” began in Roiland's mind as an R-rated “Back to the Future” parody where Doc Brown relationship with Marty McFly is much darker and crueler. As Harmon explained to me last year, it evolved into its current imaginative sci-fi form where Rick is the drunk super-genius grandfather of Morty (both voiced by Roiland), forever taking his grandson on disturbing adventures across time, space, and an infinite number of parallel realities, each with their own versions of Rick, Morty, Morty's parents Beth (Sarah Chalke) and Jerry (Chris Parnell) and sister Summer (Spencer Grammer). 

It's been more than a year since the last episode of season 1 aired, and I couldn't have been happier to watch the start of season 2, which debuts Sunday night at 11:30 on Adult Swim.

Here's my conversation with Roiland and Harmon, in which we discuss why they decided to make the rest of Morty's family part of the adventures so quickly, why we unfortunately won't get another Mr. Meeseeks episode this year, the pressure of following up such a beloved debut season, and a lot more. There are some mild spoilers for concepts in the first two episodes.

Dan, when you and I spoke last year about the show, you said that there are 8000 different ways to do “Community” wrong, and no ways to do “Rick and Morty” wrong. Having made a second season, do you still feel that way? Or were there points this year where you had to stop and say, “This isn't our show”?

Dan Harmon: I think that's the curse of longevity with TV, as it turns out. You can't do a second season without starting to have that thought creep into your head: “Oh, there's a way to do this wrong.” Now that you've seen it on TV, and now that you've seen the fan response, that statement has definitely changed. I think it's just a numbers game. Us doing the second season of a show is twice as anxiety-ridden as the first season, because you're worried about that. But I think in the third season, because we don't like anxiety, I think we'll be more dedicated to relaxation. Now, we'll be able to compare the two seasons in terms of the process and go, “Well, we didn't have as much fun, because we were so worried about backlash and screwing things up and dropping the ball. Where does that worry get us?” In the end, the times during season 2 when we were having the most fun is when the audience will have the most fun. The end product of both seasons, you won't be able to tell that. It's just the process sitting in the room. There were more 3 a.m. nights on “Rick and Morty.” It was starting to get that “Community” feeling.

Justin, how was the experience for you of season 2 versus season 1?

Justin Roiland: A lot of what Dan's saying is true. Season 2, there was a little bit of pressure seeing the reaction to season 1, having that swimming around in your head. Even if you push it as far back as you can, it's still there, subconsciously affecting things. In season 2, we got through the first episode, from a script standpoint, we really got back into the groove of things, I feel like, and found that fun craziness that we had in season 1. We keep talking about the future, but moving forward, I'm excited. I agree with Dan. I think there's going to be less pressure on ourselves and more focus on fun. “Let's have fun. Let's take these characters and do crazy fun stuff.” And we did that in season 2; there's a ton of episodes in season 2 that's just crazy fun, and I can't wait to hear what the response is going to be. But season 2 is a little bit tougher, just because we had expectations.

Were there certain things the fans had responded to in season 1 that you wanted to move towards? Or was it the opposite reaction, where you didn't want to do what people were necessarily clamoring for?

Dan Harmon: There was a lot of conversation about whether to call things back or not. Should we bring Mr. Meeseeks back? Should we double down on Evil Morty, which would indicate it was a serialized, dramatic storyline? In all those conversations, I would be the most gun-shy one and go, “We only have 10 episodes. We just got started, and I'm coming off of a show that's been on the air for five years, and early on in its run, the critical appraisal started to send the meta message to would-be new viewers that this was some kind of self-worshiping inside joke fest, that would be repellent at the water cooler to the second million people that might start watching.” The big takeaway from all of this is that there's only one wrong way to think about your show, and that's to overthink it. It doesn't matter if you're trying to avoid mistakes or creating more of them by being really proud of yourself. If you're writing from a place of, “Let's accomplish something,” instead of just, “Let's entertain ourselves,” that's the only thing that makes things difficult. It's kind of unavoidable. You'll be worried about that, and then you'll be worried about worrying about it, and then worried about worrying about worrying about it. Second season, like Justin says, the first episode, it carries that nervousness into the narrative. The story is about indecision and overthinking things, and Rick becomes his own worst enemy, because he's assuming the other possible him, if he were him, would try to kill himself, so he kind of loses his mind. We had no choice but to get that out of our system and just move on.

So does Mr. Meeseeks return at some point?

Dan Harmon: You can spot him in a Where's Waldo-esque cameo, but he does not make a return. I keep saying, if I had it all to do over again, I think I would have said, “Let's do another episode that's a B-story that's driven by the Meeseeks box.” But then Justin always says, “Yeah, but if we weren't feeling it, we weren't feeling it.” So that would have just been an overwrought thing. We had a lot of conversations about whether to do it or not. It wasn't like a huge idea that made us jump up and down for joy, and then one of us said, “No, we shouldn't do that because it would be predictable.” But there's also a capitalist in me when I look at what a breakout character that was, it seems like a no-brainer that we should have thrown another log on that fire.

Justin Roiland: We didn't try. We didn't spend a day brainstorming Meeseeks ideas. It's just that nothing was there, and we didn't force it, but we know better now. Or at least we're aware.

At what point in the process of making the first season did you decide that Beth and Jerry and Summer would know about what Morty is up to with Rick, and it's not a show about the kid having crazy adventures in secret from his family?

Dan Harmon: That was before the pilot. I'm mentally proud of that conversation. Because Justin and I, as opposed to developing a show based on logic and plot points and things, we really talked about tone and how to preserve the craziness and fun. We talked about how can we keep people from constantly wondering, and setting up this very jumpable shark tank regarding the parents' reaction to the sci-fi stuff? And in general, what is the ordinary world's response to the sci-fi element? The conclusion we came to is a portal opening in the cafeteria should be the equivalent of sliding into the cafeteria on a skateboard. It's weird, it's not something everyone else is doing, it's kind of cool, if you bump into someone when they're doing it, but we don't waste any time dealing with ordinary world reactions to special world stuff.

Justin Roiland: That's a foundational element of the show that I found in season 1, multiple times, there were a couple of periods when Dan was out of the writers room and I found myself breaking that rule accidentally, without realizing it, and Dan would come back and we'd have an outline, and he'd go, “No.” It's such an easy rule to break if you're not really focused on it, because so much TV and sci-fi stuff is about that.

Dan Harmon: Sci-fi as a genre becomes about the technical aspects of magic, and it gets bogged down when it's, “Well, I'm a vampire, but my landlord doesn't know!” That's good for drama, but it's not good for comedy storytelling, pacing and stuff. One of the earliest examples I encountered was “Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.” One character in the story is quickly whisked off and his entire planet is destroyed, and the rest of the universe, every weird thing taken in stride, and the things that matter in storytelling is whether or not people are jealous, betraying each other, lying to each other. The fact that someone has two heads, or that this planet is where they make other planets – that stuff is just taken in stride by necessity. You'll also see that in narratives we really like, like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. You go into it, and there's a very brief period of adjustment, but you're really reacting to whether or not Willy Wonka likes you. “You're not going, 'Wait, how does the chocolate river work? Why doesn't the chocolate get hard? Let's spend three minutes on that!'”

And over the course of these two seasons, have you figured out which kind of adventures are best to have Jerry, or Beth, or Summer along, and when you're better off just having it be Rick and Morty traveling to another dimension?

Dan Harmon: We made a deliberate decision to not make deliberate decisions anymore at the top of season 2. At the beginning of season 1, we had a rigorous template, which was Rick and Morty on an A-story sci-fi adventure, while the rest of the family deal with a more grounded domestic story. Even in season 1, we very quickly let that lapse. The thing that we found is, we would make a list on the board of domestic story premises and sci-fi premises, and the sci-fi premises just never stopped. We're nerds, and that is how we experience emotional things and deal with concepts. And then when we tried to make this list of domestic premises, it just becomes this joyless thing, and makes you realize why sitcoms can be so tiresome. You're not really honestly expressing yourself anymore. You're making a list of things your parents might care about. “Oh, Jerry maxed out his credit card!” By necessity, we stopped doing that. By the end of season 1, it becomes more of a sci-fi sitcom, and season 2 just keeps going in that direction. The combinations of who's going on what adventure with whom, they're really based on the needs of the story. “Oh, this will be better if it's just Beth and Rick.”

Your second episode this season is called “Mortynight Run,” but other than one scene where the characters watch my favorite movie, it's not a slavish pastiche of “Midnight Run.” Dan, you and I have talked before about not wanting to do too much straight-up parody with this show. How did you find yourselves approaching the pop cultural elements this year? 

Dan Harmon: I had a bad taste in my mouth from the “Titanic” story of season 1. I thought that was fine, but it's like making a car that gets you down to the liquor store, but why would you do that? That's a bad metaphor. In season 2, you just don't see that, really. Movies inspire us, but we didn't really cross the line in season 2 to actual homage, structurally. There'll be like a reference, like Rick and Morty will go to a planet where they don't have any crime, because once a year, it's legal to do whatever they want. And Rick will go, “It's like 'The Purge,' Morty! It's like 'The Purge'! It's one of those purge planets!” It's a tried-and-true sci-fi premise. That's been a “Star Trek” episode and addressed in numerous works of fiction, and now we're going to do one, too. It's not a “Purge” parody; it's just an episode where they go to a purge planet. 

(We briefly talked about a concept from the second episode that I'd rather not spoil – I'll put their explanation of it into a separate post after that one airs, most likely – but which then led to a conversation on how the show can pivot from surreal sci-fi comedy into a place of extreme pathos and melancholy.)

Dan Harmon: The place where Justin and I overlap in sensibility is that we both think that the funniest thing in the world is the least funny thing. Justin loves to really go to the most brutally violent and sexual place. That appeals to the crazy anarchist little kid in you. “Yeah, who says that this episode of 'Mork & Mindy' shouldn't hang a left here and end in a horrible blood bath?” We overlapped there, because I think the funniest thing in the world is tragedy. That's why we need comedy. That's where it comes from. Life ends in death, and it's such a horrible, inescapable thing, and that's why we spend so much of our lives laughing. Not to run away from that, but to wrap our arms around it and defeat, and own it and laugh in its face while we kiss it. It comes naturally to both of us. When we're both laughing out loud, it's because the episode has taken a distinct 90-degree turn, and it almost starts to feel like the television is broken.

It makes me think of the other story from the Meeseeks episode where Mr. Jellybean is trying to sexually assault Morty in the bathroom. Are there any times where you're breaking story and you say, “This idea is maybe too extreme emotionally,” or too ridiculous? Or does the fundamental nature of the show mean that nothing is off-limits to what you want to do, emotionally, tonally or comically? 

Justin Roiland: There's always ideas that we pull away from because they may be too extreme. But you can't be the police of what's going to offend one group of people over another and prioritizing that over entertaining a larger group, I guess. In the case of the Mr. Jellybean scene, we didn't start there: “Hey, let's write an episode around a sexual assault in a bathroom.” It was just the culmination of that story. We got to that part, and we said, “Something really fucked up needs to happen to Morty in order to resolve this arc,” and that felt like the most real, fucked-up thing that could happen in the circumstance, in this light-hearted bar filled with zany characters. I don't believe we ever really had a conversation about, “Should we do this?” I think it was always on the table, and we were fine with it.

Dan Harmon: The only conversation we had about it was that we definitely can't be hacks while we're playing with this gun. We can't be goofy. That's the only thing we've ever reverted from in extremity is if it's extreme in a banal way. If this is nothing more than a finger painting of brains blowing out someone's head, that's not really extreme, we see that all over the place. That's just vandalism of the audience's experience. But you combine that with emotional gravity, and you have something interesting. You're feeling respected by the storyteller. As in “Game of Thrones” – not to compare the two shows – or the glory days of “The Sopranos,” or shows like that, those shows were popular from week to week, because people were experiencing this unpredictable thing. “I don't know who's going to die this week. I don't know what's going to happen.” It's an extension of the writer having respect, and wanting the audience to be strapped into a real carnival ride, and express how crazy they think the world is. I remember when we got the early animation back for that sequence in the bathroom stall, Justin's note was that it was too cartoonish. It felt too much like a cartoon in which that assault happens, and not enough like the cartoon took a left turn into a brutal reality. We have all these conversations when we're doing comedy about how “You shouldn't do a (blank) joke.” At the heart of that is an honest thing. What it ends up being is people policing each other's language and the presence of certain narrative elements, but at the heart of it is a very valid desire for certain things to not be made light of. For the idea to not be put forward, “Oh, this would be hilarious if this happened.” That's different from containing a severe element in your comedy.

Where did Rick's “Wubba lubba dub dub” catchphrase come from?

Justin Roiland: It was originally supposed to be the Three Stooges, “Wub wub wub wub,” circle on the ground thing, I misread it, and went, “What is this?”

Dan Harmon: Yeah, it says in the script “(Curly from Three Stooges) Woop woop woop.”

Justin Roiland: And I just went off on it. “Is that what Arsenio says?”

It's impressive how much you're able to incorporate improvisation – like a lot of the TV commercials and clips from “Rixty Minutes” – into this animated format.

Justin Roiland: Yeah, it's fun. We only use stuff that works. You'd be shocked at the hours of horrible improv that doesn't make it into the show.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com