Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland

Building Your Deck In a Sweet Spot

Dec 06, 2013 Issue #48 - November/December 2013 - HAIM
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We fade in on Dan Harmon and Justin Roilandlongtime friends and collaboratorsto find the pair in a typical garrulous mood.

Harmon is happy and hard at work as the show-runner on season five on his acclaimed comedy creation, Community, having recently returned to network TV after a period of enforced exile, due to his suddenfan-derided and very publicexpulsion from the show at the end of season three. Meanwhile, Roilandbest known for his web series House of Cosbysis busy putting the finishing touches to their half-hour animated collaboration, Adult Swim's Rick and Morty, a show which he directs and co-writes while also providing vocal talent for the two lead characters.

Rick and Morty concerns itself with the pan-cosmic, dimension-jumping adventures of a simpleton boy (Morty) and his gloriously unhinged and malevolent mad scientist grandfather (Rick).

When Under the Radar caught up with them at their L.A. offices, we chatted about Rick and Morty, Community, their inspirations, and how their friendship has inspired them both. In between, we also find time to talk about the importance of powerful protagonists, children's fiction, the formative power of Mike Judge and Roald Dahl, writing without the fear of limitations and the continuing story of Diarrhea Man.

But...with both of them having recently returned from the promotional treadmill of New York's Comic Con, we began by talking about what it really means to be a nerd in 2013. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on them.]

Tom Fenwick (Under the Radar): So did you enjoy your time at the New York convention? Does it measure up to the others you've been to this year?

Dan Harmon: Yeah, I was impressed, it was like San Diego in the late '90s in terms of how it was populated and prioritized. I was especially pleased to see people sitting on floors and stairwells, being able to do what nerds should be allowed to do at a nerd mecca, which is buy stuff until they collapse and look at it. I don't like to see people get cattle-prodded and made to get out of the way because some celebrity is coming through the hallway. You know, there's a lot of conversation to be had about the differences between authentic nerd culture versus hipster nerd culture...I think that argument is pretty cut and dry: If you're happy to taze a nerd, then you're not a nerd. The problem is we've all been seduced. If somebody says "Hey we want to premiere our movie at Comic-Con and Robert Downey Jr. will come out and give everyone a hug," everyone's reaction is, "Holy shit, we've arrived! They're finally making movies for us." But it never works like that, we [nerds] don't get to sit like a galactic senate and make decisions with our newfound power. All the money coming in just means that we're going to be getting in the way, herded like cattle and just bummed out.

Do you think the bigger these things get the more depressing they become?

Dan: Yeah, but that probably leads to great things. Like a blossoming spore it means there are a lot of really cool small conventions spawning in different parts of the country where people are saying "Comic-Con is bullshit. Let's just trade comic books in a bowling alley basement again."

So how did you and Justin meet?

Dan: We met through Channel 101. Justin was an early member of our little underground guerrilla filmmaking group. We'd get together in L.A. and do these screenings where filmmakers would make five-minute TV-style pilots. Then they'd compete for audience votes, and the winners would get to make more. Justin was a huge favorite, but it was weird, he kept making stuff and people loved it but he rarely got voted back. It was like the audience were taking advantage of his creativity.

Did you relish having the limits of your imagination tested, Justin?

Justin Roiland: I loved it. I would make something and it wouldn't get voted back and I'd be like "Thank God! Now I can do this other idea I have." I guess I was always just optimistic because if my show wasn't picked up I'd have something else queued up in my brain. Of course if I did get voted back that was exciting too, because I'd get to continue exploring the story and see what the audience would react to. I'd get to see if we disappointed them or if we could make something that they'd really like out of my insane ideas. I'd create characters as a joke and then have to explore their story, trying to live up to audience expectations.

And House of Cosbys came out of that time?

Dan: That was Justin's puberty as a legit TV force. Often a typical pilot of his would be a guy going "Hi, I'm Diarrhea Man. Welcome to The Diarrhea Man Show, we're gonna have a good time" and people would think it was funny. Then the camera would follow him to his car and he'd be driving, and then he goes to a house where he's got two naked children tied up and he stabs them in the legs. I mean, the joy was always not knowing what was going to happen next. The only protagonist was the viewer and they were being subjected to a journey where they'd try to learn something and come back from it. But with House of Cosbys he cast this charming guyplayed by our friend Jeff Davisas the lead protagonist in a story that was just insane. It was a framework for Justin to go nuts and play, but could also allow everyone watching to get a handle on it. I remember people watching it and rising to their feet and applauding because someone had just nailed a bull's-eye, creatively. It was Justin's joy for life coupled with the incredibly powerful crowbar that is a having an identifiable protagonist.

Justin: I look back now and I guess I was instinctually following Dan's story circle, although I don't think I really understood at the time. It's only looking back now I understand what I was doing right and why everyone loved what I'd done.

How did you come together to develop Rick and Morty?

Justin: Dan called me out of the blue one day and said Adult Swim had asked him to pitch an animated show and he'd love to do something together. We'd pitched stuff in the past but hadn't had much luck. I told him I had these two voices that I'd done a while backa stupid Back to the Future spoof that was really me just blowing off steamso Dan and I took the essence of these two voices and built a show around them. We could have developed anything, but I'm so glad it was these characters.

What drew you to these characters over anything else Justin pitched?

Dan: This is an idea that organically leapt from Justin's brain and that means there's significance to it that we can't understand. From my experience you can make a good show out of anything. You can make it out of a really practical, relatable idea that seems to have a lot of potential for a series. Or you can make from a seemingly horrible idea. I mean, we've seen so many movies based on board games and videogames and while some of them work, some of them don't, so there's no rhyme or reason between a good idea and a bad idea. So when your ego gets the job of developing something for television, you want to be working with something magical, because a person developing for television is not magical, they're a bad person. They're a carpenter and they have to build their deck in a sweet spotso that when people sit on it they are looking at a beautiful sunset. Maybe I stretched that metaphor too far, but you know what I mean.... What's important is passion, investment, and people laughing out loud as they work.

Is the writing process very different from animated to live action? Does it feels it liberating for you?

Dan: It's surprisingly similar to animation. The sky is the limit when I'm writing Community. If we want to do an episode where Abed fights a dinosaur then we will...we might cut to a sock puppet, or use stop motion animation, or describe it off screen while Annie looks out of a window, but we'll find a way. I'm very spoilt in live action, because the whole process is designed to give the writer a feeling of carte blanche. I think the system understands that the best way to do things is let the fat guy with the beard feel like he can do anything when he's writing. It's only later that a line producer come to you and says, "Okay, can we change this? Can we make this dinosaur into a golf cart?"

Justin: It goes back the days of Channel 101 where you had to be creative. We once did a whole show with the conceit that we're on a space station. But we shot it in my apartment.

Rick and Morty are only anchored to real life by the dysfunctional family that surrounds them. Did you feel a pressure to ground their more insane adventures in a some sense of reality?

Justin: I originally wanted them to just be friends who lived down the streetI don't really write family stuff so I couldn't see the value in it, but now I love the family. Having them in the story has certainly never held us back from all the crazy things we wanted to do. In fact we started including the family in Rick and Morty's crazy sci-fi stuff as we got further into the season.

Dan: I can't remember if it was my anticipation of what television was going to demand from ushopefully I'm not that jaded. It's a half-hour show that's edging into primetime, so maybe it has demands that need a family as its core. I love those shows where characters speak from the idbut I think what I discovered working on Sarah Silverman's show is that a half hour with someone just being mean to people doesn't work. Having people with different perspectives surround your central protagonists is always a good idea.

Rick isn't the most immediately likeable guy, in fact he seems like a pretty amoral protagonist. Was it a conscious decision to have such a cynical central character?

Dan: It wasn't about the need to be cynical so much as the need to keep the story potentially infinite. That's the big challenge with Rick. You can't redeem him at the end of the story and reveal that he's going to think better of his actions. He has to stay the way he is and Morty has to stay the way he is...so really, it's a practical need that leads to his character into being very funny and cynical.

You mention potentially infinite story lines...have you built a definite arc to the first season?

Justin: We have 10 episodes and we've tried to maintain a very episodic feel and there are very light serialized elements across the season. There are a couple of episodesand I don't want to say too muchthat really pull some layers back and reveal that there's a lot more to the show than we see in the earlier episodes. But for the most part, any episode is a good point of entry.

Was that a purposeful decision when you were writing, to allow viewers to jump in at any point?

Justin: I think it's our style and in many ways the nature of television. A by-product of that means when someone stumbles onto episode five, they'll feel just as much a part of the journey as someone who's been watching from the beginning. Although I really think it's more fun to tell singular stories than turn it into some Breaking Bad-style serialized narrative. I've always dreamed of doing an epic animated showI mean they do it in Japan all the time, so it's not some new idea but I don't think they've ever done it over herealthough The Venture Bros. does to a certain extent. But that's something for the futurewith Rick and Morty we want to keep it clean and tie a little bow around each episode.

Dan: I just think it's better craftsmanship to make sure your whole structure isn't serialized. I know there's two ways of looking at it and arguably the best show on televisionBreaking Badsymbolizes the fact that there's no wrong answers, because you don't get more serialized or more satisfying than that show. But growing up in the '80s I think if you can create a show where each individual rock of crack gets you just as high as another rock of crack andput togetherthey make a beautiful crack rock necklace, then that's proper craftsmanship. One day I'll shake myself of that and just be like, "Fuck it...let's put 'To Be Continued...' at the end of every episode."

Are there any animated shows from your childhood that influenced you on Rick and Morty?

Justin: As a kid I loved The Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, although looking back all those cartoons felt like toy machines. It wasn't until I saw Ren & Stimpy or Beavis & Butthead that it felt like I was watching a unique vision. Something special that wasn't just there to peddle toys. It was those shows that changed my ideas about what I wanted to do in life and how I looked at cartoons. Mike Judge is a huge inspirationhe had magic come out of his brain that you wouldn't even think to write when he was making Beavis & Butthead. It's like he tapped into a different part of his psyche. It happens on this show too, I'll go in to record and say things I would never write sitting in front of a laptop.

Dan: I used to come home and watch Inspector Gadget, but that was about it.... Most of my references are from live action stuff or books. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was a hugely formative piece of material for me. I was going through puberty when I discovered this book that was written by a guy from a foreign land who hadby his own descriptioncome up with the idea while he was drunk and backpacking across Europe. Just staring up at the stars, wondering why there isn't a guide out there for people who want to travel across the whole universe. Then in high school Kurt Vonnegut really got his hooks in me when I stumbled upon Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut and Adams, if it weren't for their stuff I don't think I'd be of any use in the Rick and Morty writers' room because I see sci-fi as a way of exploring the human condition. Like in old-school Star Trek, where Gene Roddenberry went, "Okay. It's the future and we can go anywhere and do anything, but what does that mean? Are we still racist? Probably not. What does power over another living being mean anyway?" Science-fiction is an amazing tool to explore all that stuff. The original Willy Wonka film and the book too, and the other Roald Dahl book where the kid turns into a mouse [The Witches]. Those are my favorite kinds of children's stories, the ones that go, "Once upon a time there was this kid and his life was kind of bland, but then he found a closet, walked through a door and everything went fucking insane...but he works his shit out."

Justin: Did you ever read My Teacher Is An Alien? Those books were my favorites when I was growing up. The same exact type of stories you're describing. Just fucking amazing...I mean I haven't read them in years but when I was a kid they blew my mind. I'll have to read them again to see if they hold up.

Dan: They probably won't.

Justin: I'm gonna read them. I bet they hold up!

I think Roald Dahl still holds up today.

Dan: Yeah. It's amazing how his tonality and creative philosophy bleed through his work even when they're adapted for the screen. I mean the credit that he gives children for living in a serious world where the stakes are actually high. I think it's such an important thing and we've lost it, because the American contribution to fiction aimed at kids is tied up with dolls you might choke on and not getting sued by special interest groups, but it shouldn't be that way.

Finally, Dan you're in the midst of working of Season Five of Community, how's that going for you now you're back?

Dan: It's going well. We're embattled by fate it seems sometimes and that can be a tremendous thing for morale. I'm working on a show with no official airdate, in a bubble of autonomy with a lot of really wide-eyed, fresh-faced, enthusiastic writers, so I'm very excited by it. I mean the stakes are so high, especially on a network show, especially for me, and this odd story I've wandered into where I'm like a weird Lazarus figure. Someone who is either a hero or a villain depending on what I do and how I do it. It's not something that you should think too much about when you're writing a sitcom that's supposed to make people happy. But we're overcoming that because we have so many fantastic new writers, who all came in the door knowing what we were up against and wanted to work really hard on a show that still has a lot of people out there pulling for itpeople who we don't want to let down. So it's very exhilarating, but it does fill every waking minute of life, although that only lasts until December, whereas the things we put on the screen will last as long as we want them to and that's why we do it. So yeah...it's going good.

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar's November/December 2013 digital issue.]



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