During Dan Harmon's Community exodus last year, he went and created another TV show, this one for Adult Swim. Called Rick and Morty, the new animated series was co-created by Harmon and Justin Roiland, and it premieres tonight at 10:30.
Based on a rejected pilot Roiland made for Harmon's monthly video competition Channel 101 in 2006 called "The Real Adventures of Doc and Mharti," Rick and Morty is a Back to the Future-inspired sci-fi comedy about a sociopathic scientist and his grandson going on wild adventures. I recently had the chance to talk to Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland about how the new show came to be, how they run their writers' room, and the Rick and Morty episode that unintentionally copied South Park.
How did the Channel 101 show come about originally?
Justin Roiland: That was towards the tail end of my career as a producer. For many years, I'd done that as a day job. I had a job on a Spike TV show called Fresh Baked Video Games. I was the animation producer/kind of a writer, but I couldn't get anything through. The network didn't get anything that I was pitching, and the head writer didn't care about making the show good or whatever; he was doing his job. Coming off of that show, I had so much pent-up creative angst and that's really what drove the original short. It was me saying, 'I'm gonna blow off some steam and I'm gonna do these two characters.' It's just a Back to the Future thing, but I have this whole storyline about licking his balls, like how that would magically fix any problem. But yeah, that was the genesis of the two voices, was just me having some time, wrapping a job and just being like, 'I'll make something fucked up! I wanna hear the audience groan in disgust and watch people cover their eyes.' And that's exactly what I got. With "Unbelievable Tales," I was like, 'This isn't gonna get voted back, but I'm gonna hear people scream.' This one, I actually did have this desire for it to get voted back. I didn't at first when I started animating it, but when I finished it, I was like, 'I fucking wanna do more episodes with these two guys.'
Dan Harmon: Did it get voted back?
Roiland: No, no.
Harmon: But you did do a second episode online, right?
Roiland: I just started doing the Scud stuff. I just started doing them kinda more presentationally. I remember when we were doing Acceptable TV, you were pissed 'cause you thought I wasn't contributing to the Channies that year. Do you remember this? You were pissed at me, and I was like, "I'm doing something." It was that Rick and Morty Rules of Channel 101 video, and you were so happy. You were like, "I'm sorry that I was mad at you."
Harmon: [Laughs] I don't remember that.
Roiland: I didn't want to show it to you, but I was like, "I promise that I'm contributing something really cool!" I never made any narratives, though. It was just that one that I did for Channel 101, but I did keep doing the two characters' voices in different ways, [which] ultimately led to this show many years later.
How'd you guys decide to revisit the characters for the show?
Harmon: Well, Adult Swim wanted to do something with me. I had that little bit of cache. Justin and I had pitched Adult Swim stuff in the past. It's always random when you're pitching stuff. You're talking to a guy on Wednesday that had a bad sandwich on Tuesday, or there's something on the air that's too similar. For years, Justin and I were taking whacks out there at different networks, including Adult Swim, trying to do something animated together. Then, when Adult Swim came to me in earnest — I think probably because of the cache from Community — I again went to Justin because I knew that it would be a waste of the audience's time and my time for me alone to be in the Adult Swim venue. I might as well just write a coffee table book about, you know, not liking the government or something. I'm not the big animation guy. I love people who bring that visual stuff to the table because that part of my brain doesn't really exist.
I went to Justin, and we talked about if he wanted to come up with something new or is there something he'd been doing that he would like to take to them. We had already gone down the road in the past of creating an original thing that we thought sounded like a perfect show, and we took it to Fox and they said, "Well, sounds like Futurama." We were like, "Yeah, you know what? That's what we get." Years later, I come to Justin again, and I go, "Let's do this thing again." Justin said, "What about Doc and Mharti, [which] were their names at the time?"
Roiland: "We just change their names."
Harmon: And I said, "Oh, that's great." The reason I though it was great was not because you look at that and go, "What a heartwarming foundation for a television show." The reason is because every time I see that stuff, not only am I laughing and everyone around me is laughing at Channel 101, but clearly Justin keeps doing it because he's laughing. In a world where you can make a Mr. Potato Head movie and you can make a show about a butler being assigned to an orphanage because he used to be a hockey player… In other words, in TV, ideas don't matter. You can develop anything into a television show, that's the point of television. That's like having a sonnet be a certain number of syllables. So what do you write a sonnet about? You write it about what you're passionate about, and Justin was passionate about these two voices. This guy's a sociopath who's telling a kid to lick his balls. It couldn't be less televisually compatible, so I got really excited about that idea. "What if that spark was inside a thing that my mom could access?"
Roiland: And it also was sci-fi-based. Everything we've ever developed together has sci-fi integrally interwoven into its DNA, which is something I just realized right now. We knew right away this is sci-fi, which we love, and we can kind of build it around these two voices and just developing it out and adding the family and making a home base. Futurama is this awesome, animated sci-fi show. What we did is we almost combined — not on purpose, it just happened — we combined The Simpsons with Futurama. You have this nice home base setting with the family that's very likable and appealing. From there, you launch into sci-fi stuff that can take you anywhere that they could have gone in Futurama.
Were there other shows you looked to model this after?
Harmon: No, I didn't come to the table a huge animation buff.
Roiland: In terms of visiual look, no. People are gonna say that it's got similarities to Regular Show, but that's just my style, J.G. [Quintel]'s style and even like Penn Ward. You'll notice mouths are kind of similar and teeth are similar, but I think that's also a stylistic thing that… all of us are kind of the same age, and we're all inspired by The Simpsons and all these other shows we're kind of subconsciously tapping into. But then of course, when we write stories, we go out of our way to make sure what we're doing is original and unique. The worst thing is if we're halfway through breaking a story and somebody in the writers' room goes, "Oh shit, you guys. I just Googled what we're writing or I just found that this exists in another [show]." We're just like, "[groans]" We immediately are running away from the thing we've just been working on. Definitely that's the worst, to discover that something you're doing has already been done.
Harmon: Yeah, and we can't even do a story fueled by that frustration because South Park already did a story fueled by their frustration of being in The Simpsons' hundred-year shadow. We found ourselves in the room constantly riffing ideas for stories and stuff. Thank God there's usually at least one person somewhere in the building who can say, "Okay, South Park did that."
Roiland: Except for one time.
Harmon: Except for one time, which is one of our 10 episodes. It was like, "Oh boy, did South Park do it."
Which one was it?
Roiland: The Inception one. That half of the story. Luckily, we have two-way stories, so it definitely separates it from the South Park thing and stuff. They did an Inception thing, and we should have fucking known better, but we didn't know. What's funny is our writers' assistant, Mike McMahan, worked on South Park, and there were times when we were breaking a story and he said, "Ah ah ah, hold on guys!" But this time, somebody mentioned it, and I don't even think it was him. It was someone else, and it was kind of sheepishly, like they didn't want to be the bearer of bad news. It was past the point of no return on production, and it was somebody with their head down, like "Don't hit me, but just so you know…" And I remember freaking out. To this day, I haven't watched the episode. I remember you watched it and texted me and said it's not as bad as…
Harmon: It's two different things. There's that sort of silly but important sense of craftsmanship that says, "If someone did it, then you can't do it." And "it" doesn't have to be identical in execution. You always have to play it out on a case-by-case basis. It's totally two different takes on these references, but to make the same references… What I found over doing these 10 episodes is the thing that immediately precedes someone piping up and saying "South Park did it" would be either me getting so excited about a story that we were breaking that I started sliding into a political rant, something about shaking the pillars of the system or making some observation about capitalism. That immediately, within five minutes, I was gonna be pitching something that South Park had already done better. And the other thing was just pop culture stuff because those guys specialize in — if anyone's talking about anything, those guys are pumping out an episode about it very quickly with some kind of take.
Did you two write the whole first season or did you have a staff?
Harmon: We had a crack team.
Roiland: On the pilot, it was just Dan and I, but I consider him the head writer on the show. Then, the look and style and the day-to-day shit and just the voices and stuff was me. We had a small team, but it was an effective team. In Season 2, we'd like a larger team. It wasn't just Dan and I. But I will say that Dan definitely ran his hand across every script.
Harmon: Tom Kauffman, Ryan Ridley, Wade Randolph, Eric Acosta.
Roiland: That was the team. Mike McMahan, our writers' assistant — we tossed him a script.
Harmon: It was a very, very tiny little writers' room with a lot of heavy lifting from everybody.
Roiland: It's weird because it's not a union show, and it's not writers' guild. Like I know on Community, it's almost like you're in the military and you have your two stripes, your three stripes; your levels.
Harmon: It all comes out in the wash for me because on a network sitcom that is WGA, I'm empowered with the right to not only do Page One rewrites on everyone's stuff and put their name on the cover sheet, which is what I choose to do because if you work on Community, you work your ass off and you deserve a credit on a script 'cause you can take that somewhere and build a career off of it. But I'm also empowered to, if I wanted to, it would be legal for me to take someone else's work and put my name on it, which I do not do. So then on a non-union show, it's like, well, you're not even supposed to be doing any of this actual work on it. But it's like, I'll do it anyway. What is my point? I sleep like a baby at night because if I'm producing a show, that means I'm writing it. It would be nice to be union signatory, though.
Roiland: One of these days, hopefully. Fingers crossed. Get that bigger writers' room.
Harmon: After the next strike… that we cause.
Roiland: "Adult Swim goes union."