The Uplifting Nihilism of ‘Rick & Morty’

2016 was a very, very bad year no matter how you slice it. In tough times, comedy is often a form of escape that people turn to when they need comforting. With that in mind, we asked our contributors to pick the one piece of comedy in any form that they turn to when they really need cheering up. We’ll be sharing their choices throughout the week in a package we’re calling “The Best Medicine.”

If your resolution was to have more existential crises, 2016 has truly been your year. It practically feels like the writers of a dark, absurdist TV show have taken the reins of global politics but keep forgetting to write in jokes. So why not turn to an actual dark, absurdist TV show that does include jokes? Personally, I’ve taken unexpected comfort in Rick and Morty, specifically in a quote from Morty:

Nobody exists on purpose.
Nobody belongs anywhere.
Everybody’s gonna die.
Come watch TV?

This sentiment has resonated with enough people that it has found its way onto t-shirts and mugs and cross-stitching. The line is from the episode “Rixty Minutes” (S1E8), where Morty is attempting attempt to dissuade his older sister Summer from running away to Arizona to “go do something with turquoise.” This came as a result of a pair of goggles that allowed her parents, Jerry and Beth, to see alternate timeline versions of themselves wherein Summer — the product of an unplanned teen pregnancy — was never born. Now Summer is dealing with their conclusion that they would have been massively better off without her.

On its surface, it’s easy to interpret this as a call for escapism. “Why don’t you just watch TV and forget about how awful this all is?” But that misses the mark. Morty is not telling Summer to disengage by watching TV, he is telling her to rejoin her family rather than running away from the things that make her uncomfortable and succumbing to despair.  Her family is messy and complicated, and she is a young girl who is trying to navigate a confusing and painful circumstance. Morty is speaking to her as someone who has also experienced some uniquely strange and morbid things; the quote above is prefaced by the explanation “On one of our adventures, Rick and I basically destroyed the whole world, so we bailed on that reality and we came to this one, because in this one the world wasn’t destroyed and in this one, we were dead. So we came here, and we buried ourselves and we took their place. And every morning, Summer, I eat breakfast twenty yards away from my own rotting corpse.” With a perspective like that, it’s nearly impossible not to conclude that he can’t control most of what life is going to throw at him but that he can value the good things that he has while they’re still there to be had.

This episode of Rick and Morty isn’t overtly optimistic, but when I’m overwhelmed by the nightmares of this past year I find Morty’s philosophy to be an effective antidote. There is a kind of pain to realizing that it’s impossible to expect fairness from the world because it’s impossible to expect anything from the world. Indeed, virtually everything about any circumstance is completely absurd in view of the whole, so when the world seems to be reaching peak absurdity, it’s helpful to simply take stock in what you enjoy and build from there.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

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