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Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland on the wait for new Rick And Morty and “the pursuit of perfection”

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images. Graphic: Allison Corr
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images. Graphic: Allison Corr

At the end of Rick And Morty’s second season, top-hat-wearing, “ooo-wee”-ing Smith family friend Mr. Poopybutthole assures fans that their favorite sci-fi comedy will be back “in, like, a year and a half—or longer.” Self-deprecating joke became self-fulfilling prophecy: Nearly 18 months passed between the end of Rick And Morty’s second season and the premiere of its third, during which viewers were left to ponder the imprisonment of dimension-hopping mad scientist Rick Sanchez, Earth’s absorption into the Galactic Federation, and what the holdup was with new episodes. The rumor mill kept spinning even after the surprise debut of “The Rickshank Rickdemption” on April Fool’s Day, leading to a tweetstorm from Dan Harmon that put the delay in stark terms: “The reason S3 took long is because it took long to write, because it was S3 of a show that we were scared to make worse than S2 or S1.” Speaking on the phone with The A.V. Club ahead of Rick And Morty’s full-fledged return to Adult Swim, creators Harmon and Justin Roiland discussed those fears, what Rick means when he tells Morty they’re about to embark on the “darkest year” of their adventures, and whether or not that McDonald’s Szechuan sauce is really as good as Rick thinks it is.

The A.V. Club: Is season three complete?

Justin Roiland: Almost. We’re posting, and we just rounded the corner to the back half, but we’re on schedule and it’s pretty dang good. I’m feeling good about it.

AVC: So it feels like a relief to be at this point and have a premiere date?

Roiland: And also it feels good to be at a point in production on the show where now it’s just surgical changes. A punch-up here or there joke-wise. Just polish at this point, really, and that’s a fun place to be in, because you’re able to see what you’ve got, and then it’s a lot easier to go in and say, “We can add a joke here, we can come up with a better act-blow line here.”

Dan Harmon: It’s also therapeutic to get to this stage—especially after spending a season chasing tails, and there were delays. It’s the end of a big, long lesson in how much you can change at the end of the assembly line, and how much the process of animation lends itself to constant refinement as you go. For myself, as a script perfectionist, it’s been a lesson for me. For season four, we need to let scripts out of the maternity wards before they get all their shots, so we can make more, faster. Which is an unfortunate metaphor, when you’re invoking maternity.

AVC: It makes sense. You found that you were making too many tweaks in the scripting stage, and if you don’t do that in the future, you can produce more, more quickly.

Harmon: It’s a healthy kind of embarrassment, after going so past your own deadline on a season, to be putting the finishing touches on episodes and realizing, “Man, we would’ve had plenty of time to make more episodes and do it even faster if we had just known, if I had just accepted that this is part of the process.” No matter how much you kvetch over details, you’re still going to end up changing it along the way, and that is part of the process. And a script isn’t the blueprint. It’s a plan, and you move forward with it. It’s not a one-for-one analogue with architecture.

Roiland: If you have the structural elements fairly solidified, if it feels good structurally, there’s so much stuff that can be changed and tweaked as you move your way through all those various phases of animation production. To get it, not perfect, but great.

AVC: Why do you think that was a lesson you learned this time, as opposed to previous seasons?

Harmon: It probably had to do with getting my full attention. That’s always a bad thing. I was, to some degree, juggling Community and Rick And Morty for most of Rick And Morty’s life, and then season three was really the first season where I was like, “Okay, Community is behind me, and Rick And Morty is my new thing.” That’s when I start to ruin things, is when I start to care about them.

We’re on season three, so that makes you think of three years, but it had been five years since the day Justin and I sat down on my unfurnished Community office floor and wrote the pilot together. We had changed as a couple, and we had changed as individuals. Everything just keeps changing and changing, and then you’re five years later, you’re trying to capture magic that—the secret to capturing it was never trying to capture anything. It’s all just crazy stuff. The same thing happened on season three of Community. It’s just sort of a blend of all these things. You peak in season two with the joy, and then season three’s like this arterial collapse. You’re seeing the feedback on the show, and you’re starting to feel like there’s a responsibility, and you’re also going, “I need to not think about that or I’m going to ruin the show.” And then you’re like, “For the first time, it’s possible to ruin the show.” [Both laugh.] “Well, what’s the way to not ruin the show?” “Well, you not ruin the show by not thinking you can ruin it.” “Okay, let’s not think we can ruin it.” And you have these conversations in the room. It’s all of the above. It’s like a four-way stop sign of awareness that you have to get through. Then you get through it, and you’re like, “Oh, man: That took so long to get through, and the amount of work that got done was the same as if we had not thought about any of it. That’s why I think, hopefully, season four—which we never got to see with Community [Laughs.]—we think it might have [been] great, because of my breakdown in season three [of Community], but for all we know, I just break down in season three and Rick And Morty is doomed. [Both laugh.] Stay tuned!

AVC: Justin, how did your experience with this season change, if Dan was around a little bit more, giving it his full attention?

Roiland: This was an interesting season. I think it was the pursuit of perfection [that] was our biggest enemy this season, as opposed to just having fun. And by the way, I want to clarify: I think this season is fucking amazing. We come out the other end of an incredible run.

Harmon: And I want to clarify that I was around as much. I was referring to mental focus and emotional focus. I cringe at the idea that it’s just the idea of me being around more that makes something bad. [Both laugh.] But I do accept that me caring about it more could be a kryptonite.

Roiland: There was a lot of passion for the pursuit of perfection—and in some cases, without realizing we had something that was pretty good. We’ve got something that’s pretty structurally sound here. We can take this and run with it, and as we run with it, we can continue to adorn it with jokes, akin to how you would have a Christmas tree that looks like a Christmas tree—it maybe only has a couple ornaments on it, but you can continue to add those, and do that as you run it through production.

That’s not to say every episode had the same path. Some episodes of this season very much follow that path, the path of “okay, we’ve got something great,” and then it went through and it only continued to get better and better. Other episodes, we would get to thumbnail, and we would all agree, unanimously, that, “Okay, we’ve got to pop the hood on this one.” That’s going to happen no matter what. Even in a world where we’re having fun, and we’re not overthinking it, you’re still going to have the episode that comes back, and it’s like, “Ah, okay, maybe we were wrong, or this idea isn’t quite working the way we thought.”

Harmon: And just to beat this horse dead, because that truly is my takeaway: No matter what you do, and how satisfied you are, it’s functionally random whether or not it winds up being problematic in the first round of storyboards. So, because it’s random, don’t try to avoid that happening by spending three times longer in the writer’s room. Get the scripts done, push it out, find out what its problems are going to be, because they’re going to be random, and they’re going to be related to things beyond your big writer brain.

AVC: Were there any discussions about keeping Rick in space prison longer than an episode?

Harmon: The truth is, what you’re seeing [in the premiere] was basically supposed to be the finale for season two. Because we had said to ourselves at the end of season two, “Let’s pretend we’re doing this big cliffhanger, and then let’s just hit the reset button at the end,” as a sort of caressing of the audience who may be suffering from cliffhanger-itis when it comes to prestige TV. [Laughs.] Then we painted ourselves into that corner, and we sat there for weeks at the end of season two saying, “Okay, so how does he get out of prison?” And we almost murdered each other, because the writers’ contracts were up, and it was just a few of us sitting around a table, and we were exhausted. That’s how the purge episode happened: It was just a desperate sad tantrum of “forget this episode, end on a cliffhanger, and I’ll just write a random episode. I keep saying I want to do this purge thing. Let’s just do it.” And I just sarcastically wrote half of that script in 20 minutes in front of everybody, and we refined it as we went. So flash forward to the beginning of season three, you think, having all that time, we were like, essentially, “Okay, premiere of season three is going to be that story that we couldn’t figure out for the end of season two,” and despite all that time, it still became the reason that all of season three was behind schedule.

AVC: At the end of the premiere, Rick tells Morty that this is going to be the darkest year of their adventures. What does that mean to each of you?

Roiland: I feel like he’s referencing [that] he just split the family up, he just officially hammered that final nail in the coffin of Beth and Jerry’s marriage, which is pretty dark. And then also he’s going to put Morty through the paces, and there’s nobody that’s going to stop him. He’s unstoppable now. He’s the head of the household. I don’t know how literal I take it. [To Harmon.] What do you think?

Harmon: I agree with that. I think Rick is saying to Morty, “If you felt any heartwarming moments this episode because you think that I rescued you or care about intergalactic freedom, let me double down on my original message to you from season one which is, ‘I don’t care if you understand me, I don’t care if you have a problem with how I do things. Everyone that conflicts with me will burst into flames. Learn that lesson. Do as I tell you. And don’t get in the way like your father did.’” I think he’s just correcting the course there and has to be saying, “It’s going to get darker for you, Morty.”

But I think the unspoken joke of that is Morty is like, “Dude, I know.” [Both laugh.] Morty’s protests are more like “I don’t know what you’re talking about with Szechuan sauce. I wasn’t part of that.” That’s the interesting thing about this season: I do think that Morty, in my perception, moves a little, five percent in the direction [of being less naïve] about Rick. He doesn’t bother quite as much, in season three, wondering whether Rick might be a good person. And wondering if they should do the right thing. And I think Morty goes a little bit more into “I’m in the hands of a lunatic, and I have to do what I have to do to survive that situation” mode.

AVC: Was the McDonald’s Szechuan sauce that good?

Roiland: My memory of it was, yeah, it was insanely good. But I was just saying to somebody else, it’s like the Community episode with LeVar Burton—never meet your heroes. [Laughs.] I don’t know if I should taste the sauce again. My memory of it—I’ve got it on such a pedestal at this point, I’m terrified that I’m going to taste and go, “Uh. This is what I’ve been yammering about all these years.” We’ll see if it’s as good if I can get my hands on some.

AVC: Don’t we all have our Szechuan sauces, though? Watching that premiere, it seems like there are some legitimate things that Rick cares about. It seems like he didn’t wholly make up that memory of Beth and his wife getting sucked into that portal. There has to be a thinking, caring Rick in there to come up with that.

Harmon: Well, I’ll just say this about that: If you were going to make something up—for instance, if you were going to trick somebody into shooting a decoy instead of your real self, would it be best for you to reconstruct, atomically or from scratch, your idea of who you are, or would it be easier to copy and paste the truth by taking a photograph of yourself and changing only what you needed to change? There’s a good chance that you might be right about that, that there’s 20 to 80 percent truth to every lie, and that the emotional truth that counts is that Rick has stopped being emotionally motivated by that stuff, but the biographical fact is that there’s pain at the core of it, and the idea that Rick, who we think is the most caustic of all of the Ricks, his origin story is that he was the one Rick who was smart enough to turn his back on science and focus on his intimate relationships. And because he was punished for it by his other selves, his is now the most monstrous of all the Ricks because, as you find with people, the ones that are the nastiest, most sarcastic, most jaded people, they’re probably protecting a softer core.

But who knows? It all could be a big joke. [Both laugh.]