The pilot episode of Rick And Morty promised “Rick and Morty forever and forever, a hundred years Rick and Morty,” but it’s been more than a year since mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his grandson Morty undertook any sort of animated adventure on Adult Swim. That drought ends on Sunday, July 26, when Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s gonzo sci-fi comedy returns with its most audacious episode to date, the certainty-fraying “A Rickle In Time.” At the 2015 ATX Television Festival, The A.V. Club spoke with Roiland, Harmon, and writer-performer Ryan Ridley about quadrupling the size of their cast in season two, working with Stephen Colbert and The Simpsons staff, and why you can’t hide things from a television audience anymore.
The A.V. Club: How do you make a character like Rick relatable and likable?
Dan Harmon: Oh, that’s easy, I think. If he worked at Verizon, you’d hate him, because it would be entitlement and all this stuff. But Rick always knows more than the audience, and always knows more than everybody in the room. Everyone watching has been in that position. When you’re standing in line at that bank sometimes, you always feel like, none of these people understand what a hurry I’m in, how much crap I have to do today, what I’m up against. We’ve all been Rick. But Rick really does have bigger fish to fry than anybody. He understands everything better than us. So you give him the right to be jaded and dismissive and narcissistic and sociopathic.
Ryan Ridley: But in season two, he becomes a little more vulnerable, a little more human. I don’t know if you’re crazy about that, but there’s some episodes where his reckless behavior starts to bite him in the ass. There are consequences to his way of dealing with things in the second season.
Humanizing Rick isn’t a problem for me. Softening him definitely is. There’s almost a kind of will-they or won’t-they going on with Rick and Morty. Does he love Morty? Would he take a bullet for Morty? Does he care? We alternatingly indicate that he does, but then we undercut—
Justin Roiland: Yeah, we’re always undercutting it.
DH: That’s why we’re very careful about delving into Rick’s backstory, because when we do, we don’t want there to be any shocking surprises. Justin was really smart about that, saying, “No, we don’t want to reveal that Rick started drinking when blah blah blah,” because then there’s something very shark-jump-y about that, like where you learn that the Fonz didn’t always wear leather jackets. Because people aren’t like that.
JR: It’s very George Lucas-y for us to start telling stories about the day Rick decided to spike his hair. “Before that day, oh, he wore it down!”
RR: We meet an ex of his, but anyone watching would be like, “Oh yeah, I had an ex like that. I can relate.” It’s not, “This is the woman who made Rick into an evil genius, or whatever.”
JR: Yeah, it’s like an inconsequential relationship.
RR: One of many exes he’s had.
DH: Yeah, I’m really proud of what we did with that. Without revealing anything about it, it doesn’t ding Rick’s character at all. It makes him all the more mysterious and selfish.
AVC: That’s a hallmark of the first season: There’s an established world, and there’s continuity between episodes, but there’s always a fresh angle to take, or a new concept to tweak into a standalone story.
JR: We talked early on about how every episode could be a point of entry. I think that philosophy is good for the show, and then sprinkling some continuity across the top enhances that. We do start every season, though, with big discussions of “What do we want to do this season?” Then it always sort of devolves. We talk for a long time, we have all those grand ideas, and then we kind of forget them all, but they materialize after the fact in much more subtle ways.
DH: Those are important conversations to have when you have the time to have them. The benefit of those conversations is never episodic in nature, it always is like—Google “water table”: It’s moisture that comes up.
JR: Yeah. Yeah. Moisture.
DH: Moisture. Yeah, man. [All laugh.]
AVC: What was some of that moisture in season one? What was something that unexpectedly arose?
DH: We haven’t talked about this in a while, but before we wrote the first episode of Rick And Morty, we had a conversation where, I think it was Mike McMahan who said, “Should we decide that there is a secret we keep from the audience forever?” But we always know it.” I won’t say what. We said, “Oh, what about this?” And we went, “Yeah, that’s really cool.” I was kind of obsessed with it for a while. But I think what’s really interesting about this new golden age of TV is that [Snaps fingers.] halfway through the first season, somebody made a Reddit post where they threw out the theory, which was exactly what we had talked about, basically. It was like, “Oh, thank God we didn’t really do anything with it.”
JR: We were operating with that thought, though. We were writing season one with that thought in our heads that it could be the case.
DH: I think that’s a really remarkable thing about today’s TV audience. You cannot write payoff-based TV anymore because the audience is essentially a render farm. They have an unlimited calculation capacity. There’s no writers’ room that can think more than 20 million people who can think about it for an hour a day. That season of Dexter being the big example: They had planned out this whole Fight Club reveal that there was a character that didn’t really exist except in someone else’s head. They’d planned out the whole clever thing, and they were going to reveal it, and all this stuff, and then after episode one aired, somebody on Reddit just like, [Snaps fingers.]. You can’t do it anymore. You can’t try to fool the audience.
JR: Unless you’re M. Night Shyamalan, and it’s just a movie. You can do it. Go ahead, do it. But if it’s a series—
DH: But the really cool thing is that render farm reduces your job as a writer to story and jokes. Character. Just things that in the moment that you provide for them, it’s like you’re spinning plates or juggling. This idea that you’re a magician that, like, gets there early and puts threads somewhere—they’re always going to see it.
AVC: Even with the “render farm” watching as closely as it did, was there any homage that you baked into the first season that you were surprised more people didn’t recognize?
RR: What’s even funnier is the opposite. There’s people who go, “Oh, they’re doing an homage to that!” And we’re like, “We were?” [Laughs.]
DH: Oh yeah. Yeah, that happens all the time.
JR: People giving us way more credit.
DH: …“Was this a that reference?’ And I always want to answer them like: “Why, would that be cool?” [Laughs.]
RR: It’s the same reason why 9/11 was not an inside job, because no one could coordinate—[Laughs.]
JR: Whoa, whoa, whoa. [Laughs.]
RR: [Protesting.] No, I’m saying it’s not an inside job!
JR: I believe it was! [Laughs.]
RR: People watch the show and they go, “Oh, look at that picture. Look at how it all ties in.” And, like, no. We’re doing our jobs, and then there’s background artists who are throwing stuff in. We’re not coordinating, like: “Make sure you throw in the Illuminati code.”
JR: There are people that are that way. My buddy [Alex] Hirsch is like that. He will hide stuff in his show, and he is anal about everything.
DH: And you guys have coordinated.
JR: Yes, that’s like Hirsch. Hirsch is like, “Let’s do something crazy.”
RR: You know about this? The Rick And Morty episode aired a year before, where you see this stuff come through a portal.
JR: And it’s so fast. No one really caught it, because it’s like two, three frames.
RR: But the render farm thing: People were going, “What? What is this moment?” and trying to Zapruder film it. And a year later, it pays off. Because in Gravity Falls—
JR: Stan throws those same objects through a portal.
DH: [Laughs.] I was actually shocked that nobody picked up on the Titanic references in season one.
RR: I know, they were like, “What a great When Harry Met Sally episode.”
DH: Yeah, people were like, wow, that story about that boat.
JR: I was like, yeah, it’s about the Titanic. Ever heard of it?
DH: [Laughs.] Dumb.
AVC: What’s the turnaround time on an episode of Rick And Morty?
JR: From brainstorming to final mix—eight months? It’s long. We’re figuring it all out.
DH: Maybe we’ll just make fewer entire species that we’re going to exterminate. Genocide is actually very costly in animation. It should be noted.
AVC: But you know that “full cast” Simpsons poster? With the number of the aliens and monsters from season one, Rick And Morty could fill multiple posters.
RR: And it’s quadrupled in season two.
JR: We do the show in Harmony, so it’s all build-based: Every character has to have a build. There’s a team of people that have to take our art and convert that into builds. The amount of builds that season two has—there’s an episode that had more builds in it than the entire season one. It’s crazy. We’re very lucky to have people who, if they didn’t love the show, it would be impossible to make the show we’re making on the budget we have. It would just be impossible. We have amazing people who love the show, who believe in the show, and they’re pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into making it as good as they can.
DH: They’re definitely legally allowed to walk away. I think the Geneva Convention allows them to go to their cars and just drive away.
AVC: So what was their reaction when you told them that, for the season premiere, you’re going to split the frame into a whole grid of pictures-in-pictures?
DH: “There’s going to be two panels on the screen, and in one of them Morty’s going to walk to the left and eat a doughnut, and in the lower one he’s also going to walk to the left and eat a doughnut—but a different doughnut!”
RR: And a different style of walk!
JR: That launch meeting was interesting. Everyone was game. We have some really amazing people on the show, they’re just troopers.
RR: Wes Archer directed that episode—who directed The Simpsons for years. That was a crushing episode for him. He’s just like, “Hey, I wanna come back—when are we starting up again?”
JR: He’s such an awesome dude. He and the team busted their asses to try to make us happy, and he did so much work on that episode, and was always happy and smiling.
That episode has scenes where it took 14 hours to render a 10-second scene. Then I would come in and look at it and go, [Sucks air through his teeth.] “Can I tweak a couple things?” Our in-house Harmony guys are like, “Oh my God. We’ll just play video games, I guess, while this computer’s rendering.” Just waiting. Waiting for computers. Be a good name for a TV show: Waiting For Computers.
RR: Or a book.
DH: Well, that was a working title of The Imitation Game, right? That’s essentially what they were doing in that. Waiting for computers. Remember in that movie how they cracked the big code by realizing that Germans always say “Heil Hitler!” in all of their messages?
RR: That seemed a little too simplified. [Laughs.]
AVC: Will Jerry and Beth get involved in Rick and Morty’s adventures more frequently this year?
DH: We do more sci-fi stuff with Beth and Jerry. There’s a little less of a templated thing. In season one, it was always Rick and Morty doing an A-story that was sci-fi-based, and then the B-story will always be some domestic kind of emotionally grounded story. By the end of season one, we were kind of throwing that out the window. We were getting really good results with throwing Summer in with Rick, and really developing Summer beyond her Valley-girl, two-dimensional character. So going into season two, we just didn’t bother with the template at all. Maybe for better or for worse, but the end result is that an episode might open with Rick and Jerry and Morty in the spaceship.
RR: And there’s an episode where Beth and Jerry are having their own sci-fi adventure, without Rick and Morty.
JR: It always stems from Rick reacting to something that they’re doing or giving them something. It’s like the Meeseeks Box: He gives them this device and then takes off. So there’s an episode where Jerry and Beth end up in a couples therapy retreat, which is very much a sci-fi high-concept version of what you might find on earth, that Rick drives them to.
RR: But the cool thing is at the end of the day, they’re just going to couples therapy—it just happens to involve monsters.
DH: I love that episode.
JR: It’s so good.
DH: I mean, I love that story. I don’t know if the episode’s good. I just love the concept.
JR: That episode is in that place right now for me where we just got the take ones back. I loved the animatic. I’m in this sort of place where I’ve been with every episode, where there are so many notes, there’s so many fixes, and I’m so overwhelmed, and I’m so bummed out. But every single episode had the same path, where by the time we get to mix, it’s going to be amazing. I’m finally starting to trust that that’s going to happen. That’s more powerful than my initial watching it and just being like, “Why is it? What the fuck?” A take one in the cartoon industry is supposed to be shitty. It’s supposed to be bad. We’ve just been spoiled that some episodes come back take ones and they’re amazing. It’s like, “Whoa. Don’t have that much work to do with this one. Whoo hoo!” Then you get another one where it’s like, “Oh. This is take ones. This is how they’re supposed to be. But we’ll get it there.
[At this point, the Adult Swim publicist raises the topic of Stephen Colbert’s season-two guest appearance—ed.]
JR: He plays a really, really interesting character, who is sort of an equal to Rick. And not in the same way as the Alfred Molina character, which was lesser than Rick.
RR: In life, you meet people—I don’t know, who’s yours, Dan? Aaron Sorkin? [Laughs.] You’re like, “Oh, man, this guy! I hate him because he’s so much like me!”
DH: Oh, please. Sorkin couldn’t touch me. I want that in print.
RR: But Rick meets a guy who is just as brilliant as him, and so of course he hates it, and vice versa. So unlike the devil character—which the whole point of that episode is Rick’s like, “Fuck you, you’re the Devil? That’s ridiculous.” This is, “Oh my God, this guy is just as brilliant as me. So he becomes our Khan.
AVC: Is it possible he could recur, like Khan?
JR: He could easily come back.
RR: If schedule permits.
JR: Colbert’s the nicest dude. We had to get pickups, and he’s as busy as they come, especially right now, and he made time for us and was just a fucking nice, amazing guy. Gave me everything I needed and more. Really awesome guy.
AVC: Let’s wrap things up by talking about the Rick And Morty Simpsons couch gag. Were there any ideas you rejected in favor of the final, “destroy the Simpsons and reconstruct their DNA?” concept?
DH: My original passion was just to do something that was not—I had seen The Simpsons couch gags devolve into actual stories, and I wanted to do something more visual and not dialogue-driven. They come in and they kill the Simpsons and then you go through the physical process of reconstituting them. But I couldn’t really put my money where my mouth was in terms of what that would be. Justin was always more passionate about the idea of Rick and Morty interacting with The Simpsons universe, getting Flanders in there and that kind of stuff.
JR: Yeah, a little fan service in there. We spent a day or two brainstorming. We had a ton of ideas. Then we landed on the idea of them crashing. So that was always part of it. Them crashing and sort of splattering the Simpsons and then having to figure it out. That was always what we were going to do after that brainstorming session. That was always there.
It was right in the middle of the tornado of season two: trying to get scripts out and outlines for multiple episodes, so it was sort of crazy. Then Harmon did a script for it, which was great. Then Community came, and he was gone. I was so busy with these things I needed to take care of for season two that The Simpsons thing kind of took a backseat for a while. When I finally got to it, where our line producer was like, “Yeah, we need that fucking script immediately,” I went in and I did a little more fan service. It was like adding Flanders and splitting Rick and Morty up.
How it originally came about was The Simpsons guys—Matt Groening and Al Jean and a bunch of other guys—we found out were fans of Rick And Morty, which was kind of mind-blowing to me. Then I asked those guys if they wanted to do a commentary on the DVD. And they did. In the commentary Al offers us a couch gag. Then I had my line producer call to find out if it was a sincere offer, and it was. So then we just followed up. We’re like, of course we’ll do a couch gag. We’d be crazy not to.
RR: The coolest part for me was at the end of the episode, seeing our names in the yellow Simpsons font.
AVC: Did you get to work with The Simpsons cast?
JR: I sent the script and Al sent us back the audio. Actually, Al Jean’s the one who wrote the final line in the tag, with Bart saying, “No more guest animators, man!” I was like, “Well, that wasn’t in our script, but I’m not going to not use this.”
RR: I also want to make something clear: Justin had the opportunity to go record with all the cast, and he turned it down because he was like, “I couldn’t handle that. I couldn’t handle it.” Like, he could have been there in the room with Yeardley Smith and Nancy Cartwright.
JR: I also could have gone to the mix, but I was like, “Oh, I can’t, I can’t.”
AVC: Too busy, or just intimidated?
JR and RR: Intimidated!
DH: Do you think they put that joke in there because our couch gag was bad?
AVC: What was your reaction to that joke?
JR: I thought of that for a second, but no, no way. Because they’re such good sports. I know that’s not true because they all loved that couch gag. I talked to Matt on the phone and he was like—
RR: But if they secretly didn’t, that would be one way to—
DH: That would be a very effective way.
AVC: It’s just good-natured ribbing: Like the Marvel joke in the Community finale.
DH: [In Bart Simpson voice.] No more Marvel movies, man.
RR: Of course Dan truly does love the Marvel movies.
DH: Well, I actually do. I love the Joss Whedon ones.
AVC: Anything else you want to talk about that we didn’t get to touch on?
JR: Firefly. The show Firefly. Just started watching it. Little more than halfway through the first season. So good.
RR: So Justin gets excited for three people, and they’re all from Degrassi: The Next Generation. We brought in Alfred Molina and Justin’s like, “I don’t know who this guy is.” I’m like, “You don’t know who Alfred Molina? is?!”
JR: I mean, I wasn’t like angry about it. I was just like “I don’t know this guy! What’s going on?!”
RR: It was great, because I asked for a picture at the end. I don’t ask, but certain people—you gotta get a picture with Doctor Octopus. So I got a picture with him and Justin’s like, “Hey, can I get one?” Then after, I was like, “You don’t know who he is!” He’s like, “Yeah, but I saw you took a picture with him, so he’s got to be somebody.”
JR: Which by the way, he was a pleasure to work with. He was really awesome.
RR: He was incredible. But we got Alan Tudyk, and he was great, and Justin was like, “This guy’s great. I don’t know who he is.” But Justin recognizes that, in a vacuum, he’s a really great guy to work with. He couldn’t have been cooler, and wanted to know about the character. Just the perfect kind of guest voice guy. Now Justin’s watching Firefly and he’s like, “Oh, that guy! Oh my God!”
JR: There’s like three actors on that show that I’m like, “What!? That guy!? Alan Tudyk?”
AVC: Who’s your dream Degrassi get for Rick And Morty?
JR: We got Cassie Steele, which was amazing.
RR: Aislinn Paul.
JR: Those two. Yeah. But there will be more Degrassi casting. It’s a great pool to pluck from for high school characters.
I love that show so much, and I’ve said many times I want to be 82 in a hospital bed dying of cancer, with Degrassi season 50 on the screen. If that isn’t how it happens, I’m going to be pissed. I’m going to be pissed.
DH: Aw. But you’ll just be a little cancer man.
JR: I want the last breaths that come out of my mouth to be right when some kid on Degrassi says, [In a squeaky voice.] “I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant and I’m a freshman!”
[Someone makes the beeping sound of Justin flatlining.]
AVC: And you float into the ether to the guitar riff.
JR: Yeah, yeah, and go right to heaven. Go right to heaven.
DH: Wait, how does that get you into heaven?
JR: I don’t know.
DH: “Oh. And also he did some good stuff. He fed some poor people.”
JR: Very philanthropic at some point. I’ll save somebody.