WUBBA LUBBA DUB DUB
‘Rick and Morty’ Creators: How Hiring Female Writers Made Season 3 the Best Yet
The two men behind the funniest animated show on television, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, discuss the show’s long hiatus, rumors of infighting, and much more.
No matter who you are, no matter where you’ve been, the fact is: You’re a speck. Cosmically infinitesimal. Your life’s triumphs and trivialities and defeats—all a blip, one in an infinite number of timelines. No one “belongs” anywhere. No one’s fated to do anything. Everyone’s gonna die. And that’s OK.
How best to describe Rick and Morty, Adult Swim’s animated sci-fi show about a brilliant multiverse-hopping scientist and his useless grandson? Created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland (the latter also voices the title characters), it’s a work of manic absurdist energy and imagination. It’s far from cynical, though the depressive alcoholic at its center is as nihilistic as they come.
It raises its finger and laughs—then belches—loudly in the face of all the frustrations of being human. It revels in the futility of existence, cutting deep to find profound truths, comedy, and squanch. It’s one of the boldest shows on TV. It’s irresistible. Also, there are fart jokes.
“It’s a show that confirms that nothing matters, and then high-fives you, pats you on the back, and makes you feel better,” says Harmon, a week before the show’s long-delayed Season 3 premiere on Sunday.
A year and a half has passed since Season 2, and almost three months since this season’s premiere dropped by surprise on April Fool’s Day. In that time, the show’s fan base practically exploded—while its creators became almost cripplingly self-conscious of the pressure to top themselves in round three. Perfectionism, it turns out, was the culprit behind the delay, not some rumored behind-the-scenes feud.
“I think that [pressure] was doing us a disservice,” says Roiland, who based Rick and Morty on a Back to the Future spoof he submitted to a film festival Harmon co-created. “So we were like, OK, let’s not worry about that. And then we stopped worrying about it. But then we were already worried about it. I don’t know,” he laughs. “It was a lesson we had to learn going through this season.”
Both men—who sound nearly identical over the phone together, overexcited stuttering and all—are “super proud” of this new ten-episode batch, which boasts a Mad Max: Fury Road-style trip, new “weird” aliens, and “a bunch of great couplings of characters we haven’t seen go on adventures together before.”
Part of that renewed creative energy, Harmon says, came from a gender-balanced writers’ room, the first in the show’s history. “We had that for this season and I thought the results were really good because it meant that both the men and the women could increase their attention on Beth and Summer [Morty’s mom and teenage sister],” Harmon explains. In a room of three men and three women, “nobody represents any gender because if nobody outnumbers anybody else, then nobody’s an ambassador to anything.”
“When you have a mixed room, it’s not about the women going, ‘Here’s a bunch of secrets about women,’” he says. “It’s more about everyone being freer to just pitch randomness. So the result is you see cool stuff happen with Beth and Summer this season.” It’s an ideal that most TV writers’ rooms have yet to try to achieve.
The Daily Beast talked to Roiland and Harmon about what to expect in Season 3, their unified theory of Rick Sanchez, divorce, relationships, and fan theories—and the elusive Mulan McNugget sauce they've promised will give us nine more seasons and/or 97 years of the funniest show on TV.
Has anyone mailed you guys the 1998 McDonald’s Szechuan sauce yet?
Justin Roiland: (Laughs.) No, I hope to get some though. I’m sort of still fingers-crossed. My dream would be like if I could get an original recipe but freshly made from McDonald’s.
I think I saw one going on eBay for like $14,000.
Roiland: I know what you're talking about! Are you talking about like a bottle of it? I didn’t even know that existed, I was like, What! I wish McDonald’s would make a limited run of the sauce just as a giveaway or something. But we’ll see what happens.
This season sounded like it was more difficult than usual, in part because of heightened expectations and because you’re both perfectionists.
Roiland: It was definitely, I think, the expectations coming off Season 2 and seeing how the fan base had grown, and striving for topping ourselves and wanting to deliver another season that was even better than the previous two. That in and of itself was a challenge, for sure. Then at a certain point we realized, oh, that’s creating a situation where we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. (Laughs.) I think that was doing us a disservice. So we were like, OK, let’s not worry about that. And then we stopped worrying about it. But then we were already worried about it. I don’t know. It was a lesson that we had to learn going through this season. But at the end of the day, the episodes are all fantastic. I’m super proud of them and excited for people to see them.
There were also rumors for a while that you two were fighting and that that had lengthened the delay.
Roiland: That was interesting! I don’t even know where that started. Do you?
Dan Harmon: Right, right. What I said was, I was talking to Indiewire in the present tense about being in the writers’ room and I said, “So you try to say, ‘Well, we need to worry about this’ and someone else says, “No, we need to not worry about it,’ and then you end up having a fight about that.” I guess the millennial generation hears the word “fight” and really imagines a serious fight? But I do think it’s only my own karma to blame. If my career previous to this hadn’t involved me getting fired several times... (Laughs.) The fact that Occam’s razor said that we were in a fight, I have myself to blame for that.
The show’s fandom really seems to have blown up since the hiatus, as people had a year-plus to binge the first two seasons. What’s it been like to watch that build into anticipation for Season 3?
Roiland: It’s been pretty surreal, to be honest with you. We were talking about this earlier. I really feel like it hit some sort of precipice or tipping point, like just big, big numbers of fans around that April Fool’s premiere. It’s been really cool. Like, Dan do you want to talk about the T-shirt thing? Half of our closets are Rick and Morty T-shirts.
Harmon: We were trying to pinpoint when things really became a phenomenon. I hadn’t thought about it, but it was getting increasingly unbelievable. I was referencing a dinner meeting that I had and I looked it up, it was about a month ago. I wore a Rick and Morty T-shirt as I often do, and everybody who worked at the restaurant, from the bartender when I walked in to the waiter that was refilling our drinks to the busboy taking our plates away—like, every single stranger that came by the table I was sitting at and saw my T-shirt, without knowing who I was, pointed at the T-shirt and said, “I love that show.” And ever since then, that's been the case, to the point where now I’ve stopped wearing the T-shirts. It’s so frequent now that I feel like when I get dressed in the morning, I just think twice about putting on a T-shirt. It’s not because I don’t want to be stroked like that—
Harmon: It’s because I have to think about the fact that I’m making that choice now. Since it’s now guaranteed that someone is going to say, “I like that show,” now my self-loathing part has to say, “Why don’t you put on a normal T-shirt, you egomaniac?” It’s gone from “I should plug my own show” to “there’s something wrong with me if I cruise around with my vanity plates to say, ‘Hey look at me!’” That was like a month ago. I think it was the ingenious combination of—not that we would ever repeat this again—but the fact that the third season was so delayed, combined with the really on-the-spot marketing of the April Fool’s release of [the Season 3 premiere]. Maybe that was a slow news day, maybe Trump didn’t, like, eat a baby that day, but there was just huge press exposure about the show and people have been catching up to it.
But also I think it’s the parabolically increased word-of-mouth from hardcore fans being evangelical. Maybe they were out there saying, “Look, man, I know you’re feeling bad, you feel like life doesn’t matter anymore, but watch this show! It’s a show that confirms that nothing matters, and then high-fives you, pats you on the back, and makes you feel better.”
Maybe weirdly, one part of the show I can’t wait to see more of is Beth and Jerry. There are chillingly real observations about marriage and long-term relationships in their story. What goes into that?
Harmon: I think a lot of—I mean, I was in a marriage that ended in divorce and a lot of relationships as an adult. I was a child of parents that experimented with separation. I guess it’s a thing that everybody has experience with. We had a lot of new writers in Season 3 that [had ideas] once we opened the hood on Beth and Jerry’s relationship by saying, “Let’s have them split up instead of continuing this running gag of their dysfunctional marriage.” Instead we went, “OK, let’s indulge the idea that they can’t make this work.” Then I think that activates the writers, the vast majority of which are raised by separated parents. Everybody’s got a story about one of their parents acting differently in a separated context, like how awkward their dad looked in a subtly different outfit, you know, the windbreaker and the Newsie cap in the driveway. Everybody’s got these kinds of cringe stories. I think we all contributed equally.
Roiland: Well, I feel like the Beth and Jerry stuff, that’s not my wheelhouse at all. I would give definitely way more credit to Dan for those storylines.
Harmon: Justin’s parents have been together the whole time and are, like, psychotically happy together. But they also let Justin run around his almond farm doing sociopathic things so I think we owe most of what makes your Morty good to his parents staying together and being healthy, loving parents.
Rick, at this point, is like a human labyrinth of buried emotional trauma and contradictions, as we saw in the Season 3 premiere. Do you guys have a nailed-down, unified theory of who Rick is and what’s made him the way he is? Or do you just sort of go with it?
Roiland: The only conversations we have about that are about what our philosophy should be in deciding that.
Harmon: We very liberally talk about possibilities. I’ve always said we don’t keep secrets from the audience in terms of the canon, but we have lots and lots and lots of secret conversations to decide on possibilities that we might need to canonize at one point. But we’ve done our job to keep those things Schrodinger’s cats, you know, to let them be possibly true to be found out down the road so that we can maximize our potential to make the longest-running show ever that’s the funnest and funniest.
There are a ton of fan theories about what Rick’s deal is. Do you ever read those? Have they ever guessed at something you were saving as a surprise?
Harmon: We’ve heard about a couple third-hand through [staff writer] Mike McMahan. Some of the writers have less to lose by perusing the Reddit threads than Justin and I. We’re scared to go there. But for instance, there was a conversation we had at the very top of Season 1 where I said, you know, we’re doing this show, is there a secret that we want to bother to create and keep? Then Mike McMahan, who’s one of the writers now but was a writer’s assistant at the time, he pitched one that was like a fundamental secret to Rick and Morty that would be a mind-blower five seasons down the line. And I was like, “That’s amazing, let’s do that. And by let’s do that, I mean let’s make sure that that secret is in tact for when you look back on every episode and realize [it was there all along]. But! Cut to Season 2, Mike McMahan comes in the office and says, “Someone guessed that theory.” (Laughs.) “That’s someone’s theory.”
Roiland: It was a lot of people’s, actually. It was a pretty consistent theory.
Harmon: Yeah, and so we just dropped it. And by “dropped it,” it doesn't necessarily mean we made it untrue—that’s the difficult thing to explain to the audience. ’Cause in any other context, saying you’re not sure whether something’s true or not means you don’t care about it. If your kid asks you if you think you’re going trick-or-treating on Halloween and you say “maybe, maybe not,” that means you’re a bad parent. But with TV, if you say “maybe, maybe not,” especially in sci-fi, I see that as the most loving thing you could do for the audience. Because what it means is we want to stay open to the possibility and whatever your wildest imaginings could concoct. Until we prove canonically that it’s false, it is still a possibility.
Rick and Morty went two seasons without a single female writer on staff, which rolled into an ongoing controversy about the lack of female writers on Adult Swim shows. But this year was different. How did that shake out?
Harmon: It was great. It all went really well. We had a gender-balanced writer’s room for Season 3. I’ve always thought with writers’ rooms, the hat trick is not oh, getting women into the writers’ room, it’s having it be gender-balanced. That way, nobody represents any gender because if nobody outnumbers anybody else, then nobody’s an ambassador to anything. If I’m one of three men in a room full of six writers and three of them are women, that means I can pitch stories about, uh, tampons without understanding them and the three women don’t have the job of explaining tampons to me. They can just be like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about but…”
We had that for this season and I thought the results were really good because it meant that both the men and the women could increase their attention on Beth and Summer. Previous to that, as quote-unquote decent gentlemen in an all-male writer’s room, if we talked about Summer, we were kind of like… [stutters]. Propriety and craftsmanship made us second-guess ourselves whenever we’d say, “Uh, I don’t know, is that how teenage girls work?” When you have a mixed room, it’s not about the women going, “Here’s a bunch of secrets about women.” It’s more about everyone being freer to just pitch randomness. So the result is you see cool stuff happen with Beth and Summer this season.
That’s great to hear. I know you’ve said that, sadly, there won’t be another Intergalactic Cable this season. But are there other parts of the Rick and Morty universe you want to return to in future episodes or in cameos—characters or plot lines or abandoned threads?
Roiland: I mean we have a ton of seeds that we’ve planted that we could come back to. There’s a bunch that I would do something with, but the one that I would really love to think about more is Snowball. I feel like that could potentially be really cool. But we’ve had this conversion with a bunch of people where it’s like, we would need a really good reason or a really good idea before we would jump into something like that because then you end up doing it for the sake of doing it and it just becomes this empty fan-service kind of thing where it’s not being done for the right reasons. I mean, it’s certainly worth spending a few days in the writer’s room brainstorming and if something really exciting comes of that, that’s great.
But yeah, we tried that with the Meeseeks for Season 3. We had an episode where they could easily have incorporated the Meeseeks in a moment, as kind of a quick little thing, but it started to spiral. We started to go, “Is that enough? Well maybe the Meeseeks should be way more involved in the episode.” But we already had a pretty good story broken and as the Meeseeks kind of started to chip away at what we had already broken, we all pulled back like, “OK, nevermind, forget the Meeseeks. Let’s save them for something else.” There’s a ton of stuff that we could come back to. But I don’t know. I feel like moving forward is the best way to go.