I say this with no measure of lightness – Rick and Morty is the best show on TV currently. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of contenders. But for minute to minute entertainment, Rick and Morty wins. It boasts fantastic animation and hilarious jokes and gags. But perhaps more importantly, it features highly relatable issues and fascinating science fiction premises. But the idea didn’t come into existence last year on Adult Swim, fully formed, out of nowhere. Let’s look at the previous ideas by creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland so that we can literally see where the ideas behind Rick and Morty came from (that means videos!).
The High Concept Sci-Fi Ideas
Dan Harmon is best known for his sitcom Community, which is absolutely not sci-fi (but did riff on genre stuff regularly). But if we go back earlier, Dan has always displayed a love of big sci-fi concepts. His first published work was a backup comic in his friend Rob Schrab’s book Scud, the Disposable Assassin. It was called La Cosa Nostroid, about space gangsters. Scud got the pair noticed by Hollywood and their first creation was a sci-fi comedy pilot for Fox called Heat Vision and Jack. It was about an astronaut played by Jack Black who gets too close to the sun and becomes the smartest man in the world and his roommate who gets turned into a sentient motorcycle (voiced by Owen Wilson). It didn’t get picked up but you can watch it above. It’s fantastic.
Harmon went on to create (along with Schrab) Channel101, where people create 5 minute TV shows and the audience votes for their 5 favorites. The winners get to create a new episode for the following month’s screening and compete with a new batch of contenders. Harmon created and appeared in a lot of shows over the years, but his longest running one was the superhero comedy Laser Fart where he played a man who could fart lasers.
The Genitalia-Resembling Aliens
A lot of the aliens on Rick and Morty have features that look like buttholes, testicles, breasts, and so on. That’s a hallmark of Justin Roiland’s designs. Take a look at this early cartoon he created about aliens Toro and Moro. Or take a listen to Justin’s old podcast, the Grandma’s Virginity Podcast, to hear about his probable obsession with genitals and bodily functions.
The Freestyle Rapping
The show features a fair amount of singing and rapping. This is something Dan Harmon does seemingly at the drop of a hat. You can usually hear him do a little rapping on his weekly podcast Harmontown.
This is close to the next one, the actual characters of Rick and Morty, but Justin voices both main characters and has been doing similar voices and others for a long time. His first cartoon that got him noticed was House of Cosbys for Channel101 back in 2005, but some of his other shows, like the above 2 Girls, 1 Cup: The Show features a pretty well-developed voice for Cup that sounds a lot like Morty.
Rick and Morty Themselves
Rick and Morty are fairly obvious parodies of Doc and Marty from Back to the Future. And that’s where it all started. Justin got into the habit of doing his impressions of those characters and they evolved into characters in their own right. Above is one of several parody cartoons Justin made about the adventures of Doc and Mharti.
The Family Dynamic
I could be wrong on this one but I tend to think adding a family around Rick and Morty, and having them be grandfather and grandson, was an element Dan Harmon may have found worked well on Community. The family structure is one everyone can relate to, is rife with conflict, and has a lot of joke potential. And just for the hell of it, check out these short webisodes made by Harmon and a bunch of Channel101 regulars which are made to look like a college promo video.
Rick and Morty is easy to enjoy as a joke machine. But you can also look deeper and realize the characters are confronted with challenges and go through small changes. There’s a very assured structure to each episode and some of that credit must go to Dan Harmon. He’s a funny guy but he also has studied Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth and adapted Campbell’s analysis of the Hero’s Journey into his version of the Story Circle. It’s this attention to detail that helps guide each story. It’s meant to help provide a type of underlying logic, not dictate how each story goes. But generally, Rick and Morty uses sci-fi and jokes to look at something real about the human condition like loneliness or sexual awakening.