Rick and Morty creator Justin Roiland deconstructs his twist on a classic sci-fi duo
Monday night saw the debut of a surreal new Adult Swim series starring a pair of suspiciously familiar-looking leads. In fact, if you watched the pilot of Rick and Morty and didn’t immediately draw a mental comparison to Doc Brown and Marty McFly from the Back to the Future franchise, you’re missing half the joke in this zany animated series. Rick and Morty first began as a parody of those two beloved sci-fi heroes before gradually developing into a grandfather and grandson who – thanks to the limitless creativity of creator Justin Roiland – are poised to journey well beyond the reaches of time and space.
“I feel like we were at a party or something,” he recalls, “and people were just fucking around and doing impressions. I did an impression of Doc and Marty and then I remember thinking it would be funny to just lean into those two voices and do my own fucked-up version of them.” By 2006, his spoof made the transition from performance piece to animation. A couple of crude animated shorts starring “Doc and Mharti” began making the rounds and giving audiences a taste of Roiland’s penchant for boundary-pushing humor.
To say the characters have come a long way since then would be an understatement. Featuring slick redesigns and an expanded cast of family members, Rick and Morty are primed to go on a variety of sci-fi fueled adventures to alternate dimensions inhabited by bizarre alien creatures. The half-hour series is the result of Roiland’s partnership with Community creator and friend Dan Harmon and will leave behind some of the more shocking elements of the shorts, which he fully admits were a way for him to blow off steam. “I had just come off a horrible job for Spike TV that I had no creative input on, so I just wanted to make something really fucked up,” he says. “Things that are horrible make me laugh for some reason, and I don’t know why. It’s almost when they’re disassociated from reality that it’s when they’re really funny. I think the comedy comes from how wrong it is. It’s not like I’m actually thinking that way, it’s that I imagine a guy who really thinks that, and then laugh at it.”
Much of the humor in the pilot stems from the dynamic between the leads, who differ considerably from the stars of the both the Future films and Roiland’s original animated shorts. “Marty McFly is not an idiot and Doc Brown is not as cruel and psycho as the guy that I made. He’s much more sweet and soft and bumbling and nerdy whereas Rick is just this harsh lunatic who screams at you and is drunk and burping and stuff.”
The first episode, which Adult Swim has made available for viewing on their YouTube channel, sees Rick drag a reluctant Morty out of school in order to get his assistance in another dimension. Look for the madman’s missions to continue to be a driving force behind the narrative, regardless of the toll they take on his grandson. Roiland fully expects audiences to feel slightly conflicted over the character. “It’s a weird thing because you kinda like Rick but you can like him without liking what he does, you know? We give you permission immediately in the pilot to assess who he is and that he’s crazy and that he has very extreme beliefs, and you can decide ‘oh, this guy’s nuts’ so everything he does after that, no matter how fucked up it is, it’s kind of okay.”
Having worked on a number of different animated projects over the years, from webisodes of The Sarah Silverman Program to Adventure Time to Disney Channel’s Fish Hooks series, Roiland knows you have to be aware of the reaction you’re trying to illicit from your audience. “I’ve made cartoons where I’m going to tell a really cool story and have an audience on my side and entertain them and then I’ve made cartoons where my intention was to hear 400 people screaming in absolute disgust.” When the call came in from Harmon to generate some ideas for an Adult Swim-worthy project, it was clear which approach would prevail. “He’s definitely a major component to the final product that we’ve put together in Rick and Morty. I consider him my mentor and I think that I’ve learned how to be funny without being disgusting or shocking or filthy thanks to him.”
While Harmon helped round out the personalities of the core cast, Roiland looked to a team of talented artists to adapt his personal style into something a bit more polished. “I’ll never forget how they originally both had round heads,” he laughs, remembering his earliest designs for Rick and Morty. “I gave Bryan Newton, our lead board guy who went on to direct the show, a sheet of all the heads I drew of Rick. They were just round and I said ‘something’s wrong’. I look back on it now and it’s so obvious but the solution was making his head pill shaped. Everything clicked into place as soon as I realized that. It’s the Bert and Ernie thing. It was accidental – I just had to fumble around and find it.”
He credits lead designer Myke Chilian with helping to refine the models of Morty’s mother Beth (voiced by Sarah Chalke) and father Jerry (Chris Parnell). Some of the hairdos on display, however, are still very much based on his own style. “Morty’s hair is this thing I’ve been doing for years where it just look like a big rag on his head or an afro. Chilian took some of those elements into consideration when looking at the Dad character. We wanted him to resemble Morty a little bit.”
Once the characters fell into place, the creator’s attention went to finding a unique aesthetic for Dimension 35-C, where Rick and Morty go in search of the Mega Seeds. Jon Vermilyea ultimately took on the task and churned out what Roiland considers to be the visual highlight of the pilot right at the top of the second act. “He’s an awesome guy who’s worked on a ton of different shows and is an incredible artist. I saw some of the comics he had done and some of the posters he had designed and I just said, ‘can you come and design some crazy alien landscapes for this sequence?’ and he fucking knocked it out of the park. We’ve been using that art to promote the show since and there are posters in the office with that art. John drew it and then I think he did a rough color pass and then it went to a guy named Jason Boesch who has worked at a lot of places like Disney and is super talented and he painted that background in Photoshop. It’s just so alien and fleshy and definitely representative of the best-case scenario alien landscape that we could possibly present to the audience. It’s such a cool thing to come back to after the commercial break.”
With the pilot completed and Rick and Morty now reaching an international audience, Roiland can’t help but get a kick out of the fact that one element has consistently been a part of the appeal of his characters since he first improvised them that fateful evening long ago. “It’s always just me saying their names to each other a lot,” he laughs. “It’s something we noticed, to this day in the show, Rick says ‘Morty’ so much and Morty says ‘Rick’ so much. That’s the holdover of my horrible impression because that was the only thing that allowed anyone around me to recognize who I was doing. It’s so funny that that ended up surviving all the way through till the final product! I’m realizing now that it’s a byproduct of my inability to do an accurate impression of anybody.”
Throwing those names around will probably also help remind any overeager lawyers in the audience that the series is more than just one DeLorean short of a lawsuit.
Rick and Morty airs Monday nights at 10:30pm on Adult Swim. For more information on the show or to watch the pilot online, visit http://video.adultswim.com/rick-and-morty/ .
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.