For series co-creator Mike McMahan, on his and Justin Roiland’s new Hulu animated comedy, if an idea makes them laugh, and it’s crazy enough, into the show it goes.
With tomorrow’s premiere of Hulu’s new animated comedy, Solar Opposites, Emmy Award-winning co-creators and executive producers Justin Roiland and Mike McMahan once again enter our living rooms with a wild, oddly bent, and razor-witted series, sure to entertain quarantined audiences furiously scrolling through streaming platform menus searching for a show about a team of four aliens with a shrink ray, who escaped their exploding home world, only to crash land into a move-in ready home in suburban America. Come tomorrow, you’ll find a show just like that! And who among us doesn’t enjoy animation with a penchant for coaxing bloody mayhem out of even the smallest human cultural ironies? I know I do, and in an ever-crowded locked down landscape of rather violent and tawdry animated fare, Solar Opposites is just bloody good fun. Literally, in the gushing red kind, and figuratively, in the British vernacular kind.
McMahan has been on a remarkable win streak for a number of years now, moving from writer’s assistant to supervising producer alongside Roiland on Rick and Morty, while at the same time creating and executive producing Solar Opposites with Roiland, and writing and executive producing the soon to air animated comedy, Star Trek: Lower Decks for CBS All Access. For him, sleep comes sporadically, and only after rolling around the living room laughing with glee at his amazing good fortune.
We recently spoke to McMahan about being, as he readily acknowledges, the luckiest guy alive. He talked about how Solar Opposites got its start (as well as Lower Decks), its obvious Rick and Morty DNA, as well as his notion that as far as animated adult comedy, you don’t punch down or bully, and that on their new series, if an idea is really odd, and it makes him and Roiland laugh, into the show it goes.
Dan Sarto: So where did the idea for Solar Opposites come from? And how was that development influenced by or intersect with Rick and Morty?
Mike McMahan: Well, it originally started because Justin and I really loved working together. I had been working with him for a couple years on Rick and Morty at that point; it was before the show had really blown up. We were on the same wavelength as far as humor and what we liked to do. There are always opportunities for people to create new stuff, especially because animation takes so long. So, we started thinking ahead about creating something together. We knew we wanted to do a family show, that from a distance looked like a primetime animated show, like The Simpsons or Family Guy, but that the closer you got, the weirder it got. We really wanted to do family stories that had new characters that would be our version, a really weird version, of a primetime family show.
We both grew up loving sitcoms, those shows mostly with families in a house…that kind of storytelling. And then on top of that, we were already loving Rick and Morty, and still do; but it never really came up in our minds that anything we would do on Solar would take from Rick and Morty. The first time I saw the color animation for Solar, [I saw] it did have similarities to Rick and Morty of course. But that was never a reflection of Rick and Morty. It was really that Justin and I both love TV, I love sci-fi, and we just wanted to do something that really continued expressing the joy we were getting from Rick and Morty.
DS: Well, it sure feels like a family show, though quite bent, and it follows on the heels of many great animated adult family comedies. Plus, these days, each new adult animated show gets a bit more of a free hand to tread new territory.
MM: I agree 100%. For me and Justin, with all these previous animated shows, we unabashedly love and watch and consume them. We grew up with them. We assume the audience is so well aware of these shows that they're almost mythologically broad, so that we can start an episode in a place that does feel like The Simpsons or The Critic or Family Guy or Futurama. And because we all have that as a starting place, we get to start subverting expectations and give people something new. But without all that existing animation, we wouldn't have that baseline. If we at all ever feel like The Simpsons, awesome. We weren't gunning for it, but it’s something that we love.
DS: In comparing the show to Rick and Morty, Solar feels more visually rich, with crisper animation and deeper color palette. The Rick and Morty DNA is obvious, especially with Justin’s voice work. But from the tone to the humor, it seems more sophisticated.
MM: Well, that wasn't intentional. Mike Mendel, our late producer, who produced on Rick and Morty until he sadly passed away this last Fall, was the line producer on Solar as well. He was also my first boss in the industry. I've worked with him many, many times. He was beloved on the show. One of the first intentions of Solar was that we have this crew we love, and having another show at the same studio meant that when Rick and Morty artists would be on hiatus, we would schedule the shows so that they could roll onto Solar. We could provide them a home to stay at if they wanted to.
We do the animation at Bardel in Vancouver. And we literally share a wall on the same floor with Rick and Morty. What ended up happening is the best laid plans…Rick and Morty's schedule started diverging a little bit, so we needed to bring in more talent so that we had stuff happening concurrently, and didn’t just rely on Rick and Morty folks to come on over. That was a huge priority: never, ever, ever cannibalize anything from Rick and Morty. We all love Rick and Morty. I grew up writing on Rick and Morty. It's Justin's first love. We never wanted Solar to compete with Rick and Morty, so that anytime there was a crossover, we staffed it up with brand new folks.
That included a whole new color team that built a unique color palette. You have Justin's baseline designs for the way the characters look and move…his signature pupils, and just the look of the show. But our art team started to change the look, and we were happy with the change because we weren't trying to stick exactly to a certain look. You see an interesting divergence from Rick and Morty, just in how the color palette is a little less realistic. I don't think anybody would ever accuse Rick and Morty of not being colorful or being bleached out, but once you see Solar Opposites...
Nine times out of ten, when the artists are like, “Hey, we were thinking from an art perspective that this would look cool,” I just go, “Yup, go for it. Do whatever you guys are getting excited about because I'm a writer.” I'm not one of those show creators who can sit down and draw something out. Justin can draw something, and it makes you laugh. You know what I mean? I can only write something, and it'll make you laugh. I am beholden to my artists. I've really had to learn that every single time my artists really believe in something…
DS: You let them do it…
MM: I let them do it. And it makes me look like a genius. It makes the show look gorgeous. They have a way of thinking that I just don't have. That's exactly what happened on Solar. Listen, we were never going to be Rick and Morty. We just wanted to be Solar. Anytime somebody was getting excited about something, it got me excited. That's where you end up with those color differences.
DS: It seems almost anything goes as far as adult humor on an animated series these days, especially on streaming. Very little is taboo. When you’re writing Solar, do you self-censor the humor, or do you assume if you think it works, in it goes?
MM: Well, the only boundaries I would ever put around myself is, I don't like the feeling of punching down. I don't think when somebody's tuning into a TV show that they want to see themselves being bullied, or anybody else being bullied. There's a way to do comedy that feels like you’re being inclusive of whoever might be tuning in. We want a broad audience appeal. Now that being said, a big benefit on Solar Opposites was, since we've already got Rick and Morty, and we're already feeling like we're getting to do everything we would want to do on a show, with the new show on a streamer with the tone of Hulu, a priority for us was, “What can we do on this show that we've never gotten to do before and that we can't imagine they'll let us do?”
Every day we'd come to work, breaking stories, and somebody would go, “Well we can't do that.” I'd be like, “Well why not? Why don't we see if Hulu says anything?” Solar is really an expression of joy, at least from my writing perspective. We push ourselves. If five minutes of the story goes by and we aren’t surprising ourselves, we push ourselves to be like, “Nobody's holding us to any criteria, let's just do something nobody's ever seen before.” As long as we're laughing. If everybody laughed and it was crazy, we'd be like, “All right, that's got to be what it is.”
DS: You were a PA on South Park and Drawn Together. You earned your stripes, so to speak, working on some great shows. How did those early jobs help you on the new show?
MM: Every show is completely different. South Park is such an anomaly because they have a way of doing it that nobody else does. You don't leave South Park knowing any production skills for anything else you can work on. Drawn Together is where I met Mike Mendel. He gave me my first job out here as a PA. The creators of Drawn Together, Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein, are writers on Solar Opposites. They were my first bosses with Mendel; I hired them because I love those guys.
When I left South Park, I was Jennifer Howell's assistant at Fox when she was running animation at [Twentieth Century Fox Television] TCFTV. The through line I saw across everything is that you just have to write something joyful. At the pitch stage, at the reading phase, at animatic, and when you're recording, there always has to be a spark of joy to it, no matter what you're doing, no matter how you're doing it.
But to me, what I learned was that every night going home, whether I was a PA, an assistant, or a writer's assistant, you worked all day and then you’d go home and work all night on your own writing. Those are the folks that I always want to work with: the people that go home still brimming with ideas and doing stuff on their own. I really think it's about capturing the energy of whatever show you're working on and then taking it home and working on your own stuff no matter how you express it. Animated or not.
DS: Is there any Star Trek fan anywhere, in any capacity, that at one point didn’t know with absolute certainty that they could make a Star Trek comedy? How in the world did the new Star Trek: Lower Decks animated comedy fall into your lap?
MM: I am truly the luckiest person in the world. Part of it was that when I was an assistant at Fox, I was writing fake Star Trek episodes on Twitter. And they felt really real. They clearly showed I knew Star Trek well. And then eventually…everything in this industry is like, you work hard so that when the opportunity arises, you're ready to strike. I had written a Star Trek book that I had pitched to Simon & Schuster and just pretended I was allowed to do and then they hired me to do it. And then an assistant who I had worked with years ago became a producer at Secret Hideout, which is Alex Kurtzman's company. And as they were building out the world of Star Trek as it is now, he asked me to come in to just speak about my experience on Rick and Morty. He knew I had this love of Star Trek from writing those tweets and the book.
I went in with the mentality of, “I'm going to tell these guys exactly what I think a Star Trek comedy should be, and if they're not 100% down for that, then at least I got to say my piece.” I went in and told them a Star Trek animated comedy must be a Star Trek show first. It must fit in the cannon. It can never feel like it's punching down on Star Trek. It has to feel fully like a 20 something minute Star Trek show that exists in a Star Trek universe. It can't be a parody! And then, after you've done that work, you have to balance it with characters that are funny themselves and fit into Star Trek. There can't be a dumb person in Starfleet. Or a mean person. There can't be a Morty in Starfleet because Morty is a bit of a dummy.
You have to find these comedic access points that don't damage Star Trek at all. Luckily for me, they completely understood. They basically bought my pitch in the room. I even got to pick my favorite era for the show to take place in, because I grew up watching the TNG show era. It's another wish fulfillment project for me. I keep saying this, but the streaming era is so great for people like me because we're such nerds for animated shows. And my streaming shows, on Hulu and CBS All Access, they feel like they're miracles, like they shouldn't possibly exist.
I'm just the luckiest...I made myself ready to strike while the iron was hot, and then three irons showed up and I struck all of them. Hopefully, people like the work I’ve done because I haven’t been sleeping a lot. But I've been doing a lot of sci-fi comedy. I love every one of these projects. People are lucky to work on one thing that they absolutely love in this life, and I’ve gotten to work on three almost all at once.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.