The “Golden Age of Television” does not exclusively refer to live-action series, as evidenced by Adult Swim’s magnificent sci-fi comedy Rick and Morty. The show debuted in 2013 to a serious degree of anticipation, as it marked a new animated venture for Community creator Dan Harmon, but it was the marriage of Harmon’s adeptness for structure and character and co-creator Justin Roiland’s insanely creative/sometimes insane mind that made Rick and Morty much more than just another animated TV series for adults. Sure the show could be hilariously profane, as is the case when your premise revolves around an alcoholic scientist and his sheepish grandson venturing into all arenas of space and time, but Rick and Morty also has a big beating heart underneath all those fart jokes.
The show only got better in Season 2, which saw Harmon and Roiland up the stakes in terms of character, story, and scope to tremendous results, from the infectious earworm of “Get Schwifty” to the introduction of the instantly iconic character Mr. Poopy Butthole with a glorious payoff.
In anticipation of the release of Rick and Morty Season 2 on Blu-ray and DVD on June 7th, I recently got the chance to speak with Harmon and Roiland about the season as a whole, that emotionally devastating finale and their original plans not to end the season on a cliffhanger, why Harmon doesn’t read notes from Standards & Practices anymore, and a little bit on Season 3—including whether we might see another “Interdimensional Cable” episode. Check out the full interview below.
Question: I’m a huge fan of the show, in particular I really loved season 2 and I thought it was really ambitious in scope in terms of the characters and the emotion and the story. And since it’s been a while now since it’s wrapped up I was curious kind of looking back in hindsight, what are your guys’ feelings about the season as a whole?
JUSTIN ROILAND: When we did the commentary for the season a few months ago I feel like, at this point, that was the first time in awhile that I had sat down and watched it all and I remember feeling really proud of it, throughout the course of recording the commentary. We banged those out in a couple of days so it was like a marathon of all those episodes and it was a lot of fun to rewatch and just talk about. It’s crazy how much we crammed into that 10 episodes. When we’re in the thick of it, it was brutal, but looking back on it it’s a fucking accomplishment. It’s awesome.
DAN HARMON: Yeah, I’m trying to remember. I mean we’re so far into the thick of season three that season one and two now have kind of merged in my mind. Same thing happened on Community. I often will talk to a writer who will remind me. I sort of tend to think of experimental episodes as being in Season 3 and really good episodes being in Season 2 of Community because I read enough comments under articles that said Season 3 was “too weird” and Season 2 was “the best ever.” Rick and Morty Season 1 and 2 now they’re just like, everything that we did before was perfect because we have to avoid fucking up really bad on Season 3; it all kind of merges together into one ghost.
Did you know that Mr. Poopy Butthole was a breakout character immediately? Because holy hell when he showed up that was just kind of insane.
ROILAND: I don’t think so. I mean, I originally really wanted Richard Simmons to do the voice of Mr. Poopy Butthole. I don’t know if we’d ever really even talked about it too much.
HARMON: I think we figured he might be on a t-shirt or two. I got very excited about the idea, when Justin talked about putting him in the opening credits of that episode as if he had always been in the show. It’s hard to say.
I definitely had to do a double-take of thinking ‘Did i miss an episode? Has he really been here the whole time?” when he shows up in those credits.
One of the things that makes the show so great is that there are consequences. You don’t just hit the reset button for each new episode: characters return in organic ways down the road like with Mr. Poopy Butthole’s appearance at the end of the finale. Is that something you guys consciously set out to do when deciding what the show should and could be?
ROILAND: I think we’ve allowed ourselves the freedom to do that stuff when it gets us excited, for sure. We tend to try to not close ourselves off to anything unless it really is a ‘shark-jumping, show-destroying’ thing. But I wouldn’t say that was premeditated. A lot of that stuff is just cosmetic stuff that we’ll pitch in the eleventh hour and really get excited about. Like “it would be so funny if he’s just watching, like if we just check in with him and see that he’s got a cane and is limping.” I think it’s just a funny little thing to do at the end of the season.
HARMON: I think it was because we locked Rick up in intergalactic prison and we didn’t want to touch any of these other stories so we didn’t really know what to do.
ROILAND: Yeah, what’s our tag gonna be? You don’t want to undercut the severity of that ending, it was really well done. So that is true. Also, just a little bit of comedy there after fucking Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” and all that heavy-handed shit. A little levity.
I did want to talk about the finale for a minute. I know you say in the commentary that was initially intended as a two-parter but I was curious how early on did you know that you wanted to wrap up the season with opening up earth to the federation and putting Rick in space jail?
HARMON: The truth is what we wanted to do was have that be the second-to-last episode and almost have it be part of the joke that the finale would basically wrap that story up. That “just kidding, we wouldn’t do that to you, we’d never end a season on a cliffhanger. We’re not Breaking Bad we’re just a cartoon,” but it just proved so challenging trying to figure out a resolution.
ROILAND: And to get it right. And also we were all burned out. It was the end of the season. Everyone was fucking exhausted. Our brains were fried. And trying to just solve that Rubik’s cube that we had just shuffled up and figure out exactly what the best solution is. We had ideas, a lot of great ideas. We were just…
HARMON: We had actually lost most of our writers too because we were behind schedule so their options ran out so it was the most tired, beaten. It was just me, Justin, and Ryan Ridley really towards the end, sitting in a room at 3 in the morning trying to figure out how to write this episode. And then someone started saying what if the season finale was the one that we just did. And what if we’re writing right now was there for just a simple episode that came before it. And so it became the purge episode.
ROILAND: My favorite!
So then when you realized that this was going to be the end, did you just decide to twist that knife in with “Hurt” and make it as emotionally devastating as possible?
ROILAND: That was always in there. We had much grander plans for that. The origin for that ending was we wanted to get the sync rights to the Johnny Cash version of “Hurt” and then we wanted to get a Johnny Cash sound alike and we wanted to replace a bunch of words with squanch. It was really funny the idea they were on planet Squanch for the wedding so Rick steals the ship and they take off. We liked the idea of almost it’s playing to the radio and it crossfades into full and it’s like [singing] “I squanched myself today.” You know just replace every so often a word with squanch and we wrote it all out and it was fucking hilarious but it’s just really really difficult to navigate the very choppy waters of the music industry licensing. I mean, we were lucky to get clearance to use “Hurt.” And that happened at the very very eleventh hour of posting that episode. We almost didn’t get that song and we had to really hustle. I had to network to figure out who I needed to talk to to get that song. I just don’t think it would have even been possible to do what we wanted to do but we’re still really proud of it. It turned out great. And that’s one of my favorite songs so…
I thought it was tremendous. I was also curious about the production of the series. When an episode airs, how long has it been since you kind of said goodbye and were done with that episode?
ROILAND: It depends in some cases. Well I guess it’s quite a ways. On Season 1 they were airing as close to a week after we would lock color, sometimes less than a week. And then on Season 2 there was a nice buffer between picture lock and air which was nice. It provided us with the ability to really polish stuff in color as much as we possibly could before we had to deliver. I can’t exactly remember what the time span on Season 2 was between delivery and airdate.
Dan, you say on the commentary for one of the episodes that you tend more towards the ‘non skin-ripping off’ kind of jokes while some of the other guys are fond of the gory stuff. Has there ever been something the networks is just like ‘that’s too gross’?
HARMON: I don’t even look at the S&P (Standards & Practices) notes for Rick and Morty anymore because they get the show and the stuff they have to change is usually relatively cosmetic. Either we’re going to have to bleep a word or you know an example would be: if this creature’s gonna get his brain blown out on camera can his brains not be the color of real brains, can they be pink? Well pink is the right color, can they be green or something? Can this creature’s diarrhea be purple?
ROILAND: The shit and the sex stuff. That tends to be the thing they put their foot down on. Violence seems to be less and less an issue. Obviously gratuitous violence can be a problem but the sex stuff is real touchy. I think that’s just our country. It’s just the way things are. It’s stupid.
HARMON: I’ve always found that my own internal S&P is in strange ways a lot stricter that TV’s because in TV it’s ok for a character to be unlikable. In fact sometimes that’s part and parcel of comedy, especially for younger comedies, that something is ironic or wrong with the way you’re telling your story. The character is doing what he’s not supposed to do because this TV show is cooler than otherTV shows. And so I find myself imposing rules that S&P would never impose which is like this person can’t just kill this person and have the joke be that the person got killed. We need a character reacting to that or something. Much like pornography I don’t know what the definitions are but I know it when I see it, kind of gratuitous violence or gross out humor and stuff. You never really know. When it’s well placed it’s great, there’s nothing funnier than a fart or diarrhea or boogers or something. Everyone has their own personal map in their brain of when it’s right or wrong to play that instrument.
I imagine, the show is so weird with some of the sex stuff like the plumbus or hamsters coming out of butts, they’re not really sure what to do with it or how to make heads or tails of ‘is this appropriate or not’?
ROILAND: The big one that I can recall and cite specifically is the sex robot episode with Morty. And that was just more of a fundamental issue. Are we ok with a 14 year old character basically fucking a robot sex doll? [Mike] Lazzo had to push and fight for that for us to get that. That would have been a structural, fundamental…if they wouldn’t have agreed to let us do that, that episode could not have been written or at least that story.
HARMON: But I think American Pie. Was that Rated R?
ROILAND: I think that was Rated R. Well I don’t know actually.
HARMON: I just think it’s a matter of just making sure this robot is a sex doll, is the equivalent of masturbation. Which if anybody wants to convince us that 14 year old boys aren’t masturbating…
ROILAND: I’ll see you in court. (laughs)
How far along are you guys into Season 3? If I’m not mistaken, I think it’s 14 episodes this time around.
ROILAND: Well we’re well into the thick of it. We’re deep into the season and I always like to underpromise and overdeliver but I do really feel like, the episodes we’ve got in the hopper are some of the best we’ve ever done, I think. But you know you never really know until they get out into the world. It’s always surprising to see what people react to and what episodes are people’s favorites and stuff because we can never predict that internally but we’ve got some great stuff this season that we’re really, really excited about.
“Interdimensional Cable 3”?
ROILAND: I want to do one (laughs). I love that fucking shit. It’s my favorite. I’ll push for it. Are you fine with it?
HARMON: Yeah no, I’m alright with it. I wanna do…
ROILAND: There’s another thing that’s on the table. We don’t know if it’s overkill to do both so we’re figuring it out.