Dan Harmon And Justin Roiland On Sci-Fi World-Building, “Rick And Morty” Style

As season 2 of the inventive animated Rick and Morty arrives on DVD, the creators discuss their approach to depicting the multiverse.

Dan Harmon And Justin Roiland On Sci-Fi World-Building, “Rick And Morty” Style
[Photo: courtesy of Adult Swim]

Even in a multiverse with infinite dimensions and directions, Rick and Morty always seems to find a left turn.


Each episode of the rollicking, idea-rich sci-fi comedy bucks like a Radiohead song or vintage Simpsons–it ends in a completely different place than it starts, and takes the scenic route to get there. Using the ridiculous central relationship of Back to the Future as its launchpad, the show’s creators send a genius scientist and a gawky teenager on a new adventure every week. (Here, the scientist is the teen’s grandfather; no sound explanation has ever been provided for why Doc and Marty hang out in Back to the Future.) The show’s minimal continuity, animated milieu, and endless planet-hopping make each episode a self-contained unit. The fast-paced wit of creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, along with the writing team, stuff each unit to bursting level with jokes. It’s the perpetual fleshing out of the world the show exists in, though, that keeps viewers coming back to see where the next adventure will take Rick and Morty.

Justin Roiland and Dan HarmonPhoto: Mark Hill, courtesy of Cartoon Network

In just two seasons, the show has cultivated a rabid fanbase that is threatening to eclipse the one Harmon built up with the long-running Community. Although that show managed to be more anarchic and self-aware than the typical sitcom while still wearing a sitcom’s body like Edgar the Bug, Rick and Morty is an entirely different beast. The newer show gleefully swaps out sitcom conventionality for brain-melting concepts like simulations within simulations, miniverses within microverses, and a four-quadrant alternate timeline scenario fueled by uncertainty. In other words, the stoner-bait comedy is firmly supported by authentic sci-fi that would do Gene Roddenberry proud.

As season two of the inventive series arrives on DVD, the creators discuss their approach to sci-fi world-building in a realm where the local currency is laughs.

Infinite Realities, Infinite Possibilities

“We certainly wanted to make sure at the outset that anything was possible,” Harmon says. “We’ve both worked in environments where, the dark side of TV is its limitations, which is how you end up jumping the shark. You’re confined to something and then once you’ve outgrown that confinement, your show is over, so we wanted to make a world where, much like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, it’s just infinite. We had that conversation while we were writing the pilot and at the top of every episode that’s probably our biggest concern is making sure we’re not boxing ourselves in in any way.

A Philosophy of Recurring Elements

“In season two, we had a fear of eating our own tail,” Roiland says. “’Oh, let’s not start doing sequels to episodes that the fans respond to, because we only get 10 episodes a year.’”

“We didn’t want to start acquiring the rep Community had, despite its best efforts,” Harmon adds, “Where you supposedly had to have watched this entire thing in order to love the entire thing. You don’t want to make yourself more and more daunting of a prospect to a new viewer that early in your run. That happened going into season two, but with season three we go, ‘Okay, I think we’ve paid our dues, we can bring the MeSeeks back, but aside from wanting to see something cool again, what would we do?’ When it comes to someone like Gearhead or Birdperson, though, it’s up to the test of, ‘Would this be consumable by a random person walking in off the street?’ Could Gearhead just come in here and just be a character and we can access that whether we’re familiar with him or not? That second episode with Gearhead, it was super cosmetic, that could have been any character on any world, but it held up to that test. Whether you saw him before doesn’t matter.”


If This Is True, What Else Would Be True

“A lot of ideas about these worlds come from asking ourselves questions,” Harmon says. “If you’re writing a character-driven story, and what’s important about this story is they’re at an arcade, a lot of stuff comes from asking, ‘Would an arcade really look like an arcade on Earth?’ Given how sophisticated video games are on Earth, if there’s a video game Rick is excited to go to, then we don’t want to say that for some ridiculous arbitrary reason, Rick just likes video games, even though his life is so exciting. That’s how we end up with Roy. [A video game where players inhabit the consciousness of a human named Roy and “play” his entire life.] So subjecting that story to the internal logic of what would it take to make Rick as excited about a video game as Justin Roiland is about Minecraft. The answer forces you to get into that concept. It’s just sci-fi-ifying trope locations or downbeats.”

Have Reasons For Which Creatures Show Up Where

“In many cases, there will be some thought put into [the creatures in each corner of the galaxy],” Roiland says. “When we were at Birdperson’s wedding, I thought we needed to see some new character designs of creatures we hadn’t seen before and round out this ragtag group of friends that Squanchy, Birdperson, and Rick are a part of—who are these guys? There weren’t a lot of re-uses there. But in other cases, it’s fine to do re-use aliens, because in an infinite multiverse with a ton of different alien life, you’d still have some predominant aliens that have weaseled their way into a larger faction of existence. We definitely design new characters for every episode and we sort of make these decisions based on where they are, and how far off the beaten track things are with the episode.”

Science Talk Is Mostly Just A Bunch Of Random Words

“’Quantum carburetor’ sounds fine,” Roiland says. “I think the joke of Rick making fun of Morty for guessing ‘quantum carburetor’ is a thing is that something that actually sounds legitimately good is no different than a thing that sounds completely stupid. Morty is nailing it. He’s putting more thought into it than we are. It’s a huge challenge to make up science stuff and make it sound plausible. Words like ‘quantum,’ ‘mega,’ ‘ether,’ ‘substrata,’ ‘neutrino’—they keep coming up. It’s tough.”