And other secrets from a stellar season 2
Rick & Morty started as an animated Back to the Future riff (a grumpy old mad scientist teams up with a young boy on wacky sci-fi adventures), but by the end of its first season, the show had expanded it into an encyclopedia of science-fiction references that beat with a human heart, equally full of darkness and warmth. The story of mad scientist Rick Sanchez suddenly returning to his daughter’s family (mostly to use his grandson Morty as an assistant for his crazy adventures) was as much about reconciling familial relationships as it was about Rick’s crazy inventions.
For season 2, co-creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland decided to go even further outside of the box, mixing up the science fiction and family storylines and experimenting with different combinations of characters. The result was spectacular. Each new episode raised the bar for using high-level science-fiction concepts to tell intimate stories about family, friendship, and marriage.
One of this season’s episodes, “Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate,” reprised a template from season 1 in which Rick uses his mad science to access TV shows from alternate dimensions. Both episodes are chock-full of short sketches, weird concepts, and improvised dialogue, and have quickly become fan-favorites.
The rough draft of the idea first popped up in Roiland’s Channel 101 webseries House of Cosbys, which followed a scientist who had populated his house with clones of Bill Cosby (“it’s really creepy now,” Roiland says). In one episode, a particularly science-adept Cosby clone fixes the TV to receive transmissions from across the universe, opening the door to short skits about weird alien game shows. That brand of strange short-form storytelling still appealed to Roiland years later, and he reworked it for the Rick & Morty writer’s room to put some of their crazier ideas to use.
“It’s just the freedom to do shortform weird stuff,” Roiland says. “In the writer’s room there’s always a ton of stuff that we laugh so f—ing hard at, but wouldn’t fit in, or it would create a lot of work around one of these dumb little things. So I think it’s just tapping into that energy. But the idea to go in and record stuff and improvise stuff, that was new to this show.”
Most of the sketches start with one simple idea, which Roiland and the writers then stretch as far as it can go. For example, Roiland says he was on an elliptical machine one day when he was suddenly struck by the idea of a How Do They Do It?-type segment for something totally inexplicable. The result was an in-depth explanation of how to make a “plumbus” (hint: it involves a lot of “shleem”). Although the concept came from Roiland, much of the sketch’s look came from collaboration with storyboard artists.
“This guy Dan O’Connor did the storyboards. He went with more of an alien direction, I was thinking more of a Dr. Seuss look, but I love what he did,” Roiland says. “A lot of the time with sketches, I’ll do a script and stage direction and say ‘this needs to happen visually,’ but an equal number of sketches I’ll launch and I’ll say do what you want to do. That was sort of in the middle. I would do more. I would watch a whole show of alien ‘How It’s Made.’”
Because of the individual creative process that goes into each bit, Roiland says the interdimensional TV episodes are easily the hardest to produce. For example, another one of this season’s sketches was an action movie trailer involving a bunch of Jean Claude Van Damme ripoffs named “Jan Michael Vincents.” It required storyboard artists to create a staggering 62 original backgrounds for a bit that barely lasts a minute.
“There are episodes that have fewer backgrounds than that one movie trailer,” Roiland says. “It really slowed production down and it was insane.”
Not all of the delights in “Interdimensional Cable 2” came from the sketches. Both episodes’ B stories had gravitas to match the silliness of alien improv. In the season 1 episode, Morty’s sister Summer grappled with her own accidental existence, while season 2’s entry saw his dad Jerry face the (hilarious and pathetic) choice of whether to give up his penis in an alien surgical transplant to save the life of an intergalactic civil rights leader. That inspirational figure, whose only dialogue is a rant about the human obsession with penises, was voiced by none other than famed director Werner Herzog.
“He came in at 90 degrees to the whole thing, asking questions like, ‘’These characters, are they animals? Or are they sentient? They are animals but they speak like people, yes?’ Yes, Werner Herzog, you’re an animal that speaks like a person. ‘This character, who is he?’ Well I think it can just be you, really. ‘Me? Who am I?’” Harmon says in his best Herzog impression. “My stomach sank, oh my god I’m losing Herzog, this guy’s a hero of mine and I’m already saying everything wrong.”
Eventually it turned out okay – Herzog nailed his lines, matching his nihilistic worldview with absurd sci-fi surgery, and then talked to Harmon about The Act of Killing (which he has an executive producer credit on) for 30 minutes.
The Jerry storyline in “Interdimensional Cable 2” saw him wrestle with both his strained marriage and own narcissism in an alien hospital. It typified one of the main differences between the two seasons. Whereas most early episodes divided their A- and B-storylines by genre – Rick and Morty going on an out-of-this-world adventure while their family members dealt with more mundane life problems – Harmon and Roiland felt more comfortable mixing things up for this go-round.
“There was sort of a decision going into season 2 to eschew some of the rules we had put upon ourselves,” Harmon says. “We made a list of domestic B stories, and they were all just kind of joyless things we didn’t care about, like what if Jerry gets a new credit card and goes over his limit. We’re sci-fi nerds, we’ve learned to interact with and think about humanity through pop cultural tropes, so it really is more passionate and personal for us to do stories that are inspired by sci-fi. We stopped asking that of ourselves. Let’s get Summer working with Rick more, let’s see these characters in different combinations more, and let’s see more of the galaxy.”
Rick starts “Interdimensional Cable 2” by noting “we pretty much nailed it the first time,” and Roiland essentially agrees. He says he’s still prouder of the season 1 effort.
“I feel like the first one was a lot better because I think it was a nice balance, there was more of a collaboration on the first one and the improv was plussed in a lot of ways,” Roiland says. “We went in and reworked certain stuff. Stuff that was great we left alone and stuff that needed work we went in and f–ked with. On the second one, I kept it to myself for a lot of the process.”
Harmon and Roiland both acknowledge that their creative partnership hit a speedbump or two during the development of season 2. The season premiere, “A Rickle In Time,” featured a high-level sci-fi concept: Rick, Morty, and Summer accidentally fracture the space-time continuum, prompting the rest of the episode to be told through split-screen parallel timelines. Although Rick & Morty often oscillates expertly between such nerdy sci-fi and raw humor, this storyline swung a little too far to one side for Roiland’s tastes.
“Justin was a little alienated by the writing process on the first episode of season 2,” Harmon says. “It was a little more like the intellectual side took over because it was a smart concept, and he was a little less at home in his own writers’ room and instead of being unhealthy about that and combating it, he decided he would put his energy into his kind of episode. So there was less back and forth about what he was doing on that episode.”
Usually, Harmon says, their relationship is more equal than that. It’s too simplistic to say Harmon provides the encyclopedic references to pop culture tropes while Roiland brings the unhinged semi-improv, but they do balance each other out.
“Justin and I, our partnership is very based on mutual terror of each other. We’re both scared of how unfunny we’d be without the other,” Harmon says. “It’s not as simple as I’m the smart one making it a mainstream show and Justin is the crazy one that makes it flavorful. There’s maybe a foundation of truth to that, but we both hate ourselves. Justin is smart and wants to do smart stuff, and I believe in fun, so it’s not that simple. And then of course it’s rumored there are other writers on the show that contribute stuff. We just follow the laughter, that’s the big solution. It all starts with talking in the room about what was it like to be 14 years old, what our favorite sci-fi movies are, and what our fantasies are about sci-fi inventions and tropes. Eventually we crack up at something and write those down and go back to try to figure out if there are episodes in there.”