Dan Harmon reveals a 'Game of Thrones'-inspired episode idea, why Rick addresses the audience and gives a blunt critique of McDonald's Szechuan sauce
With the Rick and Morty season 3 finale coming Sunday, co-creator Dan Harmon answers some of our burning questions about the brilliant Adult Swim comedy’s current episodes — and the show in general. Below Harmon teases the finale, reveals what a Game of Thrones-inspired episode might look like, artfully dodges questions about whether his characters are truly evolving, destroys trolls who’ve criticized his female writers, and reveals his rather blunt thoughts about that discontinued McDonald’s Szechuan sauce.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I feel unworthy of interviewing you because I only recently discovered your show and feel like I need to watch every episode two more times to really take everything in. But this also seems like a season where that’s true for a lot of people, like the show is hitting another level of popularity, and the ratings certainly back that up.
DAN HARMON: It’s been a non-stop shock. It feels like the world is watching the show. I felt that before the first episode aired because I only ever wore Rick and Morty shirts, and I don’t buy clothes a lot and have like 300 Rick and Morty shirts. So I have this basic metric of sitting in restaurants in Los Angeles and noticing how many waiters, busboys or bartenders look at the shirt and say, “I love that show.” It’s the only human interaction I have outside of the people I know. And that number doubled. So did your show become really popular only with a specific demographic of people who work in restaurants in Los Angeles or did we just double our audience?
You’ve increasingly added serialized elements, and have said you hope the show runs for many more years. How much do you know about the story you’re going to tell at this point?
We try to keep that to a minimum, if not zero. People are always disappointed to hear that because part of the culture of television — particularly binge-worthy obsessive serialized television — is this idea that there’s a larger truth unfolding and you can decode it and figure it out. I don’t want people to be upset to know that that’s what we’re doing too. The way we see it, until something [is revealed in the show], it’s just one of a million possibilities. Our viewers are in the millions and they’re able to analyze the show even better than people who are paid to do so for nine hours a day. I don’t consider it my job to outthink and out-plan the audience. I’ve seen examples in television of [showrunners] trying to keep ahead of the audience and blow their minds with a finale that fans already decoded in episode 1. Maybe some [writers] can do that, maybe that ups the ante for a new breed of chessmaster, but we still consider Rick and Morty a largely modular timeless show and you can pick up and watch any episode and that crack rock will get you just as high as any other crack rock. Unlike a truly serialized show like Game of Thrones, there’s a backbone to the show where it’s Rick and Morty going on adventures and it’s fun, like Doctor Who.
To that end, I’m always fascinated by the moments of character-driven melodrama, where you’re abruptly dared as a fan to really care about these characters, even though it’s such a fantastical comedy. I’m never sure how seriously I should take those moments. Like we’re nearly through three seasons here — and obviously, I don’t know what’s outcome of the Jerry divorce arc — but I’m still not sure if there is permanent growth and consequences for your main characters. Does Rick and Morty only seem like a serialized story in the near term but — like most other animated shows — ultimately the family returns to the same dynamic sooner or later?
This is going to be the most pretentious answer, but I mean it with the smirk I’m delivering it with: You just described life, brother. And I prefer it that way because [the show] has the maximum shelf life and the minimum shark-jumping possibility if you just commit to that fact — which is that sometimes you can’t tell if your best friend really turned a new leaf or he’s just a serial leaf-turner. You don’t know among the real people of your world when their “story” has changed, when they’re really growing, or just engaged in some new cycle or habit. It makes me happy to hear a relatively new viewer like yourself is confused about whether there’s real growth happening.
It’s interesting too, as the show tackles so many types of sci-fi stories, and everybody knows you guys do have a “no time travel stories” rule. But that also made me wonder: Are there other types of tropes that have similarly been banned — shelved in Rick’s garage, as it were?
At one time we were saying, “Let’s make sure we never do the episode where we show why Rick is Rick.” That’s a great rule to have. But when you have a rule like that, sooner or later, you have the episode where you break that rule in a clever way — which we sort-of did with the season 3 premiere by giving an example of what a Rick origin story might be and then left it up to the audience to decide how much of it was true. We follow our taste and it all spans outward from loving TV and loving sci-fi and being afraid of wasting an opportunity to have a show that lasts forever and is eternally limitless. We don’t want to be the people who screw up the audience’s first experiment with giving a TV show total narrative carte blanch.
Here’s my biggest point of nerd speculation: There’s been a ton of theories about the baby that Rick was holding in a photo that Birdperson pointed out. Can you at least say if that has a definitive answer or is also firmly in the “figure it out later” category?
That’s in between. We never want to commit the crime of thinking so far ahead that we paint ourselves into a corner, but it would be equally foolish to throw things out there without thinking about them that we then realize two years later, “Jesus, if we hadn’t done that, we could be able to say that everyone’s a robot!” So we take it kind-of seriously. We make sure there are multiple possible answers.
Is there anything particularly interesting that you’ve put in the show so far that nobody has ever noticed?
I sincerely doubt it. It’s quite the opposite. I’ll watch YouTube videos about, “20 Things You Missed About Rick and Morty” and I will have missed 12 of them. Because a lot of them are artist based. We have this amazing team of Rick and Morty [artists]. The people that draw the show are thinking about the physical aspects of it. So when I watch YouTubers catch things, it’s things like how the animators made sure there’s a crack in the pavement around the house that’s still there from an episode in season 1 when the house is teleported to a different dimension and then comes back. So when Jerry is weed-whacking there are weeds growing out of that crack. That stuff is pretty cool. I very much doubt I snuck anything by the viewers.
Can you share some interesting rejected ideas?
Not really. There are a million stories about episodes that started as one thing and then became another. The second episode of season 3 — that’s them going to a Mad Max style adventure in a post-apocalyptic wasteland — believe it or not, that story started with the idea of Rick having a “Book-A-Lyzer” which is a device where you can go into any book. They were going to find a book by Jerry that he wrote when he was younger and they end up trapped in his crappy novel. That episode changed so much that we can still do that episode. If an episode grows from one [idea] into an entirely different [idea] that’s still no better than the first, maybe we’re writing wrong. But we don’t back off on stuff so much as we say “maybe later” and move on. We have a pretty hefty shoebox from season 3 of ideas that are ready to go. Some are fully written, in fact.
Rick is the only character who breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge this is a TV show with comments to the audience. I’ve assumed this was merely a gag, then I started to wonder: Do you literally mean that Rick believes their exploits are being filmed or drawn for some kind of inter-dimensional cable show? Or am I reading too much into it?
You can’t read too much into Rick and Morty; it’s there for your obsession. I’ve heard theories that include the idea that Rick believes in the simulation theory so therefore he thinks he’s a written character on a show in a different universe. I would never tell anybody that that is untrue. Why would it have to be untrue — until the moment it needs to be in order for a story to get told? I hesitate to say to you … I guess I will … that yeah, we largely figured Rick is just being like Daffy Duck. He’s allowed to mug to the camera like Bruce Willis did sometimes in Moonlighting. [Co-creator Justin Roiland] and I have had arguments about when it’s okay to do that and when it’s not. I have lost more of those arguments than I’ve won. And in spite of trying to convince Justin that it would ruin the show eventually if we continue to do that at the wrong times, and I guess I was wrong. Nobody has stopped believing Rick is real.
The show has a gender-balanced writers room this season, and there was a Reddit thread talking about how the female writers were being harassed about their episodes by some fans who even posted their personal information online. What’s the latest on that and do you have thoughts about this? [Note: Harmon’s answer to this question was previously posted]
I’m on a Twitter sabbatical, so the last thing I saw about that was [the Reddit thread detailing the harassment], and I’ve seen the tweets they’ve sent to the female writer. I was familiar going into the third season, having talked to Felicia Day, that any high-profile women get doxxed, they get harassed, they get threatened, they get slandered. And part of it is a testosterone-based subculture patting themselves on the back for trolling these women. Because to the extent that you get can get a girl to shriek about a frog you’ve proven girls are girly and there’s no crime in assaulting her with a frog because it’s all in the name of proving something. I think it’s all disgusting.
These knobs, that want to protect the content they think they own — and somehow combine that with their need to be proud of something they have, which is often only their race or gender. It’s offensive to me as someone who was born male and white, and still works way harder than them, that there’s some white male [fan out there] trying to further some creepy agenda by ‘protecting’ my work. I’ve made no bones about the fact that I loathe these people. It f—ing sucks. And the only thing I can say is if you’re lucky enough to make a show that is really good that people like, that means some bad people are going to like it too. You can’t just insist that everybody who watches your show get their head on straight … And I’m speaking for myself — I don’t want the show to have a political stance. But at the same time, individually, these [harassers] aren’t politicians and don’t represent politics. They represent some shit that I probably believed when I was 15.
It’s total ignorance of how writing a television show works. It’s frustrating enough having run Community for several years to see threads like, ‘Oh well, it makes sense this episode was written by Andy Bobrow because when Hilary Winston wrote her episode she tends to linger more on dialogue and Andy is better at the I-want-to-hold-you moments.’ And I want to scream at my computer: ‘You idiots, we all write the show together!’ If you can tell the difference between one writer and another on a show I’m running I’ve probably gotten so lazy that it hasn’t all been blended and refined in the usual process. The reason one person’s name goes on an episode is that someone has to and everyone deserves one of those times at bat where they have to do all the grunt work — they have to do all the outlining, sometimes, if they’re willing to, they can expand into the post-production process. There’s a bunch of reasons why we don’t accurately reflect how many writers contribute to each episode in the credits … One day I will have a show that’s not being talked about and I will definitely hate that more than having a show that’s watched by people I don’t like.
The Game of Thrones showrunners have cited Rick and Morty as their favorite show along with It’s Always Sunny, the latter they wrote an episode of. I wonder if there’s anything that you could ever do together, though I’m unsure what that would look like.
I’m not sure either, that would be exciting though. It would be fun. What leaps to mind is doing another Citadel episode or some dimension where there are factions of people that pays homage to that [GoT] style in 22 minutes while getting laughs — “what we truly love about serialized epic dramas spanning multiple continents.” It would be cool to work with those guys, I love those guys, they’ve been so cool to our show in every interview, and I’ve been watching their show obsessively for seven years.
Like Game of Thrones, you’ve done about 10 episodes per season, which is pretty short for a half hour animated show. This season was supposed to have more and you guys ran into some trouble getting it done. Does 10 feel like the most you can do for keeping the quality high?
I don’t think so, but you shouldn’t trust me, because I mostly blame myself for doing 10 instead of 14. I’m still learning how to do the show efficiently while catering to the perfectionist in all of us. I would like to think I’ve learned enough from my mistakes in season 3 that we could definitely do 14 now, but then I have to say, “Yeah but you’re the guy who says we can do 14 who turned out to be wrong so we’re not listening to you now.” The nice healthy way to approach this is I want to prove it with the first 10 of season 4 — prove it to ourselves, to production, to the network — that it’s so easy that we’ll earn additional episodes. Because I never got this far [working on NBC’s] Community. I fell apart in season 3 of Community and got fired in season 4. Now I’m about to do season 4 of Rick and Morty and want to prove that I’ve grown.
You sound like you operate in a state of feeling that what you have can be taken away at any moment, so you have to keep delivering perfectionism in order to keep it.
We don’t believe in the concept of “this one’s allowed to be shitty.” With Community, Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, who worked on Scrubs for 8 years, said, “Look, man, you’re stressing yourself out a lot … stop killing yourself, let one of these be a standard house number.” We did that a couple times on Community and the thing that should wake me up is they’re some great episodes where I kind of went, “Okay fine this isn’t that important of an episode,” and end up doing something fun that feels like proper TV. My obsessiveness is an enemy that needs to be fought. On Rick and Morty we haven’t really gotten there. The closest we got was The Purge episode because we hit a brick wall trying to do the finale. Because we couldn’t figure out the finale I was allowed to just crap out this Purge Planet idea because it was a way to solve the scheduling emergency — let’s just do a one-off and move it up on the schedule and let the finale be a cliffhanger instead of a two-parter. And that Purge episode is fun and great. I can feel it’s “good enough” quality. I think the audience would vote unanimously for the idea of 14 episodes instead of 10 on the condition that 4 of them would be [Purge Planet level] episodes.
About Sunday’s finale: Can you tease it up for us?
I don’t want to poison the well but the finale is a great episode that we finale-ified when we realized we weren’t going to be able to make 14. It’s Rick in a conflict with the president of the United States. Keith David returns to reprise his role. And that’s the main story of that episode, Rick vs. the United States.
This season McDonald’s sent Justin jugs of their discontinued Szechuan sauce. Did it live up to his warm Mulan-tie-in memories? Or like most attempts to revisit our youth was it inherently disappointing?
I didn’t want to peg Justin down about whether it was as good, partly because I think he got together with other friends and tasted it without me first. And if McDonald’s is going to be so generous I don’t want to lure them in and then take a crap on their product. But I personally thought it was a sauce that was trying too hard in a world where with McNuggets sauce you just want something to taste like honey or like a BBQ sauce. It was sauce that was trying to prove it was different and in doing so it worked harder than a sauce should; it was working too hard to be a sauce… [Both of us are laughing at this point]
I think that’s my favorite answer.
Bonus quote: I want to give a shout out to EW’s sister publication Time which interviewed Harmon a couple months ago, because their Q&A included a quote that’s so terrific I just had to steal it. You can read the full interview here. Harmon was asked whether we’ll ever know what’s really going on in Rick’s mind and he said, basically, “no,” but also added this: “I don’t think there’s a single truth that you could ever learn about what’s going on in Rick’s head that couldn’t also be undercut. Instead of that meaning that you’ll never know the truth, another way of looking at it is that everything you’ve learned is the truth. It simply turns out to not be true later. That’s sort of a relative of the larger principle of the show, which is that if life is truly meaningless, then everything is meaningful. If there is no center of the universe, then everywhere you are is the center. Which is simultaneously a tragedy and miracle.”
Bonus: Harmon reveals his Top 5 favorite episodes and the one he hates.