Rick And Morty: Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland Interview

The minds behind Rick and Morty talk season two, the UK premiere, and way more...

If you make a lot of bad life decisions or you’re just old, you might be unaware that the best television show airing is Rick And Morty: a high-concept, sci-fi, animated, action-adventure comedy from creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, about a kid and his sociopathic, alcoholic, genius scientist of a grandfather going on adventures across an infinite multiverse. If you’re British, you get a bit of a pass as the show is only just premiering in the United Kingdom, and how kind of you to wait for it and not realize how easy (and fun!) it is to steal stuff off the internet.

If you are someone still unacquainted with Rick And Morty, you’re most likely to know Dan Harmon as the creator of Community, the most clever sitcom of the past decade, and Justin Roiland as the awesome, somewhat painful voice of the Earl of Lemongrab on Adventure Time. But they’ve done a lot of great stuff in addition to that. Harmon created (and was subsequently fired from) The Sarah Silverman Program, on which Roiland was a writer, actor, and animator and the two also worked together on the quickly-canceled but truly brilliant sketch comedy show on VH1 called Acceptable.TV, which featured an amazing, recurring, animated sketch called Mr. Sprinkles.

Mr. Sprinkles seems to have sadly been mostly lost to the past, but, as Harmon and Roiland’s first collaborative animated effort, it is absolutely worth seeking out, whether you’re already a Rick And Morty fan or are looking for something of a primer. The first six episodes have been cut together here, and the last two can be found on VH1’s websiteMr. Sprinkles is highly recommended as it’s stuck with those who have seen it as something of a life-changing work and the entire saga is only 21-minutes long. Also, I spoil the ending right at the start of this interview.

There’s already a lot out there about the genesis and process of creating Rick And Morty, so I chose to ask Harmon and Roiland about stuff I haven’t seen covered quite as often: their work on Mr. Sprinkles, the music of Rick And Morty, and the function of the darker elements in all their creations. This latter topic they had a lot of thoughts on, making for an interview almost entirely about darkness, but I feel it’s important to note that what makes Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s work together so special is that it always comes with equal measures of comedy, horror, and heart. And it should be very clear from the interview that they put a ton of consideration and effort into everything they make.

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Hey, how are you guys doing?

Justin: Good.

Dan: We’re good.

So, obviously, I want to talk to you guys about Acceptable.TV.

Justin: [laughs]

Dan: Awesome.

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Apparently, my editor talked to you guys at New York Comic Con about it, like, for a long time, so I’m not supposed to do it too much, but if you don’t mind.

Dan: [laughs]

Of course I want to ask about Mr. Sprinkles. Do you guys still get Mr. Sprinkles freaks or is it just me and my editor?

Justin: I’ve seen a lot of people discover it recently, like kind of finding it for the first time. And I’ve seen some talk online about it. But, yeah, I don’t know how many original, like, OG, 2006 Mr. Sprinkles fans there are.

It’s unfortunately difficult to find. Somebody put a compilation of it up but he forgot two of them. So a lot of people think it’s over at episode six, which is really annoying to me.

Justin: Yeah, I have the first—I don’t know how many, but I have a bunch of them up on my website and then I just got really lazy and never finished posting them on my website. I have them all ready to post.

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Justin: I think I might’ve stopped right around… I think I stopped where that guy cut it off because I think he was doing it from my site.

I guess the only other Mr. Sprinkles question I want to ask—I know it’s supposed to be like the end of The Sopranos and David Chase hates getting that question, but do you think Mr. Sprinkles died?

Justin: [laughs] Harmon?

Dan: Uh, yeah, I think he did. I think Mr. Sprinkles is dead.

Justin: I think that was sort of the arc, right? I mean, he was a Jesus Christ figure kind of.

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Dan: Yeah.

Justin: Aside from the being reborn. I mean, maybe his son, I don’t know. But not literally reborn.

‘Cause see the thing is the bomb blows up only non-imaginary things so he should be fine, in theory.

Dan: Right.

Justin: I guess we could write our way out of it if we wanted to.

Dan: He always just wanted to find a way out of having to take care of his kid.

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Justin: [laughs] Yeah.

Oh, that makes it quite like Rick And Morty, really. It’s about child abandonment also. Which is a perfect segue to Rick And Morty, so…

Dan: Yeah.

Justin: [laughs]

So it’s premiering in the UK and we have a UK site so I guess do you guys want to say—aside from the fact that they’ve probably all seen it on the internet—do you want to say why England’s going to love Rick And Morty? Give England a selling point.

Dan: Well, first of all, let me just say “cheerio.”

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Justin: [laughs]

Dan: And then let’s just say we love the United Kingdom. Because a lot of Rick And Morty is descended from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Dr. Who. I think those are two huge influences on it.

I think we think that British sci-fi is better sci-fi and British children’s stuff is better children’s stuff, not that Rick And Morty is a children’s show. But stories about kids that come out of our imperial roots are better than the ones that come out of our colonial, litigious, modern, capitalist sensibility. I guess I’m talking about awesome fairy tales where kids are treated as equals by villains and told that they’re going to get eaten. There’s nothing shielding the audience from mythology.

America doesn’t have that much respect for its kids. We just think that they should be kind of swaddled and coddled and stuff. So, I don’t know, it’s just all around—from the humor to the sci-fi to the respect for the audience—I feel like Rick And Morty is actually a British show, so there you go.

Justin: Finally comin’ home! Comin’ home, baby!

So it’s good for children is what we’re ultimately saying – for British children.

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Justin: It’s good for British children.

Dan: Yeah. [laughs]

Justin: Yes.

Also, do you think the British are OK with things getting a little dark? The darkness should play pretty good, I would think?

Dan: Yeah, they’re not as averse to it, I think partly because they haven’t capitalized on their mythology as much as we have. In America, if something’s too dark, someone might turn it off or boycott the sponsor and so everything is very sanitized in America because everything is potentially worth millions and millions and millions of dollars per second. You still have a TV industry in the UK that’s delightfully shielded from ways to be profitable.So, the shows can still be good, they can be dark. Someone can walk into a sitcom with a head wound, bleeding, and they don’t have to worry about it. I mean, everybody likes their stuff dark. I think it’s just that when money starts getting involved, things start to get dishonest.

Well, a question off of that. In terms of the darkness, something I would ask about the tone of the show… I mean, you say everybody likes their things dark and I very much do, but also there are occasionally factions of people on the internet who get really offended, sometimes by stuff on your show or stuff you say about the show.

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And I’m wondering, what do you think is the need for pushing limits? I mean, I think you would say you push limits. I’ve seen Justin say he likes to see people react, like with Unbelievable Tales [a genuinely unsettling animated short of Justin’s]. And I wonder what it is that makes pushing limits worth it, maybe occasionally offending people. Why is that an important thing?

Justin: Well, here’s what I want to say about it, really quick, is that I think the most important thing to me and I think Dan would agree is that we’re telling a really good story that we believe in. And I think secondary to that is are we going to hurt someone’s feelings or someone who has the unfortunate event of experiencing something similar to what we’re telling a story about is going to be upset because of some sort of residual PTSD flashback thing. I can’t worry about that because once you start worrying about that in the writers’ room and you start putting up walls and taking things away from your writers’ toolkit because of fear of offending a group that has had an actual real-life experience with it, then you just kind of paint yourself into a corner.

Obviously we want to handle things with kid gloves. We would never do anything for the sole purpose of bumming people out or upsetting people. But that’s just par for the course when you live in a society with 7, 8 billion people. Everyone’s going to have their own experience and perspective on everything. You just can’t even think about it. I tune it out. I literally tune it out.

Dan: Yeah. Right. I’d agree with that. I think that the Hershey’s corporation is probably very, very concerned for the health of people with diabetes, but I also think that they don’t sit in their board room and figure out how to make their chocolate have less sugar in it.

Justin: [laughs]

Dan: And if you’re triggered by something when you’re watching our show, then going back to what I said is that everybody likes a certain amount of darkness—yeah, if you’ve grown up privileged to not have trauma in your life, part of what you’re going to TV for is catharsis, to confront dark things. That’s what comedy is, that’s what action-adventure is, that’s what horror movies are. If you have had trauma in your life, when you go to media, obviously you have a different reaction to things that other people are consuming as entertainment and that’s a totally natural thing that people should be sympathetic to. But I guess I’m saying the same thing Justin said.

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However, I will also add, that just by virtue of being comedy writers that want to be the best comedy writers and best storytellers we can be, if we were to write a joke in which a certain kind of trauma or a certain life experience or worldview was being trivialized—I think by virtue of the fact that it wouldn’t be good comedy, it wouldn’t be funny enough for us, it wouldn’t be a good enough story—it wouldn’t even really make it past our desks. Therefore, I don’t know what the subjective experience is for people who get offended when they’re watching things because everyone’s different, they’re all going to get offended by different things.

But I can tell our viewers that they’re certainly never going to be told by a television show that we make that they’re bad people for having had the experiences that they’ve had. They could be triggered by the sight of something or the sound of something or a certain combination of words, but the show’s philosophy is never going to shame them for having suffered. Because the show is very anarchist by nature. It sides with chaos. It’s not going to say, “Oh, it’s hilarious that you got punched in the face.” When people get punched in the face on our show, it’s bad for the face. And Rick doesn’t give a crap but the show isn’t saying, “Oh, good, that guy suffered.” I don’t know. That’s probably enough on that topic…

Justin: [laughs]

I appreciate that because I have been punched in the face and it is bad for the face so you guys got it down, I think.

Dan: The show agrees, yeah.

Justin: I just want to add one more thing really quick to that since you brought up Unbelievable Tales. All that [Dan just said] is in reference to Rick And Morty. That’s not to say that I still may—like, I might enjoy making some really offensive, horrible shock cartoon and I may still do something like that in the future. But it’s the whole ‘don’t confuse the art with the artist’ type thing.

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Even then I don’t think I’d ever do anything that was mean-spirited to any one group or targeted. It would more just be like, oh, this happened to have some fucked-up shit in it that, like Dan said, certain people are going to really not be able to stomach.

Dan: Yeah.

Justin: And to those people I say I am so fucking sincerely sorry and I empathize with whatever you had to go through that would make you react this way. Please don’t watch my cartoons anymore that I do on the side.

Dan: I’m just realizing when you’re talking about it. There’s a really clear example of this in a much more focused media, which is haunted houses. So if you make haunted houses, you want to upset people. That’s a really interesting conversation to have because, as with a rollercoaster wanting to elicit screams of fear that then turn into laughter or jubilation because you’re deliberately kind of subjecting people to negative stimulus as part of a story.

Jack doesn’t go up a beanstalk and buy a condominium and meet the woman of his dreams and then go to sleep. All kinds of crazy shit happens. And it’s designed to pull your nightmares out into the center of the room and arrange them in a way that—that’s what storytelling is. It’s interesting when you think about, like, what’s the best thing you can do? It’s put a big sign outside your haunted house that says ‘This shit is scary, man. Like, we’re gonna go for it.’

Rick And Morty, it’s like a March of Dimes Haunted House. Don’t come in it if you don’t want to get startled, if you can’t work that into your experience. And I think what Justin’s saying is, in addition to that, he does some really—[laughs]—he goes all the way. Because it’s true terror when you come to his haunted house.

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Justin: [laughs]

Dan: It’ll fuck you up if you’re not already fucked up.

Going back to what you said, Rick And Morty’s exploring these dark ideas but it’s always clear that you guys have thought a lot about them. You’re communicating something extreme in a way that lets people know you took it seriously. I guess it’s context. Like if you were in a haunted house, there’s a way you want to be scared but if somebody actually starts bleeding, you’re scared in a different way. You want to keep your haunted house on the right track.

Dan: Well, if a customer came into your haunted house and sustained injury and started screaming or was psychologically traumatized, what do you do? You escort that person immediately out of the haunted house and get them to a place where they’re safe. And you definitely tell them, “please, don’t come back.” You don’t have a meeting about how to stop that from happening to every single person who comes through ever again.

The best you can do is put up a sign that says, okay, so it appears that— And that is a thing in TV now because there’s not enough… We say explicit lyrics on music and we have a ratings system but what does that ratings system really mean in terms of this new emerging culture of triggers and whatnot? It doesn’t really provide anyone that wants warnings with warnings.

Justin: Hey, sorry, my call dropped. I don’t know if you guys even noticed but I’m back. I’m back!

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Dan: It’s all right. I was talking about trigger warnings for another half-hour.

[At this point we were informed there was only time for one more question.]

Oh gosh, okay. Shit!

Justin: Well, you got your trigger warning article.

I’m sorry, yeah, it became a trigger warning article. I mean, I’m obsessed with this stuff, honestly. I’m worried for the future of art a little bit.

Justin: [laughs] It’ll be fine.

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Okay, awesome, that’s all I needed to know. I should ask you guys something about process. The thing that’s most interesting to me is the music. I know Ryan Elder does the score. Do one of you guys sit with him and work stuff out or do you leave it up to him? And then of course I’m also wondering about all the alternative rock [episodes have included music by Blonde Redhead, Chaos Chaos, Mazzy Star, and Tanya Donnelly’s band Belly], which I think is all chosen by Justin, if that’s correct.

Justin: Most of it. Harmon’s definitely chimed in on needle drops. For the most part there’s a discussion about like, “Hey, what do you feel about this song?” Obviously, there are certain songs that I’ll put in that I get really worried about just because music is such a personal thing and you start to second guess and get embarrassed and, like, oh God, I don’t know if I could take criticism over people hating this song because it’s such an important song to me and I’m going to be really sensitive about it, but blah, blah, blah. But anyways, if Harmon had any—like, a lot of times he’ll sort of calm my nerves about stuff and go “No, no, no, this is good, this is working, you’re overthinking it.”

And then when it comes to Elder, honestly, he’s kind of autonomous. He’s a fucking badass. He’ll get a cut or an animatic and he’ll score it and he’ll send us a video with the score cut in. If anything, I’ll just take cues out. I’ll be like “Ah, we don’t need any music here. This is hurting a joke here.” Harmon has those kind of notes, too. More than anything we just kind of remove a few cues. And then a couple times we’ll have general notes like, “Hey, this isn’t working, try a different approach.” But that’s about as far as it goes in terms of managing him. He’s pretty self-sufficient in regards to the music on the show.

Dan: Yeah, sometimes we just say, “Oh, let’s not have music here because it’ll be better dry,” but that’s about the only note we ever give him.

Justin: Yeah, he’s a fucking badass. We’re very lucky to have him on the show. Music can be such a huge, stressful part of a show and he makes it a completely, almost effortless component that just all kind of brings everything together. He’s just really talented. He’s a great guy.

Okay, well, I just wanted to commend you on the music choices. Tanya Donnelly is awesome.

Justin: Oh, dude, we both are huge Belly fans, Harmon and I both. I’ve listened to her for forever.

Do you like that first Breeders album, Pod? She’s on that.

Justin: Yeah. I’ve followed everything she’s done. I’m a huge Throwing Muses fan—her stepsister’s stuff and the early Throwing Muses albums with Tanya Donnelly when she was with them. I’ve followed her entire fucking career, even her solo album.

And it’s so funny because Harmon—I’ll never forget, we were working on Acceptable.TV and Harmon’s office was down the hall from mine and all of a sudden I heard him playing I think King or Star – one of the two Belly albums. And I popped out of my office. I’m like, “Are you fucking – you’re a Belly fan? You like Belly? What the fuck?” It was the weirdest thing because it’s so random. Such a random thing to like. But, yeah.

Dan: And I looked up with tears streaming down my face and said, “Sarah Silverman just fired me!”

Justin: [laughs]

This is good. This has come full circle because we brought Acceptable.TV back at the end.

Dan: Yeah.

Justin: Yeah, thanks man.

Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, thanks very much!