Dan Harmon: "Rick is an Anarchist"
Cartoon Network's Rick and Morty, with its massive viewership and critical acclaim, is probably the standard bearer for TV animation right now. But as co-creator Dan Harmon recently pointed out to me at a press event in Los Angeles, only 21 episodes have aired so far, and that's not all that much material to evaluate from.
The show's fan community grew massively during its nearly two-year hiatus, and, according to Harmon, "It wasn't because we were like pumping out episodes. It happened while we were still taking too long on season 3. It just grew by itself."
A lot of crazy stuff has happened in the real world during that break. Even if you leave aside the political surprises of the past two years, Alex Jones has become a prominent political commentator, and conspiracy theories and the apocalypse have somehow turned into everyday topics of conversation, which should fare well for a show about a mad scientist with a conspiracy bent who brings about the end of the world all the time. In fact, in the most recent episode, it sounded like Rick referred to the 9/11 terror attacks as an "excuse to strip away our freedom"—a fact that I wouldn't have noticed had it not been for the fevered intensity of fans who zeroed in on the line.
Rick and Morty's other co-creator, Justin Roiland, cautioned me against reading much into any of this. He told me he stays away from politics as much as possible, and that includes the politics of the Rick and Morty universe. "We just kinda stick and move. It happens, and then we just kinda keep going." He added that he avoids online theories about his show, because "that stuff will worm its way into your brain."
Harmon and Roiland were kind enough to talk to me at a little more length about this stuff. In our conversation, conspiracy theories became a jumping off point to talk about the the nature of consciousness, psychedelic experiences, and the alien slugs secretly watching as we inhabit the simulation we all think is real life.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Rick and Morty isn't a political show, but this is the first season since America became completely consumed by politics, and Rick is very anti-government and kinda libertarian-y. Are there conversations in the writers' room where you're walking a tightrope?
Dan Harmon: We were long since out of the writers' room when I think the notion that politics would be in any way important—and not just in a strange, different sphere—would be happening. I think that we would constantly talk about Rick's politics in the sense that his are so removed, so far back, that there would be virtually no way to translate them to the Earhtbound spectrums—spectra?
Because, simply, Rick—although you may feel this way about certain political philosophies—is truly self-interested. He sees such a big picture and has such bigger fish to fry than anything terrestrial that the closet thing (if I were an Earth-alien-human trying to appraise Rick and trying to explain him to another life form) to call him on a political spectrum? I would just use the word "anarchist." He doesn't like being told what to do by anybody. And yes, that is what libertarians say, but they also acknowledge the existence of other libertarians, and say that if you let everyone do whatever they want, everything will be great. And I don't think Rick believes that.
What does he think?
I think he thinks that if you let everyone do whatever they want, Rick will get away with more, and he knows that any time you try to let there be government at all, it's just nonsense. He would be as passionate about dismantling it, as he would be about voting for it, which is nothing. Both [are] just meaningless to him.
So how does that relate to what happens at the start of season three?
In [episode] 301, what you see is, it's like mowing the lawn for him to disassemble the entire galactic federation, and he's doing it so he can get back to his comfortable life. And he resents Jerry for making him do that and therefore eliminates Jerry from his life. It's pretty easy to say in the writers' room—and I don't foresee any trouble. We all know that Rick wouldn't vote for anybody. He wouldn't care at all.
Justin Roiland: He's just like, fucking [Rick voice], "Who gives a shit? Game of Thrones!"
Harmon: He's mostly like Justin. Justin doesn't get involved with that stuff and has his own plans for Lego collections and things like that. If Justin had a 3,000 IQ and could float through time and space, that's kinda what Rick would be. I don't think Justin would be marching for anything, as much as he'd be like collecting weird stuff and building up his arsenal.
Roiland: Not from like an apathetic standpoint but just more like, "Eh, what am I gonna do? How am I gonna help anybody?"
Harmon: That's precisely from an apathetic standpoint.
Roiland: You're right.
Harmon: But that's good! That's better than someone with that degree of power deciding that it's their job to save people from themselves in any way. That's pretty dangerous. If Rick did anything other than pursue whatever it is he's pursuing, he would cause way more damage than he does.
Roiland: He could [faux-dramatic voice] enslave worlds if he wanted to!
But in episode 301, did Rick really look at the TV during 9/11 and say it was an excuse to "strip away our freedoms?"
I think so! I guess [we] have the ability to say it was all bullshit—but I dunno. It was a joke that made us laugh really hard.
Harmon: If you analyze the canon of that episode, I think that technically has to be a construction, because the insect never leaves Shoneys, and has to believe that he is. So it's very likely, I think—probably necessary—to think that things outside the window are constructions. Now, what's the easiest way to construct something? Copy and paste. Why would you bother to construct something from the ground up when you can simply make an instance of something that already exists and tweak what you want to tweak, so I think it all depends. Where was Rick in 2001?
Roiland: Exactly! Where the fuck was he? He was probably in some Earth-based reality that was very similar to the one that they're in now. I just like how quickly he's like, "Oh. I know what this is!"
For you, where does the idea to have Rick be sort of a 9/11 truther come from?
Harmon: That's based on my reality. That's precisely how I reacted to 9/11. I'm not kidding. I was on phone with my friend Rob Schrab, and that's exactly what I said out loud—which I look back on with total shame! But I look back and go, Oh, that's a character. A guy who is woken up that early in the morning and is in his underwear watching people die—watching a national tragedy unfold—and the first thing in my head was, "We're gonna get away with writing less. They're gonna change the name of the country. They're gonna change our freedoms, and this is gonna impinge on my personal quest to be comfortable." It's pretty fucked up.
You mentioned earlier that you try and stay away from fan theories. My question isn't about the theories themselves but the way they're formed. Do you see a connection between conspiracies and those kinds of theories?
Yes, 100 percent. I think that when JFK was assassinated, the part of your brain that is ready and able to connect all the dots necessary to prove that there was an order to this, and it was a sinister order, are the same exact chemicals in your brain that you need to write stories—and that includes fan fiction.
You say that includes fan faction, but what else do you think is involved with that story-creating part of the brain?
When bad things happen to good people, when our friends get sick, when we get sick, when governments change hands, when you can look at a map and imagine how many stray dogs and cats are out there being neglected, and you start trying to look into that box of "What Reality Really Is," it's the creative part of your brain that pulls you back out of your box, and says, "Yeah, but here's the thing: There's white hats, and black hats, and high noon, and there's shootouts, and there's stories and there's love, and there's passion. And there's transformation, and there's change." When you feel that mental breakdown happening, that means you're about to get smarter. You're growing. You're inheriting the universe. You're becoming closer and closer to a thing called "God," and "you're gonna get through this. You're gonna get trough this." It's like when you have a bad trip on mushrooms or acid, your friend who says, "This is cool. This is normal. Even though the walls are talking to you. You just need some orange slices. You need to get through this, and it's important that this is happening. It's giving you perspective." Otherwise you'd just be like, "This is insane, so I'm insane, so nothing matters, so I think I'll go do something horrible in public."
Roiland: So definitely do acid, and JFK was an inside job.
Oh, you don't have to tell me. So one fan theory I do want to touch on is the idea that Rick is aware that he's a cartoon, and that we see that when he breaks the fourth wall. Is that bullshit?
Harmon: I always start from the place of, like, if I were living my ideal life, in that I was trotting across the galaxy and across timelines—and had lived for who knows how long and had seen so many fatal battles and lived to tell about it—wouldn't I, when I was backed up against the wall by Dracula in a sword fight, wouldn't I turn to a nonexistent camera and go, "We'll be right back."
Roiland: [Laughs uproariously.]
Harmon: Because we do takes like that when we're in bars and stuff. Someone says something, and we're like, "Check please!" So I start there, and go, Is it explainable through that lens, where Rick is just kinda crazy?
Roiland: I think it's just dumb. It's just funny to me.
Harmon: But that's a fan theory that I welcome.
Roiland: Yeah, [faux-dramatic voice] he knows.
Harmon: The idea that on some level Rick is conscious of not only multiple realities but multiple layers of reality...
Roiland: The sixth dimension...
Harmon: Or in simulation theory...
Roiland: Someone's watching! Yeah, that's true. Simulation theory straight-up. There's a big bank of monitors right now, and weird giant slug creatures are watching us.
Harmon: I went to Tulum with my girlfriend and the weather was so beautiful, and I was so in love with her, and because I'm kind of nihilistic and sci-fi oriented, the way that I coped with that love was to imagine that when I was looking into her eyes, that I was winning the game, and that the party full of friends who were watching me play this piñata game—the Roy game from Rick and Morty—that they were cheering when I looked into her eyes. Because those were the moments when I was actually figuring out that the meaning of life was to realize how lucky I was, and when I was speaking to her, I was actually somewhere with a hood over my head, with a room full of octopus creatures, watching me and going, "He gets it! He got it, he got it!"