How Rick and Morty became TV’s most unlikely hit

As the sci-fi cartoon beloved by millennials and Kanye returns, its creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon discuss its warped universe

Back in 1998, McDonald’s launched a limited-edition Szechuan dipping sauce to tie in with the release of Disney’s Mulan. Few noticed when the sauce was quietly discontinued soon after, but one man never gave up hope that it might return. That man was Justin Roiland, co-creator of Rick and Morty, and his love for the sauce was such a running joke in the writers’ room of the hit animated comedy that it made it into the show’s third season as a major plot point. Then things got weird. McDonald’s, never ones to shy away from a publicity stunt, brought Roiland’s favourite condiment back for one day only in 2017. It sold out immediately, and demand was so high in some branches that police had to be called out to deal with fans angrily chanting: “We want sauce.”

Such is the strange power of Rick and Morty, one of the decade’s more unlikely success stories. Since its debut in 2013, Adult Swim’s seemingly niche cartoon has been obsessed over by everyone from Kanye West to its army of young fans. The most popular comedy among US millennials when its third season launched in 2017 (ahead of both The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family), it has the clout not just to lay waste to branches of McDonald’s but to make or break bands; just ask Blonde Redhead, whose song For the Damaged Coda was catapulted into the upper reaches of Billboard’s Hot Rock chart nearly two decades after its release due to an appearance on the show.

Rick and Morty’s popularity is made even more remarkable by the fact that it exists so purposefully outside the mainstream. Sure, on paper it might sound wholesome: a genius scientist takes his grandson on dimension-hopping adventures. Except that these adventures are all horrifyingly twisted and surreal, the scientist (Rick) is an emotionally abusive alcoholic, and the grandson (Morty) regularly experiences levels of trauma that would send most people catatonic. Both tonally and visually, the whole thing is an eye-popping, stomach-churning – and very funny – assault on the senses; one that also somehow finds time to muse on the nature of existence. As Morty says in one memorable episode: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.”

The credit for the show’s success can be laid squarely at the feet of co-creators Roiland and Dan Harmon, the former of whom also voices the two eponymous stars, although in reality his timbre is closer to long-suffering 13-year-old Morty than his sadistic grandpa. The seeds for the show were planted in 2006 when Roiland presented his crudely drawn sketch The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti – a Back to the Future parody that was the precursor to Rick and Morty – at Harmon’s gonzo short film festival Channel 101. Over the next few years, the two worked on their own projects – Harmon created fan-favourite sitcom Community, while Roiland became known as the voice of Lemongrab in cult kids’ cartoon Adventure Time – but were reunited when Adult Swim asked Harmon to make an animated show. He thought of Roiland straight away, and the two of them set about making Roiland’s gross-out style more palatable to a wider viewership. Acclaim and awards soon followed, notably an Emmy for outstanding animated programme, a hotly contested category in this classic era of adult animation.

Roiland and Harmon, speaking over the phone from LA, suggest that their working relationship is one of balance, creative integrity, and a good dose of taking the piss (“He’s grown very distant and cold,” Harmon jokes of Roiland). Bar the odd squabble over “a tonal thing or a joke”, the pair have “never disagreed to any great extent over anything truly important,” Roiland says.

It is a relationship that, it’s fair to say, is far healthier than that of Rick and his grandson. Over the course of the show, Rick has wiped Morty’s mind, trapped him in a series of Saw-like murder rooms and caused the separation of his parents. For the most part, poor old Morty has reacted to this litany of horrors with the same terror and disbelief. But in the show’s upcoming fourth season, he is beginning to push back. “Morty’s less afraid to demand things from Rick,” Roiland says. “He’s more disobedient, which I think is a symptom of him seeing all these sides of Rick.” Harmon quickly stresses that that isn’t “a linear thing that will continue until finally Morty kills Rick in his sleep and the show’s over”.

Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon
Lords of the rings... Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon Photograph: PR

For all its brutality, Rick and Morty has made an artform out of dancing along the offensiveness line, keeping the humour sharp and savage without making it cruel, even when Rick himself is behaving cruelly. The jaded scientist may hold extreme views, but they are usually contradicted or mocked within an episode. Rick, Harmon says, represents humanity at its smallest and most cynical. “I think that when you’re feeling great about our world, and [it seems that] there’s meaning to all of it, the thing that you dread the most is typically the thing that Rick can give voice to, which is that it’s wrong, what you’re experiencing is an illusion and it won’t last.”

Still, not everyone has quite grasped the joke, and for some fans – the same people who are convinced “social justice warriors” and women are ruining everything they hold dear – Rick isn’t a nasty piece of work, but an alpha-male hero. Harmon has previously spoken out about his “disgust” for a toxic subset of the show’s audience who take Rick’s s harsh worldview out of context and use it to support their own beliefs. “I loathe these people,” he said in 2017 of that particular brand of “fan” after they took offence to Harmon and Roiland adding more women to the writing team and started harassing the new writers online. These days, Harmon takes a more circumspect approach to such fans. “I’ve seen a couple of Rick and Morty lines [reappropriated online] where I’m like: ‘Well jeez, I only meant that the character felt that way, I didn’t mean that you should wave that like a flag for a new nation and go start an army in a forest somewhere,’ but that’s really the consumer’s own business,” he says. Harmon feels that engaging too much with how fans interpret the show is “a dangerous feedback loop to get into”, and has stopped trying to become a spokesperson for the show because “there are too many ways to screw it up … I’m entering my Salinger phase, I guess. Minus the talent,” he jokes. (Still, Roiland and Harmon couldn’t resist taking a dig at their toxic fans in the opening episode of season four, which sees a fascistic, alternate-reality Morty insist that he and Rick return to having classic adventures, free of “politics”.)

Then there is the subject of Harmon’s turbulent professional history. A larger-than-life figure, his outspoken temperament has landed him in trouble with colleagues: he has been fired from shows that he’s created – firstly the Sarah Silverman Program (“I started lipping off to Sarah,” Harmon said of his behaviour on the writing team) and Community. Details of the latter firing were revealed when former Community writer Megan Ganz posted on Twitter in 2018, alluding to harassment she received from Harmon and the subsequent impact his actions had on her self-worth. Harmon confessed to abusing his position of power, and to having feelings for her. (“I damaged her internal compass,” he said. “I’ve never done it before and I will never do it again”.) She subsequently accepted his very public apology. The whole process was a rare example of a #MeToo accusation being handled with sensitivity and a desire for resolution, with Ganz claiming it was “a masterclass in How to Apologize”.

Rick and Morty
Feeling blue... Morty with Mr Meeseeks. Photograph: Adult Swim

In 2019, Rick and Morty is now a well-oiled machine, from the writing to the memorably gross visuals. It is constantly presenting us with weird new alien species, from the mutated, once-human beasts Rick terms “Cronenbergs” to a man comprised entirely of ants. Roiland says that the animators “put the extra effort in to allow us to be as imaginative as we want … It’s definitely not the Hanna-Barbera school of thought, which was always re-use, re-use over and over. I love that we get to go to all these really interesting new planets.” Harmon jokes that once they have run out of planet names the Rick and Morty universe will be complete.

With 70 more episodes secured for the show last year, its creators are confident in its ability to run and run. “I think Justin and I always would have written the show as if it were going to last 1,000 episodes,” Harmon says, adding that they aren’t having to resort to any rainy-day ideas just yet, mostly because they’ve been doing the sort of wild, experimental stuff that most shows save for their final season since the very beginning. “We always tended to commit to the experiment of ‘Make the bad stuff first’,” Harmon says. “What’s the thing that would jump the so-called shark, and get it done, and blow your own mind with the fact that that’s done now? There is no grand battle coming between the empirical good and evil.”

Their ethos bears a remarkable similarity to a rant Rick delivered in the season three premiere, when he said that he was driven not by some moral purpose, but getting hold of that elusive McDonald’s condiment. “Nine more seasons, Morty … I want that McNugget sauce!” Long may his quest continue.

Rick and Morty season four started on 20 November, and is on Wednesdays, 10pm, E4

• This article was amended on 25 November 2019 because an earlier version mistakenly said that Rick and Morty season four starts Wednesday 27 November. This has been corrected.


Abigail Chandler

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Grotesque, paranoid, frazzled: why the mum is TV’s most compelling character
Parental comedy Motherland is back – a reminder that some of pop culture’s most watchable matriarchs are anything but perfect

Nell Frizzell

10, May, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Physical: Rose Byrne is deliciously unlikable in a twisted aerobics comedy
The actor plays a down-on-herself, unfulfilled housewife in southern California, with a deeply sinister internal monologue

Joel Golby

12, Jun, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
From Ken Loach to Big Brother: the twisted minds behind Inside No 9 on their influences
As a new series of the dark comedy begins, creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith reveal what inspired eight classic instalments

Jack Seale

24, Apr, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Terrible name, terrific sitcom: how Schitt's Creek became a surprise hit
Word of mouth turned the riches-to-rags show into a global hit. Its creator and stars explain why it is going out at its peak

Michael Cragg

09, May, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Why UnReal’s toxic femininity exposes the dark heart of TV dating shows
The Amazon drama is based on reality shows like the Bachelor, but it’s the love-hate dichotomy of its two leads, Rachel and Quinn, that provides its true romance

Jonathan Bernstein

24, Feb, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
Summer Heights High: the 10 most Ja’mie-zing moments
Chris Lilley’s riotous mockumentary debuted a decade ago – we remember the highlights, from fake car accidents to Mr G’s bizarre musicals

Julia Raeside

18, Apr, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Dan Harmon: ‘It feels like I’m always referencing Hitchhiker’s Guide’
His cult sitcom Community may be over, but sci-fi animation Rick And Morty proves the unpredictable comic’s oddball experiments are far from finished

Graeme Virtue

10, Sep, 2015 @4:00 PM

Article image
Girls, Insecure and Stranger Things: how bathrooms became TV’s safe space
Kitchens and living rooms were once the heart of drama and comedy, but in an era of messy protagonists the bathroom has taken over

Jack Seale

09, Dec, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
Murder in Successville: how the most complicated comedy on TV made it big
It crosses a cop show with reality TV and the lead doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. So why are stars like Paul Whitehouse queueing up to get involved?

Jack Seale

04, Jun, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
From Homer Simpson to Hank Kingsley: TV's greatest catchphrases ranked
The perfect soundbite can make a great show iconic. Here are the very best

Stuart Heritage

26, Sep, 2017 @8:00 AM