In Rick and Morty, a new animated series co-created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, Rick is an outlandish, irresponsible genius who moves in with his daughter's family. Morty is his grandson, whose lack of school smarts makes him Rick's ultimate foil/assistant. The show, which premieres on Adult Swim tonight, is the kind you might expect to see during Fox's family-oriented animation lineup. Its roots, though, are perhaps a little different.
Years ago, Harmon, now best known as the guy who created Community, and writer-director-actor Rob Schrab (The Sarah Silverman Program) launched an event called Channel 101. That's where filmmakers create shorts that function as pilots. They're screened in front of an audience. The crowd votes on what they like, and those who pass the audience test get to make another installment.
Roiland was one of the young filmmakers that got involved with Channel 101. Among the videos he made was a spoof of Back to the Future. "When I made my thing, I was blowing off steam and my intention was to shock an audience," Roiland says during a recent interview at Cartoon Network's Burbank offices.
Through his involvement with Channel 101, Roiland developed a friendship with Harmon. They worked on projects together. Meanwhile, Roiland was working as a voice actor. You might recognize him as the Earl of Lemongrab from Adventure Time. As for Harmon, he had success with The Sarah Silverman Program and Community. When Adult Swim reached out to Harmon for a new series, he called Roiland for help. As they discussed ideas, the voices of the two characters from that Channel 101 pilot came back to Roiland.
"We just had this flash of inspiration," Roiland says. He notes that they came up with a story and pitched it to an Adult Swim executive in the same day.
"After he left, we wrote the script," Harmon adds.
During the development period, the two worked out the characters. "We wanted to get to the core of Rick's character before we really started breaking the story," Harmon says. "I don't like characters that are lists of things" -- like lists of adjectives -- "because I think that's a cake made of frosting. I think that there's a core to characters and that you can change anything about them for fun, like Charles Schulz's Peanuts or the Muppets."
He adds, "If you put them in a spacesuit, it's just Kermit in a spacesuit. You can still recognize him."
Rick's identity soon took shape. "We kind of figured out early on that this is a guy with bigger fish to fry," Harmon says. "That's the core of his character. He always has something more important than what you're talking about going on in his head. We've all met those people and been those people. This guy is just that to the extreme."
As for Morty, Roiland, who voices both main characters, says he'll grow as the season progresses. "He sees a lot of stuff that changes him and his perspective," he says, adding that this is an episodic show, not a serial.
Some characters didn't come into their own until much later in the process. Morty's teenage sister, Summer, is an example. "We didn't really know who she was as a character in the beginning," Roiland says. "Somewhere in the middle of season one, we tapped into her as a character." He credits Spencer Grammer (Kelsey's daughter), who voices Summer, for inspiring the evolution of the character.
Grammer was eight months pregnant when she auditioned for the role of Summer 2 ½ years ago. "I was so happy to do this role," she says. "It's just really, really wonderful and intelligent."
Meanwhile, Sarah Chalke (Scrubs) plays Morty and Summer's mom, Beth. Chris Parnell (Saturday Night Live) plays their father, Jerry. The two bring a lot of family tension to a show that might otherwise be a fun sci-fi adventure series. "Their marriage is hanging by a thread," Chalke says.
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The actors recorded alone. In fact, Grammer met Chalke for the first time at a press day held less than two weeks before the premiere. "It condenses the creative process in a way that is extremely rewarding," Grammer says.
Although it didn't take Roiland and Harmon long to get come up with the idea for Rick and Morty, getting the show from pitch to premiere has taken some time. Harmon notes that this is the downside of animation. Actually making the show is a fairly slow process. "I was very spoiled with the first couple seasons of Community," he says. "You get six episodes in the camera and while you're still editing the third one, it airs Thursday night at 8 p.m. and people are tweeting about it."
For this team, though, the wait is almost over. "I can't believe that people are going to be watching this thing in a few days," he says, "I can't believe that 10 episodes later, it's going to be done."