Dan Harmon Talks RICK AND MORTY, Working for Adult Swim, Animation vs Live-Action, COMMUNITY, and Much More

     July 27, 2013


While at the TCA Press Tour, Adult Swim presented their latest animated series, Rick and Morty, from co-creators Dan Harmon (Community) and Justin Roiland.  During the interview, Harmon talked about how he came to be doing an animated series at Adult Swim, what influenced this concept, what he can do with an animated show that he can’t do in live-action, and how his experience with Adult Swim has been, compared to other networks.  He also talked about how his work for Rick and Morty compares to that of Community, finding a way to be creatively successful without some of the turbulence that has come with his career, and the possibility of a sixth season of Community.  Check out what he had to say after the jump. 

dan-harmonQuestion:  Did Adult Swim come to you with the idea for this, or had you always had an animated thing in your mind?

DAN HARMON:  I’d been talking to Adult Swim for a long time.  I’ve always admired the things they were doing over there, and it was just a matter of when the right project would come along.  My insecurity about getting older and getting hackier made doing something on Adult Swim a practical choice.  I was incredibly attracted to the idea of finding the semi-marketable version of these characters, so we started talking about it and came up with this stuff. 

What influenced this concept?

HARMON:  For me, the influences are actually more in British sci-fi stuff that I grew up reading, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Also there’s a heavy dose of Doctor Who in there.  I wasn’t on the Sherman and Peabody train. 

What can you do with an animated show that you can’t do in live-action?

HARMON:  Well, you can make a banana purple.  You can put three hats on a cowboy.  That would require several days of stitching, in live-action, that you wouldn’t be able to afford. I mean, you can just do tons and tons and tons.  The funny thing to me is actually where the similarities are – where it actually is just as inconvenient, for instance, to blow something up in animation.  Explosions, if you want to make them look good, need more frames drawn.  It’s just as inconvenient to fill a room with extras because some artist has to character design each extra.  You think, as I did, going into animation from live-action, that everything costs the same.  It’s all a bunch of drawings, but you very quickly learn that you do have to be strategic about your research.

How has your experience with Adult Swim been, compared to some other networks that you’ve recently worked with?

HARMON:  Mike Lazzo is a bona fide, actual genius, especially in the world of network executives.  He has the autonomy, the humility and the mental power to actually take a script, recognize it for what it is, which is a document with words on paper, read it, and then tell you what his reactions were to it, as an individual.  Those are his notes.  He says, “On page 17, as I was reading this document, I lost the story right here.  Maybe that’s because I was driving to work while I was reading it, or eating a sandwich, or maybe I don’t have the right sense of humor.”  He never says, “I don’t think people are going to like this.”  He never branches out into the business of speculating about this bio-mass for which we are creating it.  He never goes, “People are going to respond this way, when this happens.”  And he also never confuses the script for the finished product.  He gives script notes on the script.  He gives editorial notes on the animatic.  Then, he gives final notes.  Every once in a while, there’s one we don’t agree with, but that makes us just want to make him happy.

With Community, you were able to go further out than almost any other sitcom.  Was that a fight, or were you always able to get as far as you wanted? And what’s it like now?

rick-and-mortyHARMON:  Well, at Adult Swim, we get to do whatever we want.  My job, as the part of the studio that’s producing Rick and Morty, is to supposedly protect Justin [Roiland] from the big, bad suits, which don’t exist at Adult Swim.  And as a writer on Rick and Morty, my job is just to help Justin jar up his insanity.  I’m actually the guy that’s the agent of compromise.  Justin’s ideas are insane, and I try to infuse them with story and character, and stuff like that.  Over at Community, it’s not actually that much different.  I pitched Community because I wanted to do a mainstream network sitcom the way someone might want to write a sonnet or haiku.  It was my chosen medium.  I grew up on these kinds of shows.  It’s the kind of show that I want to do.  I get very few S&P notes when working on Community.  Honestly, it’s a big, giant, complicated machine, when you have a giant studio like Sony and a giant network like NBC in a marriage.  The employment is circulating over there, between the two of them, all the time.  In a general sense, you’re seeing a bunch of crazy stuff on screen at Community because, in general and relative to other networks and studios, they were incredibly permissive.  I think NBC knew it was in the business of critical darlings, and they encouraged me, early on, to go crazy.  Sony has always been in the business of syndication, and they want this show to succeed.

Some of the recent turbulence in your career has been well documented. Are you surprised to be sitting here now, with two shows that you’re still working on?  How did you survive all this, to be with us today?

rick-and-morty-adult-swimHARMON:  I walk with God, and He protects me.  No.  Well, that may very well be true.  I don’t mean to make that sound like a joke, in case He is in charge.  Always hedge your bets.  That’s how I do it.  I don’t know.  I don’t politic.  I lay all my bets on what I can contribute, and suffer no illusions that I’m generating stuff by myself.  I also surround myself with loyalists and people that I would die for.  I just would rather die than make bad stuff for people because I’m a terrible dishwasher and a terrible lover and a terrible pet owner.  This is my only recourse, to go to bed at night and feel like I did anything of merit, so that fills me with emotions that sometimes get expressed in ways that you may read about in third-hand blogs and stuff, but it also allows me to fail upward.

Can you be successful, creatively, without the stuff that causes so much trouble in your life?

HARMON:  You know, pharmaceutical medicine is making leaps, every day.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed.  I think thoughts in my head.  They bounce around in my skull and, if they keep bouncing around in my skull, they get worse and worse.  When they come out of my mouth, they make people happy.  When they’re taken out of context and put in a headline, they can get somebody a couple clicks on a Bacardi ad, and that’s a perfectly fine price to pay.  The most important thing is that, when I’m going to bed at night, I don’t have this thing eating away at me.  I say what’s in my head, and I’m on honest ground.  That is worth so much, and I think it does make my job, as a writer, easier.  It makes it possible for me to give people stuff that they like.

You’ve already been lobbying for a sixth season of Community, beyond this upcoming 13, but do you really think that’s a possibility?

HARMON:  It depends on what fails. 

rick-and-morty-titleWhen Community does end, would you ever want to go back to network television?

HARMON:  Well, I always weigh these things by looking down the road with as much of a crystal ball as I can.  If I had not been invited back and not gone back, the worst case scenario is 30 years of wondering what would have happened if I had gone back.  Going back, the worst case scenario is one shitty season. Who cares?  I had to go back.  The constraints are the same as iambic pentameter, are the same as haiku, or are the same as the constraints that come with a different way to reach an audience.  I grew up on network sitcoms.  If those are gone when I’m 65 years old, I would never forgive myself for not stepping up to that plate, as often as possible.  I’m already bummed out that DVDs are dying off because, in my 20s, those were a huge thing.  I’m like, “I want to do a commentary track.”  Technology changes the medium.  I grew up on watching a box in my living room that made my parents happy.  After Community is gone, the dust will settle and I’ll see what’s next.