Q&A With Dan Harmon

This is my interview with Harmon, another guy whose work nearly always appeals to me; I even bought a collection of Scud: The Disposable Assassin comics because he’d written some of them (they’re okay. Not great, but okay). I condensed it for this Q&A and wish I hadn’t had to, but alas, we can only afford so much paper each week. Harmon is a brilliant, funny, interesting guy and he’s awkward in a way I find fascinating. He’s not shy, though, and as you can see, I ask only a few questions and he just talks nonstop. I love both of his shows; I loved Community so much I was afraid it’d turn out to be a fluke and he wouldn’t be able to carry it off again, but I like Rick & Morty, if anything, better. The start of that show was the occasion of this interview. This was just after Harmon had gotten his job as Community showrunner back, but before it had been canceled.

So how did this all begin?

Justin [Roiland, co-creator of Rick & Morty] had always been sort of playing around with these very intense, strange characters through the Channel 101 sandbox. They started off as a kind of punk rock, sneering immolation of a relationship we all grew up on, which is the one between Doc Brown and Marty McFly (the characters were originally called Doc and Mharti), and they kind of evolved from there. I think there was something about this insane, sociopathic, gruff character who keeps burping while he’s talking and this kid who keeps asking these questions, the answers to which are, “I don’t have time to answer that question.”

Like everything on Adult Swim, Rick & Morty has a really distinctive look. How much input do you have into that?

If somebody puts something in front of me and asks for an opinion, I’ll give them one, but I’m not the person whose eyeball one should be deferring to, especially not with Justin. His eyeballs are very specific and very passionate. What I can provide for him is, if he says, “Well, I want there to be a giant testicle monster with testicles hanging off of it, and it has a vagina in the middle of it,” what I can provide is OK, how does that feel? What kind of story might make use of that? Does the testicle monster come in on page one, and what are we learning on page five?

It’s kind of dark, man.

It’s from the opposite corner to Community—the character who makes everything happen is a scientist and an ingenious one, who, like a lot of smart people, is burdened with the knowledge that a lot of what you think matters doesn’t matter. He knows that there are different timelines, and that there’s a universe where Hitler won World War II, and just as many as there are where Hitler lost World War II, and people who live there feel like their universe is the normal universe.

But you’re also saying that the stories are specifically different from Community stories.

Community starts with the idea that we are all people, and part of some family, and then usually, in a Community story, the call to adventure is the insinuation that there’s a system or ideology that’s more important than people, and it causes chaos. And they eventually come to the conclusion that when they got out of bed that morning, they were as good as they were going to get and they need to give themselves permission to be who they are. Rick & Morty is an inversion of that: science rules supreme, marriages are on the rocks, and things get so chaotic that it does boil down to the petty, emotional issues of humanity. And when you come back into the third act of a Rick & Morty story, the moral is that let’s not forget we’re all pretty insignificant.

And that’s a lot more palatable for the younger audience on Adult Swim than it would be to, say, NBC.

Even if they are older, they’re watching animation—the young part of your brain is kind of the revolutionary part. It’s fun. The Adult Swim audience is going to be more amenable to this—it’s the god they’re worshipping when they’re out there skateboards trying to break their legs.

So how do you run two shows with two totally opposing worldviews?

You be absolutely mentally ill. When it’s prevalent, we call it diagnosable. When you can observe two diametrically opposite things and just perceive them as coexisting—well, if you work in a bank you’ll probably get fired. If you work on a TV show, you assign each part of that circle to a different character. This universe is gigantic and there’s no way that either of us can be any more significant than a grain of salt, but at the same time it’s unhealthy to not go with the instinctive emotional feeling that everything is so important. Nothing could be more important than what’s happening to you right now. Every breath you take is another story. What could be a bigger crime than ignoring that that time is passing? That’s the triumph of this naked ape that we are over the awareness that we’ve jailed ourselves in. But you have to be just as enthusiastic about how insignificant we are.

With that kind of darkness, did you ever think about working with Dino Stamatopoulos, who worked with you on Community and has a couple of shows at Adult Swim already? Seems like you guys are pretty close.

Dino is above me, in a certain sense. He’s older than me and has been working longer. I’m more comfortable collaborating with someone younger than me. I wouldn’t want to give Dino notes on anything, ever. It’s something about the inherent hierarchy among creatives—there’s more at risk there than there is with a writer ten years younger than you who’s passionate about things you’re not passionate at all about. Justin loves to pay attention to these beautiful backgrounds that you’re describing, and he looks at me as a person who’s always right on the things that he doesn’t have any opinions about. There’s no Gaza strip there where two people think they’re both supposed to be calling the shots. We get to be ourselves, and they help so much. I will collaborate with Dino for sure, but we’re partners on so many projects.

What was it like doing an animated show for the first time?

It’s catastrophically different from [what I thought it would be like]—what you call post-production in television you call pre-production in animation. In live action you end up with a rough cut that can be twice as long as what you end up with in runtime. You can decide what the final product will be in the edit bay; in animation you’ve got to edit down to the second. You can’t just lift out swaths of it and call it sculpture. If I’d known all the different things you have to care about in animation, my knees would have trembled. My weird laziness combined with my naivete and impulsiveness… something brought me to Justin, who is one of the best producers you could ever ask for. This is stuff that he’s absolutely compelled to dwell on. He’s an artist himself. He has no problem dwelling among these cubicles and making the character designers’ lives a living hell, because he cares about every background and every pixel. He works hand in hand with Mike Mandel, the line producer. Like an idiot, I was thinking, oh, now I’ll have full control! I’ll have a show like The Simpsons! I could not have been further off the mark.

What’s it like to be back on Community? 

It’s fantastic to be back. It’s very humbling, because we got started so late. Sony made the decision to do 13 episodes so late and to put [fellow Community writer Chris] McKenna and I in charge of them. It’s like an underdog sports movie: everybody had been snatched up by Parks & Rec or somewhere else. It’s not that there’s been a shortage of good people, it’s that you’ve had to work very hard to find them. We’ve got a lot of really good new faces in there who are just zealously professional, and they’ve read the stories about the supposedly horrible hours a writer has to work on Community, and they’re in there because they think it’s good. Being among people like that can make you kind of nervous. I was kind of always the guy who had to tap his glass with a fork in the middle of a conversation and say how much more important it was than they thought; I was the crazy Howard Hughes guy who had to lock himself in a room and do the story while a board waited to see it. The people who are able to write it, they find you and you find them. I’m in a position for the first time in my career where I struggle with a position of unworthiness relative to the people who are underneath me. I feel like the reason I have to go work hard is not because of the audience first and foremost, but because of these kids who think this is the best thing in the world to work on. I don’t have bad guys lurking over me. I’m not surrounded by ungrateful people. Self-loathing and combating all the people around you can be a luxury. If you screw up, it’s your fault now. If season 5 of Community sucks, it’ll be because I suck.

It’s funny—you describe Rick as this kind of troubled guy whose perspective is so macro that other people don’t understand him. That sounds a lot like Abed to me. Why have such similar characters in such different shows?

I gravitate toward these characters for self-serving reasons. Either through nature or nurture I have decided that what makes me likable is not whether or not you like me when I’m talking to your face but whether or not you like what I do. So I love stories about guys… not guys you love to hate—"oh he’s so bad he’s good!“—but guys like Mark Zuckerberg or Howard Hughes or Temple Grandin. People who are discounted for reasons that are fundamental to human nature and so have to answer to a higher power. The Steve Jobs mythology. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like "Oh, I think I’m one of these people!” It’s not that. I put all my eggs in my writing basket and for better or for worse I just decided that if what I make is good, I’m good, and if what I make is bad, then I’m bad, and we live in a world where everybody agrees that that’s not true! Somebody’ll do something good and everyone will say “Oh, but he’s a bad person.” I like examining that conflict between the people who don’t fit in but are consumed with the contribution to these people who kind of don’t like them. Self-loathing and self-worship are kind of both the same side of narcissism. It’s kind of like, “Jesus Christ, get over yourself.” [It’s like] the scene in the Aviator where Howard Hughes is trying to perfect some kind of aspect of an aircraft and he starts saying uncontrollably “Show me all the blueprints!” and can’t stop saying it, and you have that amazing moment where you feel sorry for someone who has so much power, because they have this relationship with some kind of God above them; even if that God is just mental illness. The Rick character is just the absurd expression of that. It’s very much like Doctor Who and Ford Prefect in Hitchhiker’s Guide, and Willy Wonka. They just don’t have time to interface with the people around them in a way that makes anybody comfortable. I think the answer over time is that you’ll come to believe that he’s a real person. I think even by the end of these first ten episodes, we’ve figured out that the more hours you log with this guy, he never really jumps the shark in terms of revealing that he loves all the people around him, or crying and saying “oh, it’s so hard to be this big a prick,” but you get it, or you get that you don’t get it. It made me so excited that this character could possibly live for a long time. I’m looking forward.

How do you make Rick resonate like that?

Dimensionalizing him means bringing the audience more and more into this infinitely-sized multiverse. By the end of the first ten episodes, we don’t really reveal that there’s some big enchilada like Fox Mulder’s sister getting abducted; we don’t reveal that he’s been trying to bring his ex-wife back to life, but we do realize how vast the universe he lives in compared to ours is, and how existentially exhausting that has to be. Morty basically has to have it beaten out of him. If you bring your hangups into a world of infinite adventures, you’re gonna die or you’re going to let them go.

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