Press Tour: Dan Harmon talks 'Rick and Morty,' 'Community' and creative freedom
What can you do in animation that you can't do in live-action?
Adult Swim's "Rick and Morty" represents a whole new world for co-creator Dan Harmon, making the leap from live action to animation.
"You can make a banana purple. You can put three hats on a cowboy," Harmon tells reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday (July 24), explaining the limitless possibilities of the hand-drawn comedy.
Harmon and co-creator Justin Roiland agree that animation means that the world of "Rick and Morty" has very few limits, but the past-and-present "Community" showrunner also notes that the more things change the less they change.
"It actually is just as inconvenient, for instance, to blow something up in animation, because explosions, if you want to make them look good, they need more frames drawn," Harmon says. "It's just as inconvenient to fill a room with extras, because some artist has character-design each extra. You think, as I did going into animation from live-action, 'Ah, 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 resources."
"Rick and Morty" tells the story of a somewhat wacky family, focusing on Rick, an aging and brilliantly eccentric inventor, and his dunderhead grandson Morty, a subpar high school student. In the pilot, for example, we learn that Rick has been pulling Morty out of school and taking him into the dimension's vast recesses on harvesting missions.
It's outlandish stuff full of galactic portals, aliens and time travel, but Harmon says that the show won't delve too heavily into the credulity for its various fits of fancy.
"That was an interesting lesson I learned from 'Community' is that if the emotional dynamics are resonant, if you see someone take something from someone else and they react as if something's been taken from them, the way you would react if something was taken from you, it actually doesn't matter if the thing that was taken from them is a talking banana and was taken from them at laser-gunpoint," says Harmon, whose imagination seems to heavily involve bananas. "It doesn't matter. Genre is a variable if you choose for emotional dynamics to be a constant. A mother could worry about her kid being dragged off to a different dimension by her insane inventor grandfather through a portal on the wall of the garage, she could worry just as much as when he leaves with his skateboarding friends. He could get hurt and that represents something real within the family dynamic. But we don't waste time wondering how the family would react seeing a dragon come into the living room. 'Oh God! This means God is real!' That would eat up 20 minutes of every episode."
Instead, the episodic structure will be fairly traditional.
"A lot of episodes... hit that kind of traditional '80s sitcom structure," he says. "It's just that the A-story is Rick and Morty going off to that strange part of the Multiverse, while the B-story is something hopefully more worthy of, not to flatter ourselves, but if a lesser talented Woody Allen were writing about just an ordinary thing that happens within the family."
This is an off-network detour for Harmon, which inevitably raises questions.
"I've been talking with Adult Swim for a long time, always admired the things they were doing over there and it was just a matter of 'When's the right project gonna come along?'" he says.
The right project came along after spitballing with Roiland, who voices both main characters and is "the Howard Hughes of home-spun 2-D animation," Harmon says.
Harmon also has high praise for Mike Lazzo, executive vp/creative director at Adult Swim and raves about the specificity of the notes that they have been getting on "Rick and Morty."
"He never says, 'I don't think people are going to like this.' He never branches out into the business of speculating about the biomass for which we are creating this opiate," Harmon says. "He never goes, 'People are going to respond this way when this happens.' And he also never confuses the script for the finished project. He gives script-notes on the script."
Naturally, you can read into that comment a rather thorough critique of the creative process Harmon has experienced working on "Community," though Harmon is hasty to observe, "You're seeing a bunch of crazy stuff on screen at 'Community' because, in general, relative to other networks and studios, they were incredibly permissive. I think NBC knew it was in the business of critical darlings and was always encouraging me early on like, 'Yeah, go crazy.' And Sony has always been in the business of syndication. They want this show to succeed."
Naturally, a good percentage of the TCA Press Tour questions for Harmon and Roiland involved "Community" and they became so constant that when a query came up about the show's technical specs, Roiland responded, "Oh 'Community'?"
But Harmon was also hyper-anticipatory when it came to questions. When he was asked about going back to network TV in a future sense, he immediately answered why he decided to go back to "Community" after a one-year hiatus.
"If I had not gone back, if I had been invited back and not gone back, the worse case scenario is 30 years of wondering what would have happened if I had gone back. If I go back, the worst case scenario is one s***y season. Who cares? I had to go back," he replied.
When it was explained that the question was actually about why he'd subject himself to the constraints of network TV in the future, he proved to be a strong advocate.
"The constraints you're describing are the same as iambic pentameter, they're the same as a haiku," he tells the reporter. "Those constraints come with a different way to reach an audience. Like I've said, 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."
In the end, Harmon summed up the balance of genius and trouble that he brings to the table and brings upon himself.
"I would rather die than make bad stuff for people, because I'm a terrible dishwasher, I'm a terrible lover, I'm a terrible pet owner and 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 express in ways that you might read about third-hand on blogs and stuff, but I also, I think, overall kind of allows me to fail upward."
There you go.
"Rick and Morty" won't premiere until December on Adult Swim.