Showrunner Dan Harmon Discusses His New Animated Series

Also, his return to Community


Who Dan Harmon

Age 40

New gig Creator/showrunner of Rick and Morty on Adult Swim. Also on Season 5 of Community.

Old gig Creator/showrunner of Community, from which he was fired after three seasons.

So how did Rick and Morty, your new animated original series, begin?

Justin [Roiland, co-creator] had always been sort of playing around with these very intense, strange characters. 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, 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 and 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. 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, 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.

But the stories are specifically different from Community stories.

Community starts with the idea that we are all people and part of some family, and usually 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. Rick and 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 the moral is that we’re all pretty insignificant.

And that’s a lot more palatable for the younger audience on Adult Swim than, 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 the god they’re worshipping when they’re out there on skateboards trying to break their legs.

How do you run two shows with two totally opposing worldviews?

You have to be absolutely mentally ill. When you observe two diametrically opposite things and 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 “story 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. It’s unhealthy to not go with the instinctive emotional feeling that everything is so important. But you have to be just as enthusiastic about how insignificant we are.

What’s it like to be back on Community? 

It’s very humbling. I was always the guy who had to tap his glass with a fork in the middle of a conversation and say how much more important [the show] was than they thought. [Now], I struggle with 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.

Publish date: December 1, 2013 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT