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What Exactly Made ‘Rick and Morty’ One of Hollywood’s Most Influential Writers Rooms

"Avengers: Secret War" writer Michael Waldron jokingly told IndieWire that fellow alumni are "cashing in on our ‘Rick and Morty’ street cred."

Rick and Morty Writers

“Star Trek: Lower Decks,” “Rick and Morty,” and “Loki.”

Paramount+; Adult Swim; Disney+

Rick and Morty” Season 6, currently airing Sunday nights on Adult Swim, is coming back to a sci-fi/fantasy TV landscape it helped reshape. Thursdays alone premiere new episodes of “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” on Disney+, “Star Trek: Lower Decks” on Paramount+, and “Little Demon” on FXX, which all have executive producers that worked on the Emmy-winning animated program. Even on the film side of things, it was recently announced that while one “Rick and Morty” alum, Jeff Loveness, is going to write the upcoming Marvel Studios blockbuster “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty,” another, Michael Waldron, is writing part two, “Avengers: Secret War.”

“We’ve all just been one by one cashing in on our ‘Rick and Morty’ street cred,” Waldron joked to IndieWire. “It’s one of those rare shows that, just having been able to be part of it, it did feel like it raised your profile and made you a more enticing person to work with.”

So how exactly did the writers room for an Adult Swim show that was first perceived as a “Back to the Future” parody become multiple young writers’ ticket to working on the biggest IP projects in the world? The answer they share is a focus on story, developing scripts using “Rick and Morty” co-creator Dan Harmon’s Story Circle approach, a simplified version of “The Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell. “I remember standing up in front of Sam Raimi on our first day together being like, ‘Alright, here’s a circle. Here’s how I’m going to do this,” recalled Waldron, screenwriter of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” “And I learned all that from Dan.”

In short, the eight steps to the Story Circle are:
In A Zone of Comfort
They Desire Something
Enter An Unfamiliar Situation
Adapt to The Situation
Get What They Desired
Pay a Heavy Price for Winning
A Return to Their Familiar Situation
They Have Overall Changed

However, Mike McMahan, former “Rick and Morty” showrunner, who now created and runs “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” puts some of the show’s storytelling approaches in even simpler terms. “We really like doing episodes that we call ‘A thing and a thing and a thing,’ because it would be like, ‘Let’s take the movie “The Fantastic Voyage,” where it’s like, “Oh, we’re gonna shrink down and go inside a guy.”’ On ‘Rick and Morty,’ that’s not enough. That’s the thing. Now you need a thing and a thing,” said the writer, recalling the Season 1 episode “Anatomy Park” where Morty is injected into the body of a stranger. “I remember the first draft of that was they’re going into a body, and then they’re finding creatures inside of that body that are causing havoc, and then they shrink down and go inside of those creatures and they’re finding other shrunk down people, pushing it, embracing the complexity of it. You’re going in a dream, and a dream, and a dream.”

McMahan added, “A lot of the complexity of ‘Rick and Morty’ is pushing past the logical, simple, mythological sci-fi and taking it to a comedic extreme, which ups the complexity, but it also diminishes the kind of seriousness of the sci-fi you’re playing with.”

Waldron, who wrote on the show when McMahan was showrunning Season 4, remembered another way they “cracked the code” of the show. “After the midpoint, for lack of a better word, it always feels like the show gets drunk. It’s like, ‘And that’s when Jerry and Rick are trying to get back to Earth, and suddenly they’re going through spacetime, their bodies are melting together.’ That’s when shit is going fully crazy. And that freedom of you’re already telling a story hopefully with curvature to it,” said Waldron. “But even that, because audiences are smart, can sometimes start to feel linear in a way because they know ‘Alright, there’s the rising and falling action,’ and they know what’s coming, so we would try to subvert that and zig and zag.”

“‘Rick and Morty’ is a really complex show to write. It comes off as effortless and funny, but under the hood, there’s a huge amount of attention paid to plot, and story choice, and emotional character journeys, and after the Emmy [in 2018], we were all already trying to outdo ourselves all the time, and trying to push ourselves,” said McMahan. “We were always redefining what was important in any one moment; what types of stories we tell, what kind of format. What was always coming up was ‘What is a classic “Rick and Morty?”’ because there kind of wasn’t one… They’ve never settled on what is a classic ‘Rick and Morty.’ The point has always been ‘What’s the coolest, funniest, least expected show that still has an emotional core?’”

The folks willing to go through that thought process are now the folks Harmon and new showrunner Scott Marder look for when hiring “Rick and Morty” writers. “If anybody were to say something in a writers meeting like ‘Story’s not important, I just think TV should be funny,’ I’m gonna smell a rat there because you can’t just—maybe that person is a brilliant joke writer. And maybe they would be a huge asset to the show, but they’re going to take up space in a writers room that could be taken up by somebody that actually does agree that story is important enough,” said Harmon. “For me, a big thing is just people who care. I don’t feel like you can teach someone to care. They just either do or don’t. And the people that care are the people that really help you lift up the show, and make it the great thing that it is,” responded Marder.

“Rick and Morty” co-creator Justin Roiland has a sense of the impact the show has had, partially because it is the type of show he’d watch even if he didn’t help make it. “As a fan of high concept sci-fi animation, for me, I was really excited that suddenly there was more of that after ‘Rick and Morty’ got big enough. It seemed, and I don’t know if that’s just a Zeitgeist-y thing that was gonna happen either way but as a fan of that kind of content, it’s nice to see more of it.” McMahan, who also co-created the Hulu series “Solar Opposites” with Roiland, gives credit to the show’s network as well. “Adult Swim was taking chances on things that were just funny. That didn’t have to check a lot of boxes. And now everybody’s doing that, with a mix of—obviously, some people are spending billion dollars on TV shows about elves and stuff—but for me, I think that I would not have as many opportunities back in the day, as I do now, if it was still [that] you had to appeal to 19 million households an episode,” said the writer/producer.

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