This story about Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland first appeared in the “Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. It is one in a series of conversations about the effects of the coronavirus on the TV industry.
“Rick and Morty” fans were treated to some good news just as stay-at-home-orders began rolling out across the country: Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s beloved Adult Swim animated series would premiere the second half of its fourth season on May 3. While those episodes roll out, Harmon, Roiland and company are already working on Season 5, facing fewer — but different — obstacles than those of a live-action series.
TheWrap spoke with Harmon and Roiland last month, while they were still adjusting to a virtual writers’ room for their fifth season, about the Season 4 episode that has quickly become a fan favorite: “The Vat of Acid Episode.” In this installment, mad scientist Rick and his grandson, Morty, (both voiced by Roiland) have a falling out over Rick’s self-proclaimed genius idea to hide themselves in a fake vat of acid, floating up bones while breathing through oxygen tubes to make their enemies believe they are dead. Morty finds this plan incredibly dumb and his criticism leads Rick to finally build Morty a device that allows him to “save” his place in life and go back to that moment whenever he reloads it, like in a video game.
The episode, which had been a long-gestating idea for Harmon and Roiland, ultimately becomes a story about so much more than just a vat of acid, as Morty falls in love with an unnamed girl and has an entire year-long relationship with her that unfolds in a four-minute musical montage. That love story ends in tragedy when his father, Jerry (voiced by Chris Parnell), accidentally hits the button on Morty’s place-saving device, instantly erasing the entire relationship.
Your Emmy submission for Season 4 is “The Vat of Acid Episode,” which is about both a vat of acid and a video game-style, place-saving device on the surface — but so much more. Where did that story come from?
Justin Roiland: We loved the idea of getting caught in a loop of death. If you’ve ever played a video game before and you’re fighting a really difficult boss and your health is super low and you’re gonna die, you pause the game, you really quickly go to load your previous save and start over — but you accidentally hit save instead of load and now you’re in this death loop where you’ve got one little health heart and you’re in the middle of a boss fight, so you just keep dying. And that was what we always thought was going to happen with the place-saving device. But it was also the thing that prevented us from really cracking that story because we would get to that part and go, “OK, well then what happens?” There wasn’t any bigger, deeper sort of narrative going on, it was more conceptual. But we’d been talking about it since Season 1 and we would always come back to it in the writers’ room and try to figure it out.
Dan Harmon: At the beginning of the year, we were talking about how ’80s movies had this obsession with vats of toxic waste and acid and whether that was a cultural thing because of people’s awareness of nuclear waste and why that became such a handy story tool. And our writer Brandon Johnson said, “I think it’s a budget thing, because all you gotta do is drop a bad guy into a bucket of water and float some bones up to the surface and you’re done.” And that became, what if Rick was really proud of that idea and is defensive because Morty is absolutely confused by the genius of the vat of acid plan from a guy who can accomplish so much more. And that came into a conversation that creatives are familiar with, where two collaborators are venting their fears and anxieties about working with each other and who is respecting whose ideas more. If Morty’s point is his ideas are never respected when clearly there are no wrong answers around here, then it was, well what should Morty’s big idea be that he’s always been mad Rick hasn’t respect? And we pulled out one that we’ve always had that we’ve never been able to really tackle and that was the place-saving device.
A really important shout-out for that episode should go to the director Jacob Hair, because Justin and I had not seen a cut of that episode until the animatic phase and the episode had come in very short. And Jacob had inserted that entire musical sequence with Morty’s romantic relationship with this unnamed girl. And we barely changed a frame of it and it’s such a beautiful moment in TV.
How has “Rick and Morty” been affected by the pandemic?
Harmon: We had already finished Season 4, and the writers are working on Season 5 in two-hour blocks through Zoom. There are a lot of things that are better about a Zoom writers’ room, and they are balanced out by things that are worse. The most obvious example is the stuff that people have looked into in recent years about how men are a little more socialized to interrupt and to be interrupted, and women are possibly socialized to consider it rude and therefore get a shorter end of the stick when they are in a mixed writers’ room. And everyone is equalized in the interruption sense in a Zoom writers’ room. If one person starts talking at the same time as another person, there is no amount of testosterone or estrogen or upbringing that can change the fact that the only thing that’s happening is everyone can no longer understand what’s going on. And I think that’s a good thing, because it really democratizes what can be an easily ignored psychological thing that could continue to go on in a physical writers’ room. I specifically checked with the women in the room at a certain point because we’re all writers, and we’re all fascinated by this stuff. So I asked them about it after a couple of sessions and this is based on their insights.
Roiland: From my experience, it’s actually kind of awesome. In a physical writers’ room, we have a dry-erase board that’s used quite extensively. And in the digital writers’ room, you can screen share and I can have my Cintiq (a digital drawing tablet) and I can be drawing something that everyone is seeing and then I can take that off and we can pop back over to the scripts. The nice thing about that is now my drawings are saved vs. a photo of a white board.
What changes do you expect you’ll have to make in the future as far as how you create the show?
Harmon: If things stay this way, we’re going to have to find a substitute for the white board. I think I’m going to hook up a camera rig over a physical pad of paper that in a Zoom session I can cut to and draw a story circle. If we make that easy enough, then I guess the white board could be replaced by every single writer having the ability to effortlessly cut to a pad of paper so they can share their thoughts visually, as well as verbally.
What do you see as TV’s role in this time of isolation?
Roiland: I’m not trying to compare this directly to the Great Depression, but I know growing up in the Great Depression was really fucked, and one industry that still thrived was entertainment, because people were going to the theaters and watching movies. I think it’s the same now, but from home. We have every conceivable form of entertainment at our fingertips. And I think it’s incredibly important to just distract yourself from the horrible realities of what’s going on.
Harmon: It’s nice in a pandemic because you can’t go outside and so TV can do its job of saying, “Hey, stay in here and watch me.” It’s being a good friend. And that’s what TV emotionally is supposed to be going for, even though its macro goal is to pacify a potentially rebellious nation. Right now, whether it’s us watching Tiger King together and marveling at the nuances of attempted murder plots, or us rediscovering Community on Netflix or people sharing Rick and Morty, it’s all very medicinal for everybody, including the people that make the show.
To read more of the “Race Begins” issue, click here.