“Did you ever hear about this alligator who went into a restaurant?” Lamar Thigpen took them by the neck and drew them close as lovers.
“No, I didn’t,” said the courteous engineer, though he had. Jokes always made him nervous. He had to attend to the perilous needs of the joke-teller.
–Walker Percy, The Last Gentlemen
Two minutes into this excruciatingly long ten minute video, I’ve seen all it has to show me. But I’m still watching it because my friend thought it was funny. “Oh, let me show you this,” he had said excitedly, typing the words “nightclub mashup” into YouTube.
Instead of telling each other jokes anymore, we show each other videos.
It’s footage of nightclub scenes from various movies, all edited together, as if they were the same movie. Saturday Night Fever, The Terminator, Collateral, one of the Star Wars prequels, something with Al Pacino. Probably Scarface, which I’ve never seen. Maybe Carlito’s Way, which I’ve also never seen. There’s even a shot from Charlie’s Angels. I love Charlie’s Angels. Both of them. There’s no accounting for taste, right?
But this montage isn’t working for me, partly because it’s a simple joke dragged out for ten minutes. Mostly because I’m a snooty cinephile — who loves the Charlie’s Angels movies — so I can tell the difference between something shot by Michael Mann and something shot by McG. A John Badham movie from the 70s and a Star Wars prequel are tacky in completely different ways. To me, it’s not much of a joke that characters walk into crowded bars and nightclubs a lot.
My friend is grinning. Robocop strolls in. It’s got seven minutes to go. Now it’s that movie from the Saturday Night Live skit about two guys who are always jerking their heads to some beat. Do I politely pretend it’s funny? Do I say I don’t get it? Do I just keep watching? My friend is still grinning. No telling how many people he’s showed this to.
I had a similar reaction to Rick & Morty, which had been selected as a Patreon review of the month. If I’d just started watching on my own, I’d have gotten two or three episodes in and decided it’s not for me. But I found myself in the same situation as the two-minute mark of that nightclub video. Do I politely pretend it’s funny? Do I say I don’t get it? Do I just keep watching?
Humor is probably the most subjective element of storytelling. Everyone mostly agrees on what’s romantic, what’s scary, what’s sad, what’s thrilling. But funny? There’s a reason so much comedy relies on the lowest common denominator. Your best chance at being funny is to spread a wide net.
Rick and Morty spreads a pretty narrow net. It’s a crass Back to the Future parody. Rick is a mad scientist, Morty is his grandson, together they have adventures that violate the laws of time and space. What makes it a parody is that Rick is an uncaring and sometimes drunken asshole. The credits show him leaving Morty to die a grisly death. He just doesn’t care. “Look, I’m sorry,” he says when they’re on the verge of getting killed, “I feel bad that I let you drag us into this.” Drinking, belching, uncaring, swearing. He’s Bad Santa, but as a scientist. Bad Einstein.
I don’t understand what’s funny about a vulgar, drunken, uncaring Doc Brown. Christopher Lloyd’s character is already funny without dialing his eccentricities up to an R-rated 11. It’s like making a parody of Silicon Valley where everyone pees on the floor and is mean to baby animals. Why would that even be a thing?
Welcome to the creative mind of Justin Roiland, who is so happy with his premise that he decided to do both voices himself! As Morty, he wheedles and mewls and grouses. As Rick, he stutters and arbitrarily retches and ponderously Bobcat Goldthwaits. The exaggerated sloppiness of the voice acting goes with the low rent animation and gross aesthetic. The screen is full of things slimy, amorphous, toilets, spittle, vomit, wet plopping, yelling, more stuttering and stammering, stuttering and stammering like it’s going out of style.
In one episode, I hear the remarkable Phil Hendrie, who is to voices what Lon Chaney was to faces. He’s only using his regular speaking voice. Why do you cast Phil Hendrie and only have him use his regular speaking voice? He’s playing a high school principal named Principal Vagina. Yep, the high school principal is named Principal Vagina. That’s the level of humor you can expect. Every episode has a B story about Morty’s mother, father, or sister. Morty’s father is played by Chris Parnell, People magazine’s Blandest Man Alive for six years running. Morty’s mother is a horse surgeon. Morty’s older sister is an older sister. Rick and Morty uses these B stories to explore the conventions of any sitcom. And by explore, I mean just put them out there.
Dan Harmon, the guy who made Community, helped Roiland get Rick and Morty a slot on the Cartoon Network. Harmon co-writes with Roiland. For years, I conflated Community with Parks and Recreation. When I finally watched them, I fell in love with one and couldn’t see the humor, much less appeal, of the other. Community is to sitcoms what that nightclub mashup is to Youtube videos. So guess where I stand with Dan Harmon? And now I’m reviewing his collaboration with Justin Roiland. Three episodes in, eight to go.
But a funny thing happened somewhere around the fourth or fifth episode, right past where I would have stopped watching if it had been up to me. I wouldn’t say I actually liked it. Instead, I started to not mind it so much. I started to appreciate the creative contortions of Roiland’s stories. A dimension composed entirely of Ricks, but each from a different alternate timeline. A service that strips the negative aspect from Monkey’s Paw style cursed antiques sold by the devil. The dumb jokes became curiously endearing. Adolph Hitler crossed with Abraham Lincoln? He’s called Abrahoph Lincler. That’s certainly something. Funny? I dunno, maybe? I expected more Principal Vaginas and I got an Abrahoph Lincler.
I started to enjoy Rick’s smug superiority as a scientific genius around the time he announced, “Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don’t get that.” His swearing started to be funny. “Yeah, bitches,” he’ll routinely crow, like Jesse from Breaking Bad. “Motherfucka!” he taunts (it’s better unbleeped). Roiland understands the effectiveness of rude language. He describes an epithet from an alien language: “It’s like the N-word and the C-word had a baby and it was raised by all the bad words for Jews.”
How much of this is a matter of the format? Something happens during episodic TV. Call it character development, call it acclimation, call it Stockholm Syndrome, or just call it the show happening to get better. You start to like the characters, or at least like hating them. A show starts to grow on you the same way you find yourself liking a song the fifth time you hear it. Watching another episode of Rick and Morty was no longer a chore. I actually looked forward to it. Maybe if I’d watched a season of nightclub mashups instead of a single ten-minute video, I might have warmed to it.
It was the seventh episode that really grabbed me. Imagine a dimension where women have seceded from mankind to create a man-less paradise. In the background is a restaurant called Just a Bite of Yours, next to a lurid neon sign promising Live Cuddling. Their version of a casual “how’s it goin’?” is “I’m here if you need to talk”. Claudia Black is the leader of the women’s world. Rick is on trial for farting (“the sound which we do not speak because it does not exist”). The woman before him, on trial for bad bangs, is sentenced to the silent treatment. Rick guesses his sentence. “W-w-what, a night on the couch?” Observational comedy by way of science fiction. The episodes that make fun of Jurassic Park, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Fantastic Voyage (Innerspace, if you’re under 40) are all good and well. The crass and irreverent pokes at popular culture are the icing. But the crass and irreverent sci-fi is the actual cake.
By the time the first season is over, Rick and Morty has started to lay some humanity underneath the sloppy outrageousness of its characters and the reality-bending convolutions of its stories. Morty is talking to his sister. He confesses that he’s not her real brother. Her real brother died a gruesome death a few episodes ago in a lab accident. Rick and Morty beamed into this reality just after the accident, because they had destroyed their own reality, annihilating everyone they knew and loved. So the newly arrived Rick and Morty cleaned up the the mess from the lab accident and buried the bodies of the newly killed Rick and Morty in the backyard. They took their places as if the accident had never happened. Morty says he eats breakfast every morning a few yards away from his own corpse. He is a stranger, an imposter, not really his sister’s brother. This is not where he belongs.
Who among us can’t relate? This isn’t the world where we’re supposed to be, is it? Can’t we all imagine someplace so much better if we hadn’t taken a wrong turn? Hasn’t something gone horribly wrong when we didn’t notice? “There must have been a time, in the beginning, when we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it.” That’s not Rick and Morty. That’s Tom Stoppard at the end of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Here’s how Rick and Morty, who are also dead, expresses the tenet of nihilism, which is better than most vulgar cartoons because at least it’s an ethos:
“Nobody exists on purpose,” Morty says to his sister during an episode in which they get cable TV with channels from other dimensions. “Nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”
Indeed. On to season two.