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Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon on Shifting Sensibilities and Marketing a Mad Scientist

London, UK
Foulmouthed Rick and horny Morty have brands munching out of their hands - despite near-the-knuckle humour - so how is the mega-hit animation balancing both, in a world where comedy is under more scrutiny than ever, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton

Working in advertising while being a fan of the animated quantum-hit Rick and Morty is a tough gig. Hapless dad Jerry, outshone by his brilliant wife and father-in-law, out-sassed by his teenage daughter and outdone, even, by his awkward adolescent son is very much the punching bag of the show. He's also an ad man. In one episode, he finds himself awarded a fake advertising award that's been generated within a low-effort virtual bubble and, well, most adland fans can see the parallels. 

The cartoon about the dweeby, insecure Morty and his nihilistic alco-genius grandfather Rick has become one of Adult Swim’s biggest ever hits, reeling in millions of viewers and devoted fans around the world. But while the twosome have become icons, gracing merch and brand partnerships, spawning catchphrase-spouting megafans, it’s mild-mannered not-so-Man Jerry that’s captured co-creator Dan Harmon’s heart.

“I fall in and out of love with a lot of the characters, I mean, because we have so much time. For a long time, I was just the biggest Jerry fan. Because Jerry, I relate to… I relate to Jerry on an emotional level because Jerry’s defining thing is that he wants to do it right. And that is such a maddening thing to get. When you wake up in the morning and say ‘I want to do it right today’ and use a one-way ticket to doing everything wrong,” says Dan, speaking at the Cannes Lions Festival.

Indeed, while Jerry is the butt of the show’s jokes, Dan’s full of admiration for the advertising and marketing teams who have helped turn the outlandish sci-fi show into such a hit, and have helped nurture and rile up the show’s infamous fanbase. Even back in the show’s early days, the marketing team embraced the world of online fandom, much to the bemusement of execs. Even today, as platforms evolve the team has consciously tried to hack and play with platforms to the delight of ravenous fans.

“We started this show when the internet was starting to affect TV. Sony would yell at me for ‘playing to the blogosphere’, that was their phrase. ‘Come on, you’re making jokes for internet people’. We still thought of them as a different species back then. But the truth was everyone was starting to watch TV with their laptops open, and then the TV went away and then the laptop was replaced by a show or whatever… I’ve seen it with marketing folks, their embrace of marketing the show instead of resisting it and going, like, ‘oh this is a haven of piracy and we have to also trick them into watching a commercial.’

The people that market Rick and Morty... even from the beginning, before anyone knew about the show were asking themselves, 'how do we use Instagram and YouTube and embrace this guerilla mentality on a global scale to make the show a point of conversation? There was a UFO that crashed into New York, there were those cool billboards. I mean, they were doing everything: old school, new school. I think they would go to very small advertising houses that were kind of hip and passionate and they came up with these crazy ideas and then pumped money into it.”

One of the show's calling cards is its messed-up characters and edgy humour. It deals with topics like self-loathing, hedonism and even suicide, really mining the darker recesses of the human psyche for absurdist humour. And in an age where jokes are analysed for insensitivity and cultural norms questioned and discarded constantly, that raw humour puts the show at an interesting intersection of cultural discourse, with the potential to piss off everyone on all points of the political compass. The world in 2022 is a very different place from the naively crude sunny uplands of 2013 - so how does Dan navigate those shifts?

"I almost think we're just too big to fail in that department. My heart goes out to everybody writing TV. You know, through this last decade has been 30 years' worth of cultural progress, which is very good, but very tumultuous. Comedy doesn't age. Well. Ordinarily, you've got five years before something funny is hack and that was fine when 'hack' was the worst crime you could commit. Now you've got three years before it's offensive and it actually feels like you are trying to make the world a worse place three years after it felt like a perfectly fine thing to say.” 

“I think that on the writing side of it, the way to survive that is to avoid the temptation to think about it like it's you against your mommy. Writers get into writing because they want to upset their parents. And so it's dangerous when you start to think about: 'what am I allowed to say? Is this racist? Is this sexist?' Well, now you're caught in a sand trap. Because, yes we like provocative things and we like boundary-pushing, but those things that push boundaries don't start because someone sat down and decided to push a boundary - those people are often quite hack. I mean, they kind of tend to just want to offend you. Honestly, Rick and Morty was just so popular that I think if we were a younger show, we may have been capsized by the cultural shifts that we've been going through.”

“Our ship is big enough that it can sustain those waves and feel it… my heart goes out to the canoes.”

But while Dan may see choppy waters ahead for new comedy writers and creators in a more complicated social landscape, it’s not all bad sailing ahead for creators who want to follow him into the world of animation. The variety of animation coming up and the unexpected boost from the pandemic means that animation is seen as an exciting prospect and that those holding the purse strings are keen for properties that stand out from the crowd visually.

"We're starting to see money being put into unique looks of things... capitalism hurts things but it helps things. You now have to make your cartoon look different. You have to make it seem different. You have to not try to be the new Family Guy because there are so many new Family Guys that even the suits can see that being the new Family Guy is not a goal. So you have prestige television, everyone's on the same page: let's make something good."

Given the show's nihilistic and openly toxic protagonist, as well as a humour that mixes the absurdity of the human condition with quantum physics and fart jokes, one might imagine it to be the sort of property that advertisers and brands would steer well clear from. But the show's popularity and highly engaged fanbase make it a real draw. There have been major official partnerships, like with Pringles, with whom the team created a Super Bowl ad - as well as unofficial tie-ins, such as when McDonald’s relaunched its Szechuan Sauce in response to an off-hand joke in the show. 

Dan's got a very clear vision of what makes a brand partnership that works to maintain the integrity of the Rick and Morty fandom - and that's a partnership where the agreement where both parties first and foremost, commit to doing something good.

"It is so crucial in those partnerships that work like a marriage where both parties can walk away from it - and if they do, they both lose. That, I think, is crucial because I think that if you take the Snickers money and assign a contract that says, 'we're going to make everyone love Snickers with our beloved cartoon, that's about how everything sucks. And then Snickers has this power of: 'you took our money, this isn't good enough for Snickers'. Then you're in trouble. You're in a dysfunctional relationship. But if you agree with Snickers that the two of you together are going to make something that both of you are going to like, and then, if at any point, you could get divorced and everybody could go back to what they're doing, then everyone's incentivised."

And it’s an approach that seems to work - the Adult Swim team say they get a positive response from fans and that this brand-related content even manages to fill the vast chasms between series. It appears Dan might have more in common with Jerry than he thought.

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