The Prestige Cartoon

By Annie Julia WymanOctober 5, 2014

The Prestige Cartoon

A TINY ROBOT looks up into the face of its inventor, its mechanical arms spread, its triangular torso firm and confident atop its single treadmill foot.

“What is my purpose?” asks the machine, its voice deep and almost sinister.

“You pass butter,” the inventor tells it.

“Oh my God,” says the robot, dropping its arms in pure disbelief and rolling away across the breakfast table.

The joke — as with all good jokes, a complex of high-level thought and emotion distilled into a single jolt of pleasure — is from the first season of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, likely the best single season of any American cartoon since The Simpsons Season Four. The show is Simpsons-esque in its core sitcom simplicity, but with a buddy comedy spin: we meet the Smith family — mother (Beth; Sarah Chalke), father (Jerry; Chris Parnell), teenage daughter (Summer; Spencer Grammer), pubescent son (Morty; Justin Roiland), and live-in maternal grandfather, mad scientist, inventor, and interdimensional traveler (Rick; also Justin Roiland). These last two are our titular protagonists: the charismatic, wasted, gray-skinned, belching Rick takes the wide-eyed, high-voiced 14-year-old Morty as his sidekick on adventures consisting of what the show itself calls “high-concept sci-fi rigamarole.” Gooey green dimensional portals are opened with Rick’s portal gun, intergalactic smuggling is attempted, mind-bending escapes are made from nested simulation matrices generated by a race of four-armed, four-eyed aliens whose leader has a case of discolored butt flaps and the voice of David Cross. There are alien sex dolls and a trip to a theme park inside the body of a dying homeless man dressed as Santa Claus.

From that description alone, many readers may have already decided Rick and Morty isn’t their cup of tea — and perhaps the teacup set will never enjoy a cartoon whose monsters and alien realms are, admittedly, often phallic or slimy or scrotal in styling and that offers us, among other things, a visit to a dimension composed entirely of hill-sized butts that fart when jumped on. But to worry overmuch about Rick and Morty’s butt and wiener jokes is to forgo the show’s real pleasures and its cultural significance. Like the butter joke (and maybe, in some distant, unsupportable way, like all jokes), Rick and Morty demonstrates the mutual inextricability of the speculative intelligence — the faculty through which we travel, at least imaginatively, to the limits of the galaxy — and the emotions, which bind us to each other and furnish our sublunary notions of love and home. Other science fictionists have attempted to establish and work from that overlap (and many of their efforts are referenced and reverenced in the show: Back to the Future, Dr. Who), but no one before Rick and Morty has ever managed to do so while reaffirming the representational majesty of cartoon and directing the development of intelligent television tout court — all the while remaining almost unbelievably funny.

Those relatively advanced claims will occupy later portions of this essay — but it is the sheer speed and comic elegance of its engineering that strike any first-time Rick and Morty viewer. In the example that opens this essay, taken from Episode 10, “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” the robot’s dismay transforms it from an adorable sci-fi prop into a miraculously relatable minor character, folding it instantly into the system of the show’s relationships. A few days later, abandoned by the rest of the family, a typically proud but secretly lonely Rick asks the robot if it wants to watch a movie with him. The robot deposits an entire passive-aggressive stick of cold butter end-up on Rick’s TV dinner and rolls away, intoning, “I am not programmed for friendship.” The little guy’s eventual fate is bleak: when we last see him, he is totally inert; Morty has deposited him in a Ziploc as if he were a bunch of graham crackers and is going to take him to school for the science fair.

That last moment is both darkly funny and emblematic of the show’s second most obvious strength: its emotional directness, which always hovers ever so excitingly shy of despair and callousness. Like the robot, like the minor planet Pluto — whose status demotion leads in a complicated way to the abandonment of Morty’s original science fair project and the subsequent bagging of the bot — Rick, Morty, and the three other Smiths learn that their place in the galaxy may be of no significance whatsoever. As the season progresses they discover that they may all have made idiotic choices, and that their life as a family — even their love for each other — is sometimes as rattling and haphazard as a ride in Rick’s beer-can-filled space car. There are lots of gags driven by Rick’s marathon manipulations and lies, instances of the way in which his sociopathic intelligence exploits other people’s precious feelings, but just enough moments of decided sweetness demonstrate some minute power of the emotions over the mind. Most of these relate to Rick and Morty’s real friendship; at one point, the two spend a bafflingly cute interval roughhousing even though a troop of aliens is on their tail.

The fast-paced, often destructive interdimensional sprees on which Rick takes Morty alternate with shared meals and math tests, bullies and crushes; the bland stuff of family life, work, and school foster complicatedly wrought absurdity of all shapes and sizes, from character to plot to genre. Morty’s mother is a heart surgeon, but for horses. Morty’s father unleashes a nigh-infinite regression of once-helpful now-murderous blue creatures in an attempt to shave two strokes off his golf swing. Summer, Morty’s sister, works her first job at a cursed antique shop run by Satan. At all points the show indulges in lively intergeneric argument; in one episode, Rick and Morty explore a fantasy dimension only to discredit the genre’s fascination with innocence by revealing the king of that dimension is a pedophile. Romance, horror, police procedurals, and reality TV also come in for a drubbing at various points in the season.

As should already be evident, most of Rick and Morty’s plots are exquisitely crafted; the A.V. Club’s critic has already lamented their massive involution, which makes them hard to write about. The show’s very meta, very postmodern tendencies are certainly both legion and difficult to rework into falsely teeny chunks of manageable example. And yet — wonder of wonders — this is still network television. The show’s central co-figuration of American suburb and alien space reflects not only its great compositional strength but also represents a canny compromise between two markets, between savvy consumers of cutting-edge postmodern narrative and everyone who’s never even heard of Adventure Time.Those two worlds don’t always agree with each other — but their pairing is productive and should win the show an ever-wider audience, especially with time: it sounds dumb, but there really is something for everyone here. Rick and Morty sometimes flickers with an unhappy banality universally accessible because it’s native to the human species — even or especially to Rick, who among all the show’s characters is most overqualified for his own life and who often snipes at his family for failing to understand the scope and importance of his escapades. A genius of intergalactic repute, he also has to eat his daughter’s lackluster pancakes for breakfast every morning. Of course he answers his butter-passing creation’s shocked “Oh my God” with a blasé “Join the club.”

Rick and Morty first aired in early December 2013 and has since acquired its own lively subreddit. Its now well-documented history has it entering the world as a five-minute short submitted to Channel 101, an almost-underground monthly animation network and shorts competition held live in Los Angeles and online. Made by the awesomely gifted voice actor and comedian Justin Roiland, “The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti” was inspired by a cease-and-desist letter from Bill Cosby objecting to the use of his likeness in a different 101 short, “House of Cosbys” — a self-described “cautionary tale about cloning Bill Cosby” in which a man accidentally creates a series of increasingly cretinous clones of his favorite sitcom star. The idea behind “Doc and Mharti” was to court more cease-and-desist letters by making an extremely gross rip off of a different franchise (in this case, Back to the Future), presumably out of a savor for the impotent corporate idiocy that still misunderstands the means by which entertainment is produced and consumed in our age of Vimeo and gif generators.

One cannot in good conscience recommend “Doc and Mharti,” but it so-to-speak touched something in Channel 101’s co-host Dan Harmon. From the short, Harmon and Roiland developed a 22-minute pilot; Rick and Morty’s ascension to Adult Swim and an eventual renewal for a second season in 2014 or 2015 were the result. Across its 11 existent episodes, the series is marked by Roiland’s enthusiasm for high-concept, lowbrow freewheeling and Harmon’s failed experiments on one of the most successful live-action sitcoms of the last decade. One could even say that Rick and Morty is the eventual, excellent fruit of that failure, and not solely in Rick’s resemblance to his famously volatile and charming auteur. Harmon’s work with multidimensionality and alternate time lines as the arch-creative behind NBC’s Community altered television writing for the less stupid, but it was also sometimes hampered by its limited medium and format. In its later seasons, the show began to feel like a Live Action Role Play. No matter his acting talents, Danny Pudi (Community’s Abed) in an eye patch is Danny Pudi in an eye patch. By contrast, Rick Sanchez in an eye patch is Evil Rick, no questions asked.

If Community tended to slide backward into kitsch precisely because it wasn’t a cartoon, to see Harmon’s experiments performed in their proper Petri dish is flat-out cool. Rick and Morty operates in full, righteous, almost obnoxious compliance with the industry dictum that all creators of cartoons must justify their use of cartoon as a medium, as well as with its two, consequent sub-dicta: 1) unreality and impossibility are built into animation as a medium and 2) all good cartoons are born self-aware. In “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” a race of intergalactic scammers called the Zigerians imprison Rick and Jerry, who must escape without accidentally revealing any of Rick’s scientific secrets. As they race to freedom we spot familiar characters all over the ship. Suspended in standard alien-aquarium-pods are, among other oddities and visual Easter eggs, the orange guys from Pluto — these are our friends from Episode 9, of butter robot and science fair. At a certain point in the dash, Jerry makes another Jerry by accidentally touching a simulator’s character-generation module.

Many other cartoons do this, of course, butno one does it so well or so complicatedly and with such loving snark aimed directly at its medium’s ontological underpinnings. Many of Rick and Morty’s best gags comment on how stupidly easy it is to come up with characters or to spin out whole worlds: thus an episode that contains nested simulations in the first place, thus characters like the killingly lame Bird Person, who wanders in and out of a house party thrown by Rick in Episode 11, “Ricksy Business.” Thus the fascinating Episode 8, “Rixty Minutes,” which explicitly comments on the retroscripted (that is, improvised) production of several of its own scenes. To entertain his boring family, Rick has stuck a kind of hyper-Roku-crystal in the cable box. The programming and advertising they see is improvised. Roiland’s bits for the episode include a lovably terrible spot for a movie about two brothers who fight a giant cat army, a Mexican space armada, and a bunch of old ladies (“It’s just called Two Brothers,” Roiland giggles on the voiceover, after first suggesting a title about 20 words long), plus a Wittgensteinian rabbit hole of a commercial called “Real Fake Doors.”

One of the internal, implicit arguments of “Rixty Minutes” is that Roiland’s brain is the equivalent of infinite television. Another — external, explicit, and just as difficult to prove — might be that in comparison with the infinitely generative universe of Rick and Morty, live action begins to seem like a kind of dustbin for all kinds of stories too real — that is, too humdrum — to be drawn. The key example of the show’s achievements in this respect is a brain-breaking mise en abyme almost too complicated to bother describing. It’s from Episode 10, “Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind”: Rick and Morty are fleeing from other Ricks and other Mortys who have mistaken the show’s primary Rick for an Evil Rick who’s been committing some pretty heinous murders. Dragging our Morty along behind, our Rick opens and dashes through more and more portals into more and more dimensions in order to shake their pursuers. At a certain point they run through a living room occupied by two giant humanoid pieces of pizza:

PIECE OF PIZZA 1, speaking into the phone: I’d like to order one large person with extra people, please.

PIECE OF PIZZA 2, listening from the couch: White people. Nuh-nuh-nuh-no, black people. Hispanic on half.

The inversion that is pizza ordering people to eat — and the idea that the way we categorize race is as sophisticated as the way we categorize pizza toppings — is funny enough. (If the joke stopped there, we could call it standard Family Guy and move on.) But a few beats later, further into the chase, Rick and Morty charge through a very similar living room — except that now the objects that were once characters are now furniture; objects that were once food items are now telecommunications devices; objects that were once telecommunications devices are now characters.

PHONE 1, speaking into a tiny handheld person and sitting on a chair made of pizza: Yes, I’d like to order one large sofa chair with extra chair.

PHONE 2, listening from a couch made of pizza: High chair. Nuh-nuh-nuh-no, recliner. And wheelchair on half.

Indeed it would seem the episode’s dimensions are arranged in some kind of pleasing regression. A few portals later, Rick and Morty charge through yet another living room:

CHAIR 1, sitting on a person and talking into a tiny handheld piece of pizza: Hi, I’d like to order one large phone with extra phones please.

CHAIR 2, sitting on a person: Cellphone. Nuh-nuh-nuh-no, rotary. And payphone on half.

Objects that were once telecommunications devices are now furniture; objects that were once furniture are now telecommunications devices. Objects that were once characters are now food items. Once witnessed — even or especially without tracing out each step — the wild formality of the bit induces a kind of vertigo, an incredulous pleasure at the show’s virtuosic faithfulness to its own absurd principles. This is a faithfulness supported by the pliability, the definitive potentiality of cartoon.

In brief, Rick and Morty does things and thinks things you don’t often see on TV; while it offers us an adorable family to hang out with once a week, it’s also busy transcending its own aesthetic form. We may be becoming allergic to claims of this size when we talk about television — as we are to the jankily academic language through which they must be made — but we also don’t usually allow ourselves the time to thoroughly admire a work of art that thinks about itself so cleverly. It certainly bears repeating that the greatest and most baffling thing about our human consciousness — other than its definitive self-consciousness — is that we can elaborate formal rules to shape and speak richly about the unreal. Rick and Morty is both fully invested in this process and reminds us that, as a medium, animation is born of and accesses the imagination directly.

One could even push further here; the show’s own conceptual extravagance invites thinking toward extremes. In the right hands, say those of Harmon and Roiland, animation can also turn that same faculty back on itself and press lightly and swiftly toward a startlingly joyful exposure of its limits. The highest comedies — comedies like this one in its best moments — use the imagination to illuminate and briefly organize the gaps shot through the complex of language, perception, and cognition by which we navigate and attempt to control our world. Why are the world’s contents — phones, pizza, people, chairs — named and organized as they are? Isn’t its current form blisteringly arbitrary? That we could approach those fissures and paradoxes willingly and that they could then strike us as funny and not entirely terrifying remains a deep and very cool mystery — though perhaps it’s true that in the instant we see them they also seem to blossom or recede, offering up or clearing the ground for more and better pizza jokes.

Rick and Morty is as well or better suited than any other mainstream cultural production to expose our efforts at epistemological security, perfect knowledge, however you want to put it, as nonsensical. (And not least because it’s a cartoon, despite the fact that we usually reserve such things for stoners and children.) Watching a good Rick and Morty sequence is like taking a whirlwind tour of a whole family of black holes from your living room sofa. Something inside you should flicker, should thrill at encountering a systemic flaw exposed. This is the moment when comedy sublimates into philosophy or vice versa, when we are reminded of our absolute freedom to make and/or even passively absorb made meaning in the face of life’s much larger meaninglessness: “Nobody exists on purpose,” Morty says to his sister at one point. “Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.”

That last line is so starkly, complicatedly good that it’s hard to write anything clever about it in any idiom whatsoever. It echoes Rick’s “Join the club,” of course, though it’s less bitter in tone. And it derives from two sources: a galactic-caliber insight acquired by Morty in his trips with Rick — he has recently had to bury a dead Morty from another time line in the backyard, and has rightfully earned a kind of temporary Kierkegaardian outlook — and from a simple, familial desire that Summer not run away to New Mexico even though she has discovered that she would never have been born had her father’s car not flat-tired on the way to the abortion clinic. Morty’s exhortation is born of speculation rendered inextricable from sentiment. Like the show itself, the line manifests fine abstract philosophy and solid everyday advice: it is thoroughly demonstrative of a near-perfect, ongoing fusion of cosmos and nostos, of intellect and emotion, of the lone cold mind out on a planetary sojourn and the heart warmed by its fellows, safe at home.

That line could also be read as an invitation to the show’s own audience — an invitation, that is, to sit down for a glimpse of the best possible version of future TV. Live-action series like Mad Men and The Sopranos before it take us inside the psyche and attempt to illuminate the deeper regions of history, culture, and human behavior; they’re often funny, but it is for their psychological sophistication (and their shiny production quality) that we call them prestige TV. By contrast, Rick and Morty may be a harbinger of the rise of what one might call the prestige cartoon. Or at least one hopes that might be the case. (One also hopes Rick and Morty gets a little savvier gender-wise; its least interesting episode is “Raising Gazorpazorp,” which imagines a matriarchal society of stereotypical women who farms children from a planet of slave males.) Supported by a generation of (mostly male) stoners raised on Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the rapid legalization and cultural destigmatization of marijuana, the prestige cartoon won’t take us into the heart of a mysterious and powerful white dude from our recent past. It will tell us things about the future, and computers, and space travel, and all the other stuff we have to worry about these days. It might even de-emphasize the primacy of liberal subjectivity in our conception of the self. One suspects we are all masses of predictable, poorly integrated eccentricity to the exact same degree that we are sweet, misunderstood souls carrying about our secret Freudian traumas.

Season 2 of Rick and Morty will surely tell us where Rick came from, and what happened to his wife — it’s hinted in the pilot that she has recently died: “Gee, Beth, you really made the crap out of those eggs. I wish your mother was here to eat them” — and why he now performs his experiments in his daughter’s garage. But that will be an exercise in good old-fashioned character development necessarily incomplete without the insane, high-grade hilarity of sci-fi rigamarole and the emphasis it places on multiplicity and free speculation. “This place is a real who’s who of who’s you and me,” says Rick, as he and Morty enter the Citadel of Ricks in “Close Rick-Counters” — that is, as they enter a clearing house of thousands of drunken genius grandpas and dim-bulb sidekick grandsons. The sequence is amazing, balanced between cerebral sarcasm and heartfelt wonder, between the pickled acerbities of an unhappy old dude and the chirrupings of his excitable grandson. Of course that general formula could not be funnier, smarter, or more charming — even or especially as it expresses a clear contempt for its viewers: “Why, whattaya know,” says our Morty, “There’s a cowboy version of me!” “Geez,” says our Rick, “You’re easy to impress.”

That high self-consciousness is typical of the show, and touching. Don’t worry, Rick and Morty. Unlike the butter robot, wherever it is now, you are seen, and deeply appreciated.


Annie Julia Wyman is a writer and doctoral candidate in the Harvard English Department.

LARB Contributor

Annie Julia Wyman is a writer and doctoral candidate in the Harvard English Department. She writes, teaches, and studies comedy and laughter. Her essays are forthcoming in City by City (n+1, Faber and Faber) and Read Harder (Believer Books); she is also the co-translator of philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s The Unspeakable Girl (Seagull Books). Her nom de tweets is @ajwyman.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!