We haven’t even pulled out of the Target parking lot and already there’s a woman screaming. She brings to mind the teenage girls full-on melting down as the Beatles attempt to play the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1964. Only she’s in her 20s, and it’s the Rickmobile that’s the source of her temporary insanity.
The driver, Jennifer Chow, a 25-year-old former Wienermobile driver stops and hands her a button. “I’m so happy you got to see it.”
As we leave the parking lot, Chow turns to me. “Just another day in the life.” She’s not wrong. This scene continues to play out with other people as we cruise the streets of Berkeley, California. “That’s tame in comparison,” Chow adds. She tells me about one woman that followed the Rickmobile for several exits and pulled in front of her as she parked at a Rite Aid, yelling in excitement: “This made my day. This is nowhere close to my exit.”
The Rickmobile is a large vehicle in the shape of Rick Sanchez, the star of Adult Swim’s surprise hit cartoon, Rick and Morty. Like the show, the mobile version is totally ridiculous—he crouches with his face looking directly at whichever car is trailing behind. Anyone unfamiliar with the show gives us a blank stare. As I ride shotgun for an hour, I see that there are less blank stares than you’d think. Rick and Morty, the third season of which airs on July 30, has suddenly and surprisingly bled into mainstream pop culture.
Interest in the show leapt overnight. Specifically, according to show co-creator Dan Harmon, on June 20, 2017. He was having dinner with director Justin Lin, discussing the possibility of a Community movie and, of course, wearing a Rick and Morty shirt. (“I’m a slob that’s not going to wear anything other than the free clothes I’m given.”) During the course of the dinner, nearly every single wait staff in the restaurant approached him to tell him how awesome Rick and Morty was. Since then, he’s seen interest in the show hit fever pitch.
“It went from being a 5% chance per elevator of that happening, to a 100% chance if another human being is in an awkward social environment with me and they’d need an ice breaker—they’d see my shirt and go, ‘I love that show.’ I would think, ‘holy crap what is happening?’” Harmon tells me in a three-way phone interview with other show co-creator Justin Roiland.
It’s gotten to the point where Harmon won’t wear Rick and Morty shirts anymore because it’s become so overwhelming and, he says, he doesn’t want people to think that he needs constant adoration from fans.
Roiland’s experience is similar, though he’s not willing to lock down a specific date to the show’s sudden spike in popularity. What’s new for him the past few months, is getting recognized in public by strangers, something he’s adjusting to as an animator and voice-over actor.
“I’m kind of agoraphobic. I got into animation originally because I can just draw the sets and the characters, and I never have to leave my dark apartment,” Roiland says. “I’ll be walking to get lunch and people are like, ‘Is your name Justin?’ That’s like literally within the last three months or something.”
There’s been a lot happening behind the scenes at the marketing department at Adult Swim this year. Hardcore fans may have been in dire anticipation of the third season since 2015, but word has only recently gotten out to people outside of the core Adult Swim fanbase. On April 1, Adult Swim surprisingly released the first episode of the third season, with no word on when the rest of the season would air. This sent ripples through all the social media sites, and interest with new fans. Then, starting on May 11, in Atlanta, Adult Swim began its Rickmobile tour, which continues on until early October.
“The Rickmobile is now a culture movement across the US. ‘Let’s Get Schwifty’ will be the slogan of 2017,” John Craft tells me later. He’s the other Rickmobile driver. He and Chow take turns. Today, he’s in the chase vehicle along with the rest of the team. Craft is also a former Wienermobile driver. He and Chow were specifically sought after to drive the Rickmobile because driving large novelty trucks apparently requires a specific skill set.
“The Rick and Morty culture, I can see it growing into something as big as The Simpsons. I have faith that this fanbase can get it to that level cause they’re just so passionate about it,” Chow tells me as we cruise along Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Avenue. “They love Rick. He’s the most loveable cynic I’ve seen in a while. Their fans are more than willing to go the extra mile for Rick.” To make her point, she tells me of one guy that pulled down his pants and did the did the “peace among worlds” stance for a photo for the Rickmobile Instagram page.
Our destination is Rare Barrel Brewery, where the Rickmobile will set up as an “exclusive merchandise” vendor for the evening. We arrive two hours early, and already there are 100 people waiting in line. Once the event gets underway, that number will jump to 2,000 people. The last episode of season 2 aired on October 4, 2015. Many of the people standing in line right now weren’t even aware of Rick and Morty back then. What happened in almost two years that transformed this cult sensation into one of the most anticipated shows of the year?
The first man in line, Les North, has been in line since 4 am. This is his third Rickmobile event. Earlier in the week he went to events in Sacramento and in Manteca.
“I’ve been anticipating it for quite a while. So now that it’s finally come, I’m excited to keep coming. I have fun every time I come. I enjoy all the people in line,” he tells me, his face filled with joy, and then adds: “I watch Rick and Morty every night before I go to sleep.”
The fans have become something like apostles for the show. Rickmobile tour manager Heather Chirtea tells me that in every group of people waiting for hours at each Rickmobile stop, there’s always at least one hardcore fan who brings their friends–“It’s a hardcore fan that dragged their mom. It’s a hardcore fan who dragged their brother.” However it’s happened, Rick and Morty has spread like wildfire.
The Rickmobile was the idea of Adult Swim’s marketing team. Roiland recalls opening an email from them with preliminary photos of the vehicle. (“I had no idea what was going on. I was like what the fuck are they… yeah we’re building a Rickmobile.”)
I talked to Jim Babcock, VP of consumer marketing for Adult Swim, who says they saw this wave of excitement coming when season two ended. The finale closed with Rick going to galactic federation prison. The next day, “Free Rick” shirts popped up all over bootleg sites. Adult Swim set up an 800 phone number for fans to give feedback on season two. The voicemail filled up immediately. The number got shut down pretty quick.
“We knew that there was a very excited fanbase out there,” says Babcock. “Rick and Morty is clearly the original show that our fans have gravitated towards most feverishly. While Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force were huge breakouts for us, this feels like a different level of popular awareness.”
According to Babcock, fan interest in the show between seasons two and three was consistently growing because the extended hiatus gave fans a chance to re-watch the episodes enough times to contemplate the darker, deep layers of the writing, and turn their friends on to the show. While on the surface, it’s a hilarious, absurd sci-fi cartoon, it explores concepts of nihilism, the meaning of life (or lack thereof) and death (and its unceremonious inevitability) with surprising complexity and emotion. There’s a moment in season one where Rick and Morty bury the bodies of alt-timeline versions of themselves that had recently died. It’s unsettling, and surprisingly heavy, and it comes up again in later episodes as a troubling memory for Morty.
There were other indications that Rick and Morty’s third season would be a big deal. Babcock recalls several moments in 2016 that Rick and Morty fever was on the rise, like the amount of fan-made Rick and Morty costumes that popped up on Halloween, as well as the popularity of the Pocket Mortys phone app. Babcock says they were seeing talk of Rick and Morty come up in the unlikeliest of places, like golf forums. (“When people take it to the real world, their real lives, not just their nerd obsessions, that’s when I think it really happens.”)
The more this simmering fandom increased, the more fans discussed elaborate theories about when season three would return, and what would happen next. Any little thing Harmon or Roiland said became an object of fascination. Babcock says that the Adult Swim team felt the need to pull back from teasing the upcoming third season, so as not to set them off.
Then of course, Adult Swim surprised everyone with the first episode of the third season on April Fool’s Day. After a year and a half, Rick and Morty would finally be coming back.
Everyone wanted to know what the holdup was with Rick and Morty, clearly it wasn’t a lack of demand. Harmon told a Comic Con panel last year that the new season was taking longer due to “endless perfectionism” from the animation department. Then early this year he told Indiewire that it “keeps taking longer to write and I don’t know why.”
In April, fans finally got to learn how Rick escaped from prison. But as interest grew, there were other things to address besides just Rick’s escape.
Harmon discusses with me a pressing anxiety they had in trying to create this new season: How do you stay true to the integrity of the characters and extremely dark tone of the show as it goes into a new season with now significant mainstream interest. They eventually found that they could address this in the opening episode itself.
Rick and Morty, as charming as it is, doesn’t seem exactly writing designed for a wide audience. It mixes crude humor (dick jokes and aliens that look like butts), Lovecraftian cosmic horror (one episode has a race of giant heads wreak havoc on Earth, forcing the planet into an American Idol-esque music competition for planetary survival), and the dark constant reminder of our total insignificance in the universe. (In one scene, Rick invents a robot to pass butter. The machine grows depressed when it realizes its purpose in life is something so mundane. “Yeah, welcome to the club, pal,” Rick says.)
I discovered the show last year from my little brother, who’d been bugging me for months to check it out. I was immediately taken with the brilliance of the writing, and how funny Harmon and Roiland were able to make the topic of “life is a big pointless, chaotic mess” and never having to put a positive spin on any of it. It’s emphasized to the point of pure hilarity.
The glue of the show though is Rick, a brilliant asshole that’s so finely tuned-in to the cruelty of the universe that he is trying to squeeze as much adventure out of it as possible, regardless of who he tramples on. The show occasionally hints at the fact that he might be full of pain, and even has moments of empathy, but it’s usually quickly undercut by an absolutely selfish act. Harmon feels like people love this unlovable character because they relate to him.
“No matter how important our problems are, we always have the feeling of ‘I’m the only one who understands how important what’s on my mind is, and everyone else is an idiot,’” Harmon says. “As a sci-fi character that feels that way, Rick gives you permission to feel that way inside because he actually is telling the truth when he says I have bigger fish to fry. Everything that everyone around me thinks is important, is bullshit, and get out of my way. I’m smarter than you. I’m more important than you. Nothing matters. And none of you have ever come up with a better way to approach life.”
The roots of Rick and Morty date back to a short cartoon Justin Roiland made in 2006 called the Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti. The cartoon is a filthy parody of Back to the Future. It’s got time travel and Mharti repeatedly licking Doc’s balls in order to power his machine. (It’s hard to watch now, especially if you picture Rick and Morty) Roiland began the cartoon to see if he could get a cease and desist letter. He’d already received one from Bill Cosby’s lawyers for his Channel 101 series, House of Cosbys, which revolves around a character that is such a big Cosby fan, he uses a cloning machine to create an entire house-full of Cosbys. Partway through the creation of his Back to the Future parody cartoon, he fell in love with the characters, and altered the names to Doc and Mharti so he could keep on creating it.
His appeal of Doc and Mharti wasn’t so much the characters as he designed them, but their voices and the way they interacted with each—Roiland did both. You have the dickhead-know-it-all-insane doc character, constantly grumbling, and the prepubescent, voice-changing, perpetually nervous Mharti character. Roiland loved playing with this dynamic. As he got offers to write pilots for Fox, there would always be a character based off of Doc and one off of Mharti. None of these projects went past the pilot stage.
“I had so much fun doing those characters. I always knew there was something special there. So, trying to figure out what’s the right packaging for these two characters,” Roiland says. “It brought me joy. I enjoyed doing it. It’s bizarre to see how far it’s come.”
Since 2004, Harmon and Roiland have worked together on many crazy projects on Harmon’s network/website Channel 101, spending sleepless weekends fleshing out bonkers ideas. NBC picked up Harmon’s Community, a meta-comedy about a mismatched group of community college students, in 2009. The production was notoriously troubled—Harmon was fired in 2012 before being rehired after a disastrous subsequent season—but did last for six seasons. Community won the fans it did for Harmon’s ability to interweave archaic pop culture references into believable character arcs.
After Harmon’s fallout with Community, Adult Swim reached out to him and offered him the option of doing his own show. Rather than just delivering them an ok program, he brought on Roiland, who’s crazy mind he admired. Their different styles mesh well. Roiland veers head-first into the strangest corners of the gross, dark and the absurd. Harmon is subtle, brainy and rich with references.
“I’m always scientifically trying to figure out what the vitamins and minerals are needed to sustain an audience. And here’s Justin who’s willfully poisoning the audience, and getting them really high as a result,” Harmon says. “I was always saying to Justin, if there was some way we could take your insanity and put a frame around it, then we’d have the perfect product because my mom could consume it. And my mom loves Rick and Morty.”
There’s a very specific integrity to the first two seasons—it’s the thing Harmon and Roiland are worried about losing. Rick’s backstory is never fully explained. His asshole nature is never written-off as a byproduct of some past traumatic event. The characters never learn anything, and nothing ever turns out great, because that’s the way of the universe.
All those elements were there even in the original gross-out comedy short. In fact, you can pretty clearly recognize Rick and Morty in the Doc and Mharti characters.
“What’s consistent, is the relationship between the voices. I’ve always felt that it’s analogous to mental instability. By unstable, I should say all of us,” Harmon says. “It’s the conflict between two voices. The smartest part of your brain, instead of being the most rational, is the craziest. The dumb part of you, wants everything to go fine and be normal.”
Harmon and Roiland found a very Rick and Morty way to address their anxiety of comprising the show’s essence. In that first episode, they created a sad backstory that explained Rick’s callous nature, then had Rick sacrificed himself for his family. They enacted the very thing they feared would disappoint the fans. But at the end of the episode, it’s revealed that it was all fake and one big manipulation. Rick’s angry rant at Morty is particularly dark, even by Rick standards, and it seems cathartic for Harmon and Roiland and directed at the fans, as if to say: “Don’t worry we won’t let you down this season. We will continue to be more fucked up than you can imagine.”
“It’s like, let’s channel this anxiety into it. Look, there is nothing that can destroy this show. There’s nothing that can jump this character’s shark,” Harmon says. “Rick’s too smart. He’s too nihilistic. Whatever you can possibly worry about as a fan, we worry about too. Not only that but the worry will only propel us forward.”
It felt like forever before The Rickmobile merch vehicle finally opened at 4 p.m. The line is looped around the block. It’s hot outside. I work alongside the “brand ambassadors” for an hour to get a feel for the event. I’m reminded of my days waiting tables in the heat of an unforgiving rush. Most of the fans are friendly but one guy is causing trouble, trying to purchase three toy spaceships. You’re only permitted one per person, because they only stock 15 per stop. It’s the most in-demand item on the menu. The second-most coveted item is the Gwendolyn inflatable pool float.
I see my friend Blake Morse in line. He’s been a hardcore Rick and Morty fan since day one, and makes fun of himself a little bit for coming to the event. “Waiting in line for four hours just to pay for merch and take a photo with the van—I guess that’s what fandom does to you sometimes.”
Even tour manager Chirtea loses her composure a little when I ask her about the events. No one anticipated the response would be this strong. She’s been beefing up staff as the tour has progressed through the country. “It’s bigger than I ever imagined,” she says. “Nobody’s ever done a Rick and Morty tour before.” She adds that Rick and Morty tattoos are a thing, and she’s seen at least a few people per city with them. “They just made a life-long commitment to this crazy show.”
With only two seasons—21 episodes—it’s a surprisingly small amount of content to drive this level of support. That’s saying nothing of the lengthy hiatus between seasons two and three. Before I joined up on the Rickmobile show, I expected mostly to see a very specific kind of hardcore fan. But people in line look like every kind of person you can imagine: age, ethnicity, style. When we drove around the Rickmobile, a couple of weathered construction worker flagged us down so they could take photos with us. For a show that’s entire premise rests on accepting that the universe is one big cosmic joke, I don’t know how to process its popularity.
Or maybe people just like laughing at all the dumb aliens that look like butts.