Where were you 10 years ago? What did you do with your free time then? Were you watching the final season of "ER?" The first season of "Breaking Bad?" Had you ever heard of Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon?
Unless you saw Roiland and Harmon on the short-lived VH1 show "Acceptable.TV" or caught them in the independent comedy circles they moved in, you probably didn't know them at all. Now Roiland and Harmon's "Rick and Morty" is the most popular comedy show amongst adults in the desirable 18-to-34-year-old demographic, and Adult Swim just signed an unprecedented deal for 70 more episodes of it.
Since its premiere in 2013, 31 episodes of "Rick and Morty" have been produced across three seasons. Early rumblings about the show's fourth season suggest it might not premiere until 2019. At this rate, "Rick and Morty" will be with us for at least another 10 years. That is, if the state of television even supports it.
Most television shows, animated or otherwise, are renewed a season at a time. Take a massive success like "Game of Thrones," for instance; HBO didn't order multiple seasons of the show at once until seasons 5 and 6. Any renewal for more than a few seasons is basically unheard of in scripted television. Whether or not "Rick and Morty" sticks with 10-episode seasons, the deal is for more than double the current count of episodes.
This tentatively puts "Rick and Morty," at 101 episodes, amongst Adult Swim's longest-running original shows and alongside some of the programming block's earliest staples. Three of Adult Swim's shows with more than 100 episodes ("Aqua Teen Hunger Force," "Squidbillies," and "Space Ghost Coast to Coast") are or were relatively cheap-to-produce 11-minute animated series made by Williams Street, Adult Swim's house production company. Seth Green and Matthew Senreich's "Robot Chicken," the most prolific Adult Swim show at 165 episodes, is also an 11-minute series.
It's perhaps more appropriate to compare Adult Swim's commitment to "Rick and Morty" to its history with "The Venture Bros." Both shows are 22-minute animated series made for Adult Swim by outside production companies that boast expensive animation and well-known voice actors. The two shows are also notorious for having long gaps between seasons. 71 episodes of "The Venture Bros." have been produced since 2003 across 6 seasons, with the last episode of season 6 airing in March 2016. Another season of "Venture," speculated to total 10 episodes, is slated to premiere this November.
In the television business, 100 episodes is the widely agreed upon "magic number" for syndication on other networks — a 22-minute series with 100 or more episodes is an attractive prospect for a weeknight spot. Most syndicated sitcoms, including network animated sitcoms, hit the 100-episode mark after about four and a half 22 episode seasons. "The Simpsons" hit its 100-episode mark in the same amount of time from "Rick and Morty's" premiere to today.
Though Adult Swim is no stranger to long production cycles, the extended gaps between "Rick and Morty" seasons only appear to have helped fuel the show's meteoric rise in popularity.
When Adult Swim aired the first episode of the third season of "Rick and Morty" for their annual April Fools surprise last year, the stunt nabbed headlines at nearly every entertainment publication. That episode also kicked off the McDonald's Szechaun Sauce meme, which snowballed to a full-on fiasco when McDonald's' poorly-planned and unaffiliated Szechuan promo event left covetous "Rick and Morty" fans furious. Sure, we live in an era where thirsty brands try to capitalize on the popularity of any pop-culture trend for business, but the feverish devotion for "Rick and Morty" both convinced one of the largest fast food chains on the planet to launch a promotion and far outstripped the demand they estimated for it.
When the McDonald's promotion faltered, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland were dragged into the story even though McDonald's didn't strike a deal with them or Adult Swim. That didn't stop "Rick and Morty" fans from tweeting at them — Harmon and Roiland are easily the most visible creators in Adult Swim's roster. Whether they're helping Adult Swim announce their renewal deal from a shower, denouncing bad behavior from their fanbase or just bluntly reminding people that animation is time consuming by nature, Harmon and Roiland are entwined with the public narrative surrounding their show in a way few showrunners are.
One Hundred Episodes! 'Rick And Morty,' Forever!
It's likely that the exact terms of the renewal deal Harmon and Roiland signed last week will never come to light, but what we do know suggests that whether or not "Rick and Morty" actually does deliver another 70 episodes, Harmon, Roiland and Adult Swim are all likely to come out as winners.
"It's a completely baffling choice, which is why I'm sure it will work for them," says John Maher, co-founder and co-editor of animation journalism site The Dot and Line. "Adult Swim has a history of making baffling choices into gold."
From its programming line-up to the way it promotes shows, Adult Swim has always defied conventional wisdom. Williams Street operates Adult Swim like its own network despite the fact that it still shares channel space with Cartoon Network, which initially made the introduction of live-action programming a little jarring. Adult Swim's history of April Fools pranks stretches back over a decade before the surprise "Rick and Morty" season 3 premiere — two years in a row all programming was preempted for Tommy Wiseau's then-obscure "The Room." Perhaps the most infamous of Adult Swim's odd decisions was a 2007 guerrilla marketing campaign for the "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" movie that resulted in a bomb scare in Boston, Massachusetts.
"I think Adult Swim thrives on risk, I think [creative director] Mike Lazzo thrives on making interesting business decisionsthat could lead to a number of possible results," says Maher. "I'm not necessarily sure they're going to make every one of those 70 episodes, and I'm not necessarily sure that matters to them or in general."
It's worth noting that Adult Swim's goals for "Rick and Morty" have been blinkered relative to how other networks handle big hits. "In terms of getting 'Rick and Morty' produced and distributed [internationally], it's been a mess since the beginning," says Jesse Betteridge, host of the animation podcast "Zannen, Canada." "We have a version of Adult Swim on Canadian TV that has been completely eroded and forgotten. Most of the content that it runs is from prior to 2008. They did get 'Rick and Morty's' first two seasons, but season three has not actually aired in Canada. It's been neglected." A deal that keeps "Rick and Morty" on the air and pushes it over the syndication threshold would be good for Adult Swim on paper, but so would distributing the show more widely in the here and now.
If anything, the "Rick and Morty" deal seems to take a page from Dan Harmon's playbook. Consider Harmon's "six seasons and a movie" push for "Community" — the sitcom Harmon created, was fired from, brought back on to and finally moved from NBC to Yahoo for its sixth season. It's similar to Adult Swim's buzzy moves, yes, but it also became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy even as the show's future was continually uncertain. "Community" cast members are still being asked about the possibility of a movie. Harmon and Roiland have since managed to take Roiland's obscure parody of Doc and Marty from "Back to the Future" and turn it into a massively successful show with the promise of a 101 episode run — whether all those episodes get made or not, that's an achievement for them as creators and dealmakers.
"Even just a few weeks ago there was this whole thing with them talking on Twitter about how the show hadn't been renewed yet," says Betteridge. "Which of course spurred a bunch of social media engagement and articles like 'is "Rick and Morty" going to get renewed?'" There was virtually no chance of Adult Swim passing on another season of "Rick and Morty," but the most obvious reason for greenlighting 70 episodes is for the spectacle of it all. To commemorate the announcement, Adult Swim is sending its "Rickmobile" pop-up merchandise shop on a 50-stop tour around the country.
The popularity of the "Rick and Morty" brand and its merchandising opportunities are certainly part of the renewal equation. A long-term development deal would've kept Harmon and Roiland on the network, potentially with another show, whereas the renewal means Adult Swim gets more of the show they already know is a hit.
As any random internet commenter will tell you, it's hard to maintain a hit TV show's quality over multiple years — flagging creativity kills countless shows. Maher and Betteridge both compared the "Rick and Morty" deal to FX's "Archer,"which is slated to run for a total of 10 seasons. "Archer" has been flitting between different genres and settings since its fifth season. With the established multiverse lore of "Rick and Morty", it's not hard to imagine the show taking a similar turn in a few years, but it is difficult to believe that Roiland and Harmon have a 10 season narrative arc planned for the show, or that they'll want "Rick and Morty" to be their main project for another decade. Unless, of course, the money is so good they can't say no.
They'll Work For Each Other, And Pay Each Other Money…
A decade-long "Rick and Morty" deal for Harmon and Roiland means a decade of work for writers and animators on the show too. In an industry as fickle as television, a large renewal order might seem like an unmitigated win for the show's production staff. Much like there's no way of knowing whether all 70 of these episodes will actually get made, the reality is there's no guarantee that any of the show's staff aside from Harmon and Roiland stand to benefit from this deal in the long term.
"Rick and Morty" is made following the model used by most American animated shows. Typically, a show's creators oversee a core production company composed of writers, producers and animators. This company contracts out much of the actual animation work to another studio. Many of the studios that do contract animation work on television shows are based outside of the United States — overseas studios frequently benefit from lower labor costs across the board. A show might routinely rely on a number of different contract studios or have one primary partner with the option of bringing in other studios and freelancers for complex sequences or stylistic departures.
Since the show's second season, the primary studio responsible for "Rick and Morty" is Rick and Morty LLC, a spin-off of Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos' animation studio Starburns Industries in Los Angeles.Across all three seasons, the show's main contract animation studio has been Vancouver-based Bardel Entertainment. Bardel is split into multiple teams working on different 2D and 3D animation projects — aside from "Rick and Morty," Bardel has recently worked on shows ranging from "Teen Titans GO!" to Dreamworks' "Madagascar" TV series "All Hail King Julien."
The first prominent bit of production trouble "Rick and Morty" ran into came in 2014 during production on the show's second season. Earlier that year, representatives of the show's LA-based crew reached out to the Animation Guild, a branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees labor union for Southern California animation workers. The Animation Guild started the process of organizing the show's LA employees and only in the process became aware of the changeover from Starburns Industries to Rick and Morty LLC between seasons. News of Rick and Morty LLC's successful unionization hit the web a day before Justin Roiland took to the "Rick and Morty" subreddit to issue a statement of his own, simultaneously praising the crew and bemoaning the process. Instead of focusing on the positive steps taken in signing the new agreement, Roiland's all-caps "FUCK THE UNION" became the major talking point.
Union staffers at Rick and Morty LLC are in a good position to benefit from the renewal both under their current deal and if they want to renegotiate in light of the renewal down the road. At Bardel, it's a different story.
It's not uncommon for shows to switch contract animation studios between seasons, and it's possible that the 70 episode renewal for "Rick and Morty" will have other studios vying with Bardel for that business. Though Bardel is established and distinguished, it's subject to the same business realities as other players in the industry. Late last year, when news of comedian Louis C.K.'s sexual harassment broke, C.K.'s in-development TBS animated series "The Cops" was quickly scuttled. The show was far along in development at Starburns Industries and Bardel was beginning to staff up in anticipation of the show's first season — instead of employing 60 people on "The Cops," the abrupt cancellation meant Bardel had to scramble to either reassign animators to other shows or simply let them go.
Canadian animators don't have the Animation Guild or an equivalent organization to turn to, and though the industry is booming in Vancouver, the high cost of living in the city coupled with systemically low wages and unpaid overtime practices amongst local animation studios mean that even if Bardel was guaranteed to be "Rick and Morty's" contract partner for another decade, turnover could remain high while conditions remain inadequate (some of the less-enthusiastic Glassdoor reviewers appear resigned to accepting long hours and low pay as a given in the animation world).
When reached for comment, both the Animation Guild and Bardel appear to be optimistic (maybe cautiously so) about "Rick and Morty's" renewal. Here's Jason MacLeod, the Guild's business representative:
We think it's terrific that Rick and Morty got a 70-episode renewal! This means more work in town – and more work for Animation Guild members.
Whenever workers organize as the Rick and Morty crew did, there is a positive impact – artists realize that they do have a voice and they can take action to improve their wages, benefits and working conditions.
Ashley Evans, community and communications manager at Bardel, echoed MacLeod's excitement:
We can't say anything about it at this time but everyone at Bardel is a huge Rick and Morty fan. We are THRILLED about the recent announcement!
Empire Of Dirt
As the sudden halt on "The Cops" illustrates, optimism in the animation industry can easily be met with setbacks. "Rick and Morty" came close to a harassment reckoning earlier this year when Dan Harmon admitted to sexually harassing writer Megan Ganz when he served as her boss on "Community." After Ganz and Harmon publicly discussed the matter on Twitter, Harmon gave a comprehensive, nuanced apology on his podcast "Harmontown" that Ganz accepted and extolled.
Harmon's apology to Ganz reflected his real, knotty personality that gets chopped-up, heightened and lampooned as part of Rick, the show's idol to all high-IQ-having wannabes/the character any casual viewer of the show will note is, like, very depressed and not cool. It's possible that the show's writing staff can continue to make compelling, funny TV from the multiverse adventures of a sad genius and his nervy teenage grandson without compromising and turning the show into a parade of cheap Jerry jokes and lame attempts to go viral. It's possible, but just about everything points to that course being about as likely as animation jobs are sustainable.
"Rick and Morty's" third season ended with a big reset, albeit one underlined by growth. The problem for a show that can be about and do anything is picking a direction and making good on it. Whether the show's writers take things back to basics or look to explore new depths — and whether the fans stick by it — "Rick and Morty" has to continue along some path on its march to 101 episodes. Maybe the path the the show takes will be brilliant, maybe it'll be self-destructive. Maybe it'll be both.
Either way, there will probably be nugget sauce at the end.
The first six seasons of "Space Ghost Coast to Coast" predate the creation of Adult Swim.
Lazzo made headlines in 2016 when he gave a pretty horrible explanation for the lack of women in Adult Swim's chief creative roles.
"Archer" was created by Adam Reed, who co-created "Sealab 2021" and "Frisky Dingo" for Adult Swim.
Starburns Industries was the primary studio on the first season of "Rick and Morty."