Critical Contrast – Sci-Fi Comedy : Rick and Morty

Red Dwarf played with its scientific concepts on an episode by episode basis, slotting these types of stories in between its monster of the week and character development pieces, and using its characters to explore the concept in one single, ultimately disposable narrative.

Rick and Morty (created and by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland) also mixes sitcom with science fiction, but it’s a less unified approach, each episode typically following the titular mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his fretful, easily influenced grandson Morty Smith (both voiced by Justin Roiland) on a wacky space adventure in the A plot, whilst the B plot follows the disharmonious domestic life of the Smith family, consisting of Rick’s daughter Beth (Sarah Chalke), pathetic husband Jerry (Chris Parnell), and their first child Summer (Spencer Grammer), a superficial teenager stereotype who gradually gets drawn into Rick’s adventures.

With separate plots vying for the 20 minutes, the wacky space adventure simply doesn’t have time to do what Red Dwarf did, building each episode as a thought experiment- a lab test with a bunch of neurotic, curry obsessed mice. But Rick and Morty has little to no interest in actual science, instead examining the human drive for  inherent value and meaning in life vs. the inability to find any.

What it does do is use one nugget of scientific theory, specifically our old friend “The Many Worlds Theory, to illustrate this existentialist exploration and laugh at it, placing the show between banal home life of the Smiths and their need for purpose vs. an infinite insanity of visuals afforded by Rick’s portal gun to an infinite multiverse of alternate or parallel universes.

Now, Red Dwarf also used this theory in series 4’s Dimension Jump, but due to budgetary constraints and its live action trappings chose to focus on the simple exploration of one important decision. As an animated show, Rick and Morty is able to pursue this beyond the cosmically insignificant effect on one person and into the absurd, the bizarre and surreal places and peoples, the only sane way to respond to which is laughter.

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Ineffable cosmic horrors, pop culture references make manifest, and whole plethora of penis shaped people!

The show’s penchant for bizarre visual humour is nicely illustrated in this scene from last week’s first case study- “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind” (S01E10)

Season 1’s “Rixty Minutes” and Season 2’s “Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate” centre around Rick’s cable box showing TV shows from every conceivable dimension, and using multiverse to play around with different styles of comedy in universe.

For those with time to kill or something important you don’t want to do!

Built as vignettes, the Interdimensional clips allow the strengths of Justin Roiland’s obviously improvised madness to shine through, and the audience are included in the game as they watch the artists trying to animate it, adding their own talents and visual humours of the mix. Like most improvised comedy, it can be hit or miss, but the emotional grounding of the B plot and novelty of seeing improv in animation carries it through.

Using the lack of constraints of infinity allows the show to bring a different style of humour to the mix, keeping the show fresh whilst still fitting into its smartly scripted structure naturally, and furthering the show’s Absurdist values (how could anyone find purpose in an existence that includes Ants-In-My-Eyes-Johnson?).

Ultimately, using the scope provided by infinite universes through the lenses of Absurdism, pop culture parody, and dick jokes allows the writers to find their own brand of dark, puerile, philosophical humour in literally anything imaginable, and Rick and Morty rarely strays from this core theorem, preferring to zip to the next episode of deconstructed tropes and parodies. But there are some exceptions.

S02E06, “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” diverges from this theme, instead choosing to play around with Pocket Universe, a concept from inflationary theory (re: expansion of the universe post big bang), proposed by Alan Guth, which defines a realm like the one that contains the observable universe (re: ours) as only one of many inflationary zones.

No, me neither, but this article describes the universe as a sheet of rubber, plastic or Dinglebop film that in theory can be stretched until it forms a distinct bubble, connected yet separate from the rest of the pliable material. There’s a picture, I’ll borrow that:

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This highly complex, highly theoretical manipulation of the universe’s quantum scale is what Rick uses to power his car.

Rick has created an entire Microverse and manipulated the development of sentient life, then visited that life masquerading as a benevolent force to introduce a clean energy source (the GoogleBox, no relation) to power their civilisation, and incidentally, his break lights.

When the car won’t start, Rick and Morty enter the pocket universe to discover that a scientist from within the Microverse, Zeep Xanflorp (Stephen Colbert), has made the GoogleBox obsolete with his creation of a Miniverse, manipulating the development of sentient life and- you can see where this is going.

From all the dick people on show, it seems that its business as usual Re: exploring an existentialist perspective through infinity, but in “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” the artificial nature of its setting allows the writers to explore a neighbouring philosophy- Cosmic indifferentism.

This outlook on existence was developed by American writer and xenophobe HP Lovecraft in his seminal ” Cthulhu Mythos” books, which chart the many humans who in pursuit of scientific knowledge discover they’re insignificance in the “infinite spaces” of the universe, particularly compared to the “Great Old Ones,” a loose pantheon of ancient, powerful extraterrestrials who understand and obey a set of natural laws which to our understanding seem magical, godlike, and completely indifferent to the existence of humanity, as humanity is to ants.

Swap out Cthulhu the tentacled monstrosity for Rick Sanchez the eccentric and alcoholic mad scientist, and you have the plot of the episode, at least from Zeep’s perspective.

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To the people of the Microverse Rick is a god, worshipped with statues and festivals, but he treats them with a callous nonchalance, using their lives to power his intergalactic drink driving binges, and the rare times he has visited his creation he flips them off on masse, convincing them it means “peace among worlds.”

As a scientist, Zeep Xanflorp has no time for Rick the god, but in pursuing his own scientific breakthroughs, discovers the nature of his existence as nothing more than Rick’s car battery.

The episode emphasises Rick and Zeep similarities to illustrate their nature as indifferent beings with seemingly godlike power, and when it is discovered that within Zeep’s Miniverse another scientist is creating a Teenyverse, Zeep is set down the same path as Rick and Morty, highlighting that neither scientist is special in an infinite universe of possibility.

On a tour of the Teenyverse, Zeep realises the truth, and promptly starts a fistfight with Rick, and as the two fight, they fight as people. Not gods, not benevolent space aliens, people. Kyle (creator of the Teenyverse) observes this, realising that his own life is being exploited, and summarising the existential horror of it all before promptly committing suicide:

“So he made a universe, and that guy is from that universe. And that guy made a universe. And that’s the universe where I was born. Where my father died. Where I couldn’t make time for his funeral because I was working on my universe.”

This reaction to “forbidden knowledge” is often the outcome of Lovecraft’s stories, which tends to leave the protagonist insane or destroys them outright. Or, in the case of Zeep at the end of this episode- deeply aware that his entire civilisation can be swatted into oblivion like a fly. Rick explains at the end:

“He knew that once I got back to my car, one of two things was gonna happen– I was gonna have to toss a broken battery, or the battery wouldn’t be broken.”

The Microverse has returned to the menial and repetitive task of stomping on Googleboxs for power, a visual representation of Zeep’s inability to change anything in the vast, indifferent universe that surrounds him, and his forbidden knowledge that it was not created by a benevolent god, but by an asshole- an asshole like him.

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“Peace among worlds… Rick!”

By setting the story in the artificial pocket universe of Rick’s design, “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” makes Rick unequivocally the creator and master of Zeep’s universe- a godlike being, but one that follows the rules of the physics, even if, just like the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft, they are barely comprehendible, almost magic.

But what makes the parody work is that Rick isn’t an ineffable extraterrestrial, he’s human, and the audience knows humans, and knows he’s a bad one, and certainly the last person you’d have as god.

Almost in the same way that we know scuzzball Dave Lister is the worst person to be the last of us, the culmination of humanity, and after going through both shows for this, it’s one of the few things they have in common.

Whereas Red Dwarf plays with a new theory only to discard it next week for a new one, Rick and Morty uses one central scientific theorem as a canvas; as a platform for its exploration not of its characters, but of the human condition as a whole, drawing its comedy from humanity’s probable meaningless on the cosmic level by thrusting us (or Morty as an audience surrogate) into an unending multiverse of bizarre and fantastical spectacles (many of which are dick shaped), and through Rick, telling to fuck it, have a laugh, don’t think about it.

Fair enough!


Rick and Morty in hindsight actually has a lot more similarities with the final example of this branch of Critical Contrast, which will be The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (the original radio series).

But I’m not going to be doing that next. I’ll come back to Hitchikers, but since The Westworld TV series has not long finished, it’s a decent opportunity to help take CC back to its adaptation roots by comparing the shows themes to the original 1973 movie, so may as well do that whilst the irons still hot.

More likely lukewarm by the time I’ve published anything but never mind.


 

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