It’s twilight at San Diego Comic-Con, and the lawn beyond Petco Park’s center field fence is packed with thousands of Rick and Morty fans. They line up at the Rickmobile to get their Pickle Rick shirts. They chat over a soundtrack of hard-hitting rap and electronica. Some of them, naturally, have snuck alcohol into the field. And all of them have Rick masks handed out by Adult Swim’s dutiful marketing team. Around 9:00 p.m., an emcee asks the assembled crowd to put on the masks and raise both middle fingers skyward for a group photo. A couple fans shout out, “Peace among worlds!” That, after all, is what this gesture means.
Then, the highlight of the evening: a secret screening of the series’ next episode, “Rickmancing the Stone.” It’s the first new Rick and Morty since the most brilliant April Fools’ Day stunt in history, and only the second new episode of the show in the past two years. Yet in the interim, the cult of Rick and Morty has blossomed into a full-grown megachurch.
“I feel like our audience has quadrupled, or maybe even more than that,” says series co-creator Justin Roiland. “You’d think that going on this long a hiatus would hurt the show. But I feel like in a weird way it’s helped, because there’s been this long casual time for everyone to tell their friends about seasons one and rwi. It’s like this weird virus that’s spreading… that’s a bad way to put it.”
“No, it’s totally appropriate,” replies his partner-in-crime (and co-executive producer), Dan Harmon.
The truly fascinating thing about Rick and Morty’s explosive growth is that you wouldn’t expect its fan base to be so prone to infectious fanaticism. This series is unabashedly whip-smart; intelligence courses through its veins (and not in a gimmicky, Big Bang Theory way), and if you can’t keep up, Rick will leave you in the dust to shrivel and die. He’s the greatest intellect in the universe and its greatest cynic, and he doesn’t have time for your bullshit. Such a show should and does attract an audience with high expectations and prodigious critical thought capabilities, a group of people more apt to analyze than to proselytize. So it’s worth asking what about Rick and Morty has gotten through to the emotional centers of these folks’ brains.
First and foremost is Rick himself. “I think people connect with Rick because he doesn’t give a fuck, and he voices a lot of the things they think,” Roiland muses. There’s liberation to be found across the ideological spectrum in “telling it like it is”—regardless of what basic worldview “it” constitutes—and Rick speaks directly to the nihilist within every viewer, the part of their mind that still hasn’t gotten over its superficial freshman year tryst with Nietzsche. The universe has no inherent meaning, Rick says, and we’re all wasting most of our time.
To illustrate this at Adult Swim’s Comic-Con press event, Roiland ad libs a TED Talk Rick might deliver, if he ever accepted an invitation (doubtful). “Welcome to my TED Talk, fuck you,” it begins. “This is a talk about fuck everybody, I don’t give a shit, I’m drunk… look, I love popcorn and my favorite is the Redenbachel popcorn. Is that his name? Orvin Redelbachel. That’s my favorite popcorn, and I’m gonna talk about it at my TED talk.”
“He would close that TED talk by bringing out the reanimated corpse of Orville Redenbacher,” adds series writer Ryan Ridley.
And Rick would do that because he’d be bored—just like he got bored of conning the literal Devil. Even though he does some horrible things, it’s inaccurate to characterize Rick as a truly bad person; he’s more a pure expression of id. And no one who fancies themselves intelligent can resist fantasizing about what they’d do with unlimited brainpower and resources. Even though Rick is hardly a model citizen, the lack of fucks he gives resonates emotionally with people stuck in the humdrum of a reality typified by the rest of the Smith family.
The wild creativity made possible by Rick and Morty’s sci-fi nature adds to the appeal. Roiland notes that he was always into the genre, and from a young age, he’s thought about the absurdities made possible by technology. “When I was was a kid, we got our first portable [landline] phone,” he recalls. “I was naive enough to think I could walk through my orchard into my neighbor’s orchard and be on the phone with them the whole time. And then I’d show up at their door and they’d be like, ‘Holy shit!’”
The show’s audience shares this mindset: In a world without inherent meaning, why not use technology to reach new heights of profound silliness? From season one’s infamous butter-passing robot and interdimensional cable to Rick’s manifestation of a butt in the most recent episode, the series gets some of its best laughs out of these ridiculous moments. But Rick and Morty moves beyond them to reach the darker parts of the human psyche, pointing out that once we’re beyond amusement, all humanity really wants is comfort and escape. Real-world technology strives for that already; in the show’s universe, the concept is taken to its extreme. A society that placates its men with baby-making sex robots. An entire microverse enslaved to power a spaceship that takes Rick, Morty and Summer to the movies. A video game that simulates an entire human life. (For the record, Harmon thinks “Roy: A Life Well Lived” is the most fucked-up thing that’s ever been on Rick and Morty). Rick abilities could probably save the world from war and famine and global warming, but he’s honest with himself about how little that all matters—an idea that most thoughtful humans at least ponder at some point in their life, if they don’t full-on adopt that value system.
If nihilism were the endgame of Rick and Morty’s morality, though, it’s doubtful that the show would’ve connected so deeply with millions of people. Roiland says he’s talked to fans who are moved to tears by his creation: “I’ve met a bunch of them, they’ve expressed to me with absolute sincerity that the show has gotten them through really tough times,” he says. That sort of emotion is only possible because the urge to make meaning out of nothingness—and the terror intrinsic to doing so—lies at the very root of the human psyche. And the show’s most powerful moments come when we glimpse the profound sadness Rick feels upon contemplating his empty core.
Some critics interpreted Rick’s actions during “The Rickshank Redemption” as an affirmation of his nihilist spirit—not unreasonable, given that he brought down the Galactic Federation and got Jerry removed from the family in the name of Szechuan sauce. But I think the April Fools’ Day episode actually gave us a more hopeful glimpse into his depressed, hollow mind. His “totally fabricated origin story” likely contains some basis in reality, and his assertion that he doesn’t care at all about Morty or Summer or Beth flies in the face of accumulated past evidence. Rick’s life with the Smith family is the Spartan workout of dissociation, and in his refusal to level with himself about the purpose he’s created, we see our own fear of caring too much and getting hurt for our trouble. That fear fuels humanity’s proclivity for escapism into the fantastical fictions and hedonistic pursuits into which Rick takes viewers every week.
Season three was advertised as “the darkest year of our adventures.” One reason for that is Beth and Jerry’s divorce—it isn’t really a spoiler to say that a few minutes into Rickmancing the Stone, the already miserable Smith family is not taking recent events well. Another reason is the writing team’s response to the election, which dominated their cultural intake as they crafted the episodes. “People weren’t going home and watching My Favorite Martian,” quips Harmon. “We were consumed with those events.”
But more than anything, darkness is the most logical path for these characters to walk. Rick’s internal tug-of-war between his family and his apathy isn’t going away, especially now that Morty has proven himself a steadfast moral force and Summer, her grandpa’s strongest backer, will be coming along for more rides. And with that darkness will come more intense peaks and valleys, more absurd absurdities and harder-hitting feels. Perfect, in other words, for a fan base with an unquenched thirst and an absolute spiritual willingness to push the envelope in whatever direction the humor flows.
For a few minutes at Comic-Con, everyone got to be Rick. For the next ten or so weeks, his spirit will live in the most primal part of every member of his megachurch, and the virus will spread, assimilating people into the Rick and Morty fandom. And Sunday nights on TV, we’ll see television’s most honest, hilarious depiction of human instinct, in all its beauty and contradiction, prowling the interdimensional stomping grounds.
Zach Blumenfeld is excited to bring you Paste’s weekly reviews of Rick and Morty Season 3. Follow him on Twitter.