How Rick & Morty Tells A Story (The Ricks Must Be Crazy) – Wisecrack Edition
Rick and Morty is incredibly unique, with its remarkable characters, unforgettable episodes, and surprisingly profound subjects. But the show is also exceptional in its ability to play with our expectations while employing rather traditional storytelling techniques. In this special Wisecrack Edition, we explore how Dan Harmon’s Universal Theory of Storytelling (effectively a variation of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth / Hero’s Journey) helps bring the show’s dark and subversive themes to life. By following one of our favorite episodes – “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” – we dive into the structure and formula for crafting great stories.
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Directed by: Camille Lecoq
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
How Rick & Morty Tells A Story (The Ricks Must Be Crazy) – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. If you haven’t noticed, we really, really love Rick & Morty. Unfortunately, we’re still desperately waiting for the rest of Season 3 and more of that sweet sweet Szechuan sauce. But to tide you guys over, we thought we’d put philosophy aside and take a look at another element that makes Rick & Morty so great: showrunners Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s mastery of story structure. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on How Rick and Morty Tells a Story. Dan Harmon states that every story – from the Odyssey to your standard fart joke – follows eight simple steps. Harmon called it “the story embryo”, and it goes like this:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
2. But they want something.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
4. Adapt to it,
5. Get what they wanted,
6. Pay a heavy price for it,
7. Then return to their familiar situation,
8. Having changed.
Of course, this can all change based on the genre and medium. And it especially changes for television. Whereas a movie’s goal is to send viewers out on a 90 minute high, television is a bit different: it aims to keep people watching television. Forever. Harmon says this is all to put your brain in a vegetative state so that the commercials can do their work. This means television shows are less about change, and more about preserving the status quo. In the Dark Knight Rises, Batman saves Gotham before jetting off to Italy to start his new life. While in Batman: The Animated Series, you can bet your bottom dollar that each episode begins and ends with Batman fighting a different villain in the same old Gotham. In Harmon’s words, television “swaps out any meaningful and therefore potentially television-subverting truth with the basic, eternal “truth” that change is unnecessary” (46). With that in mind, the structure of a TV episode often ends up looking more like this:
1. I (the protagonist)
2. Notice a small problem,
3. And make a major decision.
4. This changes things
5. To some satisfaction, but
6. There are consequences
7. That must be undone
8. And I must admit the futility of change.”
So do Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon follow their own advice? Absolutely. Every episode of Rick and Morty follows this format, but for the sake of time, let’s see how it plays out in one of my favorites: Season 2, Episode 6: “The Ricks Must Be Crazy”. Step 1: Establish a protagonist in a zone of comfort. Harmon tells us that it’s best not to “f*** around” here and fade immediately onto your characters doing something relatable. This episode does just that, opening with Summer, Rick, and Morty coming out of the movie, Ball Fondlers. In just 20 short seconds, the episode has told us who our protagonists are, what they, and what their world is like.
And 25 seconds later, the script moves to. Step 2: Introduce a small problem and establish a need. Step 2 is where the protagonist realizes that life isn’t perfect. In a teenage love story, this is when the hero wonders why he can’t be the school quarterback and date the cheerleader. In a horror film, this is when the group of teens first hears that someone was murdered in the woods 13 years ago. For the Sanchez family, though, it’s when Rick’s ship refuses to start.
Rick: “Oh great… Huh, looks like something’s wrong with the Microverse Battery. We’re going to have to go inside.”
In two lines, Rick sets up the central problem and motivation of the script: the ship’s battery is dead, and they need to fix it. In typical hero fashion, Morty is reluctant to start this journey: “Um, go inside what?” This reluctance is an often used narrative trick that helps us identify with the protagonist, in this case Morty. Morty’s uncertainty of the situation becomes our uncertainty, and we find ourselves more invested in the story. Ten seconds later and the script moves us to. Step 3: The protagonist makes a major decision and enters an unfamiliar situation. Step 3 is where the descent into the unknown begins. In the case of Rick and Morty, this descent is both a figurative and literal one. On one level, the two are leaving their comfort zone and entering one characterized by danger and uncertainty. While on a more literal level, they’re actually shrinking down to visit an actual world inside Rick’s car battery, posing as aliens:
Rick: “There’s nothing dishonest about what we’re doing. Now slap on these antennas. These people need to believe we’re aliens.”
Harmon says that it’s not important how big or epic your story is, but rather how noticeable the contrast is between your two worlds. This episode takes that premise and runs with it, introducing us to a world that is completely foreign to our own. It’s populated by Martian-like people living in power plant inspired buildings, who venerate Rick for introducing giving them electricity. Unknown to them, the Stair Master like Gooble Boxes Rick gave them actually redirect most of their power to Rick’s ship. And, like the dick of a God he is, Rick has guided their civilization in some messed up ways.
Which brings us to Step 4: Characters adapt to the new situation and things must change. Step 4 is all about the characters learning their place in this new world. It’s where all of their neuroses are broken down and all their psychological baggage is slowly stripped away. Hack movie producers call it the “training phase” and literally have the hero train here. But remember, TV isn’t about selling change – it’s about preserving the status quo so you’ll tune in week after week. As such, this stage is much less about internal change and more about external change. Once they arrive in the Microverse, Rick and Morty orient themselves in this new world and identify the problem at hand: Zeep Xanflorp. Zeep is perhaps the most familiar and strangest aspect of this Microverse, essentially a carbon copy of a carbon-copy of Rick himself: “I dropped out of school. It’s not a place for smart people.”
Zeep even creates his own Microverse to generate his planet’s electricity, which makes Rick’s Gooble Boxes obsolete, and his car battery unusable. Faced with a mirror image of themselves, you’d expect a normal character to own up to their own hypocrisy and begin to change. But not Rick. Rick shamelessly parrots the same objections Morty had made earlier to him – a shot which is almost visually identical to the earlier scene. And when Morty later calls Rick out on his hypocrisy, Rick seizes upon this as a chance to stop Zeep. This is the “things must change” part, a new conflict is introduced: Rick must search for a scientist in Zeep’s Microverse working on his own Microverse, so he can force Zeep realize his own hypocrisy and abandon the idea of Microverses altogether.
Rick: “Somewhere on this planet, there’s got to be an arrogant scientist prick on the verge of Microverse technology, which would threaten to make Zeep’s Floobal Cranks obsolete, forcing Zeep to say Microverses are bad, at which point he’ll realize what a hypocrite he’s being. His people will go back to stomping on their Gooble Boxes.”
This sets us up for Step 5: The character gets what they wanted. If you look at the diagram, you’ll notice Step 5 is at the very bottom of the circle, opposite of Step 1, where the hero is most comfortable. Here, the hero has hit rock-bottom and has finally found what they were looking for, even if it wasn’t quite what they had expected. This is the first major turning point of the story, where your character’s motivations begin to change. If you want a plot twist, Harmon says to twist here and twist hard. Rick reaches Step 5 when he gets what he wants: he finds a scientist named Kyle in Zeep’s Microverse who’s creating his own Microverse. In an Inception-like moment, we travel into a Microverse within a Microverse… Within another Microverse. Rick sits back and watches with smug self-satisfaction as Zeep repeats to Kyle the same slavery rant we’ve heard third time in the last eight minutes. Did we mention that comedy comes in threes?
But as Zeep continues his rant, he realizes that his own universe is a Microverse – and that his whole existence was brought into being through Rick. In an existential rage, Zeep and Rick begin beating the s*** out of each other. Meanwhile, Kyle crumbles into himself with the realization that he’s in a nesting doll of universes. But Rick’s triumph is short lived, which brings us to Step 6: Paying a hefty price and suffering the consequences. Given that this model is circular, you can imagine that there’s going to be a lot of symmetry going on here. Just as Step 2 is about preparing the hero for their descent, Step 6 is about preparing them for their return. This step is all about the Hero testing their newfound will against the unfeeling world, often getting their a** handed to them in the process. Here we see the same situation play out in this episode. Rick gets exactly what he wanted: a Microverse within Zeep’s Microverse. But in demonstrating Zeep’s hypocrisy, Rick causes Kyle to have an existential meltdown and kill himself, trapping them all in the Microverse. (tinyverse)
Unable to put aside their egos, Rick and Zeep blame each other and set out to destroying one another instead of working together to escape. The two set up camp across from each other and begin an all out war, completely forgetting about their current predicament. Realizing that they’re going nowhere, Morty decides he’s better off living with Tree People. But it’s actually Morty and his primitive tribe of Tree People that force Rick and Zeep to forge an alliance, which brings us to Step 7: Undoing the damage and returning the familiar world. Just as Step 4 is the final step before the hero sinks to the bottom of the unfamiliar, Step 7 is the final step before they resurface. The only problem is that re-entering the old world is just as difficult as leaving it.
Once your hero tries to return, the denizens of the deep are likely to give chase – and sometimes return with them. Using his control over the tree people, Morty forces Rick and Zeep to put aside their egos and engineer a solution out of Kyle’s Microverse. But once they escaped it, all bets are off – and the two groups rush to exit the surrounding Microverse. On a metaphorical level, Zeep is the embodiment of this lower world; he’s there to stop Rick from bringing the change back to the original world – getting his battery running again. On a more literal level, though, Zeep wants to trap Rick in the Microverse because it’s the only way to keep his own Microverse from being destroyed. In many ways, Zeep is Rick’s shadow, serving as a dark reflection of all Rick’s undesirable traits and neuroses.
Shadows are a common story device, and like many shadow-figures before him, Zeep serves as a gatekeeper for this lower world – he is the final obstacle a hero must face. Whether it’s Hans Gruber putting a gun to John McClain’s wife in Die Hard, or Luke facing off against Darth Vader in Star Wars, shadow characters offer a dark glimpse into what the hero could have been if they didn’t undergo a transformation. The beauty of Rick & Morty is that Rick is completely aware of all his shortcomings and has no desire to fix them. The whole episode presents us with a series of parallels between Rick and Zeep, making each look as bad as the other. When Rick tells Morty to run, it’s hard to tell if he’s describing himself or Zeep:
Rick: “Run, Morty! That a******’s willing to risk everything he believes in just so to defeat me! He’s psychotic.”
As a result, when Rick and Zeep finally face off in the episode’s conclusion, it’s not Rick battling the physical manifestations of his demons in attempt to change. It’s just Rick fighting Rick. Even Morty feels the fight is unnecessary at this point. With Zeep taken care of, Rick and Morty finally exit the Microverse, arriving back in their Ball Fondlers reality. This brings us to Step Eight: Change or the futility of it. Normally, this is where the hero finally reaches fulfillment, where he integrates all the skills he learned on his journey into his old life. In The Karate Kid, Daniel can now Kung all the Fu. In Saw II, Amanda has become the next Jigsaw Killer. But remember, TV isn’t about change. The hero can never be fulfilled. Otherwise they’ll never desire another adventure, and there will be no story to tune into. Once the two return to their Ball Fondlers universe, Rick turns the key and the ignition starts. He explains to a confused Morty that Zeep had either two choices: go back to Gooble Box technology or have Rick throw away a broken Microverse battery.
Fully embracing the futility of change, the episode ends with the three sitting down for ice-cream, a dazed Morty and Summer shellshocked by the normalcy of the situation after what they’ve been through. In the end, Rick & Morty is both immediately familiar and radically different from anything else we’ve seen on television before. While the show regularly mocks popular culture and continually plays off the audience’s expectations, at its core, the series is structured just like any other show on television. But this is where the Rick & Morty shines the brightest. Because while shows like Happy Days and Leave It To Beaver are content to leave us right where each episode started, Rick & Morty uses its circular structure to make us confront the depressing, crippling futility of change. Rick successfully re-enslaves a whole planet to power his car battery, all so they can get some ice-cream. So while Rick Sanchez may not believe in much, the creative team definitely believes in the power story structure. Take it easy Wisecrack.