In the second episode of Rick and Morty, Grandpa Rick takes Morty into his math teacher’s subconscious, and they find a demonic sex dungeon where kink-shaming is punishable by death. Inside, a fantasy dominatrix version of Morty’s sister walks up to them and proposes an “intergenerational sandwich.” Both our heroes visibly gag and wind up fighting off a jacked centaur who enforces the “no kink-shaming” rule. That’s the first of many incest jokes throughout the series. But what is the impact of such a popular show frequently joking about a subject most people—even the show’s fans—find icky?
Co-creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland told VICE in 2015 that the secret to comedy is to make yourself laugh, and incest is a topic they both think is hilarious. In a 2016 recording of his Harmontown podcast, Harmon went on a ten-minute rant about incest porn that ended in a rap about cuckolding. "Taboo, it takes you across the threshold into a world where you can become pure animal," he said in the bit. "I don’t want to think about my mortgage. I don’t want to think about the police. I don’t want to think about fucking Bill Maher. I don’t want to think about Jay Leno. I don’t want to think about Froot Loops. I don’t want to think about cleaning the gutters. I wanna think about fuck fuck fuck fuckfuckFUCK! But that’s the purpose of taboo, it shocks your system."
One of the last episodes of Harmon’s Yahoo show Community was devoted to an incestuous marriage. In “Wedding Videography,” the gang attends a long-running side character’s wedding and inadvertently reveals he’s marrying his cousin. It ends on an incest-positive note, followed immediately by a “disclaimer” video from someone claiming to have written the incest scenes. “They said they’d allow me to address it on one condition,” said the man who introduces himself as Briggs Hatton. “At the end of the episode, I must appear and identify myself as the writer.” Some Redditors identified the man on the screen as an actor, so Harmon may have been responsible for the whole bit.
Watch: Slutever Kinky Travel
Incest continues to crop up throughout Rick and Morty. Fans rally behind a glasses-wearing version of Morty—affectionately called “Specs”—who wishes aloud that, “incest porn had a more mainstream appeal.” In the second to last episode of season three, Morty’s mom, Beth, fights an army of incestuously created cannibal fantasy creatures. Incest is the butt of a lot of jokes in this episode, but importantly isn’t the most revolting part of it. Murder and cannibalism are. It seems designed to show how revolting violence is, even though it’s more acceptable in popular entertainment than fetishes. Scenes like this helped fuel a huge Rick and Morty incest porn fan art community, which we reported on last week.
Harmon commented on the Rick and Morty incest porn community for our article, and we included the most important bits in the piece. But his full response is worth sharing. It sheds light on the philosophy toward fringe sexuality that informs a show worshipped by an army of zealous fans. We asked him about a 2015 tweet in which Roiland said, “In many realities, Morty and Rick ARE in a passionate healthy romantic relationship. Maybe we'll do an episode about it.”
“I don’t want to live in a universe where slash fiction of any kind is illegal. I think it’s really important that people who have taboo thoughts are able to express them in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody else. But I think it’s equally important that people who are disgusted by those thoughts can say that they’re disgusting. I hope that nobody ever gains so much more power over the other that taboo thoughts are forced upon people or that they’re policed by roving drones that zap you for thinking a certain thought. I could never ever as a bona fide, card-carrying nerd, and pervert, and fantasy advocate, I would never ever want to see an internet where written words entertaining even the darkest of fantasies are somehow not allowed. Even though the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy, I don’t want to live in Stargate world where certain shapes aren’t allowed to be drawn in the sand because we figured out how to solve our brains. I have a big trigger there. Anything close to kink-shaming, no matter how taboo, I can’t abide the shaming.
“I realize how easy it is when it involves such a hot-button topic—I walk into a minefield even answering this question. I don’t want anyone to ever be ashamed of themselves for their own thoughts. But that’s a different answer than, 'Do I agree that there’s a universe where this is going on?' [laughs]. I feel like my answer to that question weighs too much. I want to stay an individual that didn’t create Rick and Morty, and say, please, why go down the path of making anybody so ashamed of their thoughts that they don’t express them? But when I put my Rick and Morty producer hat back on, which gives me way too much power—I’ve never said no comment in my life, but that path has too much power, I’m learning. It causes my statements to get copied and pasted in ways that hurt people.”
In this context, it becomes clear that incest jokes on Rick and Morty aren’t just for the laughs, though Roiland clearly gets his kicks from the topic. The incest jokes are seemingly about kink visibility.
Harmon’s statement acknowledges the power and influence he now wields as the creator of a very popular show with a rabid fanbase. He’s been coming to terms with his new stature in a very public way, from his tendency to block people on Twitter instead of arguing with them to his public apology to writer Megan Ganz for sexually harassing her on the set of Community.
When it comes to fighting kink-shaming, Harmon leads by example. He presents even the most taboo kinks as something to be curious about. In Rick and Morty, the Rick's turn-ons seem to include hang-gliders and Uncle Sam. In a recent episode of Harmontown titled Necrophilia Questions, Harmon and co-hosts Jeff Bryan Davis, Spencer Crittenden, and Rob Schrab spend more than 20 minutes discussing whether getting turned on by dead people is an acceptable kink. “I have necrophilia questions, but they’re not based on shaming anyone,” he said. “The safe, easy rule is don't kink-shame people if their kink has no victim. It's a tough area, necrophilia. A dead person has not consented, they have loved ones, I don't know.”
Here, Harmon's radical non-judgment acknowledges that there are real necrophiles out there who have to wrestle with these questions.
Even when Harmon tweets into the void of Donald Trump’s Twitter presence, his feelings about kink-shame shine through in a thread about the President’s alleged pee tape.
Rick and Morty cracked 3 million unique viewers in 2017. It's fans idolize its characters, dressing up as them, spending lots of money on merchandise, and even creating online forums for people who identify as its characters. The messages underlying a show with such a following can have a huge impact, so it's important to know where its creators are coming from.
All said, Harmon isn't your typical role model. While he was largely praised for his apology to Ganz and she publicly forgave him, that doesn't erase his predatory behavior. He has a history of being a proud asshole, but apologizing when he gets caught. Judging by the number of jokes about therapy in his live shows—and the episode of Rick and Morty devoted to it—Harmon is still dealing with these issues. His willingness to engage with the taboo permeates Rick and Morty. His anti-kink-shaming stance is wrapped up in the show's success, either contributing to it's unicorn success or propagating as a result.
Either way, a hard look at what Harmon and Roiland have said about incest porn and kink are worthwhile for any Rick and Morty fan or hater waiting anxiously for season four to get underway.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.