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Is 'Rick and Morty' as Smart as Its Fans Think It Is?

We asked a scientist, a philosopher, and a script writer.

Tom Usher

Adult Swim

Rick and Morty is a very funny show, appreciated by all sorts of people. Unfortunately, for the majority of those people, one section of the program's fan base is doing its best to give the rest of them a bad name, i.e. the kind of pseudo-intellectuals who fit within that Venn diagram sweet spot of GamerGate agitators, vape expo attendees, and people who read Nietzsche on the train.

Drop into discussion threads on Reddit, Facebook, or Twitter, and you'll find those who believe that a.) enjoying a show with some scientific and philosophical themes makes them inherently more intelligent than your average TV viewer, or b.) the final-bosses: Those who think the majority of Rick and Morty fans can't possibly appreciate the show as thoroughly as them, because they can't possibly understand the nuances of the scientific and philosophical references made in every episode as thoroughly as them.

So to find out if these fans really are as clever as they think they are, or whether you really need a firm grasp on science and philosophy to enjoy the show, I spoke to some viewers who are experts in relevant fields.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal, Spatial Scientist

VICE: What do you think of Rick and Morty?
Dr. Pragya Agarwal: I'm not a huge fan, but maybe that's because I'm not really their niche audience, and I haven't followed it religiously. But it is funny. I can see how it would appeal to a lot of people.

As a scientist, do you think people need a high level of scientific knowledge to be able to "get" the show?
No, I don't think anyone needs a high level of scientific knowledge. It has many layers, and so for a non-scientific person it is designed to be funny and employs more standard science-fiction references that would be familiar to anyone. On the other level, a scientist would be able to appreciate some humor and scientific references in a broader context to the jokes, although most ideas are taken to an extreme and completely made up.

So I don't need to be a genius to understand any of the science references then?
No. The point of the show is its accessibility. Many of the scientific ideas are inaccurate and so not really based in science.

But if I was into science, would I enjoy the show more, or do you think it doesn't really matter whether you're into science or not?
Well, there are specific scientific references to things, such as worm holes and Schrodinger's theory, and a lot of the jokes are based on real theories but taken to an extreme, so maybe a little bit. However, the jokes are generally funny in themselves so can be enjoyed by everyone, even those not familiar with the theory behind them.


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Peg O'Connor, Philosopher

VICE: What are your feelings generally on Rick and Morty as a show?
Peg O'Connor: I have a mixed response to the Rick and Morty show. On the one hand, I love seeing questions about philosophy and physics front and center in a show. If the questions of the show—like, "Is there any meaning and value in this world?" or, "Is our world one of a number of worlds?"—grab hold of people, that's great.

But as a woman and a philosopher, I see male behavior that has made both philosophy and physics the two most male-dominated fields with long-standing histories of being hostile to women. This is really tough to get past as a viewer. Rick's really bad and irresponsible behavior is par for the course; as a male, he gets away with it, but a woman would be pilloried.

So is that why you think the show is so popular with the science and philosophy community?
The popularity has something to do with the animated format, for sure. The Simpsons gets to raise all sorts of social, moral, and economic commentary because of its format. There's radical critique in The Simpsons; there is no radical critique in Rick and Morty in the episodes I have seen.

But for young males interested in science and philosophy, they get a show that is all about them. Men and boys get to pursue knowledge, battle enemies, or even other versions of themselves, be heroes and save the day. So males love the show. I wonder if young women interested in these questions love it as much or spend a good deal of time trying to write themselves into the tales because they have to leave their gender behind.

Do you think only intelligent people can understand the show in general?
I'm not comfortable saying that, especially because philosophy and philosophers have a reputation—not undeserved—of being elitist and making philosophy so abstract and removed from the daily questions of life that people find it alienating. That's really too bad because as originally practiced by the ancient Greeks, like Plato and Socrates, philosophy was an activity aimed at living a good life. This isn't a conception of philosophy that Rick and Morty engage, so I'd welcome a little more moral philosophy into their world. It might be a way to tack into the male dominance and misogyny that runs throughout the show.

Jack Warner, Script Editor/Writer

VICE: What are your thoughts on Rick and Morty?
Jack Warner: So I was a big fan of Community, co-creator Dan Harmon's big limelight show, which, like Rick and Morty, had a huge fan following that mainly dwelled in Tumblr dens—and they prided themselves in having a higher understanding of the show because they shared their theories and observations. Then Dan Harmon started making the show for that small crowd and delivered everything they could ask [for]... which meant the show got watered down and watered down.

David Mitchell describes working backstage at a theater, and he watched this actor do a very natural gesture, which got a big audience reaction—so the actor played up to it every night, and by the end of the run of the play, he did it in such a big way that it wasn't very funny anymore. I think that's what's happening with Rick and Morty.

Do you think it requires an advanced level of screenwriting knowledge?
No. I guess it helps to have a grip on sci-fi cinema references, but most of its humor comes from the everyday. I'd say a good chunk of the humor is derived from recognizing everyday stuff and projecting it into a crazy sci-fi setting. Some of the biggest laughs are just when they let Justin Roiland riff in character, with no script at all. I know some real morons who love it, and I know some really smart people who love it. The mark of a good TV show is that it appeals to a lot of different people—not a lot of the same people. But also, I think sci-fi is generally a genre that smart people think belongs to them. I remember these same arguments coming about when Futurama was on.

So it's a well written show in general?
I think it is a well-written show. I think both Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland are absolute masters of their craft and really funny guys. Episodes of Rick and Morty can be a master class in how to structure a sitcom episode, and their imaginations are really out there.

Why do you think people get so defensive about their TV shows?
I think TV is the most personal medium; it's easy to consume, you can watch it in bed and let it wash over you, and if you're watching it by yourself, it feels like it's being delivered to you as a special little treat. That's why people connect with one another so passionately when it comes to TV. It's easy to consume and makes a big impact, so if you can share it with someone, there's an instant bond. Sci-fi and adult-orientated cartoons both have a more niche appeal, and the internet has allowed fans to find one another much more efficiently than ever before, and if you're outside the mainstream, you'll relish any connection you can. Look at how old men connect on Twitter over the Brexit—decades ago, they were the guys who would ramble at the bar, but now they've found a way to find one another. It's the same with fan communities: It's nice to have what feels like a subversive taste approved.

Follow Jamie Clifton on Twitter.