The Best Rick And Morty Episode Has A Buffy Origin Story

  • Comedy
  • Science Fiction
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Mr. Poopy Butthole's introduction in Rick and Morty Season 2 episode "Total Rickall." Adult Swim

Rick and Morty writer, producer and voice actor Ryan Ridley appeared on the most recent episode of the Y Combinator podcast (included in full, below) and described, in detail, the writing process behind Rick and Morty Season 2 episode “Total Rickall.”

Asked about influences on Rick and Morty, Ridley said, “we are all well-versed in every iconic sci-fi genre, movie and television show of the past 50 years. Okay, fine, maybe not 50 years. I’ve never seen a Lost in Space episode.”

Ridley described a writing process with genre fluency at its base. “Unlike Futurama, none of us on the staff — we’re barely educated, we’re not mathematicians. We don’t really know that much about science. We’re writing from the point of view of tropes and genre stuff. We want to tell good stories.”

They struck upon a hell of a story with the fourth episode in Season 2, “Total Rickall,” which opens on family breakfast, the Smith family joined by a character we’ve met before: the beloved Uncle Steve. But he’s not really their uncle — he’s not really even human. Rick describes his species as “telepathic little bastards.” These parasites induce fond memories in their hosts, from which are birthed new parasites, in the guise of close friends or family members, ready to eat your breakfast.

“It’s disgusting,” Rick says, “we could be infested with these things, so we’ve got to keep an eye out for any zany, whacky characters that pop up.” Enter Mr. Poopy Butthole, the character who spawned a million fan theories and now stands at the very center of the Rick and Morty Season 3 waiting room fans have been sitting in all year.

The “Total Rickall” origin story begins with an idea pitched by Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahan, who Ridley describes as having a voluminous backstop of sci-fi books and graphic novels from which to draw ideas and inspiration. “I watch a lot of TV and movies and I read occasional sci-fi books, but he’s like an encyclopedia of the stuff.”

McMahan used Buffy the Vampire Slayer, either as a source of inspiration or analogy (or both). “I think McMahan pitched that as ‘oh, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 they introduce this character Dawn as her sister and everyone is pretending — I mean they’re not pretending — they’re treating her like she’s always been there.’ And you know, as the viewer, that she hasn’t had a sister for the first four seasons. So you find out the supernatural explanation for why that is. I think that’s where that started.”

Ridley describes the Rick and Morty writing process as collaborative and iterative, involving a harrowing number of rewrites. But it often starts as a combinatory act, mashing together pieces of old stories to find new ones. “So we’ll be talking about all these ideas, like ‘Oh, what if it’s something like this, what if it’s this plot from this book, combined with this episode from this,” Ridley said.

Building on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer idea — of characters accepting a new cast member with an obliviousness that both generates need for a story and rings dramatic irony alarm bells in the viewer — additional citations are added. “We built on top of that a Thing element — they’re all trapped in the house and they’re all suspicious,” Ridley said. “I think [Dan] Guterman pitched the idea of, ‘well, what if this is a way to do a clip show?’ So you’re actually throwing to clips, but the clips themselves aren’t memories, in the sense of like, a traditional clip show, they’re actually part of the sci-fi.”

This formed the emotional backbone of the episode, using a well-worn sitcom format like a virus smuggling genetically modified DNA, telling a story where Rick and Morty characters grow, individually and as a family, through how they experience false memory flashbacks. From many specific reference points, a very different story emerges.

“It ends up being a patchwork of definite references that are hopefully combined enough that we’re not doing a spoof of any one thing,” Ridley said.

While “Total Rickall” is an unqualified success by Ridley’s standard, there have been episodes he felt didn’t live up to the bar the Rick and Morty writers set for themselves. “‘Anatomy Park’ is considered maybe one of the weakest episodes, at least by us, because it’s just a Jurassic Park spoof meets a Fantastic Voyage tropes spoof, that’s been done a thousand times. And, you know, we tried to do a darker, weirder version of it, but that’s not the most ideal episode. We want to really make it feel like the references are, if anything, hidden.”

Sometimes they’re downright sublimated, only a vaporous genre impression left behind on the final episode, like the Season 2 episode “Mortynight Run,” wherein Morty frees a living fart from Galactic Federation jail, forcing him and Rick to run from the law. “Oh, ‘let’s do a Midnight Run road adventure,” Ridley described as the original impetus. “We’re not referencing Midnight Run. There’s no ‘oh, that’s clearly the Yaphet Kotto character, but he’s green, wearing sunglasses, with three-eye lenses. But it’s the essence of that.”

Just as often, coming up with a good Rick and Morty Episode is about dodging. “It’s trying to figure out how to get it so we’re doing something that hasn’t been done by either Simpsons or South Park or Futurama, which is not an easy cone... or path... or whatever those highway cone paths are during driver’s training,” Ridley said.

But even if a story idea makes it through the various gauntlets, it needs a great ending. Toward the conclusion of “Total Rickall,” Morty discovers a devastating truth (that Rick missed) about the parasites’ false memories: they’re all good. Discerning the real people in the house from the alien parasites is easy, just remember the bad parts of your relationship. All those flashbacks to false memories, of absurd circumstances like a Nazi submarine heist, become obvious phonies against the cold truth of the awful collective history baggage carried by every family. It’s a powerful way to end the episode, replacing the fantastical with Jerry’s shame, Beth’s problems with alcohol and the petty cruelties swapped by siblings.

“That was one of those moments where you get so far in the script… and you’re like ‘okay, what is going to solve this problem?’” Ridley said, describing the process of finding the one extra turn of the screw “Total Rickall” needed. “That’s when good old-fashioned writing ingenuity comes in.”

Just like building an episode’s foundations from the past’s stories, the end of “Total Rickall” emerged from a single source, but joined to a collaboration of ideas and people that blur together in the act of creating something new. “I don’t remember who pitched it,” Ridley said.

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