Baby Legs? Meet Regular Legs:
(This contains some spoilers, as well as in-depth commentary and joke explaining. If you haven’t already seen the show, be warned.)
I’ve been watching Rick and Morty for the third time over the past two weeks — Partially as an attempt to try and zero-in on what makes it funnier and more exciting to me than other comedies, and partially because I watched it sober the first two times.
I tend to find myself bored with most comedies. I attribute this largely to the fact that as a comedian, I’m aware of a lot of the rules, tricks, and simple strategies used to get laughs in typical comedies. Once you’re looking for them, rules-of-threes become predictable, and where gags are going to come from becomes obvious. After a while you learn the form — from the “Good news, everyone!” openings of Futurama, to the “Our-plot-only-exists-as-a-veneer-behind-which-hide-sudden-and-zany references-through-cutaways,” of Family Guy.
We get acquainted with how a particular show or genre does things, and come to expect it. Family Guy and South Park will almost always hide enlightened liberal social commentary behind seemingly gratuitous grossness. It’s the unpredictable absurdity that draws me to animated shows in the first place. Rick and Morty subverts our expectations and uses the medium of the animated comedy to achieve comedy, character development, and a unique tone that other shows can’t. So what makes Rick and Morty so effective, and in my opinion, groundbreaking?
Playing with Expectations
Rick and Morty, more than any other comedy, invited me in and made me feel smart. One of the first rules of comedy is to play with expectations and to subvert them. ‘Funny’ often happens when the audience has to reconcile some absurdity and tease out exactly why it feels bizarre. (i.e. Tiny Rick singing a song about dying in a vat while sounding like a happy teen. The audience has to take a moment to do the work of putting ‘happy voice’ together with ‘sad words’ and the result is laughter.)
Solving these puzzles is what makes comedy fun. It’s why hearing the same joke twice usually isn’t as funny, and why having a joke explained to you ruins it more than anything. Rick and Morty tries something special and different, in that the show is part parody of science fiction tropes, part satire of standard-issue sit-coms, and most notably, a deliberate deconstruction of what audiences have been taught to expect from formalized television.
Rick and Morty takes you in by offering you new takes on known quantities and authentic, full characters. We’ve all seen the “will this marriage survive?” arc before. We know time-travel gets wonky, because we’ve seen Back to the Future, or Doctor Who, or Star Trek. But it doesn’t matter that we’ve seen the premise before, we’re ready to dive back in because the caricatures are so vivid.
The misanthropic alcoholic genius with a secretly good heart and troubled past, the spineless kid trying to impress his grandfather and grow up at the same time, the far more spineless father who like all sit-com dads is utterly brainless, the mother who is so controlling and unfulfilled you actually believe you could meet her in real life, the sister who is trying her best to be normal and has to put up with all of this.
These are surprisingly complex portrayals for an animated comedy, and really, for any sit-com. The closest things I’ve seen to characters of equal depth in this genre are those of the MTV series and cult favorite, Daria. Sometimes Parks and Recreation or The Office come close, usually gaining points for subtle character development, but both (though especially Parks and Recreation) tend to have characters that are overwhelmingly ‘good’ which isn’t always as strong as a mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or even a committed cast of bad, (Seinfeld, Archer, or Arrested Development.)
Rick and Morty’s deep characters, wacky plots, and fourth wall breaks are engaging and fun, but there’s something else here that took me three watch-throughs to tack down, and at its core is the reason that I think Rick and Morty is ground-breaking:
It plays with the audience’s expectation of what good, professional, television should look like.
We’ve all grown up watching television, we’ve all come to expect a certain degree of professionalism from our shows; Characters shouldn’t stutter, lines shouldn’t be garbled or nonsensical, every word should be essential. Settings should make sense, and even absurd content should have some sort of rules to follow. Rick and Morty’s improvisational tone shatters this.
I found myself constantly asking “Where did that line come from?” and saying to myself “Did they just… wait, you can’t do that!” I knew what lines were supposed to sound like. I knew what to expect from a T.V. show, but Rick and Morty gives you the laughs that come out of flipping that around.
Accepting the Offer
I used to do improv. I was decent at it, but I had more theory than skill. There’s this funny thing that happens when you watch bad improv, especially if you go to see plays every now and then. We get used to seeing a stage and watching seasoned actors prance about with practiced gestures and perfect lines. Everything is calculated and clean, even when it’s trying to be rough. It has clean roughness.
Bad improv is just rough. Lines don’t make sense, or get cut off, and sudden ideas come out of nowhere. Semi-competent improvisers won’t make the really obvious mistakes like blocking each other’s offers, but they will be overly loud and obvious about accepting them. Watching incompetent improv can be funnier than skilled improv because you’re seeing how the machine works — or doesn’t — and getting to be pleasantly baffled when what you expect to be practiced theater becomes really, really messy. You feel smart, because you’re the one who knows what theater is supposed to be.
Rick and Morty is like watching perfectly crafted bad improv: only the funniest mistakes were left in.
There’s a particular episode of Rick and Morty — Rixty Minutes — that is the best example of this. It’s the one with the interdimensional cable box and a bunch of different T.V. shows which Rick even mentions have a “looser, more improvisational feel.” In the ‘Adventures of Baby legs and Regular legs,’ you can hear the voice actors making classic live improv choices. The conflict is swiftly created by a leading character (the commissioner) who gives a character (Baby Legs) to a fellow improviser, who accepts the offer and heightens the conflict by replying that he doesn’t need a partner. The commissioner introduces a third character, Regular Legs, because the actor voicing the commissioner has hit upon the ‘ game of the scene,’ namely, detectives being defined by their legs and the absurdity of a cop drama centered around this.
(‘Game of the scene,’ is another piece of improv theory that refers to when performers find a single gag, which is often unrelated to the rest of a scene’s plot — like funny accents, or certain tropes — and then play with and repeat these to get laughs. It’s like having an inside joke with the audience, which contributes to that sense of feeling smart.)
After, the scene swaps quickly — as it often does when stage improvisers take a step or two to the left or right implying moving to a new space on a limited stage — and Regular Legs is quick to remark on this, breaking the fourth wall in a way by making the audience aware of the absurd speed of scene-change transitions. When Regular Legs identifies the criminal, the criminal stutters and gropes for words before saying, “Oh shit! I’m the killer! I’m running!” Clearly identifying character, and occasionally narrating actions that they are taking, is a common trait of semi-competent improvisers.
Another clue that points back to tactically crafted bad improv is that each character in Rick and Morty (except Beth and Summer, usually) stutters. Very few characters speak with practiced eloquence, and the result is a cast that sounds like they were brought in out of a 100-level improv class three-quarters of the way through the semester to do professional television. Interpersonal conflicts are declared and obvious, things are over or under explained, people trail off. The result is wonderful, and I think, intentional. It makes the characters real, and it helps disguise excellent writing.
Because the characters in Rick and Morty feel genuinely chaotic and random — like actual people — our focus on them distracts from the brilliantly deliberate plots and settings.
Rick and Morty delves into some seriously deep emotional waters in episodes like Rixty Minutes, because we’re so focused on how ‘off’ (and therefore, funny) the show is that we don’t always notice the build-ups and delicate plotting that lead to devastatingly emotional moments.
In Morty’s monologue to Summer at the end of the episode, he explains the sins he and Rick have committed in earlier episodes, in the hope that his honesty will help her to heal. That’s some heavy shit, and it works partially because of the smoke-and-mirror effect of the improvisational tone and how it destabilizes the audience.
Now, I’m not an expert, and I’ve done literally no research, but I am a semi-competent improviser, and I’m saying Ridley, Roiland, and Harmon sat down to write intentionally bad improv scenes, or they invited a troupe with a name like “Mission Improvable” into their studio to perform, and used the ensuing scenes nearly raw. I think it’s equally likely, really, that the creators got a little stoned, or a little drunk, or stayed up way too late, or all three, and really did improvise and then tweak what came out. I don’t really care too much how it happened — what I care about is that Rick and Morty doesn’t treat me like an idiot, and it trusts me to handle a challenge — even one as broad and strong as challenging the very form that we are taught to expect from television. To the creators of this wonderful show I have this to say: