Absurdism, Antimatter, and the Philosophy behind Rick and Morty
When reflecting upon my first year at college I find a general content for my past eight months spent at my university binge-watching shows, making and breaking friendships, and studying till I could recite every law of thermodynamics in my sleep. What this means is that I can add to the horde of college freshman who go home during the summer with the sole purpose of screaming, “college is so fun/amazing/incredible/etc,” to virtually anyone who will listen. College is fun, but as our brains tend to do while blissfully reminiscing about anything, we block out all the times your friends drank to forget, the multiple major crises that made you question your worth, and the too large number of times you spilled your cereal on yourself. As I recently described to a friend, “college is a constant shift between internally screaming because you’re happy and screaming because you’re terrified,” which aids in making my generation, the millennials, the most apt for an existential crisis.
Aside from destroying everything from pro football, to sacred dating rituals, to the housing market, we’re also deemed the most depressed and anxious generation to yet exist in eighty years, propelled by our education and ambition, but harbored by our own expectations and lack of direction. Not quite as angry as Nietzsche but not quite as hopeful as Camus, we experience the same purposelessness that has plagued everyone who has ever lived, but instead of fighting it with intense psychological insight or meditative reasoning we turn towards memes, Netflix, and a variety of other distractions. Comedy is the unsung hero of our age, turning shitty things into shitty jokes, and making everything terrible on the news a little more stomachable. It’s from this needed juxtaposition of humor and harsh reality that Adult Swim’s hit show, Rick and Morty, was born.
Rick and Morty consists of the preternaturally genius Rick Sanchez and his naïve and timid grandson, Morty, embarking on a variety of zany intergalactic adventures. It possesses the appearance of any other adult cartoon: saturated characters, improbable plotlines, and all the fart jokes one could ever need. But fans of the show would argue it’s hardly comparable to its counterparts such as Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers, and South Park. Rick and Morty brings something completely new to the table: an uncanny resemblance to our own thoughts and humanity, which has ultimately led to the show’s success.
Each twenty-minute episode is packed to the brim with sci-fi references, dark humor, and always leaves its watchers in an intense discussion about things such as sanctity of marriage, a planet with everything on a cob, and the conceivability of portal guns. All things that happen to be commonalities in the metaphysical world of Rick and Morty. One reviewer claims, “the Adult Swim cartoon is steeped in cynicism and horror. It also has bleeding heart. It can be seen as carving a new path for millennial expression that embraces both cynicism and schmaltz.” In its essence, Rick and Morty is not a show people passively watch while doing laundry or making dinner, it’s a show that’s meant to make you question your existence and the human experience as a whole.
The best way to explain Rick and Morty would be to define the unique genre which it lies in, being cosmic horror. This genre plays upon the idea of the unknown and the vastness of the universe, often using it as a mechanism to emphasize our own insignificance. While it was initially more of a literary genre in the 1900’s, it can be more recognizably seen today in science fiction movies like Alien, The Thing, and Cabin in the Woods. Unlike other genres of science fiction, who metaphorically put humans at the center of the universe, whether we’re militarily responsible for ending galactic war or are the target for body-snatching domination, cosmic horror poses the idea that aside from ourselves, no one in the universe gives a shit about earth or its inhabitants. Cosmic horror also often emphasizes the idea that those who have a great wealth of knowledge often pay for it in their growing sense of their disillusionment with the world, paralleling many of the modern struggles faced by younger generations. This genre is also fondly known as Lovecraftian horror, named after American writer H.P. Lovecraft, who describes it as, “the sense that ordinary life is a thin shell over a reality that is so alien and abstract in comparison that merely contemplating it would damage the sanity of the ordinary person.”
Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s life is equally as depressing as the stories he created and his undertones can be found in every Rick and Morty escapade, especially in the opening sequence where his most famous monster, Cthulhu, can be seen. Though now currently regarded as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, it wasn’t until after his death that his works were recognized and revered.
H.P. Lovecraft was born in 1890 to parents Susan and Winfield in Providence, Rhode Island. At the age of three his father was diagnosed as acutely psychotic and placed in a mental hospital where he would spend the rest of his life, so H.P. was raised by his mother, a couple aunts, and his grandfather. At a young age, he expressed a strong talent for reading and creating poems, which was fostered mainly by his grandpa who also exposed him to the world of the absurd by passing on his own homemade tales of gothic horror. While enamored with english, chemistry, and astronomy, H.P. was plagued with illness for a significant part of his childhood, causing him to often stay home. He was also diagnosed with a form of sleep paralysis, where he claimed he saw ‘night gaunts,’ faceless creatures which would later make an appearance in many of his novels and poems.
Between all these deterrents and the death of his grandfather, he failed to claim his high school diploma and was incapable of fulfilling his dream of becoming an astronomer, due to inability to excel in math. H.P. Lovecraft spent the next portion of his life living in isolation and writing at home, and rarely left his estate before nightfall. One of his short pieces was eventually recognized by the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA) and he soon became an avid correspondent, often writing and mentoring others authors like himself. Among his correspondents where people such as Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho), Robert E. Howard (the author of the Conan the Barbarian series), and Harry Houdini. This small burst of success was soon overshadowed as a short-lived marriage, a constant financial drought, and countless rejections from magazines plagued his life. After an untimely diagnosis of cancer in his small intestine, the constant pain and malnutrition overwhelmed him and he died at the young age of 46, ending the suffering that commanded his life. While undeniably depressing, it was this discourse of life that made Lovecraft’s writing what it was, as his sense of hopelessness for success and happiness translates almost effortlessly.
Much of what defines Lovecraft and the genre he unknowingly created can be seen not only in Rick and Morty but in the millennial attitude towards life. A all too pessimistic outlook on life combined with an consistent fear of failure relates these three seemingly different subjects together with ease. The plot of a cosmic horror or Lovecraftian work will more than often include several distinct elements, with the most obvious being the looming sense of pointlessness towards life. While disheartening in appearance, it was the contrast between Lovecraft’s implausible plots and the starkness of our reality that brought his stories to fame, and is device that is often used in Rick and Morty.
Lovecraft would often pit his characters against malevolent gods or rulers of the universe, who commonly stood indifferent to the destruction or worlds or humanity, metaphorically showing that we often place more importance on our purpose than we perhaps deserve. He would often use these fantastic and imaginary rulers to emphasize his atheistic stance on religion, a trend which is steadily growing in society today. He quotes, “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hairsplitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine.” Rick and Morty once again adopts this same attitude in a less aggressive manner, and instead seeks to highlight some of the logical follies in a comedic way, allowing the show’s characters to find fulfillment without needing a belief system. This can be seen in everything from the short-lived head cult to the actual appearance of the devil, and plays readily in the cosmic horror themes.
Religion, in Rick and Morty terms, is a crutch which humanity leans upon when weak or in some cases stupid. In the episode Get Schwifty (S2E5) the town forms a cult after giant heads appear in the sky. One member of a presumably Christian congregation leaves the service to pledge his allegiance to the giant heads in the sky which coincidentally stops the earthquake taking place. This throws the whole town in a tizzy to which they restructure the majority of their life around this new religion, despite the unknown fact that the heads have actually subjected earth to an intergalactic game show and they must ‘show them what they got.’ The episode highlights the idea of correlation vs. causation, a device used by Lovecraft, which is the idea that just because two things correlate doesn’t mean they are the products or causes of each other. It’s instances like this in the show where they exhibit humanity’s historical tendency to believe nonsensical things in times of need and how we often overlook major logical fallacies to feel okay with things.
The show further emphasizes their stance against religion by showing moments of weakness in Rick where he calls out to God or prays only to overcome the challenge with science. This was another theme that Lovecraft also toyed with, as his protagonist were often more intelligent than the barbaric layman, which often led to their ultimate downfall and mental degradation. While we never see Rick completely deteriorating, he is the ultimate example that knowledge and experience come with consequences in the form of the emotional turmoil it causes us.
Rick, in many ways, embodies the evolution in mentality that exists in our own world which occurs as we come to understand more and more of our surroundings. As Rick explores the galaxy, he becomes steadily disillusioned by the it, coming the the realization that our purpose is subjective, and essentially irrelevant to the continuity of life, leading to his nihilistic and atheistic views in the show. On the other end of the spectrum lies the often naive and incompetent, Jerry, who finds joy in virtually everything from his tile-tapping game to winning a made-up award in a poorly-structured alien simulation, showing that ignorance is truly bliss. Rick and Morty attempts to be true to life in the sense that everything isn’t all fun and games and bad things happen and life is ultimately cruel and unfair, but between all the geeky references and offensive jokes it attempts to address real human problems without the crutches of religion or wishful thinking.
Aside from the strong tones of existentialism and religious doubt, there are other Lovecraftian elements that are ubiquitous in the show. An obvious one would be the element of detachment, personified through Rick. Like many of Lovecraft’s characters, Rick is isolated by means of his genius and scholarly capabilities. He is often unable to relate with most of the members in his family due to his understanding of science and experiences.
Another Lovecraftian element is better seen in Morty, which explores sanity’s fragility. This can be best seen in the episode Rick Potion #9 (S1E6) where Rick and Morty abandon a universe where Rick has turned everyone into cronenberg-esque praying mantis creatures. They abandon that earth and instead go to a dimension where they reversed the effects and everything was back to normal, excluding the fact that they both die in a small lab accident in the garage. This procures a scene in which they are forced to bury their own dead bodies and assume the positions of their previously alive selves, which Rick casually shrugs off while Morty appears intensely bothered by the event.
Morty, throughout the show, evolves from being like his utterly mediocre yet blissfully content dad, Jerry, to inheriting much of the philosophy that is Rick Sanchez, but unlike Rick, Morty always manages to maintain a regard for his humanity and accept many of the ‘irrational’ feelings we experience such as love and care. This struggle between feeling significant and knowing you’re probably not, encapsulates the show’s and Lovecraft’s perspective on life, and is embodied perfectly in the episode Rixty Minutes (S1E8) where Morty comforts his sister Summer by saying, “Don’t run. Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody dies. Now, come watch TV.”
At this point I may have convinced you that Rick and Morty is the most depressing show on earth, but it’s success and critical reception is propelled by our own innate desires to use humor to cope, as stated in the introduction. If we want to reduce humor purely to logic, scientists have observed that comedy can ‘sorted’ into four categories which historically has satisfied our own psychological well-being, two of them being self-enhancing and self-defeating humor. While appearing to be polar opposites, both are used to survive stressful or negative situations or feelings.
We have been deemed the generation of dark humor and increasingly rely on humor, as often exemplified through social media, to deal with terrible events happening in our lifetime, to which one writer comments, “It seems that as we get more wonderfully diverse and progressive, we also become increasingly and distinctly unattached and disillusioned.” That’s where Rick and Morty comes in. Whether or not it was the intentions of the show’s creators, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, Rick and Morty uncannily echoes the growing cynicism and insensitivity in which we regard our world and the events that take place on it. While we may not be anticipating a full-fledged canine takeover or the development of the world’s first completely neutral super leader, Abradolf Lincler, Rick and Morty, much like the human coping mechanism, cascades these darker existential themes in artful puns and visual gags, sparing its viewers a complete mental breakdown but also leaving them contemplative and more insightful about their surroundings.
The topic of existentialism has been dissected by many philosophers throughout time, as well as by the show, and each take their own unique approach to defining the purpose of our humanity. One of the most well-recognized amongst the group is German philosopher and cultural critic, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche pioneered many of the concepts that cultivated western philosophy and is recognized for his statement, “God is dead,” which piloted the revolution that we today know as atheism, which also aptly follows his other concept of nihilism. While many assumed Nietzsche was an atheist himself, others assumed the statement suggested a subtle understanding of divinity. Nietzsche’s most well-known concept, nihilism, is the idea that life lacks purpose or meaning and nothing inherently has any importance, and is the regarded as the harshest version of existentialism. Off of this he decidedly claimed that many of the devices we used to conceive meaning for ourselves, such as religion, are merely ploys to cope with the idea that we and our actions mean nothing, which readily correlates with much of Rick’s attitude throughout Rick and Morty. He believed that developing modern science and the steady secularization of the world had killed the God which had been the basis for life and significance for so long in western society, thus leading to nihilism. This theory of Nietzsche’s has taken effect today, as 40% of the United States defines themselves as atheistic, mainly being the millennial generation, leading them to rely on other devices outside of religion to find purpose.
Another influential existentialist who, much to his disliking, is deemed the ‘philosopher of the absurd,’ is French philosopher Albert Camus, the author of The Myth of Sisyphus. The Myth of Sisyphus details what Camus refers to as the absurd and how it affects our perception of the universe. Camus claims there is a defect in the what we want the universe to give us, being order, reasons, and meaning, and what it actually gives us, which is virtually nothing. Camus’ story The Myth of Sisyphus copes with the same realization made by the characters in the show as well as the millennial generation, in seeing that we have no divine purpose or destiny. He assess the two options we commonly have presented to us being: take a leap of faith by placing our hopes in something beyond our comprehension, such as a God, or deduce that life is meaningless. He depressingly adds that if life is meaningless what is stopping us from committing suicide, but quickly advocates a third option being that we must accept and exist in a world devoid of meaning and purpose. He then mirrors this human condition in the form of the absurd hero and Greek figure, Sisyphus, whose sole task is to roll a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down to the bottom when it reaches the top. He claims, that like Sisyphus, we must acknowledge our condition and struggle and use it to live our lives to the fullest. Rick and Morty toys with many of Camus ideas and ultimately derives the same conclusion that is found in The Myth of Sisyphus. While Rick and Morty’s character are more than often caught up in these revelations, the show ultimately comes to the conclusion that we find purpose in what makes us happy, therefore making our existence worthy.
While Rick and Morty may not possess the same philosophical insight as Friedrich Nietzsche or Albert Camus, or the literary genius of H.P Lovecraft, it has the chance to tell a story about the generation it pertains to. Though it’s characters are drowned in cynicism and disenchantment, the world of Rick and Morty provides an escape for its viewers while also challenging the human dilemma. The philosophical message of the show is that it’s human nature to look for meaning to help us live out our lives, but often we overthink it. We cling to myths about ourselves that up our importance all to avoid the thought that maybe we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It’s this fear of amounting to nothing that drives our generation to success but also haunts us at night and Rick and Morty in the most comforting way screams, “who cares?” It’s in the silliness of show and its antics that we are able to realize that despite an intrinsic purpose, we are able to continue, and find fulfillment in our own ways, whether that’s traversing the galaxy, or simply doing well on an assignment. While an unlikely candidate for solving some of the biggest philosophical questions of the postmodern era, Rick and Morty accomplishes it with humor and ease, allowing everyone to laugh between the tears.