The constant flow of burps from the wild-haired, inter-dimensionally-traveling scientist might shroud this fact, but Rick and Morty, recently renewed for a third season, is one of the best-written comedies on TV, and it will probably never get enough credit for that because it’s a cartoon. That’s disheartening because animation has always opened more possibilities for writers — it can be easy to forget that.
A fine example is SpongeBob SquarePants (one of the most youth-marketed entities in human history): in one of the series’ early episodes, it pulls off a visual gag that references 19th century French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec:
Kids could either appreciate the weird aesthetic jump in the scene as just a strange bit they don’t get or ignore the flat-lining joke and wait for the next laugh, while the more cultured adults also watching got a pleasant, intellectual surprise.
While SpongeBob panders to children and occasionally has fun with its older audience — less and less nowadays, but that’s besides the point — Rick and Morty is for the adults who are still children, packing humor that’s both juvenile and academic, like Rick’s debaucherous relationship with a hive-mind entity named Unity that absorbs host bodies into its singular consciousness. Rick can carry on a conversation with it by talking to any assimilated being on its home planet. There’s also a space-traveling gaseous entity who names itself “Fart.”
Regardless of which specific cartoon you have in mind, all of them are for adults in one way or another. The ones made specifically for kids are made for grown-ups to look back on later and reminisce about (without actually re-watching and realizing what they thought was television gold may have only seemed great because they were 10 years old). The cartoons made for adults, such as Rick and Morty, are mentally on their level, but can also be nostalgic because of their familiar visual style that is supposedly “for children.”
Rick and Morty’s wit, depth, and acerbic comedy don’t happen in spite of its medium, but rather, the show’s intelligence/stupidity takes place on an extremely broad and vibrant color palate that enhance its writing quality. Rick and Morty, which is animated in the Adventure Time-popularized “flat color” style — bright primary and secondary colors, thick and clear outlines, few or no shadows — looks fantastic and can easily be enjoyed by kids… if you don’t mind them adding some edge to their vocabulary.
While Rick carries out his extraterrestrial and fanatical lifestyle on an otherwise normal Earth, his family is left to cope with the previously-inconceivable beings and events they are forced to experience, like a fourth-dimensional being with a testicle-like head who helps them merge their multiple, fractured possibilities of time. This leaves the impressionable young Morty in a near-constant state of fear, apprehension and incredulity by a world he’s also endlessly enamored by. It’s a fascinating character study that’s one of Rick and Morty’s many narrative threads toeing the boundary between shallow and stimulating.
Rick and Morty is one of the more perfect marriages between a universally agreeable aesthetic and content that works for a variety of audiences, especially those who accept that cartoons, in one way or another, always have been and always will be for grown-ups.