How To Think Like Rick and Morty?
We often look down on people who take things too literally, but some of Rick and Morty’s most hilarious jokes are derived from being “literal”.
"Well then get your shit together! Get it all together and put it in a backpack. All your shit. So it's together."
Taking a sci-fi trope and interpreting it literally, picking apart “common knowledge,” and taking a concept all the way to its logical conclusion.
"Fighting continues as the dog army captures the Eastern Seaboard. It appears clear at this time that the era of human superiority has come to a bitter end."
Matching a scientist’s thought process, the show takes conventional story clichés and everything we generally assume and unpacks them with a thorough, defiantly literal mind.
The result, besides being funny, teaches us to break our habit of processing our lives through assumptions.
It teaches us to think like Rick.
"Oh, you agree, huh? You like that Red Green Grumbolt reference? Well, guess what? I made him up. You really are your father's children. Think for yourselves. Don't be sheep."
Instead of allowing viewers to watch in placid, Jerry-like oblivion, the show’s genius for being literal pushes us to look at the world more like Rick does - questioning everything, avoiding assumptions, and trying to perceive the many-layered complexity life has to offer.
The show asks, for example, what if a telepathic cloud actually existed?
How would this cloud be able to untangle the thoughts it hears and understand which thought relates to which human words?
"I communicate through what you call Jessica's feet. No...telepathy."
Or, would a Frankenstein monster share the personalities of all the people whose body parts it was made of?
Then, if this were a monster made up of half Abraham Lincoln and half Hitler, how would it reconcile the conflicting values it has?
"I definitely think that all men are created equal...but at the same time..."
Rick's First Principles Thinking
To think like Rick it’s necessary to master something called “First Principles Thinking”.
First Principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world and what that really means is you kind of boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, okay, what are we sure is true, or as sure as possible is true, and then reason up from there.
In our daily life, we almost never think this way, instead, we mostly think by analogy.
For example, if we see this - we make a snap decision - because we’ve seen this before - it’s a TV!
But what if it's not a TV?
Past experience lets us jump to instant conclusions and we do this thousands of times a day, almost every time we have a thought about anything.
Thinking by analogy saves our brains a lot of time and effort, but it also stops us from discovering anything new.
"We reason by analogy. It's...we're doing this because it's like something else that was done, or it's like what other people are doing."
If we thought by analogy 100% of the time we would still be traveling like this.
"Nobody wants a car because horses are great and we're used to them and they can eat grass and there's lots of grass all over the place and, y'know, there's not, like, there's no gasoline that people can buy so people are never gonna get cars. People did say that."
Rick tries to make his grandkids avoid the mistakes of thinking by analogy and in many ways, the show does the same thing for us.
"This seems kinda fancy."
"Jerry, for all you know this is the equivalent of an alien truck stop. You have no frame of reference."
Illogical Cliches in Sci-Fi Movies
By evaluating sci-fi possibilities without skipping over the awkward details, Rick and Morty mimic the comprehensive process of a scientific thought experiment.
Most of the stories we watch are full of clichés and conventions that don’t make any sense but that we happily accept because we’re so used to seeing them.
Just like Rick, the show never misses an opportunity to point out ineptitude or logical errors in classic sci-fi stories and other movies it references.
"It's just like that movie that you keep crowing about." "Are you talking about Inception?"
"That's right Morty. This is gonna be a lot like that except, y'know, it's gonna make sense."
In “Anatomy Park” we see how implausible it is that in many sci-fi movies, there is a character who willingly steps forward and sacrifices his or her own life for the good of the team
"There's no autopilot. One of us will have to stay here and operate it manually."
When Rick and Morty meet Scary Terry, a B-list Freddy Krueger, they point out a pretty glaring issue with horror movies in general by taking the sentence at its word:
“He keeps saying we can run but we can't hide. I say we try hiding”
They also point out the issues a number of films have with vampire naming conventions
"Coach Feratu's presence was discovered by humans. He has been destroyed."
"No bother. The mortals shall soon--I'm sorry, what did you say his name was?"
In “M. Night Shaym-Aliens”, they point out a problem with director M. Night Shyamalan’s trademark twists - they aren’t always that cool, especially if we know they’re coming like we do when we go to see a Shyamalan film.
“Oh, this is going to be such a mind fuck!”
Rick finds out he is in a simulation, then it turns out he was in a simulation of simulation and another simulation after that - and gets more and more annoyed with each realization.
"How dumb are you? You're inside a simulation of simulation inside another giant simulation!"
His annoyance mimics the audience's in a bad "mind-bender" - fed up with the constant twists and turns and ready to know what's real.
All of these jokes make us aware of the way that stories tend to rely on easy, unexamined conventions.
Rick and Morty are trying to avoid this form of copping out, by maintaining logical integrity in the way that its characters resolve their dilemmas.
Rick & Morty’s multiverse has autonomy
Rick and Morty are also picking apart themselves like a sentient TV show asking, “What am I?”It begins by mixing up the formulas we expect.
We’re used to seeing any show or movie begin with an exposition that sets up the upcoming plot lines.
Rick and Morty sometimes get rid of exposition all together.
For example, here’s how the episode “Meeseeks and Destroy” begins. This plot doesn’t play any part in the actual episode or anywhere else in the show.
Meanwhile, the title sequence features a lot of shots we never see on the show. This creates a strange “did I miss an episode?” feeling and suggests that Rick’s and Morty’s adventures go on whether we are watching or not.
We sense that Rick & Morty’s multiverse has autonomy, existing outside what we observe - this disrupts the traditional hierarchy of viewer and show.
Rick and Morty's Self-Awareness
The show also has a running self-commentary, like in the many times Rick breaks the fourth wall.
When Rick and Morty are watching the Interdimensional Cable, Rick says about a show
"It's got an almost improvisational tone”
We immediately recognize this statement to be a comment on Rick and Morty, because Justin Roiland often does break character and sound like he's improvising.
"And it's called...Two Brothers. Two Brothers. It's just called Two Brothers."
In “Meeseeks and Destroy,” Morty seems aware that his trips with Rick are stories - self-contained adventures-of-the week.
"You keep heckling my adventure, Rick!"
He even references Joseph Campbell’s monomyth: "I'll accept your call to adventure."
We later get a call-back to Morty’s awareness of the serialized nature of his and Rick's adventures.
"I, Morty Smith, invoke my right to choose one in every ten Rick and Morty adventures."
By giving the characters lines that sound like the writer’s room banter, the show gives the characters power over their own story through their self-awareness.
Rick and Morty know about their own character arcs, which makes us think that - if we started
looking at the stories of our own lives - maybe we could pay attention to our character arcs, so the show’s self-awareness challenges us to become a little more self-aware, too.
"That's my series arc, Morty! If it takes nine seasons!"
"I want you kids to look around you today and think about your future. Now is the time in your life when anything is possible."
The Science Fiction genre has always used futures or alternate realities to comment on deep, close-to-home issues in our own society - think slavery and freedom, or what it means to be human.
Rick and Morty continues this tradition of deep-thinking Sci-Fi, but with a twist. They take the pathos down a notch and dial up some of the more ridiculous aspects of our culture.
The sci-fi worlds Rick and Morty visit regularly overflow into the “regular” one Morty’s family inhabits.
In other stories, this kind of intrusion typically elicits terror and shock -- the muggles’ the world is always shaken when they witness the magic.
But Rick’s family reacts to alien intrusions with mild irritation or indifference. This goes to illustrate just how capable humans are of getting used to the weirdest things - we view something as ‘normal’ if it’s been around long enough.
"Traditionally, science fairs are a father-son thing.""Well, scientifically, traditions are an idiot thing.”
This unfortunate trait is illustrated by Rick’s family’s selective blindness.
Rick and Morty's Infusion of Sci-Fi and our World
Rick and Morty also hilariously infuses the sci-fi worlds with elements of our world, like our obsessions with networking, therapy, marketing, and using people for profit.
"Nice to meet you, Morty! Listen, if you ever need anybody murdered, please give me a call."
"Does Grandpa turn himself into a pickle a lot?"
"Advertising! Wow! So, people need help figuring out what to buy and then you help them?"
"No, no, no. They work for each other in exchange for money, which they then..."
"That just sounds like slavery with extra steps!"
All of these jokes go to show that sometimes the social phenomena our world produces are actually stranger than an alien mosquito assassin, named Krombopulos Michael.
Our brains are wired to make shortcuts wherever possible - every stereotype, cognitive bias or rule of thumb we possess is something our brains use to come to conclusions faster and save processing power for other things.
Rick and Morty teach us to undo some of this conditioning, to challenge our complacent approach by dismantling step by step the pre-packaged concepts we heavily lean on without realizing.
It asks us to forget what we think we know, and meanwhile to allow ourselves to get a little wackier in our thinking so that we might arrive at something more original, profound and true.
"I'd like to order one large person with extra people please."
Ultimately, the plays on genre tropes and literalism do more than just add some humor and post-modernist-flair: they make us smarter, by teaching us to think like Rick.