Adult Swim's animated hit Rick and Morty has returned for its third season with one major change to its writers room: female voices.
Creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, who debuted the sci-fi cartoon in 2013 on the overnight cable network, decided to shake up their show's dynamic by adding four new female writers to their staff. The move created a 50-50 male-female split. Harmon made a similar decision on his last show, Community, in 2011 for the NBC sitcom's third season.
The four newcomers — Jane Becker, Erica Rosbe, Sarah Carbiener and Jessica Gao — were given an intimidating task, joining a show that has already cemented itself with viewers and become a massive hit for Adult Swim, outperforming its competition in its time slot. To join a successful show as a relatively green writer (Becker, Rosbe and Carbiener have only a handful of writing credits on their résumés) poses challenge enough, but a female writer getting into a male-dominated genre, on a program whose viewership skews heavily young and male, that airs on a network where all 47 of its showrunners are male, is near-Herculean.
"It was a little nerve-racking because it has a crazy cult following and people love the show," Becker told The Hollywood Reporter. "I was nervous to be a part of it and fuck it up."
"I remember driving home from the interview with Erica and we were both just so sad because if we don’t get this job how are we going to keep watching this show?" Carbiener said. She and Rosbe have been writing partners since college, and a sci-fi comedy spec script they wrote together is what landed them the gig on Rick and Morty.
"The interview was terrifying because this is a show that is firing on all cylinders," said Rosbe. "It has the most heart in a fucked up way, and it's just the smartest and funniest thing ever. I could say that before we worked on it but now I feel like it’s just bragging."
For Gao, the veteran of the group, the gig was not her first writing for an Adult Swim show. "I was actually Robot Chicken’s first female writer and that was a really wonderful experience," Gao told THR.
Though her experience on Seth Green's stop-motion show was positive ("I love those guys!") her time in the Rick and Morty writers room was an all too rare experience. "If you’re not counting Dan and Justin it was a balanced writers room with 50 percent women and 50 percent men. That’s just incredibly rare, unfortunately," she said. "More often than not, I’m the only woman in the room or the only person of color — or I’m both. So, having a balanced room just makes things a lot easier for women in the sense that you feel you can pitch things and someone else will understand you."
Rick and Morty, which has always spent time crafting the core relationships between the Smith family, has gone even deeper into its emotional dynamic in the latter part of last season and first episodes of season three. That emotionality, though already present, was punched up this year, as was the character of Summer (Spencer Grammer), Morty's teenaged sister.
"I think that they were already starting to build these other characters, but when you have a room full of half women, we have experiences that are very different from the men in the room," Gao said. "They can come up with stories that work in general or for either gender, but there’s a lot of nuance when you start getting into emotional stories and motivations and things like that."
"I don’t think they ever didn’t give Summer and Beth their due," said Carbiener. "I think a lot of guys in the room were driving those conversations because they realized we need to tell more of these stories, and now that there are women in the room we can vet them and make them better. It wasn’t like we showed up and said, 'Where are all the Beth episodes?' "
"There was probably a slightly more nuanced take on some of them," Rosbe agreed. "It was a really happy experience, and they were never like: 'You have to write girl storylines.' "
The first two seasons of the show there were no women in the writers room, a fact that Harmon and Roiland had addressed at the end of the second season's run. "It hasn't been an agenda thing, but just coincidentally for some reason — I don't know why — this staffing round going into season three, we got a lot of female scripts in addition to male scripts," Roiland told THR in a 2015 interview, when he and Harmon were staffing up for the third season. "We just look at what's the best script — I think in the running, we have five or six girls. It's weird — that's never happened before."
"I think there was a bit of attention on it," Becker said of joining the show with the three other female writers. "They hadn’t had female writers before. It was absolutely natural. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got women in the room so we can’t do what we normally do, wink-wink.’ There was no pushback. There was no weirdness."
"There was a Reddit post that called us the social justice warriors that Dan had to hire that ruined season three," Carbiener recalled, noting that the backlash occurred over six months before the third season's release.
"One thing that really pisses me off is when people talk about how hiring writers should be a meritocracy," Gao said. "The people who say that have never ever thought about what that actually means and where that meritocracy comes from. Overwhelmingly, the person who is deciding who is the funniest is going to be a white guy, usually in his 30s or 40s who for sure grew up middle class or upper middle class. Someone like that is going to have very specific life experience and a specific sense of humor."
"Women are definitely underrepresented in all aspects of Hollywood, and I think when you feel underrepresented you’re not going to last, because it’s so hard," Becker explained. "You don’t have an advocate, you’re one lonely person. When you don’t feel like you’re part of a group that has your back you won’t stick around. Harmon described it as a 'joyless ambassador.' That rings true to me."
The fact that Adult Swim was lagging in that representation was not lost on the women. Mike Lazzo, executive vp of the network, addressed the concerns about lack of female showrunners on Adult Swim last year by saying, "Women don’t tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that’s probably why we (or others) have so few female projects."
"I'll be honest," Becker said, "I was very saddened by the comments that were made. I thought that was wrong. But I don’t think it's too late to change things at Adult Swim. They were good to us and we have a relationship with them now."
"It’s a bummer that [Adult Swim] don’t have any female [showrunners] and it definitely has the vibe of a boy’s club," said Gao. "I would like to hope that things would change, but speaking from just working on the shows I've worked on, I’ve had good experiences. At least on the show level, these two particular shows make an effort to hire women writers."
For Rosbe and Carbiener, Rick and Morty has already payed dividends in creating their own shows. The writing team created and produced, along with Harmon and his Starburns Industries banner, the Youtube Red series Good Game. "It just has such a stamp, especially from other writers," Rosbe said of her time writing for Rick and Morty. "It's a show that's so respected by so many people."
Becker's feelings about Adult Swim haven't soured her on the network, either, nor has she given up pushing forward with her dream of running her own show in the future. "I wouldn’t turn my nose up at any place that wanted to run the weird show I wanted to make," she told THR. "We found a problem and we’re exposing it. That’s always a good thing. I think you have to move with it. I think resisting the change will make things worse. It’s good that we pointed out a problem and I hope Adult Swim is going to try and change it by hiring more female showrunners."