Justin Roiland and Mike McMahan are the co-creators of Hulu’s Solar Opposites. Justin Roiland is also the co-creator and voice actor on Rick and Morty. Mike McMahan also served as producer and writer for Rick and Morty. Here, they talk about animation, the surprise of their Emmy win, and where some of their creativity comes from.
Awards Daily TV: What inspired the idea for Solar Opposites?
Justin Roiland: The original idea is pretty old, I had the name Solar Opposites. I don’t know where I got it from, it just came to my head. It’s obviously from polar opposites. This was in 2006 or 2007. I was considering doing it for Channel 01 as a live-action show about two aliens sent to Earth on some sort of mission: study humans, sneak around, steal hair samples–I don’t know what they were going to do.
At the core were the two aliens that were completely at odds with each other in how they approached the mission. It was a very different show because they lived in an apartment, it was just the two of them. They were reporting back to their supreme leader on their home planet that was still in existence. It was going to be live action with these weird paper mache heads with animated mouths and eyes in post. I just never made it. I got the heads made, and I had everything ready to go and I just never came back to it. I was developing stuff under this blind deal with 20th Century Fox. I was going in with a couple of ideas and both of those ideas were passed on and I had one crack left. I was like, if nothing happens, then I’m off the hook.
But I grabbed Mike McMahan, because I was like, I do not want to do this again by myself. He was very open to partnering with me. So we were hanging out trying to develop this other idea that I had been working on for a couple of weeks, and I believe it was him who said we’re not getting anywhere with this and it’s not that much fun and I agreed with him. So we put that idea down and we were brainstorming and then, for some reason, that old idea popped in my head and he really liked it, and I was excited about that idea. That day we worked on the show, we added the replicants, we fleshed out the idea that the home planet was destroyed because I feel like the idea of reporting back to the supreme leader or being under the thumb of some government would get in the way of what we wanted to do narratively.
So we were like, let’s just free them from those tethers, they’re Gilligan Island aliens on Earth. That sounded like a fresh take on that classic aliens living among us. The replicants were invented for high school stuff and opportunities to flesh out additional personalities in the house. We had a lot of fun that day. We really figured out what we wanted to do. The other big thing we decided early on was we didn’t want the aliens on the run from the FBI or the government or being autopsied. We just wanted them to be treated how an LA native might treat a sleazy celebrity at the grocery store. Like “Oh look, there’s Kathy Griffin, okay, now where’s the soap?” That’s how we wanted them to be treated, like it’s not the biggest deal in the world. People are aware that they are around but they’re not the focal point of everyone’s life and they’re not some big surprise or freaked out thing. That’s like on Rick and Morty.
We don’t waste time on that kind of stuff so we can just do what we want to do and have fun with the show. We had a clean blank slate for what we wanted to do narratively on Earth, a lot of freedom because we didn’t have tethers to the FBI, the government or the home planet. They are autonomous, they can do what they want, they can live among the people. It felt like a good immigrant allegory. It came together really quickly. I think some of the best ideas tend to come together really quickly.
ADTV: Did “The Wall” idea come up pretty quickly, mixed in with these other ideas?
JR: So, The Wall idea didn’t come together in the initial first day session. I drew the characters on my dry erase board that first day. Justin Holmes started cleaning it up in Photoshop as I took a photo of the dry erase board. Once I got them cleaned up I hired some freelance artists to draw some stuff, and I remember around that time I was playing a lot of Fallout Shelter. That’s when I had this idea for The Wall. I was like, how crazy would it be if the aliens had a massive terrarium and bedroom that’s a secret and they were just pumping humans into it? The initial idea, which I think still holds, was Yumyulack being really curious about humans but did not understand humanity, and instead of people watching humans outside you just kidnap shitty humans and throw them in there, and watch them and see how they work.
So that was the initial concept: okay, here you guys go, you’re on your own, you have your own rules, your own government, your own currency, goods and services, etc. etc., have at it. And he was just going to watch. Then Jesse is super excited, because tiny humans are like little Barbies she can play with. It just felt really, really fun, and Mike McMahon was way into that idea. My main focal point was how the kids were watching The Wall, very hands-off but guiding fate a little bit.
ADTV: The aliens are the food supply: the candy.
JR: Yeah, that idea that the humans are so deprived of real food, and then Mike and I really fleshed it out with the crazy story arc of The Wall, and that was after we started writing the pilot. I remember we pitched it to Fox and they did not like The Wall at all. They were not a fan. And that was my favorite part at that point: I love the idea that there is a show within a show, and Mike and I flushed out the whole season for The Wall. We knew that was going to culminate in a crazy full episode story that was going to be tonally different than the main show. We wanted it to be dramatic, we wanted the actors to play it super straight. We had it all figured out really early, before we were finished writing the pilot, we knew that’s how we wanted it to be and knew exactly how to map out the episode arc across a season. We were even thinking okay, if there are six episodes we do it this way, if there are eight episodes we do it that way, if it’s ten we do it this way.
ADTV: Mike, what attracted you to want to work in animation?
Mike McMahan: It’s funny, a quick two-part answer to that is first I grew up loving animation, I remember my parents had to drag me away from watching Ren and Stimpy, and me being just so upset, and I remember watching The Simpsons when it first aired, and was, like, “Oh, I hope they don’t cancel–this is the only show I like.” I just really truly, to the chagrin of my dad who was an industrial litigator, loving cartoons my whole life.
When I first moved out here and wanted to get into writing, you got to start wherever you can and the first job that I got was as a production assistant on a show called Drawn Together. Which was line produced by J. Michael Mendel, who recently passed away and was a close friend of mine, who really taught me everything I knew, and I went from there to South Park to working at Fox animation, and then when I started working on Rick and Morty I recommended that they hire J. Michael Mendel as the line producer, and he was until he passed away. Animation kinda came to me, cause I can’t draw and usually being able to draw is really helpful for animation.
ADTV: So Mike, Solar Opposites is the first show you are a creator instead of just a producer and a writer for. How is that a change compared to your other projects?
MM: On Rick and Morty I was always a writer. I started as a writer’s assistant and by the time I was done I was a showrunner. So primarily the work I was doing was writing and giving some notes on art. On Solar Opposites I am the lead writer, I’m in the writers room everyday, my hand is on every script, and I’m also directing the voice actors and getting all the notes on the art, and helping guide the marketing, and really soup to nuts doing everything. So I got into animation thinking I was primarily going to do writing, but as I’ve created shows and moved up, what I have learned is to really enjoy collaborating with artists, and finding their imagination, letting the stuff that gets them excited influence the stuff that I’m writing.
I had already written a few things and sold a couple of shows before Solar Opposites but this is the first one that made it to air. But it was a wild year. I had show run Rick and Morty, then I swapped over to show run Solar Opposites, and then while we were editing Solar Opposite in the downtime, I went over and created and show ran Star Trek: Lower Decks. I went from a guy who occasionally wrote, well mostly playing Xbox games, to a guy who never gets to play Xbox games and does lots of stuff all the time.
ADTV: Is that a bad thing in the long run? As a fellow gamer I understand the need for that.
MM: It’s a bad thing unless you find games that do not take up as much of your time. Like I love OverWatch because the matches are so short or games like The Witness, Mario Kart, and Smash Brothers. The things I can’t do anymore are the fifteen hour raids in Destiny, but you know what, I think that might actually be for the best, so I am okay.
ADTV: One of my favorite moments from the show has been in the opening where you have Korvo say something random about what he doesn’t like about Earth. Each episode I wonder what new weird thing Korvo was going to say next. Is that something you guys planned in advance or is that ad-libbed?
JR: It was all of the above. We knew we wanted to do stuff like that, like The Simpsons with Bart with the chalkboard and one of the original versions was the narrator. Initially we just had a narrator. I think it was Gary Anthony Williams doing it, I’m not sure. So he would go over what the shows are about and do some random stuff at the end and ramble on about what the show is. Then Mike was like, shouldn’t it be Korvo, so it was me talking and it was pretty funny so we recorded that. I just ad-libbed, then we kind of waited really late to record the rest of them, but we knew we were going to do it. So I basically ad-libbed a bunch of them and then we did another record where the writers room came up with a bunch of really good stuff I took and used as a springboard, and me ad-libbing and running with it. That was really fun, I loved doing those. I loved the ideas that they came up with because I was thinking the same thing as you, that we have different things with each episode. It really helped solidify Korvo as this grumpy guy who does not like Earth culture or anything to do with Earth. I feel like we did a pretty good job.
ADTV: Speaking of voice work, does being a voice actor on a show as well as a producer change how you look at the material or how you do your work?
JR: Sometimes, the nice thing is when we’re recording I can play around with certain lines. but we also encourage the rest of the cast to ad-lib. I think a lot of the better shows nowadays are very open to ad-lib, open to suggestions from the cast, letting the cast have room to have fun. That brings us so many great moments, as long as it’s in service to the story, not just completely off the rails. It’s always going to be great and memorable. For the most part, though, I’ve always operated that way–initially because I had to when making cartoons because I had to cast myself because I didn’t have anyone else to do it. Me and my friend Abed were the only people to do the voices in my first cartoons, and my buddy Savan twirling away in aftereffects, then it just became normal that I would do voices in cartoons. It wasn’t even a vanity thing, like I want to be a star or anything like that, it was just more utilitarian.
This was the quickest route to getting what I need from a character. It’s funny, I know other people who are that way. They know what they want from a performance in their head and it’s easier to just do it, than direct it out of somebody. The nice thing about this show, the cast is f****** incredible. I could never do what (Thomas) Middleditch does, or what Mary Mack does, or Sean Giambrone. They are all so damn talented, and all the aliens sound different from each other, and really good together as a group. I feel like we got really super lucky with this cast.
ADTV: Justin in Rick and Morty is it difficult talking to yourself while doing the voices of both Morty and Rick?
JR: It’s actually a lot of fun to bounce back and forth. When I’m at my best, it’s kind of weird. I go somewhere else (that sounds pretentious–I don’t mean it to be) when I’m in the zone, or not overthinking it, I can kind of just go on and on between the two characters and it’s pretty great. Lately, though, I record Morty first and I’ll play around with stuff, and then I’ll go back and record Rick second. And partly because doing Rick for extended periods of time, especially if there’s a lot of shouting and screaming, that really shreds my voice so it’s hard to do Morty’s voice after. What I used to do back in the first two seasons was do Morty first, then I would run scenes with them going back and forth, and then I would do Rick. But lately it’s been doing Morty and then I switch to Rick. But I do enjoy doing them back and forth, If I’m in the right headspace for it. It’s a lot of fun to do that, and I tend to have an easier time ad-libbing and just going off the rails having a weird conversation that the two of them might be having. It’s pretty f****** weird to get to do that.
ADTV: I looked it up and saw that you’re also voicing and producing video games as well as animation. Is there a major difference for you in how you go about doing that work? And were video games something else you were always interested in being involved with?
JR: You know the video game stuff really came out of my obsession with VR (Virtual Reality), like, it just blew my mind. I never really had the desire to make a game, or I guess I just never thought it was possible, so I didn’t entertain it. And then something about VR just seemed really accessible and all of a sudden my brain just started filling up with ideas. And that led to the studio in the first game. I will say the difference between TV and video games is how much audio you have to write and record. I don’t think it’s going to be this way for future projects, but on Trover Saves the Universe we did a lot of tracks. For the first playable we would record stuff that we intended to replace with real audio later, so the records are sloppy and I’m making things up. I’m doing the voices and I’m committing to the characters, I’m not just throwing it away completely, but it is very improv.
So what ended up happening is we get all plugged in, a couple months go by, and the early build is propped up and we all play it, and all the dialogue in the real sloppy stuff works. It was really funny and we were all laughing. We’re focused testing and play testing, and people really love it. So we all kind of look at each other and we’re like, there are a thousand fires to put out, let’s just leave this in so that’s a few less fires we have to worry about. This stuff is working, let’s just keep going with the stuff that’s not working. Making video games is so insane, it is a very different process, there is just so much more at work. If the game play isn’t working no one’s going to care about the story so you gotta hit it on all fronts. It definitely made me think, if this was a TV show we wouldn’t be so concerned about other things like if the platforming is good, or if the puzzles are too boring, too hard, too easy. There is just so much stuff going on in a video game, so when I’m writing a video game I’m always thinking about that kind of stuff. It is very different.
ADTV: Mike, do you have a process about how you go about your writing?
MM: You know, for the most part, it depends, like when we are doing something like Solar Opposites I told Justin all of the things I wanted to do for the show. I wanted it to feel like a sitcom scream “hey, we’re a show you think you know,” then the second you start watching it start subverting that stuff, that’s what makes the aliens so valuable as characters. And then he and I went through and broke out the entire season of The Wall, the show within a show, and then after we knew what we wanted to do with The Wall, we broke down individual episodes, so some of it was meticulous and other stuff was, like, whatever is making us laugh.
And the way I usually write anything is I sit down, come up with a funny idea and write that as the very first scene and then I see if I can try to beat that funny scene with everything after it. And the only note I ask for from anybody who reads it is what is the page and the line where you wish you could stop reading. And every time somebody gives me that note if I figure out a way to make them want to keep reading it, or if they never ever have a page they want to stop reading it, means I got something that I think might work.
ADTV: Fascinating, I have never heard it described that way before.
MM: I think it might be because I write a lot. I’m a bit of a shotgun blast of ideas, at any one time I write five or six pilots a year. If I slow down if I get too focused on any one thing then I start getting really frustrated. I would rather have constantly new stuff being generated. That is my writer’s mental illness, I love creating new stuff and I am constantly having ideas, the best notes for me are often did this suck or did it not, and if it sucks tell me exactly where it did. And then I hit the ground running.
ADTV: Well, it’s good that you have some honest people around you to tell you that.
MM: Maybe too many.
ADTV: This is sort of a random question for you Justin but I was watching The Invader Zim : Enter the Florpus movie and heard your voice. Invader Zim has been deemed almost a grandfather to what Rick and Morty and a lot of other new animation is doing. How did you get to do that small voice in that movie?
JR: Oh, that was so cool to be able to do that. Because I agree with you about Invader Zim laying out a runway to what we are doing now. That show is so good, and Jhonen (Vasquez) is insanely talented, and I’ve been a fan of his forever, since the Johnny the Homicidal Maniac days. I feel like he reached out to me, I think it might have been on Twitter or something. And he just told me “Hey, don’t say anything, but we are doing a movie and I would love for you to do a voice.”
There was a part he was asking me to play, and I was so f****** busy at the time, and I was supposed to go meet with him to hang out. I don’t remember what part it was but it was a bigger part. I just got so busy that I couldn’t do it. I literally tried to schedule a meeting with him. I think we are in season three (of Rick and Morty) and things were just bonkers. But he was super f****** cool and he still made sure to give me a part. I told him how excited I was to be a part of that.
ADTV: Mike I read in another interview that you described yourself as kind of a sci-fi guy. What got you interested in science fiction?
MM: It’s actually a little bit of a downer, my whole life I loved science fiction and I was really close with my father and he passed away when I was in college. And I found while I was mourning in college anything I read I couldn’t remember. Like I would read a book and be like, wow, I really wish I could read that book and I would be like, wait, I already read this. It was something about the way my brain was working and then, at that same time, I realized that the only thing that stuck was sci-fi. So I started re-watching and fell back in love with Star Trek, and I was digging through these old sci-fi books like The Night of the Triffids, Rendezvous with Rama, and The Ship Who Sang, all these kind of classic sci-fi books, and for some reason I went from a guy who liked sci-fi to being a guy who just loved sci-fi.
That was back in 2003, and ever since then I have been reading like 10 or 20 sci-fi books a year and consuming all the media related to it–comic books and video games. There is something–it feels like home to me–about sci-fi stuff. I I don’t know if it’s a connection to my dad or if it just speaks to me that just really clicks. But what ended up happening is I’ve been doing that for so long that when I work on sci-fi shows and we are trying to solve a sci-fi problem the stuff that I have in my head because I consumed so much of it, so much stuff that might not be useful at any one moment, but suddenly when you’re trying to break a story area, a creature with a hive mind I got like thirty access points to pull from for it.
ADTV: It sounds like you have a lot of ideas going on in your head. Is there any idea that you haven’t been able to do yet that you would really like to do in the future?
MM: That question is so funny because there’s like a billion of those for me. I really love TV, I think TV is a thing that really brings me joy, making TV and working with a bunch of people and sharing it, I love making people laugh, I love cool sci-fi stuff. Probably the stuff that I really wish I could do that I don’t want to do because I am not going to be good at it is comic books. I love comic books but I know that to write a comic book you really have to live and breathe that form of writing and my brain does not work like that, but I love reading them.
Comics feel like magic for me because I’ll be watching a movie or a TV show and I’ll be like, oh, I see what you did there, and then I’ll be reading a comic book and I’m like, how the f*** did they do this, this is so amazing. But I definitely want to make movies and shows and just work with amazing, funny people. I am so lucky right now, I am doing so many things that bring me joy and I may not have time for video games, but it is very rare in this life to get to do what you love to do and I love doing all this stuff.
ADTV: You have Star Trek: Lower Decks coming out. How did this idea come about? You already stated you love Star Trek, but was there any particular thing that got this idea going?
MM: Part of it is Star Trek: Lower Decks is based on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Lower Decks.” It is by far my favorite episode, it doesn’t focus on the bridge crew. I also grew up watching Star Trek: Next Generation with my folks, and the sci-fi stuff was great, but what I really loved and was comforting for me was how much everyone on the ship was a friend. You know they were going through space and they would encounter a talking planet that is controlling the people on the planet the bridge crew has to figure that out and that’s great.
But what I like during those same episodes there would be moments like Data the android trying to learn how to tell a joke or paint, or somebody would have a social and/or emotional story happening. I wanted to do a show where I flipped it, and the sci-fi story is the background stuff and the social emotional story line is the main event. And being in animation and comedy you get to live in those worlds—those emotional stories are what really drive it. You get to do the same thing that Star Trek: The Next Generation was doing, but in a way that kind of pops and let you know from the first frame you can expect something slightly different.
Alex Kurtzman’s company that produces all of the Star Trek shows right now had me come in because he’s a big Rick and Morty fan and I went in going, okay, I’m going to tell them exactly what I want to do in a Star Trek show, and they’ll never want to do it because it’s so singularly what I love about Star Trek. I explained it to them in a general meeting. I didn’t even pitch it, I didn’t go in with any material. I just told him what I loved and what I wish I could do and you basically bought it in the room. He just turned to the other producers in the room and said, “Well, I guess we have another Star Trek show.”
ADTV: Curious how it turns out. That’s a great story!
MM: We are in the middle of writing the second season. We are almost done animating the first season and it truly is one of my all-time favorite shows because every episode is fully Star Trek, but it also has stories that you’ve never gotten to see in Star Trek. It lets the big sci-fi A stories be happening in the background; you, like, deep dive into other stories that are happening on these shows. I really geek out to it.
ADTV: What was it like to win an Emmy for Rick and Morty?
JR: It was very surreal. We didn’t think we were going to win and I remember being afraid to win because I didn’t want to get up there and talk. I had a flask on me and I was drinking because I was like, this is too much. I was fully expecting to get to that award, for us to not win and be like, okay, it’s over and now I can relax. And then we won and it was like, oh s***, I am really happy we won. It was amazing that J. Michael Mendel was there. That meant a lot to me that he was on the stage with us and got an Emmy with us and deserved it as much or even more than what we did. When I look back on that night, I’m super happy that that happened when it did, in that Mike got to be a part of it.
MM: I’ll tell you the number one word that pops into mind is surprising. We did not think we were going to win. We were so honored to be nominated, and we were just having such a blast getting to go to the Emmys and being around all these other people that we just idolize. The Simpsons guys, the South Park guys, everybody that we grew up loving, and people who I had worked for at some point or the other. It just felt like when we got there, “Oh, hey I guess now we’re considered part of this group of people.” And when we won it was completely shocking. We love the show, but there weren’t a ton of Rick and Morty episodes out at that time and just really felt great. Because we were writing the show to make ourselves laugh and to have an amazing time. To know that we had not only gotten out into the world but that we were winning awards meant even more people are going to get to see it, and might take notice of it. It was a surprising and amazing feeling.
ADTV: Has Solar Opposites been picked up for a second season?
JR: Yes, season two is actually pretty far along in production.
ADTV: Anything you can tell us?
JR: Well, not too much. It’s crazier and as wild as the first season, it’s more crazy fun stuff with the aliens. And The Wall isn’t going anywhere.
Solar Opposites is now streaming on Hulu.