In 2012, Harmon was fired from Community. Adult Swim, searching for a more prime-time, “hit” show, approached Harmon shortly afterward, who initially viewed the channel as unfit for his style. He also was unfamiliar with animation, and his process for creating television focuses more heavily on dialogue, characters, and story. Instead, he phoned Roiland to inquire if he had any ideas for an animated series. Roiland immediately brought up the idea of using the Doc and Mharti characters, renamed Rick and Morty. Roiland initially wanted the show’s run time to consist of one eleven-minute segment, but Adult Swim pushed for a half-hour program. Harmon felt the best way to extend the voices into a program would be to build a family around the characters, while Adult Swim development executive Nick Weidenfeld suggested that Rick be Morty’s grandfather. Having pitched multiple television programs that did not get off the ground, Roiland was initially very unreceptive to others attempting to give notes on his pitch. Prior to developing Rick and Morty, he had created three failed animated pilots for Fox, and he had begun to feel “burned out” with developing television.
The first draft was completed in six hours on the Paramount Pictures lot in Dan Harmon’s unfurnished Community office. The duo had broken the story that day, sold the pilot, and then sat down to write. Roiland, while acknowledging a tendency for procrastination, encouraged Harmon to stay and write the entire first draft. “We were sitting on the floor, cross-legged with laptops and I was about to get up and go home and he said, ‘Wait, if you go home, it might take us three months to write this thing. Stay here right now and we can write it in six hours.’ He just had a premonition about that,” recalled Harmon. Adult Swim was initially unsure of Roiland doing both voices, partially due to the undeveloped nature of the character of Morty. Harmon wrote four short premises in which Morty took a more assertive role and sent it to Mike Lazzo. Adult Swim placed a tamer TV-14 rating on the program, which initially was met with reluctance from the show’s staff. The network’s reason behind the rating was that it would soon begin broadcasting in prime-time, competing with major programs.
The main theme for Rick and Morty by Ryan Elder was originally used in a rejected Cartoon Network pilot Roiland made called “Dog World”, which was also referenced in the episode “Lawnmower Dog”.
The general formula of Rick and Morty consists of the juxtaposition of two conflicting scenarios: an extremely selfish, alcoholic grandfather dragging his grandson across space for intergalactic and/or interdimensional adventures, intercut with domestic family drama. This has led Harmon to describe the series as a cross between Matt Groening’s two shows The Simpsons and Futurama, balancing family life with heavy science fiction. Roiland stated his and Harmon’s intentions for the series to lack traditional continuity, opting for discontinuous storylines “not bound by rules”. In a similar interview session at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International, he described each episode as being “[its] own point of entry.”
The first season writing staff consisted of Roiland, Harmon, Tom Kauffman, Ryan Ridley, Wade Randolph, and Eric Acosta, while writer’s assistant Mike McMahan was also given writing credit. Described as a “very, very tiny little writers’ room with a lot of heavy lifting from everybody,” the show’s writing staff, like many Adult Swim productions, is not unionized with the Writers’ Guild of America. The writing staff first meets and discusses ideas, which evolve into a story. Discussions often include anecdotes from personal life as well as thoughts on the science fiction genre. After breaking the story—which consists of developing its consistency and logical beginning, middle, and conclusion—a writer is assigned to create an outline. Roiland and Harmon do a “pass” on the outline, and from there the episode undergoes several more drafts. The final draft of the script is last approved by either of the co-creators. In producing the series’ first season, episodes were occasionally written out of order. For example, “Rick Potion #9” was the second episode written for the series, but was instructed to be animated as the fifth, as it would make more sense within the series’ continuity. The series is inspired by British-style storytelling, as opposed to traditional American “family TV” stories. Harmon noted that the writers room at the show’s studio bears a striking resemblance to the one used for Community. In comparing the two, he noted that the writing staff of Rick and Morty was significantly smaller, and more “rough and tumble verbally,” commenting, “There’s a lot more Legos and Nerf guns.”