Mike McMahan is the most important person working on Rick and Morty you’ve probably never heard of.
After co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, McMahan was one of the first people hired to work on the show. This was before Adult Swim had even picked it up, when he worked as a writer’s assistant and helped craft the scripts for Rick and Morty Season 1 episodes like "Lawnmower Dog" and "Rick Potion #9." For Season 2, McMahan was promoted to a full-fledged writer, in Season 3 he became a producer, and by Season 4 he was running the show.
But when asked to define his role in creating and guiding Rick and Morty, McMahan tells Inverse that it boils to one simple thing: His love of science fiction.
“I was kind of the sci-fi guy,” McMahan says. “A lot of the sci-fi ideas were coming from things that I wanted to do episodes about.”
Given his obsession with the genre, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that McMahan is branching out with not just one but two new sci-fi animated shows. There’s Solar Opposites, a cartoon sitcom about a family of aliens he created with Justin Roiland that launches this Friday on Hulu; and also Star Trek: Lower Decks, a series focused on the support crew of a Starfleet ship during the Next Generation era premiering later this year on CBS All Access.
When I interview McMahan over the phone on a Tuesday afternoon, it’s to promote Solar Opposites, but I can’t help but ask about Lower Decks (how does it fit into Star Trek canon?) and the latest season of Rick and Morty. “There's some really amazing stuff on the way,” he promises when I ask if we’ll ever actually get closure on some of Rick and Morty’s biggest unresolved stories.
On the topic of Rick and Morty Season 4, he continues, “I've been seeing a lot of people putting out think pieces where I'm like, Well, there's gonna be an update on this think piece in a couple of episodes.”
Read the full interview below to hear more about the differences between Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites, what it’s like working with Dan Harmon, and why McMahan is the perfect person to create a new Star Trek show set in the TNG era.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Inverse: After working on Rick and Morty for a long time, Solar Opposites is the first show you’ve created. How did you and Justin Roiland come up with the idea?
MIKE MCMAHAN: Justin and I wanted to work together for a while. We love working together on Rick and Morty, and we’ve been trying to make something that felt like our version of a broad sitcom. You know, a multi-camera show that’s also fun and sci-fi. Solar Opposites is our subverted version of the aliens living in Middle America kind of show was just something that we thought would be fun.
There’s an old funny video where Justin Roiland interviews you via a remote control car, and in it, you talk about the meaning of life and what it means to be a father. How did your experience as a father influence the alien family at the core of Solar Opposites?
When we were creating the family, we wanted it to look like a broad Simpsons-type show from a distance, but as you got closer it got weirder and weirder.
I can’t remember the genesis of the Pupa exactly, but we wanted a character that was a non-speaking baby. At the time we were developing the show, my kid was brand new and I had been learning that I like being a dad but that part of being a dad is you both love and fear your kid at all times. There’s this feeling that one day, your kid will be the new you. It's the expression of how you raised him and it's out in the world. So it's on you to make sure that they're a good person.
We wanted the Pupa to be a combination of what I was feeling of being a father but put into this kind of ludicrous sci-fi comedy lens. The Pupa is so unknowable and so confident and such a visual kind of gag character. It was a way for me to drill a lot of that fatherhood into a specific character.
What storytelling ideas did you and Justin Roiland take from Rick and Morty, and what are you trying to do differently with Solar Opposites?
The only thing we took from Rick and Morty is that when you're breaking a story, something you really want to try to get down first is the emotional story as a baseline, because otherwise why tell a story? So we were using Dan Harmon's methods and his Story Circle, but that's kind of the extent of it.
Rick and Morty is all about Rick. It's very specific to his voice, his character, and his view of the chaotic universe with his nihilism. How does he perceive reality? What does he deem important about family and about intelligence and what intelligence says about a person? Solar Opposites isn’t about any of that. It's really about family and people that want stuff but don't want to admit it, who are kind of dumb and really naive. Writing it feels incredibly different from writing Rick and Morty. Writing Rick and Morty means trying to write up to Dan Harmon so he can take it and elevate even more, which is no small task.
Nobody on Solar Opposites is dealing with anything much bigger than their immediate family, or maybe being consumed by the Pupa. And on Rick and Morty, they're dealing with big things all the time. That never just comes up on Solar Opposites.
Season 4 of Rick and Morty, and the latest episode in particular, feel like a direct response to obsessive fans, telling them to stop looking for clues and theories and to just enjoy the show. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
I don't really want to comment on this season of Rick and Morty because, while I was involved in a ton of it, I don't want to speak for how it landed because I did have to start parting ways with them to work on Star Trek: Lower Decks.
But that being said, I think because people love Rick and Morty and because every episode takes so long to cook and get where we need it to be, it's tempting to try to define the show based on each episode that comes out. But knowing how great this season is, I would withhold trying to say that any lines in the sand have been drawn and wait for the whole season to air because there's some really amazing stuff on the way. I've been seeing a lot of people putting out think pieces where I'm like, "Well, there's gonna be an update on this think piece in a couple of episodes."
Who would win in a fight between the Solar Opposites family and Rick and the Smith family?
Rick alone would win. The Smith family isn't going to win a fight against anybody. Actually, Summer can throw down a bit, but yeah, Rick would destroy the Solar Opposites family. Instantly.
Korvo was gonna kill himself when a guard at the Museum of Urine shined a flashlight on him. He would not last against Rick.
You’re also working on a new animated Star Trek show called Lower Decks for CBS All Access. Can you give us an update on when it’s coming out?
I can't give you a specific answer on when that's coming out, but we’re still working on it and we're on track for when we have planned, which is this year. Animation is kind of uniquely suited for this moment. We didn't shut down production. Safely recording the cast was really our biggest challenge because we don't want them leaving their houses. So getting remote setups and stuff was something we had to solve, but it seems like we have.
Lower Decks takes place during the Next Generation era. How does it connect to Captain Picard and the rest of the Star Trek Universe?
Lower Decks is very different from Solar Opposites and Rick and Morty. Within Lower Decks, there is a proper in-canon Star Trek show. It takes place during the TNG era. It's on a ship that feels like it’s always existed there and the bridge crew is dealing with big, never before seen Starfleet Star Trek type stories. So every episode has a thing like that happening in it. And then, on top of that, we've got A stories and B stories that are emotionally driven from the point of view of the lower deckers on the ships. So it was an area of storytelling that people had covered every once in a while on Star Trek, but never built a show around.
It was important to me that if you know everything about Star Trek and you watch this show then it fits into Canon and doesn't break Star Trek. In fact, it grows it. And if you know nothing about Star Trek, then all of the canon in Lower Decks feels like mythological, broad understandable sci-fi stuff. So you can still enjoy Lower Decks even if it's your first Star Trek show.
I used to have a Twitter account called TNG Season 8 that imagined fake episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This sort of it walks an even finer line than that Twitter did where its stories feel very Star Trekky, but you're having a good time while you're watching it. And it's half the length of a regular Star Trek and takes place in '90s Star Trek. It's sort of like a love letter to people that love Star Trek, but it's also a funny show for people who have never seen it.
Will there be a Solar Opposites Season 2?
Yeah, they picked us up for two seasons. We've already written it, and it's being animated right now. it's awesome. We took all the stuff we learned from the first season and really the second season is super fucking weird and fun.