How Dan Harmon kept Rick & Morty’s cynicism out of Strange Planet

Watching season 1 of Strange Planet, the new animated series produced by Community and Rick & Morty creator Dan Harmon, it’s easy to see traces of his voice in the structure of the show. It’s particularly present in the way each episode comes with a gentle message about connection and maturing, all delivered without preaching. And the way the episodes all tell different stories, while connecting in small, surprising ways, is pure Harmon. His name on the show has given it a particular cultural cachet — to a subset of TV nerds, Dan Harmon is something of a god, and anything he touches is worth checking out.

But the stronger voice in the mix comes from writer-artist Nathan W. Pyle, who originated Strange Planet as a webcomic about a world of “beings” — blobby blue nameless aliens — turning familiar, mundane experiences into opportunities for gentle philosophical observations. Pyle isn’t as much of a household name as Harmon, but he’s built a millions-strong following for his work on Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit, and his comics have quietly grown from internet humor currency to a full-on cultural experience.

The blend of Pyle’s sensibilities with Harmon’s produces something fairly unique in the increasingly crowded field of adult-oriented animated TV: A show that feels both like a G-rated story, and like it’s aiming at jaded, weary mature viewers rather than at younger ones. Polygon recently spoke to Pyle about working with Harmon, and he said the process of keeping the voice of the webcomics alive in the series wasn’t difficult, because it was one of Harmon’s biggest priorities for the series’ writers.

“As the co-creator of the show, Dan Harmon immediately said, ‘We want to defer to what is true about the webcomic here,’” Pyle says. “Dan really wanted to help us create something wholesome. The lack of cynicism is definitely apparent. And sincerity is core to who the beings are.”

Pyle’s comics don’t have central characters or ongoing storylines. Sometimes a few strips in a row will take place among the same beings, or in the same setting, but there are no protagonists, and no conflict — two elements that seem core to any running TV show. The beings also don’t lie to each other (small deceptions are permissible), and there’s no sign that they ever hold back on what they’re thinking or feeling. As Pyle explains, that was a major challenge for the show.

One of the blobby blue aliens from Strange Planet holds its arms wide while wearing a brown cloak while another kneels nearby and smiles Image: Apple TV Plus

“How do we create conflict if there’s so much honesty? That was a conversation we had over and over with Dan Harmon and [producer] Steven Levy,” he says. “But Dan Harmon especially is up to the task. Because he likes the challenge of creating TV from a challenging premise, really.”

Pyle says Harmon’s usual method of breaking down TV episodes helped focus what the show needed to be. “There’s this idea of the story circle that Dan uses,” he says. “Over time, it became second nature for me to think through [the circle’s] points. It’s like going to school, really, when you’re with Dan and Steve. They have a really high number of existing episodes that they can go back to: ‘Here’s what we did with this on Rick & Morty.’ It’s like having a cheat sheet ready. They know exactly what a character could do [in a given situation], because they’ve already seen how it works. And yet you’re able to create something new in talking to them, because they’re so creative. It was an amazing education.”

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Pyle says he first took the idea of a Strange Planet show to Harmon’s production company in 2019, and that they spent a year developing it before they considered pitching it to streaming networks.

“We really eased into it,” he says. “And that was crucial, to have more [development] time as we were starting to think about this world. I really had time to ease into learning how Dan thinks. I was just fortunate to have him.”

Two of the core ideas that Pyle, Harmon, and Levy came up with for the show was that it should keep moving to different locales — “It’s called Strange Planet, so we needed to explore the planet,” Pyle says — and that it should keep the comic’s conceit of nameless characters.

“When they don’t have names — I think one of the neat things about that characteristic is that it allows more room for change. It’s just one signifier, but when you don’t have a name, you’re a being on a journey, right?” Pyle asks. “This is a strange planet, but it ultimately has the same ideas that we’re all faced with, existentially. Even as we wake up in the morning, trying to drink our coffee, we’re trying to figure out What am I trying to turn into? What am I trying to be? Where’s my Point A, and where’s my Point B? Each day, All right, this is my new direction.

Certain characters, voiced by Lori Tan Chinn, Hannah Einbinder, Demi Adejuyigbe, Tunde Adebimpe, and Danny Pudi, recur throughout the show and develop over time. Their growth was an aspirational ideal for Pyle, who wanted to show how people can “take new directions and find a different route, find reconciliation, or find independence.” The idea of change and growth is core to the show, and it’s one thing the series doesn’t take from the comic, which is more about static observation of the foibles of the world.

One of the cartoony blue blobby aliens from Nathan W. Pyle’s Strange Planet sits on the beach at sunset next to a three-eyed dog and smiles backward over its shoulder at the viewer in the Apple TV Plus animated series based on Pyle’s work Image: Apple TV Plus

Asked which comes first in a given episode — the life lesson the characters are learning, or the specific setting for that installment — Pyle says it’s “a little bit of both.” One episode focuses on a referee making a game-changing bad call during a soccer (or “footorb”) match. Pyle particularly requested that storyline, because he felt it shows how Strange Planet calls out overlooked people within environments where they might be considered cogs in a system rather than individuals.

“There’s the machinery of big-time sports, and the referee is just one of its pieces of equipment,” he says. “You can slip into that thinking if you don’t stop and consider, That’s just another human out there, trying to make sure these amazing athletes are able to play their game. I really like that aspect of some of our episodes — we started with a really strong idea, like being a flight attendant. That’s a high-pressure job, and you’re dealing with far more personalities than the pilot has to. So we started with a lot of unique beings who might be overlooked at times. And that was an intriguing part of seeding the idea of how they process emotions as they go about their difficult jobs.”

Ultimately, the Strange Planet series can obviously tell much more dynamic and expansive stories than Pyle’s four-panel comics — but the creative team was focused on keeping the tone, language, and humor familiar enough that the audience would recognize Pyle’s strip in the way the show uses language, honesty, and sincerity. “Dan saw the excitement of that,” Pyle says. “And he said ‘Oh wait, we actually should make this show exactly the way he’s been making the comic. And he was excited about it.’”

Strange Planet debuts on Apple TV Plus on Aug. 9.