On the surface, Rick and Morty is a zany science fiction cartoon that often walks the line between hilarity and darkness. But for co-creator Dan Harmon, Rick and Morty is just a sandbox to play in. “Anything can happen within that universe,” he says.
After a nearly two-year hiatus, Rick and Morty will return to Adult Swim for its third season on July 30. Harmon spoke with TIME about the challenges in writing season three, whether or not the audience will ever really get to know the real Rick Sanchez, and where he stands on that long-rumored Community movie.
Warning: There are spoilers ahead for those who haven’t watched the first episode of season three, The Rickshank Rickdemption.
TIME: This season took longer to write. Why?
Harmon: I think it just hit a critical mass of thinking about the writing as being possible to screw up. Even though we’re smart enough to realize that that’s exactly what can slow you down, you’re never smart enough to realize that realizing it can also slow you down. The bottom line is that things that took you five minutes to do in season one take 15 minutes to do all of a sudden. All of that adds up to three times longer to do the entire season.
The only cure is getting through it, [and] looking back and realizing all of that extra time was wasted. That you’ve got the same distance that you would have had if you somehow would have been able to see that none of your worries mattered. But the irony is that the only way you’re going to realize that is by having your worries matter so much, then you look back and realize that they didn’t matter.
That’s the closest I’ve gotten to explaining it successfully. You chase your tail and you get dizzy, and then you snap out of it, and you’re smarter for having done it.
Was there any one particular episode or storyline that took especially long to write?
There were very few [episodes] that were easy. Certainly the very first one was the one that really threw everything out of whack. It became impossible to finish. Once you’re in this mode of being behind schedule and start coping with being behind schedule, the coping mechanism can create more problems.
If you’re taking too long on the first episode then by the time you’re jumping into the second episode there’s this different attitude. The first one was super problematic. It took many, many, many revisions to get it to what it was. . . Then about every second or third episode became this process where, oh this isn’t working, this needs to be rewritten from the ground up. Why is that? What are we over thinking? What are we under thinking?
Now that I look back on it, when you’re inside of a season you do think about it in terms of each episode being its own thing. Only after the end of the whole thing can you look back and go, it had nothing to do with the individual episodes. It was just sort of an experience you had going into the third season.
At the end of that first season 3 episode, Rick goes on a rant warning Morty that their adventures are about to get darker. Is there anything more you can say about that?
I think that Justin [Roiland]‘s feeling about that is what Rick is really saying to Morty is: Don’t expect any of the things that happened in this episode to change anything about our dynamic. Yes, I technically rescued you. Yes, I technically appeared to have taken down an entire galactic government just so that you guys can have a normal life again. But that’s actually not true, it only seems that way. All of it was just an elaborate way of getting rid of the real problem, which was your father. And that’s what happens with people who get in my way, so stay out of my way and do what I tell you to do. Which is dark thing to say.
During this rant, he also mentions that his new mission is to find more Szechuan sauce even if it takes nine seasons. Do you have an idea of how long you want the show to run?
We don’t have a number. I definitely know that it would be as long as possible. I think that they would have to drag Justin and I kicking and screaming away from Rick and Morty. The only thing that would make us walk away would be a sense that we were somehow screwing it up and ruining something that would then have its legacy marred. If we got to a point where we thought the show absolutely stunk because of our insistence on continuing to make it, I’d hope that we would be wise enough to stop making it.
But as long as we can keep having fun with it we’d be very foolish to walk away from what I consider to be the perfect sandbox for television. Anything can happen within that universe and that character, so nine seasons is probably an understatement as far as I can tell.
One trait that makes Rick so interesting is that the audience doesn’t ever really know what’s going on in his mind. It’s hard to tell if he actually cares about Morty and his family, or if he’s just using them as a means to an end. Will we ever really know what’s happening in Rick’s head?
No, I don’t think we will. I think we’ll continue to get glimpses. For all we know, we learned in [season three episode one] exactly what’s going on in his head because that’s a pretty plausible origin story. He just happens to reveal that it was constructed to fool his insect handlers. But in my opinion, the best way to construct something is to take it from reality. How much of that fake origin story is taken from reality? And if any of it’s real, how honest is Rick being with himself or with the viewer when he pretends that none of it matters?
I don’t think there’s a single truth that you could ever learn about what’s going on in Rick’s head that couldn’t also be undercut. Instead of that meaning that you’ll never know the truth, another way of looking at it is that everything you’ve learned is the truth. It simply turns out to not be true later. That’s sort of a relative of the larger principle of the show, which is that if life is truly meaningless, then everything is meaningful. If there is no center of the universe, then everywhere you are is the center. Which is simultaneously a tragedy and miracle. To answer your question, what is going on in Rick’s head? Well does he even know? I don’t know.
Are there any other characters that you’ve wanted to dive into more deeply but haven’t had the chance to yet?
We definitely start turning the development heat up on Beth. Her separation from Jerry is a blessing and curse for her. She has been defining her life by her marriage straight out of high school to this unremarkable man that she in her mind compares to her mother, while fetishizing exceptionality in the form of her father. That excuse being removed, it just allows us to put the spotlight on Beth a little bit and start asking a few more questions about her, who she is in a vacuum. And that happens in season three and I’m pretty pleased with the results.
So is Jerry gone for good?
He’s a huge part of season 3. That was my one big fear with [season three episode one] was scaring people into thinking that Jerry was just being disposed of as a character. It’s a creative choice to move on from a running joke from seasons one and two, which is that Beth and Jerry are on the verge of divorce perpetually.
Why force a runner like that when we can just move that forward and move them out of perpetual brinksmanship? We can now start exploring the form of parental dynamic that a majority of viewers had growing up, which is actual separated parents arguing over custody and what not. So we actually used that to enhance the Jerry and Beth characters.
Jerry is absolutely crucial. To say that he’s the opposite of Rick is oversimplification, but it starts there.
Both previous seasons had interdimensional cable episodes, where the audience got glimpses at what cable television is like in other dimensions. Can we expect to see that again in season three?
The bad news is we didn’t get to make one of those this season. The good news is we tried a different take on a somewhat anthological episode. But yeah, we were supposed to do 14 [episodes] this season. And part of our slowness meant we did less episodes than we were supposed to do. Certainly one of the ones that we didn’t get around to would have been a third installment of that exercise.
In past seasons, there have been a lot of cultural references from other movies and films. Are there any specific ones you’re excited about in season three?
[There aren’t] really any specific movies. We tend to find that the more specific we get when we’re homaging, the more we start to get out shown by a preexisting South Park that we’ve never seen, or one that they’ll do in all the time it takes us to release an episode. So the closest we’ve come is sort of a genre homage. One really satisfying one that we’ve wanted to do for a while that we finally get to do is George Miller, Mad Max, post apocalyptic, diesel-fueled dystopia, nuclear wasteland kind of genre. Using that as a backdrop was kind of fun. [We] got to design all of those vehicles and weapons and characters, and explore themes of manhood and womanhood.
We meet so many different types of alien species in Rick and Morty. How do you guys come up with ideas for new types of aliens, and what is that process like?
That’s a good question… I think the Meeseeks, if we count them as a species, that’s certainly an example of coming up with a species that was an idea in and of itself. For the most part, it’s a species that you’re seeing created across the screen. And the gimmicks that they have [are] largely a construction of, well we need randomness here, we need a species. And then we burden the unfortunate and genius character designers with that, and they come up with these crazy looking creatures.
Throughout the first two seasons we’ve seen some celebrity cameos, such as John Oliver as Dr. Xenon Bloom and Stephen Colbert as Zeep. Are there any special guests on board for season three?
Yeah, Susan Sarandon does a cameo. Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs in separate episodes come do voices, my old friends from Community. Danny Trejo is in one. Keith David reprises his role as the president. Christian Slater does a voice.
Speaking of Community, there has been a lot of speculation about a Community movie. Is that something you’re thinking about?
It is. I recently had a conversation with a director that’s the kind of guy whose weight in the industry could make that happen. For the first time in a long time, I’m actually putting thought into that again. There might be an opportunity at hand if I can actually think of what I would do. I say those words so carefully because I don’t want to be responsible for anyone being let down or feeling anxiety.
Would you ever consider a Rick and Morty movie?
Oh for sure. We haven’t thought about it but it’s animation and it feels like the kind of thing that would be easier to get going. But I could be naive about that. It seems almost like the kind of thing that you could dedicate some resources to while you were still making the TV show. Or knock a little bit of it out between seasons four and five and then finish it up. Who knows?
I’ve never had an animated project that was this well received, so I don’t know how that aspect of the industry works. It will be interesting to start having those conversations.