Dan Harmon was hiking in Death Valley when he spotted two young men coming down the trail. The Rick and Morty co-creator was vacationing during his series’ recent hiatus, and his surroundings weren’t entirely unlike a desolate alien landscape on his animated sci-fi comedy. As the young men drew closer, Harmon says, “I shamelessly thought, ‘They might be fans.’” After they passed by without saying a word, however, Harmon switched to berating himself. “I thought, ‘God, I’m such a self-important narcissist!’”
But then, victory: As the kids passed Harmon’s friends farther down the trail, they were overheard excitedly exclaiming, “That was Dan Harmon! He created Rick and Morty!”
This narrative seems oddly familiar: First some arrogance, then a crash into self-loathing, and finally gleeful triumph — that’s the same emotional spin cycle often exhibited by Harmon’s teleporting antihero Rick Sanchez, who (along with neurotic grandson Morty) has been a pop culture sensation since the series launched in 2013.
The Adult Swim series follows Rick and his family as they embark on mind-bending weekly adventures that relentlessly bust traditional storytelling tropes and veer from lewd barn-broad comedy to razor-sharp existential pathos (sometimes in the same joke). In its third season, the show became 2017’s most-watched comedy on TV among millennials, and won an Emmy the following year.
The show’s popularity has only been heightened by its notorious scarcity of episodes: Season 3 was delayed for two years due to creative struggles (Harmon blamed his own perfectionism). Fans are waiting even longer for season 4, after Harmon and co-creator Justin Roiland were locked in a protracted contract negotiation with Adult Swim. Last year, the duo scored a massive deal to make 70 more episodes, and the first batch drops in November.
Below, Harmon and Roiland give their first interview about their long-awaited new season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So when you made the deal to create 70 more episodes of Rick and Morty, were you more happy or terrified?
JUSTIN ROILAND: We’re happy. It’s a lot of stories we want to tell, a lot to do, but it’s great. Job security like that does not come easy in this town.
Given the long-stated goal of 100 episodes, do you think you’ll also want to end the show at 70?
ROILAND: It’s way too early to say. On any given day you’ll feel like this thing can go for 20, 30 seasons. We have characters that don’t really age, it’s very Simpsons-esque. There’s so much we can do to keep riding this train.
DAN HARMON: Sure I’ll end it! But I don’t know that would be on 70. I would be equally unsurprised if you told me that this thing goes for 20 years. I wouldn’t balk at that at all. If it still feels right, let’s do it.
ROILAND: Yeah, unless people don’t give a sh— anymore. If we’re making it and nobody’s watching it…
How many episodes are you doing for the new season?
ROILAND: This new season will be 10.
Is there a plan — perhaps not to be followed, but a plan — in terms of how often new seasons will be launched?
ROILAND: We’re rolling right into the next batch. The plan has always been to get them out quicker.
HARMON: I think it’s safe to say without fear of being wrong that the gap between seasons 3 and 4 will be the longest and last time that it’s ever so long that it’s ridiculous. I don’t know how fast we can do it, but I know it will never be this long again. There were so many things that had to be settled before we even started season 4, and it’s really safe to say — as Justin says — we’re literally writing season 5 while finishing season 4 just to force ourselves to commit to a certain schedule. Not to get anyone’s hopes up, but it is structured into our deal that if we’re going strong and fast there are options to deliver more episodes at a time. Adult Swim can say, “These are on time and great. Do you want to do more instead of taking a break?” And we can then do more. I’d like to see that day. Just knowing it’s possible makes me eager for it. I feel like a naughty boy when I’m late.
Season 3 famously had some creative growing pains along the way. How has this one gone in terms of the creative process?
HARMON: Every single season there’s a little bit of anxiety: Now what’s our definition of having fun and being good? Are we going to continue to be difficult on ourselves because that seems to be an ingredient in the quality? It’s our job to relax and be happy — because that’s another huge ingredient. I think that happens on every show, but it’s just weird when your job is to continue churning out something that you are proud of for its scarcity. You never want to lose sight of your job. Every season you feel like your job is never the same. My answer is getting increasingly confusing.
ROILAND: We want every episode to be good. There are times we’re like, “Okay, this one will be the worst of the season,” and we’re still compelled to do everything in our power to fix what we think is wrong with it. It could be considered one of the reasons the show takes so long. When we get the episodes back in color, it’s easy to see if that we cut this and add that, it will elevate this episode significantly. Sometimes we get them back and are like, “We need to roll our sleeves up and figure this out.” This season’s been good. Pretty excited about this season.
I know you’re not looking to give away true spoilers, but what are some of the types of stories you’re including this season?
ROILAND: Without giving anything away, we have serialized stuff we check in on now and then that’s sprinkled over the top of strong episodic episodes. To fans of the show, they’re going to want to watch them in order.
Is there any specific previous episode fans should rewatch before season 4?
ROILAND: That’s a loaded question.
HARMON: That’s a clever one.
ROILAND: I would definitely say watch all of season 3 before season 4.
Can you reveal some of your rejected ideas?
HARMON: Justin is going to kick me under the desk here, but I’ve been pushing to show at Comic-Con an animatic for an episode that we aborted in the early stages. We could fix it, but fixing it would take as long as doing a new episode.
Can you say what the logline is?
HARMON: It’s as simple as the title but…
ROILAND: If we do show it, we have to build the sturdiest frame around it that this is something we rejected, so if it feels off…
HARMON: But fans would love to watch that. They wouldn’t love it as much as a show from season 4, but second to that… me being a fan of, I don’t know, Breaking Bad, if there was an episode that they killed, I assume it would be pleasing to fans. And I anticipate that when presented in that context fans would say, “I love that, why don’t you make that?” But I would say that if we broadcast it that you would think it sucked.
ROILAND: “Why don’t you animate it!”
HARMON: The cool thing is if it’s available out there, you know people will. It will become like Jodorowsky’s Dune.
ROILAND: We’ll crowdsource it for the fans to fix.
Is there any idea or recurring trope from the show’s past that you’ve sort of banned from revisiting at this point?
ROILAND: We don’t have any rules like that that I can think of. One philosophy we tend to adopt is to keep moving forward with new ideas, new worlds, and not look back as often as other shows might, just in fear of that coming off as disingenuous fan service. But there’s nothing “banned.” Like if we came up with an idea to bring back a character and it was a clever idea, we’d do it. The problem with bringing characters back is you’re putting all your weight on that character coming back and people want to see the same thing they’ve already seen with that character. That’s the closest thing we have to a ban, but I wouldn’t call it a ban.
HARMON: There’s going to be a couple Meeseeks popping up here and there. And like Justin is saying, if I read that as a fan, I’m now going to write in my head something that we can only disappoint on. What if Mr. Meeseeks just came in and said, [breaking into the Meeseeks voice] “Ohhh, did you want some salt?!” And you’re like, “What the f—!? How dare you tease just that?” We’re motivated too much by insecurity here. We’re a bit more Morty.
I’ll treasure that little guest appearance by Mr. Meeseeks in this interview. Any guest star voices you can reveal?
ROILAND: We’ve got Paul Giamatti. That’s a hot scoop. We got Sam Neil. Taika Waititi does a voice. Kathleen Turner.
Is Sam Neil riffing off Event Horizon, Jurassic Park, or neither?
ROILAND: Neither. He’s from the same species as Taika’s character, and we wanted a Kiwi flavor to their species.
Did anything come from that offer to turn over an episode to Kanye?
ROILAND: We’re trying to schedule something. It’s not going to be for this batch coming up. But we love the idea of doing something with him. It’s just a discussion of what exactly that is, and then sitting down and talking with him. He had to reschedule, and then we had to reschedule. We need to sit down and chat about it. But it’s a very sincere and legitimate offer when we threw that out.
Which Rick and Morty reference are you most sick of hearing/reading at this point? And which do you wish had become more of a thing?
ROILAND: The second half of that question is really difficult. But the first half would be the “wubba lubba dub dub” catchphrase. Only because we were making fun of the idea of stupid catchphrases. [At first] it wasn’t at all that and then it was funny because it was a dumb catchphrase, and then we subverted it by making it mean something really depressing. The hardcore fans get the irony behind it. But I think some fans maybe don’t? I hate to sh— on anything because I don’t want to bum anybody out. I don’t want somebody to be like, “I love that!” And then for them to read that Justin hates it. I don’t hate it… You set me up, man!
HARMON: This isn’t really an answer to the question, but it always bums me out when somebody uses a meme of a quote for the show and it’s being used by somebody who isn’t the greatest specimen. I hate it when a line from our show is being used by the meanest person in a conversation online. But it is what it is. It’s a popular show. I don’t think, “Oh God, I’ve done something terrible.” I wish only saints and cool race car drivers liked our show, but then we wouldn’t make any money.
What’s been the most surreal proof of Rick and Morty’s popularity that you’ve stumbled across so far?
ROILAND: For me it’s always Comic-Con and how many people show up for the panel. And I think the whole Szechuan sauce thing. Aside from it being a weird bit of a bummer for everybody, it was also an insane thing we never predicted, that a joke in our show would have caused giant multibillion dollar corporation to bring back a sauce they used to serve in the late ’90s.
HARMON: On a bittersweet note, it was really amazing when Anthony Bourdain tweeted, “Rick and Morty is everything.”
ROILAND: Did he really? I didn’t know that.
HARMON: Yeah. The guy was famous for “Let me take you under this bridge to an amazing crab shack that has the best butter,” that he thought that about our show. It’s sad, that one, that he’s no longer with us. But that was a huge thing for me.