When Daniel Stessen was a kid, he was plagued by night terrors, haunted by his own mind every time he dared to close his eyes. “It got to the point,” Stessen told Inverse, “where I actually woke up in my next door neighbor’s parents’ bedroom screaming ‘They’re coming! They’re coming!’”
Close work with a child psychiatrist helped him figure out what he was actually dreaming about, and eventually led to a decent night’s sleep. But the experience stuck with him, and became the core inspiration for his new show on Adult Swim, Dream Corp, LLC.
The series, which premieres on Sunday night, is a hybrid in several ways: In addition to featuring a mix of live action and impressive rotoscope animation, Stessen’s show both spoofs the figure of the obsessive visionary scientist and embraces the spirit and ideas of some of today’s foremost thinkers. It’s a workplace comedy that takes place in the office of the very unlicensed Dr. Roberts (Jon Gries).
The technology Roberts is developing is on the cutting edge, though his ragtag crew — including a saucy talking robot voiced by Executive Producer Stephen Merchant — and fourth-hand VA hospital-reject medical equipment make for a mostly janky operation. Even with his cast-off equipment, Roberts is able to physically enter his patients’ minds so that he can deduce the root cause of their traumas.
Whether Roberts is a genius, a crazy person, or both is unclear. Gries, who starred in the TV series The Bridge and played Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite, gives him a Jekyll and Hyde-type personality, and becomes more mad as he pushes further into his patient’s subconscious. “If someone goes skydiving for the first time they’re like, ‘Holy shit!’ but Roberts has gone skydiving so many times that he’s not as concerned with all of the kinks that are popping up because of the technology,” Gries said.
Stessen and Gries spoke with Inverse about all of the scientific influences that help make Dream Corp, LLC a surprisingly … heady show.
So was it one single dream you were having over and over?
Stessen: Yeah, I was afraid to go to sleep for fear of this one dream. The show was inspired by that, in combination with all these people like Ray Kurzweil who are exploring singularity and all these living cyborgs, like Steve Man and Neil Harbisson. These guys are actually modifying their bodies to push their science forward more. I became really obsessed with the idea of living forever basically.
John, were there doctors or scientists, or mad scientists that you thought about while you were crafting this character?
Gries: Well, you know I remember once I saw a doctor a long time ago, and I think it was my grandmother who said, “Just remember, there are the doctors that graduate at the top of their class and there’s the ones that graduate at the bottom of their class, and they’re still doctors.” I think that applies to so many areas. Whether it’s their actual function and practicality, or their ethics.
I do think that Dr. Roberts would have been considered brilliant, I just don’t think that he would have been considered socially functional. I think that’s part of the problem is that he just has no bedside manner.
Daniel, you mentioned the singularity. You imagine that this machine will help create it or it will function on it? How does that tie in together with that?
Stessen: I view Dr. Roberts as one of the forefathers of the singularity. If you Google Neil Harbisson, he’s this amazing color-blind scientist guy who’s legitimately transplanted this thing in his head that when he points it to color, it gives off a certain sound, a tone. Every color has a note. He can look at something and hear red.
There’s this other guy, Steve Mann, been recording everything he’s seen for the last 30 years. It started off on a helmet with a camera on top, and now it’s like in his eye. He basically is Google Glass. There are people who are altering their bodies to push their science forward, and I just view Roberts as the same way. It’s not about him. It’s about the science.
In the first episode, Dr. Roberts helps a man with erectile dysfunction. In his dream, Uncle Joey from Full House shows up, and is quite rude, especially for Uncle Joey. What’s the scientific explanation for that?
Stessen: There’s pop culture involved because there’s always a dream where you’re like, “Oh my god, I was at a house party and Justin Timberlake was there, I don’t know why.” It’s almost like that was more of a day residue type of thing, where people from pop culture will kind of slide their way into their dream. It’s just a media frenzy. With Uncle Joey, he’s a childhood dream, and it made sense to me to go from that and having something from Nick’s childhood pop up and then have sex with his girlfriend in front of him. The childhood hero is even taking over Nick’s dreams. That’s how low his self-confidence is.
Gries: I did my research and did a lot of reading of Carl Jung, his book Man and his Symbols. I referenced that pretty often. That’s really where the character Joey (Stephanie Allynne) comes in. She can kind of tell us what’s happening through the symbols present. In the second episode, it’s snowing, and if you look up, snow is concealing something. Joey the intern kind of suggests to Roberts maybe we should look a little deeper because she doesn’t think the smoking issue that the patient is there for.
So, does it work?
Stessen*: It really works. Moving forward, that’s the charming part about him and team is that moving forward you can see that it does help people. They are there to help. Roberts is just kind of addicted to going into the dreams and pushing the technology, but he’s still a therapist and they do resolve all of the episodes, for the most part, there’s some resolutions. Normal therapy can take months or even years to overcome an addiction or a problem, and here one visit. Dream Corp pitches that you can just in one visit solve the issue that you’re having in your waking life.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.