Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Inside The Implosion of Justin Roiland’s Rick and Morty Animation Empire

To legions of ‘Rick and Morty’ fans, co-creator Roiland was a quirky genius whose career was suddenly derailed by allegations of domestic violence. But to colleagues, his behavior has been troubling for years.

On Jan. 9, Hulu debuted its animated comedy Koala Man, the latest installment in what was then Justin Roiland’s sprawling empire. An absurdist superhero series that features a voice cast with Hugh Jackman and Succession‘s Sarah Snook, the project seemed to cap off a particularly prolific period for its producer. In a matter of months, Roiland had released a hit video game, put a collection of paintings on exhibit, aired a sixth season of his Adult Swim juggernaut Rick and Morty, and snagged a fifth season for his other Hulu series, Solar Opposites.

Three days later, that image as a high-flying animation maestro came crashing down. On Jan. 12, NBC News revealed that Roiland was facing two felony charges in Orange County stemming from an alleged 2020 domestic violence incident that occurred with a woman he was dating at the time. That August, he was arrested and released on bail. Roiland has pleaded not guilty. The news, which blindsided both his employers and his colleagues, was greeted with an outpouring of other troubling revelations surrounding his online interactions, with multiple women publishing lewd messages they claimed to have received from Roiland. He direct-messaged former Mad magazine editor Allie Goertz, a longtime fan who was prepping a Rick and Morty concept album: “Can you write a song about 9 Dick’s of different sized and ethnic origins hanging above your face, and then in the lyrics describe how they each splatter you with semen.” He allegedly messaged another woman, who posted the exchange using an anonymous Twitter account and claimed to have been underage when they began corresponding, “You should just run away from home and go into sex slavery YOU FUCKING STUPID FAGGOT BITCH (!!!) (Jk).”

Over the next two weeks, insiders say, advertisers panicked, lawyers huddled and, ultimately, one of the biggest names in animation watched as his career imploded. Roiland was stripped of his lucrative overall deal at Disney’s 20th Television Animation, and both Adult Swim (Rick and Morty) and Hulu (Solar OppositesKoala Man) released statements that they had severed ties. Roiland will be replaced as the voices of Rick, Morty and Solar‘s alien scientist Korvo going forward. Even Squanch Games, the video game studio that he co-founded in 2016, announced that he’d resigned as CEO. Roiland, who declined to comment for this story, is due back in court for another pretrial hearing in late April.

To many of Roiland’s colleagues, the criminal charges came as a shock, but they also point to workplace behavior that has made them uncomfortable for years. According to multiple sources, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, Roiland once paraded a high-profile porn star through the Rick and Morty writers room, openly discussed threesomes and was involved in at least one instance of alleged sexual harassment during the show’s third season, notably its first with female writers. In 2020, Cartoon Network, for which Adult Swim is the nighttime arm, conducted a formal investigation that examined Roiland’s inappropriate workplace conduct. It’s uncertain what, if any, actions were taken. Cartoon Network declined to comment.

More recently, multiple sources say that Roiland, other than voice work, has not had any meaningful creative presence on any of the series that bear his name. In fact, many of his former colleagues say they haven’t heard from him in years, and when they have, it’s been unpleasant. They note, too, that he hasn’t been on speaking terms with his Rick and Morty co-creator, Dan Harmon, for multiple seasons, and a substantial number of staffers on that show as well as Solar Opposites and Koala Man have never actually met Roiland, even over Zoom.

Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon (left) with Justin Roiland at a 2018 press event, even as their relationship had deteriorated. TAYLOR HILL/FILMMAGIC

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, Rick and Morty began almost blissfully. Harmon had met Roiland through Channel 101, a monthly short film festival that Harmon had co-founded, and he took a liking to Roiland’s subversive work. “I would make stuff that was kind of intended to just shock people, [leaving audiences] screaming and people covering their eyes, groaning,” Roiland said in 2014. Harmon, who had just been fired from his cult NBC comedy Community over his chaotic leadership style, was approached by Adult Swim — he worried, however, that he wouldn’t be able to “fit in” with the network’s renegade brand on his own.

“I could probably steal their money and write something for them. They may even put it on the air,” Harmon said in a 2014 interview about Rick and Morty‘s origin. But “it’s not gonna make people happy the way it is if Justin Roiland is involved. That’s what’s for sale over there. It’s doing things wrong on purpose. It’s punk rock. And so, I called Justin immediately.”

In short order, the duo sold an idea born from one of Roiland’s zanier shorts, an off-color parody of Back to the Future‘s Marty McFly and Doc Brown, where Doc repeatedly convinces “Mharti” to lick his balls. The men populated their writers room with their Channel 101 pals and got to work. Unlike Community, where horror stories about late nights and brutal working conditions were well reported, Rick and Morty was, as Harmon once described it, “easy and fun.” In those early days, he and Roiland were said to be an ideal match: “While Harmon would be writing really funny jokes, Justin would get up and draw a really funny drawing, and that, combined, is what led to the smart, silly sort of gumbo that turned into Rick and Morty,” recalls a show source.

The series, which centers on a narcissistic, genius alcoholic (Rick) and his bumbling grandson (Morty), premiered in 2013 to glowing reviews from critics, who praised the show’s offbeat, sci-fi comedy. Overnight, “everyone was calling Dan and Justin geniuses,” says a former colleague.

Harmon, who has never been shy about his sky-high standards, was determined to make season two even better. “And when Harmon wants something to be even better, it means later nights, it means being more careful, it means saying yes to fewer silly ideas, and Justin is the king of silly ideas,” says a source. Harmon enlisted a few Community writers who, one insider notes, didn’t treat Roiland with the same kind of reverence that the Channel 101 writers had the previous season. The room became clubbier, and not nearly as much fun — there were now “Dan’s guys,” a more cerebral, structured set, and “Justin’s guys,” a zany collection of artists, “and they just weren’t going to mix,” notes a source. “Dan is all on the page and mathematical about story breaking, and these guys that Justin hired were like, ‘Look, I drew a turd with eyes, let’s do a story about that.’ ” (Harmon didn’t respond to THR‘s requests for comment.)

During season two, Roiland began pulling away, increasingly uninterested in being in a room that had given him great joy only a season earlier. In fact, at one point, he was sitting so far away from the other writers that in order for him to read what was being written on the whiteboard, he had to grab the pair of binoculars that was in the room to scope out wildlife in the mountains overlooking Burbank. “It was like a visual representation of the problem forming,” says a source, who adds: “He also loved VR, and he kept being like, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do this show in VR and never have to be near each other?’ And that was the thing: This is a guy who likes being home with his dogs, not in a room with writers, and he wasn’t afraid to say that.”

By season three, Rick and Morty had hired its first batch of female writers, which didn’t stop Roiland and others from dood­ling penis monsters and other vulgar characters on the office whiteboards. As one show source recalls, Roiland could still be highly engaged and appropriately silly, though too often he was “surly, petulant, uncommunicative and grouchy, like he always wished he was doing something else.” According to another show source, he was easily distracted, too; the writers would regularly walk over to a Toys R Us, where they would buy action figures or Nerf guns, and “then he played with them the rest of the day and we couldn’t get any work done.” Other show sources say he’d derail pitches and interrupt with sophomoric non sequiturs like, “What if his brains were on the outside?” It reached a point where multiple sources say it was easier when Roiland wasn’t in the room.

At some point during the third season of Rick and Morty, multiple sources say Roiland simply stopped showing up — and when he did turn up in the Burbank offices, he’d typically avoid the writers room. In fact, Roiland’s colleagues often knew he was there only because they could hear his dogs. Or they’d hear his remote-control toy car, which had a microphone on top of it, zooming around the office. At least once, Roiland sent it into the writers room, says a source. “You wouldn’t have seen him in weeks, and then you’d see the car come in, which was insane.” (A source close to Roiland points out that many showrunners step away from successful shows once they’ve been established to tackle other projects.) Roiland would make exceptions to bring through famous fans, of which Rick and Morty has legions; at various points, his visitors included Kanye West, the comedians on Impractical Jokers and porn star Riley Reid, who gifted the room a succulent.

By that time, Roiland had a girlfriend, who became a fiancée, and he would talk openly about their penchant for threesomes. “It was something we just ignored because it was disgusting,” says an insider. A source close to Roiland contends that the threesome discussions were in the context of plotline. Multiple sources say it was also during that period that Roiland sent a female employee a “really creepy” text, late at night, requesting that she come to his home (they declined to name the staffer). “She didn’t want to run it up the flagpole,” says one of the sources, “and then it was just this really fucked-up, awkward thing.”

In the meantime, the relationship between Harmon and Roiland had grown so acrimonious that the show brought in a mediator to try to salvage what was once an inspired partnership. (A source close to Roiland contends that the mediator was brought in at Roiland’s behest, though that could not be independently verified.) And though those efforts were unsuccessful, the pair was able to put aside their differences enough to secure a massive, 70-episode renewal from Adult Swim in May 2018. The pact, which ensured that the show would run for several more seasons, appeared to reward Rick and Morty for its precedent-smashing ratings for Adult Swim; by season five, the Emmy-winning series was reportedly generating hundreds of millions in merchandise revenue alone.

In the years since, Roiland’s involvement on Rick and Morty has largely been relegated to voicing characters, for which he’d take no direction and record from his home. In fact, it has been years since anyone can remember him stepping foot in the show’s writers room, even when it’s been virtual. Recently, a similar situation has occurred on both Solar Opposites and Koala Man, according to multiple sources. On the former, which he co-created, he had, until mid-January, voiced one of the show’s leads. “He knew the power of being the voices,” says a source, noting how Roiland had revealed early on that he believed securing key voice roles would safeguard him from being fired one day. On Koala Man, on which he’s simply an executive producer, he was given a character to voice in the show’s third episode but, per two sources, the writers almost blew their deadline waiting for him. The character was killed off at the end of the episode.

Hulu shows Koala Man and Solar Opposites (above) were both part of Roiland’s burgeoning animation empire before the company cut ties with him. COURTESY OF HULU

Still, Roiland would be asked to do the occasional PR hit or fan appearance, since he’d achieved a kind of cult status in certain animation circles. He would routinely do so under the influence of alcohol, which Roiland made no secret of: It’s “a couple shots before, [and then] sip vodka or whatever during,” he said of his strategy during a 2019 podcast. And that’s assuming he actually showed up. Often, insiders say he’d bail at the eleventh hour — either he was sick or his dogs were — or simply not turn up at all. The behavior came to be expected, and though it was infuriating to collaborators, they say it was often excused by executives, chalked up to what one describes as “an eccentricity of a genius weirdo.” At least a half-dozen people shared stories with THR of Roiland not appearing for key meetings, including production sessions and forums with top executives.

Meanwhile, in a move that concerned many in Roiland’s orbit, he began being managed by enigmatic industry rep Sam Lutfi in late 2017. Insiders say Lutfi, best known for his controversial business associations with Courtney Love, Amanda Bynes and Britney Spears, once actively sought to become a producer on Rick and Morty, which the other producers resisted. (Lutfi did not respond to requests for comment.)

Koala Man COURTESY OF HULU

***

The staffs of Roiland’s shows describe feelings of disgust, fury and betrayal as they waited on the fates of their series, which they worried were now tainted, in the days immediately following the Jan. 12 news reports. “We didn’t know if it would all go away,” says a source. Then the situation snowballed, with a raft of Roiland’s deeply troubling online interactions being shared across social media.

“The reason that I posted my DMs was to add to the mountain of evidence and the pattern of behavior,” tattoo artist Veronika Sweeney tells THR of the messages she released in which Roiland asks if she has a boyfriend and suggests they meet at Comic-Con. Former Mad editor Goertz, who posted an exchange in which Roiland requested that she write a song about a crude sexual act, says that she also received pornographic GIFs and propositions from him, telling THR: “I really think that he, in a lot of ways, took advantage of someone who couldn’t have been a bigger fan.”

Old interviews that Roiland had done were suddenly being resurfaced, too. Back in 2011, appearing on a podcast, he joked that he would be attracted to “a fucking 14-year-old that looks like she’s 18 and [has] big titties” and riffed on Dateline NBC‘s “To Catch a Predator” segments. (In the same breath, he added, “I’m not a pedophile though.”) His work, which has long made comedy hay of subjects like incest and sexual deviance, was now being viewed through a different lens.

As the allegations and headlines accumulated, staffers wrestled with their association, desperate to telegraph that Roiland had not been meaningfully involved, save his voice renderings, for years. In fact, they “barely knew” the man that they were now reading about. In the wake of an emotional all-hands production meeting Jan. 17, a number of Rick and Morty staffers, with the blessing of a broad swath of personnel, sent a letter to Adult Swim and new corporate parent, Warner Bros. Discovery, that demanded the company put out a statement and clarify Roiland’s position on the show. Some even considered leaking the letter, says one source, but ultimately decided to give the executives there time to act. “To their credit,” says that source, “they did it,” not only issuing a statement but severing all ties. Disney, for whom Roiland breached a morality clause in his contract, followed suit.

In the nearly four weeks since the charges were reported, Roiland has kept a low profile. “It’s been radio silence,” says a source who has worked on multiple Roiland projects. Though his major business partners have all disassociated from him, Roiland remains represented by UTA, which had his vibrant paintings on display at its Beverly Hills Artist Space as the saga unfolded. (The agency didn’t respond to requests for comment.) As Roiland awaits trial, his former colleagues have soldiered on, making comedy that no longer feels quite as funny as it once did. “It’s heartbreaking,” says a show source. “Now everything is going to have an asterisk on it.”

source