One on One with Rick and Morty’s Justin Roiland
It’s safe to say Justin Roiland’s shows are unlike anything else you’ve ever seen before.
Whether he’s telling the story of a Bill Cosby superfan building a cloning machine to create a army of superpowered Cosbys or the continuing adventures of a drunk, dangerous scientist and his dimwitted grandson who travel around the galaxy committing intergalactic crimes, Roiland has a way of bending genres and continually subverting expectations.
His new Adult Swim show, Rick and Morty, was co-created with Community showrunner and Roiland’s good friend Dan Harmon, who he met at Channel 101, Harmon’s experimental monthly short film festival. Roiland recently talked to us about the evolution of Rick and Morty, the cease and desist letter he got from Bill Cosby and the almond-eyed gray aliens that may be secretly living among us.
How did you get started in television?
My foot in the door was my friend Jamie Daily, who has since gone on to become a doctor. She was a producer. She had kind of worked her way up into the TV game as a producer on this reality show called Ultimate Revenge. I had become friends with her because we were both mutual fans of Mr. Show. And I remember she had a Mr. Show Emmy consideration VHS tape, and I bought it off of her, off of eBay maybe, I can’t remember exactly, but we had become friends through me buying this tape from her.
And over the years she worked her way up into a producer position on this hidden camera prank show. And I had come and visited and hung out with her a few times and I was planning to come hang out again and she said, “Look, I’m working this weekend, but we need a PA. If you come down I can get you a day of work as a production assistant on this show.”
And I leaped at the opportunity. I was like, “Absolutely, I’ll do it, I’ll lick people’s shoes, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
I’m from Central California, a place called Manteca. So I got in my car that evening and drove the five and a half hour drive, stayed in a hotel and – actually no, I stayed at her boyfriend’s house at the time. And then went to work and busted my ass and then I parlayed that into a full-time PA position on that show. It was hosted by Ryan Seacrest before he was famous, before he really got big. And then that was my foot in the door.
Every job I worked I would make more connections and I worked really hard. I took it very seriously. I was young. I was 22. And you know, to me it was like a career, it was like, “This is where I want to be. I want to be involved in TV.” I knew that. Over the course of two years, I managed to work my way up to segment producing, as I hopped from show to show to show and met all these great people.
But it was all reality TV-based stuff. And then it was sort of like I was doing that during the day full-time – some jobs were way more time consuming than others – then I was moonlighting, like writing and animating and creating my own stuff with my buddies Sevan [Najarian] and Abed [Gheith] in my apartment on the weekends at night. And in-between jobs we would just make stuff. And that became more and more. That sort of started to eat away and actually earn me money and eventually shifted over to become my full-time job, which was pretty incredible.
How did you become involved with Channel 101?
We discovered it in the end of 2003. I found out about it because a couple of guys that we had went to college, or junior college, with, Justin Spurlock and John Soares, they did this thing called Sockbaby with Doug TenNapel, who created Earthworm Jim, or designed it and co-created it, and really super talented artist. They created this thing called Sockbaby, which was this really awesome action-fighting thing.
But it took place in this really weird world where there were sock characters and puppets and just weird stuff, and it was so incredible. My friend Ben Page showed it to me. It was on Channel101.com, and I must have watched it 30 times, I was just so captivated by it. It blew me away, this thing, this Sockbaby thing.
And that led me to start exploring the website and reading about what it was and how it worked. By the time the next screening took place we had submitted – me and Sevan and Abed – had made this thing called Friends and Lovers, that we submitted. Because before Channel 101 we were making stuff, but we had no one to show it to. It was just us making stuff and then we’d show our friends and family who would kind of be like, “Oh, that’s cool.” And then we discovered Channel 101 and it totally ignited a fire in us.
It gave us an audience, it gave us a purpose to make stuff, there was a community there of like-minded people, and it kind of really was sort of akin to going to college. I mean, I consider my time at Channel 101 very similar to how a lot of people reflect on their college years. The growth and learning and discovering and all that stuff was basically what I was doing at Channel 101.
At Channel 101, you created a show called House of Cosbys that garnered a lot of attention online. How did that show come about and what was it like to see it take off like it did?
That was crazy. I think we were about to start doing the second episode of a show called It’s Twissleton for Channel 101, and the audience did not vote it back, but I really loved that show. I had a second episode written, and we started animating, started working on our recording voices and stuff.
While we were working, it would be me drawing everything and then my buddy Sevan would be sitting at another computer helping scan shit in and getting stuff prepped in Photoshop to animate and in After Effects. And then my buddy Abed would be sitting on a couch just driving us crazy while we’re trying to work. Or we’d be goofing off or whatever. And I remember we were working on It’s Twissleton 2 and Abed and I, for whatever reason, I don’t know what triggered it, but we started doing the shittiest Bill Cosby impersonations to each other and talking to each other as Cosbys. Then that seeded the idea.
The original concept was going to be like a Brady Bunch type thing with just a bunch of Cosbys that lived in a house. Then as I kept thinking about it, I came up with the idea of a guy who just loved Cosby so much that he devoted his life to building this cloning machine. Then it kind of became like shades of Multiplicity meets The Smurfs meets the original concept, which was all these bizarro Cosbys living together and bumping into each other. And then the twist was the superhero twist at the end.
The thing that’s crazy about that is I wrote that script in, not kidding, probably I feel like it was five to 10 minutes. I just banged that thing out, it was so clear in my head and so simple, that first episode. It’s really interesting whenever something just comes to you that cleanly and simply. It’s kind of a magical thing. I feel like I might have had that happen one other time, but I can’t recall specifically when. I just remember it was so clear to me. I was like, “I know exactly what this is, I know exactly how to tell the story.” And it was really built on a foundation of me and my buddy Abed just riffing and doing these voices and just laughing our asses off and my buddy Sevan getting pissed, like, “Shut the fuck up!”
It was weird we just had our own little animation studio you know? It was kind of a three man show, sort of. You know me and Sevan doing the actual hard work, which required hours and hours of drawing on my part and then hours and hours of him key framing shit in After Effects. And then my buddy Abed just being the catalyst, you know sitting in the room being sort of this dipshit. He’s still the same guy. He’s great. He’s the inspiration for the Abed character on Community too, which is a little side note. But he’s just a goofball, he’s a weirdo and he’s just filled with insanity. And him and I just riffing, doing that Cosby thing was just too fun and funny to ignore.
I knew there was something special somewhere to it. And then to see it blow up was really humbling because I remember when we were making it, I had this gut feeling. I was like, “I think this is really good.” I couldn’t tell though, because we were so close and inside of it, but I was like, “I think this is really, really good.” I was really excited about it. Then when it screened, to see the audience, they freaked out after the opening credits. It was just bizarre. And then to see it blow up online, it was really, really cool and just surreal. Again, I was sort of disassociated from it in a weird way. It was just weird, but it was defiantly really cool.
It’s believed that the reason you stopped making House of Cosbys was because you got a cease and desist letter from Bill Cosby’s lawyers. Is that true?
Yeah, there was a perfect storm of things that happened. Episode four, I got really sick with bronchitis, or it might have been strep throat. It was one of those two and it just slowed everything down. That’s why episode four is kind of this weird bottle episode where they’re watching interdimensional TV.
Ultimately, it took just as much time. We could have just done the episode that I had planned to do, but I didn’t know that. I thought we’d save ourselves all this work if we did this bottle episode.
But, what happened was his lawyer sent us a cease and desist after episode four. And on top of that, a really close friend of mine died in a car crash, which was fucking traumatizing. Probably one of the most traumatizing things I’ve experience in my adult life.
And then on top of that, I was just so burned out from doing it. You know we were animating all this stuff. It was me, my buddy Sevan, I got my friend Myke Chilian on board to help with character design, and my buddy Steven Chunn was doing background at this point. But I was still doing so much, I mean it was just like, it was so much work. We were fucking burnt out because we were working constantly to make sure we had these things done in time for the screenings.
We were doing one every month, and with such a small team in my apartment. So it was all those things combined, that I was like, “All right, I’m just going to fucking let this cease and desist letter be the reason why we stop making it.” In reality, I think if some of those things had not have happened, I would have been like, “Fuck you, I’m going to keep making this because it’s amazing.” What is he going to do, sue me for nothing? I didn’t have anything to sue for. It would have just been like, “Okay take me to court and talk about the publicity, like fucking bring it on.” But I was just so fucking broken down and at that point in time I was like, “I can stop making this and still be a hero to everybody at Channel 101 because I didn’t bail out on it, I was shut down by Bill Cosby.” And that was ultimately what happened.
I was going to make this last episode that was going to be this really cool kind of mock documentary about getting the letter, this whole thing. And I had scripted it all up and we were ready to start shooting and then my friend got into this car crash, and that was it. I was just like fuck it. I handed it over to my buddy Chester Tam, and Chris Romano and Eric Falconer. And then they made that fifth episode, which is hard to find, but it’s online. It’s just really filthy and vulgar. It’s like the unofficial fifth episode of House of Cosbys, which is just them saying fuck you to this lawyer. And it was really great to see that. I basically just said, “Can you guys just making this please?” I literally got in my car and just drove out of L.A. I was just so distraught. And then it took me a while to kind of get over that shit. But that’s kind of what happened.
Then those shorts, or House of Cosbys itself, is sort of the catalyst for everything that I’m doing now. I mean that got me signed to UTA, which opened all kinds of doors for me to be able to pitch shows and just get my career shifted over into being a creative and making things, as opposed to working as a producer.
Through Channel 101, you also met and became friends with Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon.
Yeah. Channel 101 in its early days was very small. It was a very small community. There was an online forum component to the website, which I don’t think exists any more. So in between screenings, that’s where everybody hung out online and that was a very thriving community and the analysts were very active on it. And you would go on there after the screening to see what people had to say about your episode and people who knew about the website from all over the world would go on there to compliment or to critique or whatever.
You know, the way Channel 101 was designed was to sort of reward talent and then punish people who either were still learning how to be better, or growing, or just who simply were bad. And it was an interesting thing because I think the first thing we made – I think Dan hated it. He was not a fan because it really didn’t tell a story. It kind of was just a very weird, more arty thing, or art piece whatever.
And then he watched me grow as a writer and sort of became a fan of the stuff I was doing. And because it was such a small community, there was a lot of hanging out and complimenting each other and ultimately cross collaboration. I think the first thing Dan and I collaborated on was I guess Space Investigations, but I feel like we were making stuff before that, but I can’t remember.
But anyways, it was like all of us were hanging out. Dan, he lived in a small apartment over on Commonwealth in Los Feliz, and I lived in studio city, and we’d hang out at his place, he’d hang out at my place. And [Rob] Schrab, we’d hang out at Schrab’s. And all we did in our free time was make stuff. That’s all we ever did. That and occasionally I’d veg out on video games and TV, but for the most part we were just making stuff constantly.
And Dan and I were developing shows and pitching shows as far back as, my god, I think we pitched our first show that we developed together to Fox in late 2005. It was a sci-fi show. There’s stuff that we do with Rick and Morty that we literally created in that very first pitch that we went and pitched to Fox that they didn’t pick up. They didn’t even buy it. They didn’t even buy the pitch. They were like, “Pass.” But yeah, Dan and I had been friends for a really long time. I want to say by midway through 2004 me, Dan, Rob, all those guys, everybody who was sort of at Channel 101, we were all pretty comfortable with each other at that point.
We had first discovered it around October of 2003 or maybe it might have been January of 2004, I can’t remember exactly, but I remember Dan being very intimidating at first. Everyone feels like Dan hates them when they first meet Dan Harmon. I don’t know if it’s still that way now, but I remember that being a common theme, like people who would join the community. Very early on, we were one of the first people involved in Channel 101, and then as more talent came and rose up the ranks and joined us, I remember it being a common thing. People asking, “I think Dan hates me, I’m pretty sure Dan doesn’t like me.”
And I was like, “No, I thought the same thing. You’re projecting, he’s just intimidating.” He’s so smart and such a genius everyone thought he hated them, and he didn’t. I remember thinking that too at the very beginning. I was like, “Fuck, I think he hates me.” It’s funny now because we’ve been friends for 10 years and I told him that years ago and he thought it was hilarious. He was like, “No, I’ve never hated you.”
Harmon is a big believer in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, which he adapted into his own story circle. How much did his theories on storytelling influence you while you were developing your voice at Channel 101?
What’s interesting is there is a point in time in which I really consciously began to pay attention to his story circle, his story model and structure, and all that stuff. In the beginning, the stuff I was making, I wasn’t as conscious of it. I was subconsciously, for sure, it was sinking in just by virtue of going to the screenings and watching what was working. And also by virtue of at that point being a little bit more mature and having a subconscious idea of a story needs a beginning, middle and end. It has to feel like a complete tale is being told.
I think when I did House of Cosbys, I remember that being the thing that Dan – I remember him approaching me after the screening – I didn’t realize it, but I had subconsciously used the story circle exactly as it was intended to be used. He pointed out to me how perfect House of Cosbys was and how perfectly it fit into his story circle. And I didn’t do that consciously. When I wrote that, again, it just came out of me really quickly. I mean I wrote that script in again, five to 10 minutes. It was a happy accident that it was so tight and worked on so many levels. And I think proof is in the fact that episode two, three – you know those felt, at least on their own, they felt less like a complete circle of a story. They were more serialized. House of Cosbys became a more serialized narrative as opposed to a really tight episodic in addition to being a serialized thing. And that was just proof that I wasn’t conscious of the story circle. I didn’t grasp it consciously. It was in my brain knocking around.
It wasn’t until much later that I started to actually study and read all the articles Dan had written and work with him. I think I really learned it when we were doing Space Investigations because the way that we did that show was we would not talk about anything. We would not come up with ideas. We would just clear our brains until the day we were going to shoot. And then we would get together the day we were going to shoot and the first order of business was, “All right, let’s come up with what the story’s going to be.” And we would use his story circle to come up with a story and then we would shoot it all that night, often times being up until four in the morning just to wrap principle photography. And then Dan would go off and edit it.
The first one, he just went off and edited it. Then the first time I saw it, at the panel meeting, I was fucking blown away how good it was. I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this stupid thing turned out so good. “ That’s really when it started to sink in. I started to apply it to my own work and started to realize the potential for it and how to put it to work for me and how to tell stories.
Almost any really satisfying story followed it to some degree or another. Whether it’s an emotional component following that, or a more literal component of the story. He’s still way more tapped into that shit than I am. I never read any Joseph Campbell stuff. I never really studied any of that shit. So I understand it, but he’s still super honed in on it, even to this day, more than I am. But yeah, I think working with him is where I learned it. It definitely sunk in.
Where did the original idea for Rick and Morty come from?
The original thing was a short I did for Channel 101 where I was just blowing off steam. Initially the concept was, “I’m going to make something and try to get another cease and desist letter,” just to see if I could. I had come off a really shitty job that was kind of creatively suffocating and I just wanted to make something that was fucked up. So I made that original short and throughout the process of making it, I really fell in love with my horrible version of the two characters, the voice acting of it.
I really grew to appreciate these horrible versions of Doc and Marty that I was doing. I continued to make stuff with those two characters. I made a Gatorade commercial. I made this really long video that was for Rob Schrab. He was finishing up the Scud comic books and I made a video that was explaining how Scud worked and I used those two characters to host it. I did another how Channel 101 worked thing with them.
Over the years everyone really loved those guys and Dan really liked them and there was a certain raw weird energy behind the two characters. And then I kept trying to figure out ways to incorporate those characters into franchises that I was selling or pitching. My first Fox show had both voices in the show; very different, you know, it was a dad and triplets. And then my second Fox show it was a grandpa and a grandson and it was those two voices. Different character designs, completely different concept for a show.
But Dan just called me one day and he said, “Hey, Adult Swim wants to develop an animated show with me, do you have any ideas?”
And I just said, “Well, what about those two characters, or those two voices more specifically?”
And he was immediately into it. He was like, “Yeah absolutely, that’s fucking perfect.”
Then it was just a slow – you know just clear your mind and let’s sort of take the path of least resistance and come up with something that we can package these two characters in. Or just build a frame around these two characters that eases people into the show a little bit better. You know, makes it a little bit more mainstream. Because by themselves, they’re kind of crazy, you know, it’s insane. This kid and this fucking lunatic guy, originally they were just buddies, kind of like how Doc Brown is buddies with Marty McFly.
You kind of wonder “what the fuck?” How is nobody saying anything about this friendship? How did this friendship start? Why is it acceptable? There’s really a lot of questions marks there that they kind of strategically glossed over for the sake of making that movie, in regards to that relationship. And I wanted to capitalize on that weirdness.
But what we realized is that shit, if we make them related and we put a family around them, we kind of make it what people are used to seeing in regards to the home base is very typical animated comedy fair. All these shows are built around families, Fox built the whole animation night around family animated comedy. So it just made sense to start from that point. But then lulling people into this false sense of security by, “Oh yeah, this is familiar, there’s a mom, there’s a dad, there’s a fucking grandpa and a sister and a brother, I can watch this.” And then just pulling the rug out from under them and going nope, that’s not what this show is. This is fucking Doctor Who or Farscape or whatever the fuck. This is a crazy insane sci-fi, like hard sci-fi show.
That all strangely just happened. It wasn’t too forced. It was just a natural progression of development and inching towards where we finally ended up with what this show became. And I’m always realizing that no matter what we did, Dan essentially was like, “Let’s build a frame around what you do, the craziness, and let’s make it palatable and acceptable.” And that’s what he does so well, he’s a fucking genius.
I mean, at one point he was developing a show with Andy Dick that just would have been fucking amazing and it was exactly the same concept. You just kind of build a frame around the insanity of Andy Dick and let Andy Dick do what he does. Let him be crazy, let him go nuts, but just build this frame around it for the audience that makes it all completely okay and functional in a very weird way. And ultimately, the family component of the show is an incredibly strong component. It’s very fertile soil for stories. It’s ultimately opened things up.