Reassessing Rick and Morty Post-Justin RoilandPhoto courtesy of Getty Images Comedy Features Rick and Morty
Is it possible to look at Rick and Morty the same way following news of the arrest of Justin Roiland, the series co-creator and original voice of its title characters, for domestic violence? Adult Swim has cut ties with Roiland and announced the show will continue without him; he’s also been removed from Hulu’s Solar Opposites and Koala Man and from his videogame company Squanch Games. Even with his removal, however, many have found themselves asking if Rick and Morty is now tainted.
We’ll see eventually what if any difference his absence from these projects makes. In the case of Rick and Morty, however, it will either be a while before we see a completely Roiland-free season creatively, or we’ve sort of already seen three. The crew starts work on episodes years in advance of their airing; Season 8 is already well into production before Season 7 has even premiered, so Season 9 would be the first season made entirely after Roiland’s firing. However, Squanch Games narrative director Alec Robbins has claimed on Twitter that Roiland has had almost zero creative involvement on Rick and Morty beyond voice acting since Season 3. This would seem to be backed up by Roiland’s almost complete absence from Adult Swim’s behind-the-scenes promotional videos in recent years, as well as how the series has cycled through showrunners (Mike McMahan in Season 4, Scott Marder from Season 5 onward) and the general way long-running cartoons tend to go (do you really think Matt Groening has done much of anything on The Simpsons in over three decades?).
One thing that’s absolutely clear to me: anyone who claims they could tell that Roiland was a terrible person just from watching Rick and Morty is wrong. Writing about characters who do bad things and telling jokes that are gross or even offensive isn’t evidence of someone being an abuser. Decent people can make extremely messed up art and abusers can make Toy Story and The Avengers.
Are parts of the show more uncomfortable in retrospect? Absolutely. The show has included many incest and sexual assault-related storylines, a carryover from Roiland’s more explicit “Doc and Mharti” videos for Channel 101. Roiland has spoken about having been a victim of such abuse himself, so this recurring theme seemed like a dark humor coping mechanism. In light of the allegations against Roiland, these jokes seem significantly less defensible.
Even so, how much of these offensive bits can directly be attributed to Roiland is questionable. Arguably the most controversial gags in “Rick and Morty”—the “soul orgy” in Season 4’s “Claw and Hoarder: Special Ricktim’s Morty” and the “giant incest baby” storyline throughout Season 5—both came after Roiland’s involvement in the show allegedly diminished. Again, this demonstrates how hard it is to really credit or blame any one person for the success or failure of a show.
What has Roiland been credited on throughout Rick and Morty? His one directing credit is for the series’ pilot and he has writing credit on six episodes across the first three seasons. On all but one of those episodes (Season 1’s “Rick Potion #9”), he had co-writers helping him; his only Season 3 episode, “Morty’s Mind-Benders,” had six total writers, twice the number credited on any other episode. As such, it’s hard to say what he’s directly responsible, though on the two “Interdimensional Cable” episodes, it’s fair to assume much of Roiland’s credit is due to his extensive improv bits (so yeah, sadly the comedic genius of “Gazorpazorpfield” and “Two Brothers” are all him).
One common read of Rick and Morty has been that Rick is based on Dan Harmon and Morty on Justin Roiland. The Harmon-Rick parallels are obvious to anyone who’s followed Harmon since Community. Harmon notably based Community protagonist Jeff on himself while also realizing he also had a lot in common with Abed, and Rick is basically Jeff’s above-it-all asshole personality mixed with Abed’s neurodivergence and meta-humor. Harmon is a problematic figure, but also one who’s been brutally honest about his failings and his attempts to do better; he might be the only celebrity whose apology for sexual harassment was actually accepted by his victim.
If Rick/Harmon is “mean but smart,” it was easy for people to boil Morty (and their perceptions of Roiland) down to “dumb but nice.” But while that might have been our general first impressions of Morty, it’s also an oversimplification of both the character and any potential connections with his creator. As of Season 6, it’s more than clear that Morty is capable of extreme violence and rage to a degree that can shock even Rick, but Morty’s darker side is demonstrated even in the early seasons—perhaps most dramatically in the Roiland co-written Season 2 episode “Look Who’s Purging Now.”
Let’s focus on Roiland’s one solo writing credit, “Rick Potion #9.” This is one of many episodes built around Morty’s obsession with his classmate Jessica—a character trait that makes perfect sense as a “teen boys are horny” joke but is also now too easy to see as an excuse for Roiland to indulge in his own sexualization of teenage girls. The plot of this episode involves Morty asking Rick to make a love serum to get Jessica to fall in love with him. Because Jessica has the flu, the serum ends up going airborne, making everyone fall in love with Morty. Rick subsequently tries to make antidotes, but these turn everyone into mantises and eventually “Cronenberg” monsters. Rick and Morty ultimately abandon this messed up universe, traveling to another world whose Rick and Morty have died. The episode ends with the main characters burying their dead alternate-universe selves.
So here we have Morty inappropriately acting upon his sexual urges being responsible for the destruction of an entire world. Rick chides his grandson for wanting to essentially “roofie” Jessica. If Morty is in any way supposed to be Roiland, this episode’s a revealing self-portrait. And yet it’s still a good, very funny episode with a conclusion that was the show’s first real brush with continuity and more emotional storytelling.
That’s the difficult thing: while Rick and Morty can definitely succeed without Roiland, we’re still talking about the show whose initial creative spark can’t be completely disentangled from the problems of its creators. Fans have already had to make their peace with Harmon’s various issues. To learn the show’s co-creator is even worse makes deciding one’s own comfort level even more complicated.
I’m reminded in a lot of ways of what happened with Ren and Stimpy. Creator John Kricfalusi, who also voiced the character of Ren, was fired midway through the Nicktoon’s second season for being extremely difficult to work with; decades later, Kricfalusi was accused of grooming and abuse not dissimilar to the allegations against Roiland. While Kricfalusi received the creator credit on Ren and Stimpy, and those first two seasons with his involvement did indeed contain the show’s most memorable episodes, the show was not his alone: it was co-developed by Bob Camp, Jim Smith, and Lynne Naylor, with Camp taking over as showrunner after Kricfalusi’s firing. When Kricfalusi did get the chance to make more episodes with complete creative control in 2003’s Ren and Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon, the results were unwatchable.
In 2020, Comedy Central announced its intent to revive Ren and Stimpy once again. Though Kricfalusi would be completely uninvolved in and make no money from this reboot, several survivors of his abuse and others in the animation industry petitioned against the project, arguing that making it at all would still bolster Kricfalusi’s legacy and indirectly help him continue to prey on young fans. The big difference between this Kricfalusi-free Ren and Stimpy and a Roiland-free Rick and Morty is that Kricfalusi escaped justice due to statutes of limitations, whereas Roiland could very well be watching future seasons behind bars.
Despite these initial protests, the Ren and Stimpy reboot is still in production—and interestingly, Robyn Byrd, one of the survivors of Kricfalusi’s abuse, is now working on it. It goes to show that there’s no single “right” or “wrong” response to the enjoyment of art created in part by horrible people. All Rick and Morty fans must make up their own minds on how to approach the series knowing what we know about Roiland.
Reuben Baron is the author of the webcomic Con Job: Revenge of the SamurAlchemist and a contributor to Looper and Anime News Network, among other websites. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndalusianDoge.