Just talking to Justin Roiland feels like getting lost in an internet K-hole.
Yawning, he tells me he hit a creative stride last night at 10 p.m. and couldn't stop until 4 a.m. This isn't unusual for him. Actually, it's much tamer than other fevered nights losing sleep over whatever he's working on. Like when he coaxed Stanley Parable co-creator William Pugh to stay up until 5 a.m. the week before GDC 2015 to finish the game-jam version of their singular virtual reality experience, Accounting. Or when he stayed up even after Pugh left and, in an edible-fueled frenzy, kept working until he finally rustled awake Alex Hirsh – his friend and esteemed creator of Gravity Falls – to insist he come over to play it at 7 a.m. Roiland's obsessive enthusiasm for the things he makes must be infectious, though, since both friends gave in.
As he recounts these instances of restless passion in his Burbank office, Roiland shares the couch with a life-sized pillow of Mr. Poopy Butthole, one of the most beloved recurring characters on Rick and Morty. Aside from becoming a ratings hit with a cult following, Roiland and co-creator Dan Harmon’s juggernaut sci-fi animated-series-that-shouldn’t also found unprecedented critical success. Harmon, of Community fame and infamy, took Roiland under his wing over a decade ago — managing to simultaneously exacerbate and hone the young creator’s endless capacity to think up the most bizarre, freakish, yet relatable shit to ever grace television.
A balance of nihilistic dread and uninhibited silliness, Roiland’s the kind of creator you can unironically call the voice of our internet generation. In addition to being one of the driving forces behind Rick and Morty – the rare network TV show that's authentically literate when it comes to games and internet culture – his resonance online only grows sharper the more he expands beyond the world of animation. That world which Roiland and Harmon built lends itself seamlessly to translation across an entire spectrum of mediums, with collaborations like Adult Swim Games and Owlchemy Labs’ VR game Virtual Rick-ality, the popular iOS game Pocket Mortys, and even the comic book series written by Zac Gorman. Aside from Accounting, he also recently launched his own VR studio Squanch Games (previously Squanchtendo), now currently in the process of producing its first full-length title. It seems nearly everything Roiland touches, from the Adult Swim series to his new forays into VR, cuts through the noise with an absurdity that holds up the mirror to our current day – certifiably a strange time to be alive, especially on the internet
Roiland’s unique relevancy comes at least partially from the fact that he’s one of us. A self-admitted Reddit addict, he’s been glued to the world weird web ever since the early 90s, years before AOL acquired Global Network Navigator (AKA, GNN, the first commercial website).
"I chose to start making cartoons because I didn't have to leave my house to make a cartoon," Roiland says, voicing the inner monologue of every indoor kid raised on the internet. "Everything could be done in my apartment: I could draw the characters and backgrounds, record dialogue in this little nook, have people come by to record, then they'd leave, and I'd edit. It was amazing. And video games are the same thing. You can kind of toil away in your little cave and make something insane that the world will get to see. But you still get to stay in your bubble ... I'm definitely in that bubble right now."
Roiland also found the first platform for his work online. Sure, no one got or even liked the batshit cartoons and sketches he sent to Channel 101, a monthly short-film festival launched in 2002 that allowed anyone to submit pilots an audience then up or downvoted. Roiland’s shows often got the boot. But festival co-founder Dan Harmon loved them all. And Roiland had already been compulsively writing and shooting sketches before, when his audience was limited to a group of 10 friends living in his hometown of Manteca, California. "I really wouldn't be doing what I'm doing without the internet," he says. "It created a forum for me – motivated me by just getting more eyeballs on the shit I was constantly making anyway."
You get the impression that Roiland today – an achingly earnest dude in jeans and a black t-shirt – isn't so different from the one working in relative obscurity in Manteca. The only difference is, recently, he had the entire internet holding its breath in frantic anticipation. After a grueling two-year delay, the premier of Rick and Morty's third season finally releases at the end of last month. The cord Rick and Morty has struck online stems in no small part from Roiland's both literal and figurative voice. As the actor behind both the show’s unhinged leads, his trademark stutters and burps provide that unique, conversational tone that stands out among its hyper-polished predecessors like The Simpsons, Futurama, or even Adventure Time. But it’s also Roiland’s comic sensibility that, like the internet itself, finds humor in staring into the abyss – and just rolling with it.
"I'm a living meme!" he jokes, putting on a high-pitched voice reminiscent of the show’s iconic Meeseeks and their overinflated sense of purpose. "I dunno – " the chuckle dies from his eyes, suddenly replaced by a look of horror. "Oh god…"
That seamless waver between absurdity, play, and existential terror make up the core of Justin Roiland's creative process. Under Harmon’s tutelage, he learned a lot about the rigors of circular TV storytelling from a literal author of the formula. But maintaining the obscure inanity of Roiland's original vision for Rick and Morty required something unprecedented: letting go of the script, and unleashing Roiland in the voice-over booth to flex his formidable improv muscles. Many of the show's most memorable lines come from Roiland just riffing dialogue with himself as he switches between both characters simultaneously – like the interdimensional cable commercials that are essentially single-take improvs that the team later animates.
"My brain works weird," Roiland tries to explain. "The way things come out of my mouth is weird. There's jokes I'll say that I'd never think to write in a million years, because I'm a little dyslexic. I don't even know where they come from. But that's where the gold is so much of the time. That’s what all of Accounting was."
None of Roiland's collaborators, whether in gaming, VR, or TV, question his unorthodox process. Accounting co-creator and head of indie studio Crows Crows Crows William Pugh went as far as to call Roiland's creative sensibilities "unforgivable." While he himself is known as a game designer with an unconventional bent, even Pugh found Roiland's unorthodox process rubbing off on him. "He taught me where I really need to give less of a fuck," Pugh says. "Working with him is like being nine years old, playing pretend in an abandoned warehouse, then finding a body."
Unsurprisingly, Roiland thrives in the game jam environment. The sleepless four-day sprint to the finish line with Accounting left no room for overthinking or second guessing. The frenzy of his process – using a whiteboard to quickly brainstorm ideas, spitting out a script, recording it, improvising, bringing it back for assets, taking everyone's feedback, then excitedly running back to the booth to re-record, re-edit, etc. – was a perfect fit.
It wasn't at all unlike what he and Harmon used to do back in the Channel 101 days. "He'd come over at 6 p.m. and we'd just say, 'Let's make a show.' So we'd film and wrap by like 7 or 8 in the morning, before Dan would go off and edit." What Roiland loves most about these kinds of creative frameworks is the immediacy of it all – seeing this thing come together in the blink of an eye, despite the mad chaotic dash happening around it.
"The only negative part is that first hour," he grimaces. "That hour of existential terror, dread, your own mortality, pure nightmares." Yet he sees this dimension of the process as essential in a way, too. "I think more people should stop fighting the terror of their own death." He can't really understand the religious, yet envies how they appear to have it all figured out. "Because I can't. I've tried. But I've got no rope to hang onto. I'm just free-falling in the terror." He laughs, but not because it's a joke.
Yet, somewhere in all that free-falling terror, Roiland somehow figured out how to shape his nihilistic absurdity into something that feels universal. "I never wanted any animation I did to be too polished, too perfect," he says. "My big thing is outtakes as 'in-takes.' I love imperfections. I love when a voice actor fucks up and barrels through a scene without breaking character anyway. Those are the takes you want to use because they're the most human and natural and surprising."
Now he faces the challenge of breathing this same kind of life into the often more rigid structure of game design. Games are not known for leaving room for human imperfections. But, so far, porting his collaborative, flexible, iterative, improvisational, and – above all else – fun process into Squanch Games’ studio culture has worked wonders. "I make sure we don't take ourselves too seriously or slip into that trap of rigidness," he says. "And it helps that everyone on the team is so talented. I always look for collaborators who are just better at what they do than I am. It creates this positive feedback loop of excitement. Because you'll see what someone else's doing and just go, "Fuck, now I want to do something like that."
Tanya Watson, a veteran game producer with titles like Gears of War under her belt, co-founded Squanch Games alongside Roiland. Their vision was to originate a genre that's completely missing from both games and VR: character and narrative-driven comedy. Understandably, Watson had to throw out a lot of the old production conventions she learned while working on other games. Because, unlike Roiland's sensibilities, game design is too often conceived of as a constant march toward more and more polished gameplay concepts. "My top priority at Squanch was to build a production pipeline that allowed Justin to just do his thing – do what he does best," she says. As it turns out, translating Roiland's unconventional, TV-oriented approach to VR game design was surprisingly effortless. "In a lot of ways we're, throwing out the old rules of game design because this is a new medium. And it's the time – our opportunity – to write the rulebook for VR."
So while Squanch's experienced team of game designers bring the necessary expertise, the most important qualities Roiland and Watson value is flexibility and a willingness to dive into collaboration and iteration. So whenever Roiland jumps up during a demo to declare he can re-record to make the dialogue funnier, or their lead character animator pitches an idea that's just too perfect to not undergo the added work of rewriting and re-recording to implement it, they can rest sure in the knowledge that Watson's left room for that. In fact, she says she's prepared for the game to be at least 60 percent improvised. She even incorporated that immediate feedback loop of a game jam, so that whenever Roiland re-records or runs with a piece of feedback, they can implement it and make it playable within single day. That means Roiland and the team can actually walk around, interact, and play with the new additions that sprung from their minds just a day ago in full on room-scale VR.
From Watson's perspective, VR only heightens the experience of Roiland's comedic approach. "That absurdity makes you especially uncomfortable when you're actually part of it," she says. "VR contributes to the comedy because, whenever the player feels uncomfortable, that moment of release when they get to laugh just feels so good."
For Roiland, the VR bug really took over him once he first tried room-scale on the Vive. He'd gotten every version of the Oculus DKs early by just "pestering the shit" out of anyone who could give him one. "And I remember being in a Tuscany Villa the first time I put on the DK1 – and just screaming. Literally screaming, 'What the fuck?!' By myself. Screaming."
Since then, he hasn't been able to let go of the idea of bringing his voice to characters that players can actually walk around, sit beside, talk to, and feel present with. They happened to be on break in between season 2 and 3 of Rick and Morty when he got his first early look at the Vive. He filled four entire sketchbooks with ideas. Showing me one said sketchbook, he flips through hundreds of pages overflowing with phallic-looking character drawings and unintelligible design concepts.
"That's what Justin brings to the table," says Watson. "He has all these crazy ideas that no one else in the world is having."
At its core, Roiland's expansion into games and VR come from the same place that got him obsessively making cartoons back in Manteca. "It's the connectivity," he says, when I ask him what exactly about the internet attracts him to the point of addiction. "The idea of being able to communicate with people from all over the world."
What Roiland seems to grasp about this tetherless, virtual abyss we all find ourselves floating in right now is that, at the very least, you can have company. "The addiction is still all about that connectivity. Even when it's just consuming content, it's usually content made by regular folks from every corner of the world."
Critics often thrust the label of genius upon both Roiland and Harmon for their groundbreaking work on Rick and Morty. But as the recent livestream to announce the season 3 premiere date demonstrated, they find that kind of grandiosity a pretty funny. Sitting across from the internet’s most wanted man right now, it's hard to see Roiland as anything but a regular guy who found the internet, embraced its chaos, and hit a nerve no one else dared to.
Back during season 1, Roiland used to compulsively read every 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter thread about the show. But not for the reason you'd think. Whenever he'd see someone bashing Rick and Morty, particularly any complaints about the voice acting, the itch for connection would rise up. "I would not only agree, but just shit talk myself as a totally anonymous user and dig in deeper than anyone else could. Just ranting about how fucking horrible the voice actor doing Rick and Morty was, how horrible these fucking characters were, and what kind of piece of shit creator made this." After the online fervor between season 2 and 3 reached a fever pitch, though, Roiland swore off any Rick and Morty communities on the internet. But he couldn't help but check back in with 4chan one last time. To his surprise, he'd been found out. And now that everyone knew Roiland was behind the shit talking, it became a meme to accuse those criticizing the show of being Justin Roiland himself. He had no intention of becoming a living meme, of course. But there it was.
"I dunno – I just thought it was fucking hilarious to shit on myself."