Rick and Morty-themed pop-up bar Wubba Lubba Dub Pub closed for good on Friday after opening for just one day. Turner Broadcasting slapped bar-creators Drink Company with a cease and desist letter and demanded it destroy all art made for the space or pay a licensing fee of $100,000.
Drink Company president Derek Brown told VICE the legal action was completely unexpected. "It's a six-figure licensing fee. A short-run fan art thing can't spend $100,000," he said. "It might make sense for a t-shirt company or a long-term partner, but it's clear this was designed to shut us down."
Wubba Lubba Dub Pub was one drop in an ocean of fan-generated Rick and Morty tributes, from pins and pipes to fanfiction and art shows, but Adult Swim seems to have drawn the line at this pop-up. "We couldn’t be sure that the experience was going to be up to our standards for… fans, whom we never want to disappoint," the company wrote in a statement on Saturday. It's a shame, because I visited it on Thursday, which turned out to be the only night it was open to the public, and nobody I spoke to was disappointed. In fact, spaces like it are exactly what Rick and Morty fans need.
The bar was packed with both superfans covered in body paint and people who have never watched Rick and Morty. The pictures don’t do justice to the overwhelming feeling of being completely submerged in Easter eggs plastering the bar from top to bottom. There were big ones, like the animatronic Cromulan head from “Get Schwifty” shouting, “Show me what you got!” There were subtle ones, like the picture of a helmet that looks just like the one from “Morty’s Mindblowers” when you put a cocktail on it. And then there were truly inescapable ones, like the ceiling-mounted 25-foot model of Ruben, the homeless Santa whose nude body overshadowed the United States in “Anatomy Park.” Even the music featured tracks used in the show and remixes that complemented its sci-fi atmosphere.
Much of the team that built the bar were there, chatting with fans and relishing the fruits of their labor. Adriana Salame-Aspiazu lived with the nine-foot-tall Meeseeks, hand-stitched by her seamstress mom (who doesn’t watch the show), crammed into her apartment for weeks. Every time she talked about them, she adopted their tireless phrase, “Can do!” Andrew Funk, the graffiti artist who drew the multitude of characters from Morty to Pencilvester, told me about spending days recreating Rick’s portal by gluing disco tiles to the walls.
All the fans I spoke to had met at least one new person, and were electrified by the level of detail poured into the space. "I didn't know what to expect, but whatever I had in my mind, this bar exceeded my expectations," said 31-year-old Jimmy, who came dressed as Evil Morty. "I was shocked that everything was made by hand."
The vibe was busy, but relaxed. There were smart conversations and dumb ones. No one climbed onto the bar and shouted about Szechuan Sauce.
My colleagues have written about their own negative interactions with Rick and Morty fans, from bad dates to bullies at merchandising events. They've connected these interactions to the type of self-aggrandizing viewer who co-creator Dan Harmon condemned after a group anonymously harassed female Rick and Morty writers during season three. Wubba Lubba Dub Pub was the polar opposite of the faceless online forums where mostly anonymous fans coordinated that attack. "Whenever it's real and in the flesh, it's hard to have that kind of toxicity you find online sometimes," said Brown. "Creating safe places where fans can meet up and geek out about the show, that's what it's all about."
Whether or not it's a net positive for the fans isn't the main issue for Adult Swim. Their statement says they weren’t contacted about the bar in advance, which "wasn't polite" and, is also illegal.
But that's not the case, according to Brown, who says he did inform the network about the bar, and was met with silence until receiving the cease-and-desist less than a week before the original August 9 opening. They delayed the opening for a week, offering to post disclaimers, donate all profits to charity, and pay a manageable licensing fee that would allow them to compensate staff. An agreement seemed possible right up until the bar was shut down on Friday. "We didn't do anything wrong," Brown said. He and his lawyer, John Mason, believe the bar is protected by fair use laws, but they’ve been forced to shutter because Turner can outspend them in court. Drink Company had to let their bartenders go and eat the cost of setting the space up over the last eight weeks.
Squashing fan pop-up bars is a fairly new activity for entertainment companies trying to protect their intellectual property. Netflix swatted a Stranger Things pop-up last year, and LEGO forced a brick-themed watering hole to change its name. However, the law around these limited-run, ambiguously-branded events is still murky. Sometimes networks let them be.
Drink Company has had cordial relations with the copyright holders of its previous bars. HBO allowed their popular Game of Thrones pop-up bar to finish its short run in 2017, and even teamed up with them for charity donations. Brown said a representative from Nintendo stopped by their Mario-themed bar and simply said “Good work.” Brown pointed out the irony that the show that finally sent them a cease-and-desist letter was originally a Back to the Future spoof co-creator Justin Roiland made “to poke fun at the idea of getting cease and desist letters.”
It's clear the cease-and-desist issued by Winterfeldt IP Group is no joke for Adult Swim, but it adopts an eerily cutesy tone. Brian J. Winterfeldt's letter mentions Lawyer Morty’s pog collection, inter-dimensional cable, and the Council of Ricks, before stating that the bar violates copyright infringement, trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair competition laws. Winterfeldt threatens to get the violators "hauled in front of Judge Morty Durham, Jr.,"—the character from Roiland's reading of the "Judge Fuckman" court transcript that went viral in 2016. The intended comedy masks the seriousness of Adult Swim intentions to call an emergency hearing in U.S. district court.
On the decision to let the bar go, Brown said, "We were sad. This was a work of love. It’s something really special. The items are handcrafted, creative endeavors. They’re not just a facsimile of what Rick and Morty did, it’s fanart. To tell the fans that made this they have to destroy their own art is sad."
Despite the setback, Brown is still excited for Rick and Morty season four. “Of course I am," he said. "This show is amazing.”
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