Even if you’ve never seen an episode of animated TV hit Rick and Morty, you’ve most likely heard the effects of its pop culture permeation in enthusiastically yelled phrases like “Pickle Rick!”, “Wubba lubba dub-dub!”, or burps increasingly interrupting speech (yes, you, Pewdiepie). Having just arrived at the conclusion of its third season, the show’s masterful merger of pop culture and existential philosophy has garnered the attention of audiences, artists and enterprises alike – even John Mayer has paid tribute to the show in sneaker form. However, the Adult Swim cartoon recently hit a new height of influence in swaying burger empire McDonald’s to revive an almost-20-year-old dipping sauce that was once long-forgotten – that is, until it appeared in an episode of Rick and Morty.
Co-created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, Rick and Morty is filled to the brim with pop culture references, both praising and parodying them, from body horror classics by David Cronenberg to present-day shoot-em-ups like John Wick (Vice has conveniently curated all of season three’s in an episode-by-episode list here). However, whereas much of the series’ expanding web of tropes nod to TV, film and scientific and philosophical theory, the surprise season three premiere, released on April Fool’s Day 2017, made notable mention of a McNuggets dipping sauce created by McDonald’s to promote the 1998 Disney film, Mulan.
The sauce, a confused attempt at creating an ‘Oriental’ signature by combining the sweetness of Japanese teriyaki sauce with the spice of Szechuan chilli peppers, is probably best regarded as both a culinary and cultural misstep, likely filed away in Ronald McDonald’s cabinet of prosaic promotional recipes. However, with titular character Rick Sanchez revealing his obsessive mission to find the lost sauce, after revisiting his memories of 1998 through an alien method of memory extraction, the show’s viewers and creators flocked to social media to plead with McDonald’s to bring the elusive Szechuan sauce back to life. And boy, did they deliver.
Please God, I don’t ask for much, please let us gain enough cultural influence to force McDonald’s into bringing back that fucking sauce.
— Rick (((and Morty))) (@RickandMorty) April 2, 2017
After a single two-decades-old packet of the sauce, found by its owner in an old car, reached almost USD 15,000 on eBay, McDonald’s clearly had a goldmine on its hands. Coinciding with the season three premiere of Rick and Morty, the golden-arched enterprise sent specially packaged bottles (filled with clever show references) to the show’s creators, with Roiland reportedly being the first recipient, as well as awarding bottles to a select few fans via giveaway. With Deadmau5 purportedly interrupting his own wedding to purchase a bottle of the sauce from winner Robert Workman for an undisclosed amount, the rest of Rick and Morty‘s fans were left with their taste buds Szechuan sauceless.
However, all is not lost. Diehard Rick and Morty fans who want a taste of the fabled condiment will have their chance on October 7, 2017, with the sauce’s return to select McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. for one day only. Released to coincide with a lineup of sauces created for the Buttermilk Crispy Tenders (though no one is stopping you from pairing that Szechuan-teriyaki satisfaction with good old-fashioned McNuggets), Ronald McDonald and co. are surely revelling in the free marketing and anticipated sauce-thirsty fans hitting their locations this weekend, courtesy of Rick and Morty.
Rick Sanchez would have us believe that the Szechuan sauce is worth traversing multiple universes for – but is it actually any good? For those who were too young to try it in 1998, Harmon describes the disappointing truth to Entertainment Weekly, saying, “I personally thought it was a sauce that was trying too hard in a world where with McNuggets sauce you just want something to taste like honey or like a BBQ sauce. It was a sauce that was trying to prove it was different and in doing so it worked harder than a sauce should; it was working too hard to be a sauce…”
A question worth pondering at this juncture: how did a simple joke in an adult cartoon sway a multi-billion dollar corporation into reviving a sauce very few cared about, or even remembered? Joe Berkowitz of Fast Company notes that, in contrast to films like Back to the Future II (whose characters inspired Roiland’s initial conception of Rick and Morty) that promised unattainable pop culture icons for the future, i.e. hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers, Rick and Morty banks on nostalgia to bring back pop culture icons of the past, i.e. things that have already been made that can be easily enjoyed again.
Further, unlike other TV series’ easter eggs and fan-only references that tend t0 fall within their own parent universes’ umbrellas, the references employed by Harmon and Roiland are seemingly random and limitless – as evidenced by Rick’s obsession with the Szechuan sauce – mirroring the infinite universes explored by the show’s titular characters in which nothing is off-limits or too obscure to form a compelling plot-point in any given episode. Forged from their cocktail of hilariously ad-libbed dialogue and animated madness, Harmon and Roiland wield the unusual power of being able to resurrect facets of pop culture from extinction.
One notable example includes season two’s “Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate” episode in its ham-handed references to ’80s action icon and Airwolf star Jan Michael Vincent, whose career took a turn for the worse as his alcohol addiction intensified, before literally crippling him. In the dates immediately following the air date of the episode, which featured a trailer for the imaginary, over-the-top action film Jan Quadrant Vincent 16, a resurgence of popularity in Google search terms for the actor ensued – or, as Rick and Morty fans would call it, “Jan Quadrant Vincent Fever.” We wouldn’t be surprised to see Vincent enjoy a second wind in Hollywood cinema following such social media virality, if his health permits.
Whether McDonald’s would find the same amount of success in once again peddling the Szechuan sauce with the arrival of the 2019 live-action remake of Mulan, Rick and Morty‘s creators have demonstrated that a simple cartoon has the power to make one of the world’s largest restaurant chains bend to their will – not by envisaging new pop culture elements to imprint onto the world, but by resurrecting old ones. Who knows what Rick and Morty might bring back from the dead next?