Rick and Morty has a setup that’s an obvious play of the one in Back to the Future, with an elderly genius inventor supported by his teenage assistant. The style of humour is probably best explained by comparing it to Monty Python – mixing smart and dumb humour, the profound and the silly – with an added streak of nihilism.
Rick Sanchez is referred to several times as the smartest man in the universe, and he’s not shy about his brilliance. There’s a long-running pop culture association between intelligence and arrogance. Tony Stark, Gregory House, Gaius Baltar, Sherlock‘s Sherlock, Sheldon Cooper. There are public figures who play up to this idea by acting dismissively to ideas that clash with their own – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, almost any of the main hosts on Fox News. I think it’s only in recent decades that this idea of arrogance and intelligence being intertwined has become so dominant, but celebrations of this personality type goes back as far as Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde, possibly further. It’s been argued that the fact people associate arrogance and intelligence could be one of the reasons behind Donald Trump’s presidential victory, which makes sense. How else can you explain a candidate saying “I have the best words“, “my primary consultant is myself“, “I’m much more humble than you would understand” and still be taken seriously?
But Rick Sanchez is more of a deconstruction of this trope than a celebration of it. Yes, like Tony Stark and Greg House he’s a rule-breaker and innovator. But it’s not in pursuit of any consistent or meaningful goal. In his many encounters with parallel universe versions of himself, Rick is “often literally at war with himself, because no version of Rick knows what he wants or how to get it.”
Among the destruction he causes, Rick
- creates a car security system with such a clumsy sense of morality that it disables, dices, and emotionally traumatises passers-by
- abandons his daughter for most of her life
- invents a device which causes children at a party to tear the head off a performer in an animal costume
- admits, when he has what he considers his ‘toxins’ removed that he sees his affection towards family members as “irrational attachments“
- causes a fast-spreading disease which turns nearly every Human into grotesque monsters (or ‘Cronenbergs’) before abandoning that world for a parallel universe
- attempts suicide, which only fails because a bulb on his laser burns out prematurely.
I enjoy the show and Rick’s character, partially because the line Rick walks between badass antihero and megalomaniac supervillain is really interesting. But Rick is clearly not intended as a character who should be admired or emulated.
Rick and Morty seems to have encouraged a subculture of young men who mistake geekiness for intellectualism, and think that having low social skills make them intelligent. That’s not to talk down the show, which is genuinely really good. Rick and Morty is, in the words of one critic, “intelligent in the sense that the plot moves quickly, and doesn’t talk down to the audience.”
But some of the show’s fans are emboldened by the representation of a character with a similar personality to themselves, managing to miss that the show is being critical of that personality type. This obnoxiousness manifested itself when the show’s writing staff was increased to half female this year. Fans harrassed credited female writers of early episodes, even posting their personal information online for the crime of writing for the show. This is despite one of the two early female-credited episodes, Pickle Rick, being the episode that’s met with the biggest positive reaction from the fanbase. This notorious social media post was apparently meant in all sincerity:
How intelligent is Rick and Morty? In the words of Forbes’ Dan Di Placado
Really, Rick and Morty is standing on the shoulders of decades and decades of once-groundbreaking science fiction that was processed by pop culture long ago, now instantly recognizable and easily digested. Keeping up with Rick and Morty does not require intelligence, but simply a familiarity with sci-fi tropes.
Getting the jokes in the show is not the sign of an “extremely high IQ” but a sign that the audience have consumed and vaguely understood a lot of pop culture. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein probably wouldn’t understand a lot of the show, and Einstein would probably be struck by how much the show contradicts real science. If Einstein were transported forward in time, unable to understand the layers of pop culture Rick and Morty cleverly engages with, he may well take the show as a sign of how far we have intellectually descended, Idiocracy-style.
This obnoxious stupidity in the pursuit of an idiots’ misunderstanding of intelligence reached what must surely (hopefully) be its endpoint with the Szechuan sauce saga. In the opening episode of the third season, locked into a virtual reality prison which allows him to create anything he can remember or imagine, Rick fixates on Szechuan Sauce, a brief McDonalds product created to promote Mulan. That’s a really good gag – the experience that Rick wants to revisit more than any other is…a cheap commercial tie-in. Which may just be a mix of soy sauce and barbecue sauce.
The joke has its origins in co-creator Justin Roiland being obsessed with the sauce during its limited release, but even in his telling of the story he seems aware that it wouldn’t live up to his memory, referring to it as “that fucking disgusting sauce”. It’s obvious that the sauce won’t live up to Rick’s billing, and that’s what makes the joke work. In the closing monologue of the first episode Rick rants that getting his hands on Szechuan Sauce will be his “series arc”. The show, obviously, never mentions this again.
But the pursuit of the sauce has spilled over into the real world. Multiple sites have ran stories on a redditor’s copycat recipe, McDonalds sent a bottle to the writing staff and this week the sauce had a limited re-release. McDonalds understandably underestimated how seriously fans would take this, and were met with tragically comical rage by disappointed fans, with police needing to be called to several locations.
Rick and Morty is a weird gem of a show, one that celebrates creativity, innovation and questioning of authority. But a large proportion of the fanbase have become utterly incapable of prioritising what’s important and what isn’t. Marching to the tune jokily called by the cartoon pied piper, that they have become the perfect subjects for the most pathetic form of corporate pandering. Wubba lubba dub dub.