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Let’s Try to Explain Why Cartoon Fans Rioted at McDonald’s Over Sauce

Photo: Adult Swim

If you’re lucky, you didn’t hear the words “Szechuan sauce” this weekend. If that is the case, I implore you to close this browser window and remain in your state of blissful ignorance. But if you did hear the words “Szechuan sauce” this weekend — if you saw it referenced on Twitter, or god help you, if you were one of the McDonald’s employees confronted by a rampaging mob of furious adult-cartoon fans demanding it — and find yourself confused, you’re not alone. “Szechuan sauce” is more than just a McDonald’s dipping product — it is a spicy mélange of online geek culture, corporate social-media pandering, fan entitlement, viral-video voyeurism, and the internet’s reflexive hatred of anyone who enjoys other things too much. Let us try to explain.

What is Szechuan sauce?

Szechuan sauce was a dipping sauce (like most sauces, probably something mixed with ketchup) created by the quick-service restaurant chain McDonald’s, meant to coincide with the 1998 release of Mulan, a film set in China. It was discontinued following the film tie-in.

Earlier this year, a story line from the adult sci-fi cartoon Rick and Morty concerned the character Rick traveling back into his memories in a quest to get one more taste of the Szechuan sauce. As a result, ardent fans of the show became obsessed with this sauce on the basis of a fictional character liking it.

What is Rick and Morty?

Oh boy. Okay. Rick and Morty is about a teenage boy, Morty, and his genius sci-fi inventor grandpa, Rick, who travel through time and space and have adventures. The pair is very reminiscent of Marty McFly and Doc Brown in Back to the Future, only imagine if Marty was a dork and Doc Brown was an alcoholic, and they were both nihilists.

The show was created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon. You might recognize Harmon’s name from Community, another intricately constructed meta-sitcom with a feverish cult fandom.

So Rick and Morty fans are intense?

[Sighs for a duration that seems at once endless and too short.] You could say that. To be clear: There are many, many Rick and Morty fans who are kind, compassionate, and socially aware people who enjoy the show for its intelligent humor, without believing that their love of it means anything in particular about themselves. But Rick and Morty also attracts a certain kind of aggressive and annoying fan that you might stereotype as “Reddit nerd.” Allowing, again, that it’s a stereotype, and many Rick and Morty fans are kind people who wouldn’t send a blogger hate mail for no real reason, the “Reddit nerd” is the kind of person who thinks that the science and pop-culture references are too smart for normal people; who believes that to truly enjoy Rick and Morty, you need some arcane knowledge passed down through the ranks of a chosen few; and that because it addresses “nerdy” sci-fi tropes, it is somehow not “mainstream,” even though the most popular cultural products on the planet right now are science-fiction series and comic-book superheroes.

A well-known parody of the show’s most ardent fans, which has been passed around so much that its author has been lost to time, goes something like this:

To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty. The humour is extremely subtle, and without a solid grasp of theoretical physics most of the jokes will go over a typical viewer’s head. There’s also Rick’s nihilistic outlook, which is deftly woven into his characterisation — his personal philosophy draws heavily from Narodnaya Volya literature, for instance. The fans understand this stuff; they have the intellectual capacity to truly appreciate the depths of these jokes, to realise that they’re not just funny — they say something deep about LIFE. As a consequence people who dislike Rick & Morty truly ARE idiot — of course they wouldn’t appreciate, for instance, the humour in Rick’s existential catchphrase “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub,” which itself is a cryptic reference to Turgenev’s Russian epic Fathers and Sons. I’m smirking right now just imagining one of those addlepated simpletons scratching their heads in confusion as Dan Harmon’s genius wit unfolds itself on their television screens. What fools … how I pity them. 😂

And yes, by the way, i DO have a Rick & Morty tattoo. And no, you cannot see it. It’s for the ladies’ eyes only — and even then they have to demonstrate that they’re within 5 IQ points of my own (preferably lower) beforehand. Nothin personnel kid 😎

This is the same crowd that thinks Walt from Breaking Bad was the good guy.

In fairness, the show does air at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday nights in Cartoon Network’s “adult swim” block, and it airs new episodes infrequently. But over the course of three seasons, since 2013, the show has become the top comedy among millennials. It’s by no means a sleeper hit.

Why are fans so intense about it?

To some extent, that’s just the nature of every fandom on the web. Being in a fandom is sort of like being part of an inside joke: You and your friends spend a lot of time together talking about the same thing and dissecting it — whether it’s Doctor Who, the Marvel movies, My Little Pony, Justin Bieber, or One Direction. The close-knit communities that emerge can make the object of fandom feel niche, even if it isn’t really.

Harnessing fandoms can mean big business for Hollywood, because it means a sustained audience, even between full releases. Examples include: Marvel fans who want to see every movie and speculate about new one; gamers who get mad about patches and content-altering software updates; Steven Universe fans who channel their own energy into fan art and deep-dive analysis; Riverdale fans who try to answer the question, “What if Archie from the comics was hot?” Many of these properties also have heavy social-media operations to keep the wheels spinning eternally.

The continual problem is that as fans become more enmeshed in a property, they begin to feel a sense of ownership over it — they’ve invested hours of their time discussing it with friends and promoting it on social media, after all — and that can lead to tension between a show’s actual owners — its creators and the studios that make it — and its fans. Don’t like how a character was written, or don’t like the narrative direction? You can yell at the creators and writers and artists on Twitter. You can launch petitions and boycott advertisers. At some point, fans stop feeling like a reward for doing your creative job and start feeling like a punishment for making art at all. For Rick and Morty, that happened earlier this year when fans on Twitter started harassing female writers on the show, objecting to episodes that they had scripted. Roiland and Harmon were quick to denounce the online rage, but rabid fandom had already taken its toll.

We haven’t even gotten to McDonald’s yet.

Noting the intensity of the fandom, and the buying power that always accompanies that intensity, McDonald’s held an event last weekend offering Szechuan sauce in stores. Unfortunately, the burger joint severely underestimated demand, and quickly ran out of supply. This led to hordes of angry millennials yelling at the company on social media and at fast-food workers in person. I had some fun on Sunday searching through Snapchat to find videos of crowds lined up outside of McDonald’s, and in a few cases, fans paying triple-digit sums for a better place in line.

To make things more complicated, the promotional stunt was not done in collaboration with Adult Swim in any way. The labeling on the Szechuan sauce — which, again, is literally just chicken-nugget dipping sauce — was reminiscent of the show without explicitly invoking it. As a result, fans got mad at Roiland and Harmon for something that they had nothing to do with.

Is this type of fan behavior new?

Nope! Anyone who has tracked a fandom like Doctor Who’s or My Little Pony’s has seen this exact scenario play out dozens of times — burgeoning fandom that grows into elitism, that then flips into meta-criticism, culminating in a disastrous offline event.

And in the end, the fans learned that basic-cable animated sitcoms and global fast-food corporations owe them nothing and that they are entitled to nothing?

No. After a day of sustained online anger, the McDonald’s Twitter account announced that the company was going to make more Szechuan sauce and try again. In effect, the company decided to reward the mob hassling their low-wage workers by doing this ill-conceived stunt all over again. Angry babies will get their goopy nugget sauce.

What did we learn?

If you’re part of a fandom, chill out! If you’re a global corporation, pandering to said fandom can be a third rail. If you’re part of neither but are reading this, you’ve learned that the internet has turned many people’s brains into mush.

Let’s Try to Explain Why Cartoon Fans Rioted at McDonald’s