Listen to this story
One of the highest-rated shows on television owes its appeal to a diabolical brew of nihilism, slapstick humor, references to various bodily functions, and pop culture intellect. “Rick and Morty” is a cartoon show centering on the intergalactic exploits of a drunken elderly man and his nebbish 14-year-old grandson. The masses simply can’t get enough of sadistic Rick and naive Morty (loosely based on Doc and Marty from the Back to the Future franchise) as they zoom from planet to planet, wreaking havoc upon whatever outer-dimensional civilization they come across, before some witty-observation-ex-machina neatly ties each episode together.
A powerful core fanbase has caused “Rick and Morty” to gain a level of notoriety external to itself. The otherwise amusing and observant show attracts the attention of a very specific type of individual: the type of devil-may-care cyberbully who feels at home in the illustrious halls of 4Chan. This fandom has congealed so completely that the very concept of being a “Rick and Morty” fan is considered a meme, and these fans have quickly established themselves as an A-level threat to anyone who crosses their path.
Now, participating in a fandom can be a beautiful thing. Fandoms can enable the growth of friendships and relationships, inspire works of art, promote independent or non-traditional learning, and provide an inclusive and non-academic basis for important cultural and political discussion. (If such claims cause you to raise an eyebrow in suspicion, I invite you to revisit the discourse on gender identity taking place on the blog of the average Steven Universe fan.) Yet for every meaningful romance commenced over a mutual love of Dune, there are those who would use their dedication to a film, book, or television show for evil.
In the case of “Rick and Morty,” it is this evil that seems to be the basis of attraction for the fans in the first place.
I did not set out to find The Real Ricks; The Real Ricks found me. Here I was, perusing Reddit like any other day, when I happened upon a curious thread titled, “The Absolute Cringefest that is The Real Ricks Facebook group.” The thread was accompanied by a screenshot featuring a be-scarfed man lamenting “whether my sadistic tendencies were just malfunctions of my overly conscious self.”
People laughed in response, believing there was no way such a group could exist. The fandom may have its issues, but there’s no way it could lack any semblance of self-awareness, they thought. I, however, was determined to track down the source of this post, and see for myself whether the rumors were true.
As it turns out, deep in the trenches of Facebook exists a group known as “The Real Ricks,” a virtual haven for those who relate to the show’s alcoholic, emotionally regressive anti-hero. Still, I could not fully investigate the contents of the group unless I became a member. Unsurprisingly, this was no simple “click to join” operation. Gaining access to this elite group is a privilege. Since its inception in early September, The Real Ricks has been screening potential members with a series of brain-power-related questions: What specific areas of academia have you mastered? Do you believe politics and intellect are inherently intertwined? And, most importantly, Are you a “bottom-feeding Jerry”? (Jerry is Rick’s limp, pathetic son-in-law and frequent nemesis.)
Though I attempted to answer in earnest (“I have a Bachelor’s of the Arts from X University, which has an elite Y acceptance rate. I researched and wrote extensively on fathers of the English language such as…”), I anticipated some pushback as to my membership. Yet, less than fifteen minutes later I was met with the coveted “approved” notification from The Real Ricks themselves.
I entered, cautiously, only to find one of the more confusing online displays I’ve witnessed. Posts rapidly alternated between grotesque “Pickle Rick”-themed memes (you will probably just need to Google that one, and not at work), and new inductees gingerly asking whether the group is actually focused on Rick-like intellectual enlightenment — or whether they have merely subscribed to a Rick-themed feed of shitposting.
While the latter seems to be the rule of thumb, one of The Real Ricks’ members will occasionally attempt to start a brainy dialectic in earnest. “Who here has a problem with loop quantum cosmology?” asks one post. Not one individual has responded — not even with a meme. Perhaps I should assume this indicative of the group’s favorable attitude towards Riemannian geometry, but it seems unlikely.
Other Ricks attempt to flaunt their intellect by criticizing those who use the group as a place for sharing the latest “Rick and Morty” memes. “‘Rick and Morty’ IS for people with high IQs,” begins one post. “I do not care how many times the trolls of this group spam the popular ‘You need a high IQ’ post with sarcastic and mocking intent. You act as a hive mind, a flock of Jerrys, if you will, who envy the smart-minded, wishing to become one of us.”
Perhaps this “type” of fan would be easy to ignore, were it not for multiple highly public incidents that seem to implicate the show and its viewers as a whole. In September 2017, “Rick and Morty” fans doxxed several of the show’s female writers, claiming that it was necessary retaliation for what they felt to be an inadequate third season. Even if female writers were not responsible for some of the third season’s most-beloved episodes (specifically, one involving the aforementioned and clearly beloved Pickle Rick), the irony would still be gargantuan and, ultimately, lost on these fans.
Not long after, in an even more publicized debacle, “Rick and Morty” loyalists wreaked havoc on fast food workers across the country, when McDonald’s offered a special one-day promotion of their 19-year-old Szechuan sauce, which had been the subject of a popular gag in the show. When the sauce supply dwindled long before the day was over, “Rick and Morty” fans quickly, for lack of a better term, lost their shit. Videos of fans stomping on McDonald’s counters and tearing at their flesh quickly circulated. Fans did not seem ashamed in the least by this behavior — but rather entitled to it. After the Great Szechuan Sauce Debacle of 2017 drew to a close, one woman allegedly traded a single packet of sauce for a car. To the general public, there is no evident rationale — but within the fandom, a pervasive entitlement inspires Rick-like thinking and behavior.
Confused, I turned to members of The Real Ricks, one-on-one, for answers. Of the few that responded to my requests for comment, all asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t want to get doxxed if I say the wrong thing,” admitted a source. I wondered, could some of the men in this group (and yes: active members are almost entirely men) be the same ones responsible for doxxing the show’s female writers?
Another source, high-ranking in the membership, alleged the group was simply invented as an “experiment to see how toxic ‘Rick and Morty’s’ fan base [is],” and still they remained surprised by the experiment’s outcome. “There are lots of instances of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic sentiment in the community,” they said. “But the thing that truly astounded me was the fact that lots of ‘Rick and Morty’ fans truly believe they’re intellectually superior because the show’s nihilistic theme resonates with them.”
Perhaps it is inevitable that fictional characters intended to represent cultural pariahs instead become idols to those who relate. Rick, while not dissimilar to other fictional heroes in mannerisms or intellect, is unique in the way the sum of his parts adds up to something so entirely representative of hateful online culture. He is the worlds of 4Chan and Reddit, combined and personified. He is a man above love (“What people call ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage”), above education (“I’ll tell you how I feel about school, Jerry: it’s a waste of time. Bunch of people runnin’ around bumpin’ into each other, got a guy up front says, ‘2 + 2,’ and the people in the back say, ‘4’”), and seemingly above society. He is not only invincible because he is a fictional character, he is invincible because he is immune to feeling.
Both online and off, the fandom of “Rick and Morty” has yet to prove a single positive outcome. One can’t help but ask themselves why someone who claims to love a show would commit virtual violence in its name. Yet there’s a horrible sort of irony in the fact that, while being an active member of a meaningless Facebook group may not be very “Rick,” destroying everything you love from the inside most certainly is.