Rick Sanchez wants your money. That’s not a secret—in fact, it’s a point Rick And Morty had returned to again and again, across its now five seasons on the air: There is no principle, friend, or family member that the gleefully amoral super scientist will not betray for a juicy enough incentive, or a big enough pile of cash. The mercenary attitude of the show’s central character extends well outside its universe, too: If you want Rick Sanchez to yell “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub!” while telling millennials to shove Hardee’s hamburgers in their faces—or show up to add some inexplicable Adult Swim cred to your new Space Jam movie—it’s pretty easy to pull off. Just pay the man, and make it happen.
Series co-creator/star Justin Roiland, who not only voices every enthusiastic ode to Old Spice or Pringles that tumbles from Rick’s puke-stained mouth, but who also writes pretty much all of Rick And Morty’s surprisingly numerous ad spots, is clearly aware of the loophole at work here. By crafting a character of functionally infinite cynicism, Roiland has created a paradoxically perfect pitchman: Rick can say anything, tell his ravenous audience to buy literally any product, and never slip out of character—so long as it’s clear he’s only saying this stuff because someone paid him to say it. Or, as Roiland put it in an interview with Collider last month:
Rick is the type of person that would see right through any fucking advertisement and who these big corporations are, the whole corporations weighing in on socio-political stuff. It’s just so fucking ridiculous. It’s funny to me, and Rick is somebody who would see right through that shit. It’s like they just want money. That’s all they care about. So I’m trying to keep all of that in mind while writing these commercials.
The end results are ad campaigns that feel effective in direct proportion to how checked-out their star sounds. An Instagram promotion that sees Rick effusing about the interactive wonders of the “Rickstaverse” constructed experience comes off as positively moribund, for instance, while the Old Spice spot, where Rick literally counts his ad money while reading from a sheet of provided copy, feels totally of a piece with the show. (After all, this is the series that’s had its heroes canonically hang out with Logic to promote his album, and beg Nintendo to send them shit—to say nothing of the enormously strange situation that bled out into real life when Rick waxed poetic about McDonald’s Mulan-themed Szechuan dipping sauce in the season 3 premiere.)
You can’t even really fault Roiland (or co-creator Dan Harmon) for trying to find a way to balance getting paid with maintaining the show’s own sensibility: They’re beholden to their corporate masters, after all, who are the ones actually selling ads that it’s then on Roiland to make feel authentically inauthentic. And it’s hard to deny that setting up a merch-filled Rickmobile to roam the country, or writing a crooning birthday song for Kanye West (apparently commissioned by Kim Kardashian for her now-ex husband), does feel like something Rick would do, provided the price was right.
So why, given all the fast food endorsements, Pringles ads, and pickle-branded seltzer waters, does the sudden appearance of Rick and Morty in the new Space Jam movie still feel like some sort of nadir, a threshold crossed? It’s not just that the real Rick would come up with something way nastier than “dum-dums” to label the Tune Squad with after inexplicably returning the Tasmanian Devil to them. (Oh, for a version of A New Legacy that was rated PG-13, with the solitary “fuck” reserved for Roiland’s belch-filled ramblings.) No, the real problem with the scene, which went viral on the internet this weekend, is that Rick isn’t in on the joke. There’s no wink to camera, no allusions to a paycheck, no acknowledgement that his and Morty’s appearance is just one more empty IP gesture in a film so filled with them that it blocks out any other creative impulse that might try to bleed through. For once, Rick isn’t cheerfully selling out; he’s being sold. Space Jam does what not even the Galactic Federation, the Citadel Of Ricks, or the fully mustered might of the Wendy’s corporation could do: It tames Rick Sanchez C-137.