Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty regularly engages with its fans in super meta and super fun ways. In the show, Rick can break the fourth wall to speak to the audience or to casually reference the fact that he is part of a tv show, speaking about seasons and episodes, and that all the characters are not real. Rick often uses this power of awareness for comedic purposes, like his epic rant at the end of the premiere episode of season 1. Sometimes, Rick and Morty uses its meta-awareness to directly interact with the audience itself, such as the commercial for the PlayStation 5. At the end of episode six in season 4, “Never Ricking Morty,” Rick and Morty masterfully fooled the entire fandom when they pulled the greatest prank of the show (so far).
The creators of Rick and Morty established the validity of this scheme much earlier by fulfilling a real prank. A year and a half after the end of season 2, no news for the next season in sight, suddenly season 3 launched. On April 1st, 2017, they released the premiere episode of season 3 without any announcements or advertisements. For hours, the audience and the media assumed it was an April Fool’s joke. Only through word of mouth and online confirmations were fans able to grasp that it was happening for real. Rick and Morty skyrocketed in popularity for that effort alone. If they could do it once they could certainly do it again.
In the post-credits scene of “Never Ricking Morty,” a Citadel of Rick commercial for the story train plays out calling the audience to action. Specifically, calling the audience to go to a website to buy the real story train toy. The commercial says,
“The Story Train! Available now on the Citadel of Ricks. Buy it ironically, buy it sincerely. Just buy it. Not buying it is an act of buying it. Buy it now. Look it up, it’s real. www.story-train.com on the internet. It’s there. Buy it. Buy the train! We want you to buy the train.”
Immediately, the audience launched their browsers to visit the website only to learn that it is a dead link. Rick and Morty preyed on the fact that the fans would a) believe it was a real commercial, and b) want to buy the product. Maybe the toy was real? Potentially a limited-run special edition model train? The commercial was both a mockery of toy ads and the key lure for their great prank. The misdirection scored perfectly, causing confusion to this day. New viewers instantly fell victim to the prank while those who have already seen the episode wonder if the story train will ever be made as real merchandise in the future. The product still does not exist to this date.
Only Rick and Morty can pull off something like this. No other show has been able to get the audience as engaged and attentive. The show is known for its meta plots, Easter eggs, and audience commitment. The Szechuan sauce movement is evidence of the lengths Rick and Morty fans would go to act for the show. By that alone, it would not be so far-fetched to assume the fans would leap at the opportunity to buy a toy directly advertised by the characters in the show. Hence, the story train prank.
The story train will go down as a watershed moment for audience engagement. The term could come to mean when a show presents something with the purpose of fooling an audience into thinking it is a real factual object, when it is not. This is the greatest prank they ever pulled because after this, the audience will not be so easily fooled. One can only “cry wolf,” so many times before people disbelieve and tune it out.
Skepticism and doubt will respond the next time the writers try to position a product as a real tangible thing. They hit their max prank attempts. This could mean, hypothetically, the next plot may very well be true. What other way could they keep the fans on their toes other than to constantly pivot from fake-out to honest claim? It might just be the best way to get the audience to continually participate in the show’s engagement efforts. It is also how they expertly positioned this prank, by doing a real one the season prior. They may just ignore any further attempts to deceive the audience entirely. If the story train were their greatest prank, how could they ever top it?
Ultimately, after setting such a high bar for show-to-audience interaction, the showrunners have their work cut out for them if they want to play a prank on the audience a second time. Dan Harmon and crew may not have the advantage next time Rick and Morty attempts to fool the audience. Entering the fifth season of the show, they might utilize new tricks, or just end up simply continuing with the ordinary hilarious narrative of the show and give up the prank game altogether. Knowing their personalities, this is doubtful.
Season 5 of Rick and Morty is not yet scheduled for release. Considering their past record, the announcement will be dropped as a surprise to everyone. In the meantime, they released another anime style short called “Rick and Morty vs. Genocider.”