The Sauce is an aggressively bland three-episode podcast produced by Studio@Gizmodo and Onion Labs, all under the watchful eye of fast-food megalith McDonald’s. Styled after Serial (and pulled off with the deftness of someone whose only exposure to investigative podcasts is Serial), the three-episode series is one of the most stunted, awkward attempts at telling a story I’ve encountered in my five-ish years of listening to podcasts. It’s difficult to tell if it was supposed to be a satire of investigative podcasts, a genuine attempt, or just a really weird advertisement.
Strike that last one, it is absolutely an advertisement packaged as a podcast. To discuss The Sauce one must understand the story The Sauce is trying to tell. Fortunately, the story can be told in four paragraphs and two quotes:
On April Fools’ Day 2017 Cartoon Network surprised fans of the popular Adult Swim series Rick and Morty by streaming the first episode of season three on CartoonNetwork.com. During this episode the titular self-destructive genius Rick, inside his own memories, stops by a McDonald’s in 1998.
Rick: In 1998, they had this promotion for the Disney film “Mulan,” where they — where they — they created a new sauce for the McNuggets called Szechuan sauce, and it’s delicious! And then they got rid of it, and now it’s gone.”
In the final scene of this episode both Rick and Morty duplicate the final scene of the season one, with one key difference. While in season one Rick launched into a rant about how him and Morty are going to go on many adventures together, season three ends with Rick raving about that damned sauce.
Rick: I want that “Mulan” McNugget sauce, Morty! That’s my series arc, Morty.
Morty: What the hell?
Rick: If it takes nine seasons, I want my McNugget dipping sauce, Szechuan sauce, Morty.
Unbeknownst to the R&M team, McDonald’s was planning a dipping sauce-focused marketing campaign to highlight the release of a new chicken tender. Each of their eight sauces was to get a concert-style poster that customers could choose from when ordering said tenders at their local franchise. The Rick and Morty sauce meme took hold almost immediately and McDonald’s found themselves inundated with requests for Szechuan sauce. Micky Dee’s quickly retro-fitted the campaign to have a ninth poster for Szechuan sauce and announced they would put out a limited amount of cups in select McDonald’s locations on October 7th.
Surprising nobody, October 7th rolls around and many locations run out in minutes. At several locations crowds of over-hyped 20-something Rick and Morty fans acted like absolute children in public, causing what someone who has never seen an actual riot before would call “a riot.” Having taken PR 101, McDonald’s PR team decided to recover by re-launching Szechuan sauce nation-wide in 2018.
Now, imagine if I had to tell you the above story without mentioning Rick and Morty, Cartoon Network, Mulan, or even Disney as a company. That’s how you get the long, high school Language Arts essay-level bland comments that make up the bulk of The Sauce.
CHEF MIKE: In 1998, there was a kid’s movie that came out and this was sort of a promotion for that movie. It was basically a sauce for our Chicken McNuggets.
HOST: That’s Mike Haracz, or as he’s known to the McDonald’s team, Chef Mike.
CHEF MIKE: I think it was relatively popular and then after a certain amount of time most people go back to their original favorites—your ranch, your barbecue sauce, so it kinda fell off the menu from there.
CHEF MIKE: I first learned about it on April 1st when a TV show decided to name drop it. There was a little call out to this special sauce and my phone exploded.
HOST: On April Fool’s Day, 2017, a popular animated late-night TV show aired a surprise third season premiere. For people unfamiliar with the show, it might seem random and hard to follow, but long story short, it all centers around the main character’s obsession with obtaining McDonald’s long-lost Szechuan Sauce.
The “popular animated late-night TV show” plot does not, in fact, center around the main character’s obsession with the sauce. It’s a joke with a callback at the end. But, of course, McDonald’s is the star of this show and *everything* has to talk about McDonald’s as if the sun shines out from betwixt the golden arches.
These quotes are being pulled from the official transcripts on The Sauce‘s website, and one of the many strange details of this show is the odd choice to credit host Catherine LeClair as “the host” throughout said transcript. No name is used, despite “the host” getting a formal introduction.
The transcript isn’t the only place The Sauce sees fit to kinda-sorta fudge things into a more homogeneous package (much like a McNugget). Episode one is spent giving as many details as one can about the Rick and Morty meme without actually mentioning any names. The rest is spent setting up “Chef Mike” as the psuedo-protagonist of the story, including his recount of having to physically open a file cabinet to find the original 1998 paper recipe for Szechuan sauce to replicate/update it for recreation. It’s presented as if this was a Herculean effort on his part.
HOST: Of course, pro that he is, Chef Mike nails it and McDonald’s sends out a half-gallon bottle of Szechuan Sauce to one of the show’s creators. And, he loves it.
One could say that, as there are several people who could be credited as “the show’s creators,” but I believe the person referenced is Justin Roiland. It would be super helpful to that narrative if there wasn’t in existence a video of the Rick and Morty team trying that half-gallon batch.
To sum it up: co-creator Dan Harmon calls the szechuan sauce an “Asian explosion” then turns that into an ejaculation joke, one of the writing team says “I don’t like it,” and then Justin Roiland asks Chef Mike and McDonald’s to “please bring it back so we can all die of diabetes!”
It doesn’t take a career in marketing can obviously see why a multi-national corporation wouldn’t want to associate their new chicken tenders with… that.
Episode two focuses on the “riots” at McDonald’s locations and, since everything needs a three-act structure, McDonald’s taking the blame for not making enough sauce so episode three can feature a more positive ending in which they announce the nationwide release date for said sauce.
The entire package is wrapped up with LeClair opening a packet of the October 7th batch (something that’d been expired for over a month) and trying it with some McDonald’s fries in the final moments of the show.
HOST: We may never know the whole story about what happened with Szechuan Sauce but we’ll all get a chance to taste it on February 26 at literally every McDonald’s in the US. I’ll be there. I’m Catherine LeClair and this is The Sauce.
[Background Noise – sauce packet opening and chewing sounds]
That’s it. A kinda-sorta satisfied “huh.”
It’s that moment that really fucks with me as I try to figure out how to deal with this podcast.
There’s an interview with Deadmau5 that feels somewhat genuine. Chef Mike feels like some poor employee pushed in front of a mic because corporate told him to do it. LeClair seems interested in the topic at hand, if not really good at faking interest.
But then there are all of the awkward dances around pretending this isn’t promotional material, including an interview with super-fan David Wasman in which his description of his love for McDonald’s and Szechuan sauce gets so close to a marketing spiel that LeClair cuts in to make it clear that while The Sauce is sponsored by McDonald’s Wasman’s words are his own and not scripted.
Why is this podcast produced by both Onion Labs and Gizmodo@Studio? If it were just Onion Labs I could slot this into my brain as an incredibly subversive attempt at satire of investigative journalism podcasts and an overactive fandom that they somehow sold to McDonald’s.
If it were just a Gizmodo production I could slot it away as a prestige podcast meant as little more than a long-form advertisement in the ad campaign to try and get Rick and Morty fans hyped far too late in the meme’s lifespan. McDonald’s jumped on the hype train too early and flopped, now they’re partying on a hype train in a museum.
If the show is satire it doesn’t have any teeth.
If the show is genuinely serious, it should’ve been produced independently of McDonald’s to begin with. There is an interesting story to tell here, perhaps even an interesting discussion to be had about toxic fandoms and how fickle meme culture can be shaped and molded at a moment’s notice to fit a company’s needs. There could have been interviews with fans who “rioted” to ask how they feel about it now, there could have been in-depth interviews with people who worked at those locations, people from the Rick and Morty staff could’ve been interviewed to really capture how they had no clue that sauce joke was going to be the joke of that episode for fans.
With everything considered, this is one of my biggest pet peeves in media: something that could try, but just can’t help itself. On paper it’s a well mixed and produced show, LeClair is a good host and I’d like to hear more content from them in future that isn’t held back by a fast food corporation’s code of conduct.
This could be something, but it’s not. It’s just an ill-advised attempt at advertising a dipping sauce for small deep-fried pieces of chicken paste.