Is all publicity good publicity? That is the question residents of Bendigo are asking themselves after becoming the subject of an April Fools’ Day prank by animated series Rick and Morty.
The US television program surprised its 3.2 million Facebook followers on April 1 with a link to what many thought would be the first episode of its long-awaited fourth season.
Instead, viewers found a 10-minute parody episode in which the titular characters speak in broad Australian accents and set out on an ill-fated road trip from Wollongong to Bendigo.
Google searches for Bendigo skyrocketed as soon as the episode was released, with viewers keen to learn more about the place mentioned dozens of times in the script.
But the Bendigo depicted in the show was markedly different to the real central Victorian gold rush city.
Asked what he sees upon his arrival, character Morty responds: “Trees, scrubs, nothing really”.
What’s the funniest name?
Called ‘Bushland Adventures’, the tongue-in-cheek episode is the work of Wollongong-based animator Michael Cusack.
The 27-year-old has won a legion of followers for his darkly comedic animated depictions of suburban Australia.
Among those won over were Rick and Morty creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland who commissioned Mr Cusack more than one year ago to draw the April Fools’ Day episode.
He chose Bendigo as the destination for his rendering of Rick and Morty because of how the name sounded.
“It genuinely was going down the list of Australian towns and thinking ‘what’s the funniest name?'” he said.
“I was thinking ‘Wagga Wagga, Newcastle, nah, not really’, then I was like ‘Bendigo’.
“There’s something about that name that seemed right to use for it.”
He hoped Bendigo residents would not take offence, and conceded he had never been to the city before.
City responds to portrayal betrayal
City of Greater Bendigo mayor Margaret O’Rourke admonished the animation as “pretty crass”, saying the city was nothing like the place depicted by Mr Cusack.
Councillor O’Rourke recommended he visit the city to better understand its people and cultural offerings.
But she believed the shout-out could be good exposure for the city.
“If it’s going to make people go online and have a look to see what Bendigo’s about, they’re going to see a different picture of a beautiful, vibrant regional city,” Cr O’Rourke said.
“It’s one of those things that, no matter how something gets advertised, no news is bad news.”
Defending his coarse and sometimes violent depiction of Australian life, Mr Cusack said he tried to subvert the clean-cut, polished view of the world often portrayed in mainstream American media.
The mundanity of everyday life — visits to Centrelink, drinking beer and watching football from the couch — resonated with the animator, who grew up in the suburbs of Wollongong.
He simply exaggerated these images for heightened effect, he said, believing Australians would laugh at his over-the-top depiction of their culture.
“That was my biggest goal, that Australians would look at it and be, like, ‘awesome, Australian stuff is playing in America and it’s actually by an Australian’,” Mr Cusack said.
Warm fan reception for prank
Mr Cusack said he received little backlash for any of his work, including his Rick and Morty tribute.
Many social media users responded positively to Bushland Adventures.
Twitter user @tunainabowl declared:
I’m from Bendigo and I can confirm this is exactly what it’s like.
Another user, @HuginsPL, declared it his favourite episode, while Brooklyn-based writer Beckett Mufson tweeted his support for an entire Cusack-created season of Rick and Morty.
But reactions were not unanimously positive.
Twitter user Dylan Bowman said he would rather watch Rick and Morty re-runs than the Australian version.
Audiences can see more of Mr Cusack’s animation in his forthcoming ABC pilot, Koala Man.