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Smiling Friends Proves There's Still a Hunger for Adult Swim's Demented Humor

Led by Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack, the Smiling Friends crew continue to up their game in Season 2.
  • Smiling Friends (Image: Adult Swim)
    Smiling Friends (Image: Adult Swim)

    Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim segment has a long, proud tradition of imaginative April Fool’s Day shenanigans. This year, with fans anticipating the second season of Smiling Friends, the network surprise-dropped the season premiere after airing three episodes of the first season that had been entirely remade. Each first-season remix episode used the original audio and drawn backgrounds, but with Adult Swim executive Jacob Escobedo’s team reenacting the plots with puppet versions of the characters.

    That’s already an extraordinary amount of work to put in just for a gag, but they went one step further by making different puppets for each episode — one uses Muppet-style fabrications, the next simpler sock puppets interacting with live-action performers, and the third detailed papier-mâché puppets.

    That level of effort suits Smiling Friends, created by Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack, which with its first season drew in a cult audience that’s been eagerly awaiting the follow-up (myself included). While the field of strange, caustic, random, violent, foul-minded adult cartoons is crowded nowadays, the series distinguishes itself through some truly inspired use of different animation styles, often freely mixing and matching them.

    The Smiling Friends are a group dedicated to brightening up their customers’ days. Unfortunately, they live in a bizarre, frequently disturbing world whose denizens tend to be afflicted with emotional issues way above the paygrade of the upbeat Pim (Cusack) and slacker Charlie (Hadel). They do their best regardless, often going on unanticipated adventures and odd tangents in the process.

    The pilot, for instance, sees Pim and Charlie attempt to cheer up Desmond, who has suicidal thoughts and never stops pointing a gun at his own temple, while Smiling Friends headquarters is overrun with small purple vermin called bliblies. (The two plots converge at the end with Desmond shooting a bliblie, which gives him a new lease on life.) Another episode follows the Friends’ attempts to redeem canceled celeb Mr. Frog, who cannot control his impulses to do massive quantities of drugs, randomly maim strangers, or worse. 

    Such descriptions might not make Smiling Friends seem too distinct from the general anarchic mischievousness of so many Adult Swim shows, a sensibility pioneered by the programming block’s early hits like Aqua Teen Hunger Force. But absolutely nothing on television looks like this. Just start with the character designs. The Smiling Friends  — Pim, Charlie, Allan (also Cusack), and Glep (also Hadel) — are drawn simply, emphasized by roundness and each sporting a different vivid color (Pim is pink, Allan is red, and so on). But this is not the “rule” for the aesthetic of the show, and there’s no telling how someone else might look. 

    The Smiling Friends’ boss, Mr. Boss (Marc M) looks more like a human, but with a disconcertingly large head and so, so many wrinkles. When he talks and moves, the wrinkles deepen and his face assumes different rictus-like expressions. He’s creepy just to watch, which is of course also very funny. Desmond is a grotesque, a human droop whose dourness is often enhanced by deep shadows. Each episode is filled with both major and minor figures who have been imagined with similar vividness.

    And that’s just for characters who operate within the show’s baseline reality. At least once an episode, a different style of animation pops up. One recurring character, Party Bro, is rotoscoped, meaning his movements were traced over a live-action reference. “A Silly Halloween Special” features a Claymation forest demon.

    The title character of "Who Violently Murdered Simon S. Salty?" is a live-action actor composited into the show. He mostly appears as a corpse, lying on a cartoon couch like a whale stranded there from another universe. (The episode also has a tribute to the web animations “Battle of the Glorks” and “A Random Day” that lasts only a few seconds. The references can be packed in densely.) “Enchanted Forest” introduces us to Mip, who looks like he strolled into the show straight from the 1977 Rankin/Bass Hobbit special. Smiling Friends is a masterclass of maximizing limited means of production, and is never not a treat to look at.

    Hadel and Cusack got their start cartooning on their own when they were young, and both are seasoned veterans of the Newgrounds era of internet animation. Smiling Friends keeps some of the best elements of that time alive, an unabashedly jagged and unique vibe. Various web animators also have voice roles; besides Marc M, Newgrounds creator Tom Fulp, David Firth of Salad Fingers fame, Chris “Oney” O’Neill, and more all popped up in the first season.

    Fittingly, the show is made with Adobe Animate, formerly known as Flash, the onetime go-to canvas for neophyte animators. In a way, this is Adult Swim’s own impact on the field coming full circle, as creators influenced in part by its earlier shows now shape its programming.

    The series’s popularity demonstrates the hunger that’s still out there for this brand of demented humor. Gwimbly, the guest star character in the second season premiere, has already become a meme, inspiring a tidal wave of fan art. He’s a washed-up former video game star who’s designed and animated as if he came out of a PlayStation 1 title. The level of verisimilitude in his gestures and pixelated look is incredible. The episode also features another stop-motion-looking character, this one a bulky shooter game protagonist à la Gears of War or Doom. This means there are multiple scenes in which three different styles of animation are interacting at once. Heading into Season 2, the Smiling Friends crew only continues to up their game. 

    New episodes of Smiling Friends Season 2 drop Mondays at 12:00 A.M. ET on Adult Swim.

    Dan Schindel is a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

    TOPICS: Adult Swim, Smiling Friends, Michael Cusack, Zach Hadel