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A brief history and synopsis of ‘Smiling Friends’

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The second season of Adult Swim’s animated dark comedy “Smiling Friends” premiered on April 1, and the first two episodes on the streaming service Max on May 12. It garnered a positive reception from critics, social media, and television audiences. The first season’s success, which sparked widespread internet fame with copious memes and parodies, set a high bar for the new season.

Animators Michael Cusack and Zach Hadel, who each achieved previous successes in online cartoon media, partnered to create Cusack’s most recent and Hadel’s first professional television animated series. They combined their ironic artistic and writing styles for an excellent experience filled with snappy, clever jokes. 

The show follows the titular Smiling Friends, a group of four workers and one boss (Marc M.) tasked with making people smile and leading them into wacky and sometimes brutally violent adventures. The lead characters are critters: the pink and cheerful Pim Pimling (Cusack) and the lowkey, level-headed yellow Charlie Dompler (Hadel). 

The cast consists primarily of Hadel and Cusack, who voice most characters in the show. Many guest stars, such as internet artist Harry Partridge, returned this season, but new and surprising guests include comedian Mike Bocchetti.

Chris O’Neill composed the music. 

Both creators originated on YouTube and the art-sharing site Newgrounds. They were active on these platforms for over a decade, producing cartoons and other artistic media. 

Cusack’s work began on YouTube with live-action shorts with his friends in Australia, involving sketch comedy and music videos. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith inspired him to attempt filmmaking. After the initial failure of filming and returning to work, mutual friend Tom Hunter recommended that Cusack watch an animation on Vimeo called Hot Dog Hustle. Cusack was already interested in doodling comics, so he taught himself how to use the Adobe animation software Flash. His style is flatter, rougher, and filled with simple yet plentiful detailing.

Cusack publicly released his first animated short in 2012, parodying the game development company Valve during the E3 Expo. The post has since achieved 1.9 million views. Cusack also revealed that some of his inspiration came from Hadel before they met. 

Cusack now has an extensive catalog of noteworthy animations that kicked off his online presence – such as the “YOLO” series – which has since become a show on Max. Another well-known project was a parody of the popular TV show “Rick and Morty” titled “Bushworld Adventures,” which aired on Adult Swim for April Fools Day in 2018. Most of Cusack’s work before “Smiling Friends” revolved around Australian culture, utilizing vulgarity, slang, shock, and violence while maintaining a cohesive story – Cusack’s shorts Damo and Darren, as well as his other new show “Koala Man” on Hulu are perfect examples of his iconic Australian cultural humor. 

Hadel, better known by his pseudonym Psychicpebbles, has been an online artistic power player since his beginnings on Newgrounds. Compared to Cusack, little about Hadel’s personal life is known besides that he is self-taught and has a highly detailed style. He uses grotesque and exaggerated features for characters or caricatures of celebrities and other internet figures. Hadel also gained much of his attention and fame due to his unique voice, which has a robust nasally tone but an extreme pitch and range, allowing him to chatter or scream

Such stylistic choices made Hadel’s animations famous, with his breakthrough video “Arrow to the Knee,” making fun of an overused joke among fans of “The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.” His flagship series before “Smiling Friends” was “Hellbenders,” created in collaboration with Newgrounds and YouTube animator Chris O’Neill of OneyNG and OneyPlays fame. Hellbenders was Hadel’s first attempt to roll out a series for television; he approached Adult Swim to pitch the idea but was unsuccessful as the show was deemed too similar to others already on the network. 

Hadel and Cusack met in Burbank, where they conceived the idea of “Smiling Friends” while working on separate projects – Cusack’s “YOLO” and Hadel working as an independent storyboard artist and podcaster. Later, once they got the idea in full swing, they finished the pilot with the animation studio Princess Bento (now Bento Box Entertainment). Adult Swim approved “Smiling Friends,” releasing the pilot in 2020 and completing the show in 2022 before partnering with Max for streaming.

The first two episodes take advantage of the second dimension, integrating more 3D models and live-action characters to increase the hilarity and absurdity. The show demonstrates the creators’ and the studio’s artistic talent, creates a unique experience, carries the legacy of the first season, and pushes the boundaries of animated adult cartoons. 

Episode one follows Charlie and Pim encountering the disgraced video game mascot Gwimbly outside their headquarters, being sprayed by Allen. Pim and Allen decide to aid Gwimbly in recovering his popularity and getting him out of being a washed-up, cameo-filming loser. The B-plot follows Charlie as he is taken contractually hostage by a large, disgruntled man who demands Charlie’s services to “make him smile.” 

The second episode sees Pim and Charlie tasked with running the campaign of the newly elevated and disgusting President Jimble, who wants to win re-election. The plot thickens with the surprise return of Mr. Frog, a TV celebrity and previous client of Smiling Friends from season one, who announced his presidential run against Jimble.

Just after the first episode’s television premiere at this year’s WonderCon, Cusack explained what to expect from the upcoming episodes. 

“It’s going to be a lot of the same, but different, in a good way,” Cusack said. Hadel repeated the same sentiments and said, “People will smile again!” 

When questioned about how he handled the stresses of production while maintaining engagement with the new fanbase, Cusack told the interviewer, “We like to keep the audience on edge, not knowing what to expect, who knows what could happen next,” 

Cusack and Hadel gave details about the show’s future during a panel at the 2022 Adult Swim Festival after the first season’s conclusion. When asked if they considered a feature film, Cusack said he and Hadel were “kicking around some ideas,” hoping it could happen one day. One challenge the creators faced was consistency and originality: “Have it be more like a sandbox show where you can see these interesting characters and different areas of the town or world,” Cusack said.

New “Smiling Friends” episodes air on Max every Monday until June 23. 

Connor Moody is an Arts & Entertainment Intern for the spring 2024 quarter. He can be reached at cwmoody@uci.edu.

Edited by Jacob Ramos.