August 12, 2022

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‘Smiling Friends’ Is a Paean to the Internet’s Unruly Past

Like many of the best animated series, Smiling Friends revels in adult darkness while looking like it was made for kids. Even its name could sound creepy or wholesome depending on your mood.

The Adult Swim show, which is airing a special episode tonight, follows two Smiling Friends employees—sunny Pim and cynical Charlie—who, at the behest of their boss, Mr. Boss, are given a simple task: Make clients smile. The pair seem to have no training, and often encounter bleak circumstances: In the pilot, they attempt to cheer up a man who constantly holds a gun to his temple. By the show’s seventh episode, a rival company, Frowning Friends, has set up shop across the street. (“I get it Pim, they’re the bizarro versions of us, but what’s the endgame? It’s just pissing me off now,” complains Charlie). It’s much easier to make people frown than it is to make them smile, and the new outfit draws a crowd, promising to reveal “the brutal cruelties of reality.” Frowning Friends’ grotesqueries, however, turn out to be stock footage of military marches and burning trees. “Is this really supposed to be …” Charlie says. “I’ve seen way worse on the internet.”

To be sure, much of Smiling Friends’ darkness, and humor, comes from the internet. Animators Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack say that the show, and that joke specifically, are throwbacks to a time when the web felt unfiltered—when it felt scary and chaotic and thrilling. Smiling Friends is steeped in early and mid-aughts internet animation and humor, a time when colorful cartoons about bopping badgers spread like wildfire and kids had to install the latest version of Flash Player to keep up. When being 12 years old, says Hadel, meant going to your friend’s house and having them show you the worst video they could possibly find. When kids crowded around a computer and beat up a digital George W. Bush, and braved shock sites like Meatspin, Lemon Party, and Rotten.com, the gore site that hosted pictures of dead people. “Rotten.com was the first website I went on,” Cusack says over Zoom. “I must have been seven years old or something—that’s fucked. It’s not good. Or is it? Maybe it is?”

Both Cusack and Hadel grew up in this era, and it’s also when they learned to animate. Cusack, the younger of the two, started making cartoons as a kid, but in his early twenties he began watching YouTube tutorials on animation and uploading shorts to the site; he’s produced his own show, YOLO Crystal Fantasy, and a parody episode of Rick and Morty. Meanwhile, Hadel, known online as Psychicpebbles (and the world’s strongest gamer), was building a following with viral Skyrim animations, the web cartoon Hellbenders, and video game Let’s Plays.

“He’d been animating for much longer than me and was a bigger personality on YouTube for animation,” Cusack says. “But we both had a similar goal to do TV. So we just teamed up and would work together and come up with projects, and Smiling Friends was one of them.”

Like so many artists, Hadel got started on Newgrounds, a haven for games and animation. For occasional visitors, Newgrounds was infamous for animated celebrity deaths and violent stick figures, but insiders knew where to find the good stuff. If the internet back then was a Wild West, Flash Player was the six-shooter, and Newgrounds the saloon. “At some point, I started seeing stuff get uploaded there that was on par with what was on television and even better in terms of the quality,” Hadel says. This friendly “cold war” between animators was inspiring. It was incredible to see whole cartoons—the music, voicing, writing, and animation—completed by one person. “I remember being as excited for a Tomorrow’s Nobodies episode as I was for Family Guy episodes,” says Cusack. What excited him was that both were equally important in his 14-year-old mind, but “one cost millions of dollars and one cost literally zero!”