Back in the mid-2000s, before the dawn of the modern internet era, Adult Swim was the go-to place for late-night animated comedy that wasn’t afraid to offend, shock, or just lose its mind. With shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Frisky Dingo, Metalocalypse, Venture Bros., and Harvey Birdman, Adult Swim and animation studio Williams Street consistently reminded audiences that adult animation could still be provocative and have teeth. At a time when Family Guy and The Simpsons were the face of the subgenre and were beginning to lose their edge, Adult Swim felt like it picked up that edge and became the impactful alternative. That spirit of irreverence, or absurdist insanity, is alive and well in Adult Swim’s latest series, Smiling Friends, a demented comedy that feels directly ripped from that earlier era of the block’s history.
Adult Swim has been struggling in recent years to maintain some form of relevance. In the past decade, the amount of shows that Adult Swim had a hand in propelling into mainstream awareness and critical acclaim have been few and far between. Of course you have The Eric Andre Show and Rick and Morty, but outside of those and possibly the Samurai Jack and Tuca & Bertie revivals, it’s hard to think of anything overtly noteworthy the channel has done in the past decade. It mostly exists now as a channel for reruns of its greatest hits and as the home of syndicated Fox shows.
A part of it comes from the fact that people are now looking elsewhere for their absurdist and dark humor. All you need to do is go on YouTube and you can find a whole plethora of channels dedicated solely to weird, demented comedy that Adult Swim was known for. This is doubly problematic in that Adult Swim once carried the perception of being a well-known “secret.” Whenever you watched something on Adult Swim, it felt like you were discovering something that no one else had ever seen before. But the secret is out now. Why would you wait until 3:00 a.m. to watch Unedited Footage of a Bear when you could find something similar at any time you like with the click of a button?
So it makes sense that Adult Swim turned to internet personalities to create Smiling Friends. The series is made by Zach Hadel of OneyPlays alongside frequent Adult Swim animator Michael Cusack. Make no mistake though — this is an animated comedy made by internet personalities for those who get internet humor.
The pilot originally aired on April Fool’s Day in 2020 and did not officially premiere until January 10 of this year. Originally only the first two 15-minute episodes were meant to air, but because Adult Swim frequently just does whatever it wants, it aired the other six episodes immediately after it because why not?
Smiling Friends is dark show, one that isn’t afraid to make demented jokes about nearly every taboo subject. The series it most reminds me of was another Adult Swim animated comedy, Superjail, albeit without the intense gore. The series follows Pim and Charlie, two employees at Smiling Friends Inc., as they go about trying to help people smile. Pim is a perpetual optimist who sees no wrong in the world, while Charlie is more of a down-to-Earth cynic who sees this as just another day job.
The situations that these two get put in range from being fairly mundane to bizarre, like helping a shut-in shrimp get over his recent breakup or trying to unfreeze Hell since Satan is depressed. There are plenty of other out-there scenarios, but they usually follow a theme where the Smiling Friends are woefully out of their element and don’t fully understand the psychological state of minds of their clients, which often results in murder, eating corpses, attempted genocide, and existential crises. None of that should sound out of place if you’re at all familiar with the style of Adult Swim, as all veterans of Too Many Cooks can attest to.
But what makes the series really stand out from its peers is how against the mold it feels. The animation is intentionally lazy, with the characters barely moving around or having simple and easy designs to animate. While other shows like Rick and Morty build up to long diatribes about sci-fi tropes and general narrative conventions with fairly polished animation, Smiling Friends opts to blaze through its runtime as quickly as possible and make you question what you even saw. Why is there an entire episode dedicated to finding out who murdered a live-action restaurateur? Why is the Boss of Smiling Friends Inc. a terrifying old man who is the most unsettling thing in existence? Why is Gilbert Gottfried God? And who in their right mind voted for Smormu?
All of these questions have no answer, and that’s exactly the point. It’s nonsense for the sake of nonsense. It’s manic humor that never lets up, and just when you think it’s going to go in one direction, it swerves into another one, very much like how older Adult Swim shows used to. It was fairly common back in the mid 2000s for a show on Adult Swim to deliver unsettling jokes and then just end with hardly any resolution. Again, that was the point. It was absurdist humor, and trying to inject logic or reason into it would defeat that point. All jokes die the moment you try to explain them.
Smiling Friends is chaos that should not be explained. Trying to find meaning in it is pointless, and there’s something to love about that. It’s black comedy for the sake of black comedy.
While the first season did premiere earlier this year, the series formally releases on HBO Max on February 9. Not many people know about it in the grand scheme of things, but that’s exactly what made all of Adult Swim’s earlier shows so memorable. You had to be in the know to even be aware of its existence, so take this as an opportunity to become aware. There’s plenty of time to get in on this nihilistic train ride to make people smile.