There's something truly magical about a small niche community finally being introduced to a massive audience, and finding instant success. On the 10th of January 2022, the mad geniuses over at Adult Swim exposed hundreds of thousands of people to the particular sense of humor that was once the domain of a website called Newgrounds. Smiling Friends first aired as part of an April Fools' Day programming block on Adult Swim in 2020, but the demand for more episodes was immediate, sustained, and overwhelming. In a surprise reveal, rather than releasing weekly, the entire series dropped without warning on a single night.
In the beginning, there was Newgrounds. Browser-based games were beginning to become big, allowing independent creators to make their own full video games for no money. A man named Tom Fulp created a website to host a couple of homemade games, and it gradually gained popularity. Fulp began to create unprecedented leaps forward in-browser games, through the use of Adobe Flash, leading to the still present shorthand term "Flash games." Fulp gained an audience and democratized it, crafting the Newgrounds Portal, which allowed anyone to upload Flash games to a rapidly expanding community.
Alongside games, art, music, and most importantly, animation developed and thrived within this tight-knit community of creators and fans. Though Newgrounds is no longer in its heyday, and other sites have overtaken its place of prominence, the impact it had on a nascent internet culture remains incalculably massive. The creator-driven world of solo developers and artists may have gone their separate ways, but many still command huge fan bases with the same sense of humor. One such creator is the iconic Zach Hadel, better known as psychicpebbles.
Hadel is known for his countless bizarre, hilarious, unnerving, and often incomprehensible animations. He was one of the fixtures of the later period of Newgrounds' success, beginning his long career in 2009 with short video game parodies and comedy sketches. He became so popular that a series he co-created was picked up for a pilot by Adult Swim, but unlike his current project, that show did not make it to series. Hadel regularly worked with other Newgrounds mainstays like Chris O'Neill, animated music videos for bands like Ninja Sex Party, and appeared on podcasts like SleepyCast. He remains somewhat active on both YouTube and Newgrounds today, with a dedicated audience of over a million.
The other creator of Smiling Friends is Michael Cusack, an Australian animator with a comparably weird aesthetic. Cusack joined Newgrounds in 2014 but uploaded his first video to YouTube around 2010. His style is absurd, while often remaining bizarrely grounded. He could almost be described as a cultural critic in the model of a more profane Gary Larson, except his content far more often turns completely incomprehensible. Cusack created YOLO: Crystal Fantasy, a series that premiered during the same April Fool's Day as Smiling Friends and was released throughout August 2020. Together, these two internet animation icons created one of the most joyously strange series available today.
Smiling Friends kind of defies summary. The premise is simple, a pair of friends work for a tiny company that strives to make its clients happy through whatever means necessary. In execution, however, it's a series of bizarre vignettes packed with social satire, dark humor, frantic screaming, and a never-ending stream of alienating absurdity. Even in its visuals, it's complete chaos, interweaving its particular style with stop-motion, 3D animation, and the occasional live-action scene. Zach Hadel is known for his unique voice, and making the most of that gift, he portrays around half of the characters who appear. He and Cusack split the Smiling Friends company evenly, each voicing a main character and a secondary.
On the subject of voices, the supporting cast is incredible. Newgrounds mainstays like Chris O'Neill and Mick Lauer make appearances. YouTube stars like Red Letter Media's Mike Stoklasa and Angry Video Game Nerd James Rolfe can be heard, and jarringly, seen. Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard and his brother Nick pop up. Gilbert Gottfried of all people takes on the voice of God. Beloved creators big and small; Lyle Rath, Harry Partridge, Joshua Tomar, and many more. Fans of this community are practically obliged to tune in.
This show is unquestionably not for everyone, as is to be expected from anything that fills an AM slot on Adult Swim. This really is a show that is surprising to see on TV, even from the network that gave America Too Many Cooks or Tim & Eric. Fans of any of the creators involved are likely to be fans of many of them, but this could be the induction point for a brand-new audience for this specific style of adult-oriented animated humor. Seeing the Newgrounds community going strong, and a few of the creators that once made it powerful helming a show like this is enough to bring a tear to the eyes. And Smiling Friends is enough to make a viewer cry laughing. The series is available On Demand from Cartoon Network today and will drop on HBO Max on February 10th.
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