Adult Swim’s brand new animated series Smiling Friends follows the adventures of employees of a small company created to bring happiness to a very strange world! The company consists of cynical Charlie and star employee Pim, each tasked with out-calls to cheer people up. There’s also meticulous Allan who keeps things in order, mysterious Glep and the unpredictable billionaire Boss who founded the company. Created by Michael Cusack (YOLO: Crystal Fantasy) and Zach Hadel (Hellbenders), the show is animated by Princess Bento Studio.
We had a chance to check in with Michael and Zach to find out more about their fun new show, whose pilot episode has gained over 7 million views since it premiered in 2020 on April’s Fools Day on AdultSwim.com and YouTube. Here is what they told us about Smiling Friends, which premieres Sunday, Jan. 9 at midnight:
Animation Magazine: Gentleman, thanks for finding the time to chat with us. Congrats on the funny new show. Can you tell us how the show came to be?
Michael Cusack: So, Zach and I both grew up loving South Park and other similar cartoons. I used to love drawing as a young kid, and I’ve dabbled in filmmaking, but I got into animation in my early 20s and I made some shorts for YouTube. Yes. Zach and I actually met online, and we both realized we had common interests in making silly little cartoons. And we both loved the idea of making a purely comedic show like Smiling Friends.
Zach Hadel: Our goal was to have a show featuring a group of loveable characters, with a simple kind of concept, which we could take anywhere we wanted to. We wanted to make each other laugh, and Adult Swim [and director of comedy development Walter Newman] was kind enough to let us do just that!
You both worked on the animated Cyanide and Happiness Show. How did you meet?
Zach: We were both doing our own stuff separately. I knew of [Michael] because we were working in the same sphere and we followed each other on Twitter. Yes. And slowly we started interacting more. We started to talk more and more, and we realized that our sensibilities were pretty similar. We basically had ideas roughly for some characters and some locations.
We were at Gus’s Chicken restaurant in Burbank — when Michael was visiting from Australia — and we threw around some ideas. At first, we figured it was a hotline for people who were a bit unhappy. That’s how we came up with this connective tissue there that made it all click together. The company is an important aspect of the show, but it’s really the springboard. We have episodes of this season where it’s not even about the job at all.
How did you both come to animation? Did you study it in school?
Zach: No, no. We are both self-taught. I never took any classes at all. You can tell, because I’m not the best artist.
Michael: There are great tutorials online. I would just type in “How to learn Flash” and that was it!
When did you start working on the show and where is the animation actually produced?
Zach: We started the pilot in 2018, but on the series itself, we really started working hardcore end of 2020, beginning of 2021. I would say half of the show was done in Australia and the other half was wherever people were working on — in the Americas and Europe. Everyone was working from home.
Michael: We have a good relationship with Princess Bento, which is based in Australia. They were kind enough to facilitate our show. We could bring in animators that we know. It was a big hybrid.
Can you tell us about the animation and which tools you use to create it?
Zach: We primarily use Adobe Animate (which used to be called Flash in the old days) for the 2D stuff. We use Photoshop for the backgrounds. We also do some additional 3D stuff. But mostly, it’s an Adobe-based show, which is what we used in our YouTube stuff.
Now that the show is ready to premiere on Adult Swim, what are you most proud of?
Michael: Personally, I could go on and on about how proud I am of every single frame of the show. It has been a tough year and we had never done anything so big. There was a lot of fighting for what we wanted to do. So now that it’s all over and the dust has settled, I just love the overall cartoon, the unique characters we have — and we have a great cast and some lovely guest voices.
Zach: I am really proud of the fact that the show is pretty much our vision. Even if someone watches it, and it’s not something that they like, I hope they’ll come away saying, well, at least this is somebody’s vision. We definitely didn’t do it for the money. We did it because we wanted to tell these stories and execute this vision that we had. I feel like that got across. It’s so hard to do when you’re juggling, you know, budgeting and schedules, a bunch of different teams. So, the fact that the show reflects our vision, I think, is what I’m most proud of.
Fantastic — now,let’s talk about the show’s visuals and clever character designs.
Michael: We used to meet up in the days before the pandemic at diners and places like that and just draw and go back and forth. Zach would do a version of the character and we’d bounce off each other on that aspect of the design. So, the end product is kind of like this blend of styles. I do think the main characters do go through what I call a “final Zach gloss.”
Zach: So, yes, basically it’s about 50/50 our style. For the 3D stuff is a blending of the style of other people who worked on the show.
Michael: We don’t have a traditional style, like say Matt Groening’s style on The Simpsons. We can have a character walk into the office and it could look completely different to anything else on the show. In a way, it’s a celebration of animation and cartoons in general.
This brings me to my next question, which is: What are some of the animated shows or movies that had a big impact on you when you were growing up?
Zach: When I was really young, I was obsessed with SpongeBob SquarePants and also Dragon Ball Z. Anything on Nickelodeon, all the anime shows on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network. As I got older, I loved South Park, Beavis and Butt-head, anything that can make you laugh. I found The Simpsons later on. What inspired the idea for our show was that vibe: It’s just 10 minutes of hopefully making people laugh. That’s the only real goal — no hugging and no learning!
Michael: I was lucky because my dad actually let me watch South Park when it first came out — much to my mom’s anger. I was lucky to have that as an inspiration when I was young. Then, of course, The Simpsons and Futurama. I was a big cartoon-head. I love all of that stuff. I definitely tried to draw all the characters. Hopefully, I’m a little better at drawing them now.
Let’s talk about the development process. Did anything change drastically during the time?
Zach: Probably the biggest changes were just subtle design things. I have a file on my
computer that is probably from 2018, where Michael and I were on a Skype call and we have our two main characters, Pim and Charlie, just standing there, totally naked. One is blue and one’s red. There’s probably 20 iterations where we were trying different colors. So, the changes were all in the design area. Pim’s head shape gets a little different. He was taller than Charlie at one point. Maybe we’ll share that with the fans at some point.
What would you say was the toughest aspect of producing the show?
Zach: We didn’t have the largest budget. Trying to do everything you wanted to do on limited time and people, which is just the nature of any production these days. It was trying to get every single thing we wanted to get in the show.
Michael: There were so many moving parts. We were used to doing just YouTube videos, and now we had different teams. We are watching everything, doing every background and animating every shot. So, I think just the hardest part was just the workload and how many things were going on.
Did you learn any valuable lessons about creating a show that you can share with us?
Michael: I think the best thing to do would be to just work with people that you really get along with. Like, collaborate with people that have the same goals, the same kind of mindset. And even if they have a different one, they bring something else to that to be a twin. But as long as you’re on the same page and you’ve got the same goal, that’s probably the best thing you can do is get a good team around you.
Zach: Also, be a little bit unconventional and fight for what you believe in. So if you’re ever told like, “We can’t do that because that’s not the way it’s been done,” ignore that. I guarantee you there’s a way to do it. When something has been done a certain way, people may feel like there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. But sometimes when you do something differently, it feels like you just ripped a Band-Aid off, and now we have this whole new way of doing something, which is actually better. So if you really believe in something, you have to fight for it. Make a case for it and try to find a way to do it.
Smiling Friends premieres on Adult Swim Sunday, January 9 at midnight ET/PT.