Our story begins, as with so many things, with Fish Police.
Steve Moncuse, creator of a black-and-white indie comic about an underwater fish detective, had discovered another title to add to his comic company. It’s origin was slightly silly. Its creator, Steve Purcell, was playing a joke on his brother who had created two characters: a dog and a rabbit. Purcell would take that same duo, who were nominally detectives, and put them in all sorts of outlandish adventures. As it turned out, these silly stories started to get good. Purcell decided it was time to move his silly dog-and-rabbit to the big leagues, and the creator of Fish Police had their hooks in it. Sam & Max: Freelance Police was published under Fishwrap Productions in 1987.
Fast forward about six years and we see an odd diverging of fortunes. Fish Police was picked up to be an adult primetime cartoon to compete with The Simpsons. It failed spectcularly. Sam & Max, on the other hand, was destined for a more blessed fate. Someone at LucasArts (namely, art director Gary Winnick) saw potential in this duo of vigilante freelance police (and Purcell’s skills as an artist). Purcell got hired as a game developer. It was then that Sam & Max went from an obscure indie comic to a video game classic with Sam & Max Hit the Road. The point-and-click adventure would be loved for its oddball humor, it’s lovely art, and its unique take on Americana.
Purcell followed up with a well received episodic game series from Telltale Games. Currently he works as an animator at Pixar. Recently he was on the senior creative team of Coco and Incredibles 2, and he provided the voices of the creepy ventriloquist dummies in Toy Story 4.
But somewhere in between there was an animated series.
The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police appeared on Fox Kids in 1997. This was four years after the LucasArts game and (maybe more importantly) six years after Ren & Stimpy … the cartoon defined the 90’s and slipped subversive humor into a buddy cartoon about two anthropomorphic animal pals. Freelance Police show did fine. It even won the 1998 Gemini Award (i.e. formerly Canada’s Emmys) for Best Animated Series.
However, the timing wasn’t so great. Sam & Max showed up during an amazing animation boom in the late 90’s. Seriously: Nickelodeon, Disney, Cartoon Network, and Warner Brothers were constantly trying to one-up each other around this time with original properties and fresh new animation styles. We’re talking of the era of Dexter’s Lab, The Powerpuff Girls, Rugrats, Doug, Recess, and Animaniacs. It was a veritable era of peak animation. As promising as a Sam & Max cartoon sounds, the show couldn’t be helped but be lost in the shuffle, especially with the formerly formidable Fox Kids programming block at the beginning of its decline. The show was cancelled after one year. (Fox Kids would end 4 years later, a victim of the parent company’s focus to allocate money to buy NFL airtime rather than to animation. The block was already on the ropes, though, when Warner Brothers pulled their properties to Kids’ WB and the Cartoon Network… and that was partially because Fox Kids was giving valuable air time to live-action shows like the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.)
I was a little concerned jumping into this show. I already had some preconceived biases from playing the game, which at its core was an interactive cartoon. I remember when Sam & Max first aired and being a little put off by it. A huge, huge part of that was because I was such a big fan of the video game. Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson give our two characters relatively deadpan voices that contrast to their silly designs and the crazy retro 60’s kitschy world around them. They’re so witty and wry!
The cartoon voices are a bit more, well… cartoony. Harvey Atkin sounds less gruff and more like Robert Wuhl in his Knox role on Tim Burton’s Batman movie. (Atkin’s most prominent voice role is probably as King Koopa from the Super Mario show.) Rob Tinkler voice for Max was a little reminscent of Roger Rabbit. (This was his first voice role.) I admit the comparison is unfair. The actors were working toward different media. Still, Sam & Max sounded too cartoony for my tastes.
And then there’s the pacing. The LucasArts SCUMM system made an art out of the limitations of the point-and-click design. It’s all about things not moving that much. The jokes unfold slowly. The most action you get is the cyclical animation during the gameplay portions. So, when you get to a more action-packed scene, it feel a little more earned. It’s an easy-going aesthetic.
The cartoon, on the other hand, rarely gives you a moment to breathe. It’s one gag stacked on top of another, and it gets a little exhausting.
“Not my Sam & Max,” I would say with arms folded and a stern look on my face.
I was also slightly dispirited by this portion of the Wikipedia entry: “The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police was aimed more at children, even though some humor in it was often directed at adults. As such, the violence inherent in the franchise is toned down, including removing Sam and Max’s guns, and the characters do not use the moderate profanity that they use in their other appearances.”
After watching the show, I want to put a “Citation needed” tag on the gun part.
But you know what? Once I finished that first episode, a lot of my fears dissipated. There’s a refrigerator with mold food in it, it’s a portal to another dimension where some sort of monster exists. That’s a fine plot hook so far. Sam and Max travel through the fridge to confront this beast in what I was surprised to find out becomes a parody of The Thing. As it turns out, this show has some really off-beat movie call-outs.
Eventually they encounter the creature (and some imprisoned refrigerator repairmen) and discover that it’s a sentient sad pile of moldy food. Sam deduces that all this living food ever wanted was to be eaten. So… yeah, Sam picks up some utensils and eats the thing. But that’s not all! Eating a moldy food monster gives Sam a lot of gas, so he burps it all up. The expelled gas, in turn, fixes the hole in the ozone.
OK, show… you got me.
I kept thinking about Ren & Stimpy, and how that show made gross-out humor OK for kids. Sam & Max is a little tamer, it does cross the simila lines. In one episode, Max’s head getting opened up by a monster. We see his brain sticking out of his skull. It’s funny, if a little gruesome.
The difference, though, is how good-natured it is! Sam is never annoyed by Max’s crazy antics and find it endearing. No one is really annoyed by Sam and Max as a duo, and people call on them for help with their problems. And you expect that these two are going to screw things up… but they don’t!
They fix the ozone!
And solve problems they do! Sometimes it’s the martial problems of feuding Greek gods that requires intervention on a Jerry Springer style show. Sometimes it’s mole people who are wearing gloves that look like human hands. And sometimes they have to deal with the sea monkeys from the magazine ads. Each episode provides a strange new challenge, which our heroes regard with measured amusement.
When you start to think anout it, this episodic task based adventure is… a lot like Sam & Max Hit The Road.
The show upends expectations with ease. Take the time travel episode, for example. It does the whole butterfly effect thing. Sam and Max travel to the beginning of time. Max, being Max, kills a prehistoric fly. As expected, they change the future, where the world is dominated by bugs. The twist: Sam and Max actually find this pretty fun, so they decide to travel back in time again to arm cavemen with bazookas. Which somehow leads to Utopian Jetsons like world when they return to their present.
The episodes written by Steve Purcell are the stand-outs. Here, we’re on familiar territory, which capture that laid-back Sam and Max appeal. The characters feels less manic, the placing slows down a little, the weirdness is more subtle, and Sam’s familiar catchphrase of “You crack me up, little pal” just feels a little more sincere.
For example, the two take a trip to the moon. To breathe air they put paper bags over their heads with diamond holes cut out for eyes. The image is visually striking, especially when they start breathing and the bags inflate and deflate. (The effect is most bizarre in a short clip from the show’s intro sequence.). It turns out, though, that there’s air on the moon. Our duo discard their paper bag masks and hitch a ride to a city on the moon. One of their new friends is wearing a chimp mask, the other is wearing a zebra mask.
This is when Sam and Max feels most like the video games. It’s comfortable just cruising on its charm. I don’t know how much input Purcell has on each episode, but the ones he wrote have a lot of things in common. There’s striking imagery, cluttered scenes with fun individual details, and dramatic lighting. The character designs seem more on point, too. I suspect that Lorne, a dangerous Sam & Max fanboy and “friend for life”, may come directly from Purcell’s comics. His design is far more appealing than The Geek, the show’s resident tech wizard, who looks like she would be more at home on Jimmy Neutron.
The series ends with a fake clip show where Sam & Max face off against various villains that appeared in one episode each. They fly off, knowing that this is the end… but is it? They are the leads, after all, of a very unique franchise. One where they only have to appear once every 5 to 10 years. And when they do come back, it’s always to the appreciative response of, “Sam and Max? I love these guys!”
(h/t to Lancashire Crab for the recommendation)
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!