Animation allows creators to explore their creativity with virtually no restrictions. With animation, stories can be told in ways not possible with traditional media. Any location can be explored, any character design is possible, and actions and emotions can be exaggerated in unique ways. Anime shows aimed at adults usually take full advantage of the limitless nature of the medium. Adult Swim’s animated comedy, Smiling friendsis no different. Smiling friends features a variety of bizarre “creatures” and exotic locations like the Enchanted Forest and Hell. And yet, the Smiling friends the world seems incredibly ordinary: bland, aimless conversations happen. There are awkward realistic interactions between characters and time is wasted on monotonous arguments. Smiling friends continuously throws these simple moments at the audience, and unless the viewer is paying attention, chances are they won’t even notice the number of instances. But they certainly laugh at them. After all, these mundane moments define the humor of Smiling friends more than anything.
Some of the funniest moments of Smiling friends are a reflection of the boring everyday life of the average person. Perhaps the most notable example of “mundane humor” comes in the show’s season finale, “Charlie Dies and Doesn’t Return.” In the episode, Charlie is sent to Hell and has an encounter with Satan which is interrupted by a counterfeit Uber Eats delivery. Satan and the delivery guy exchange meaningless conversation about the app having issues, showing the wrong address. They have to interrupt the entire interaction so they can take a picture of the food, and an unnecessarily long and boring “have a good night” end of conversation takes place. Then, to end the scene, Satan opens the bag to find it’s missing its straw and begins muttering angrily.
This track takes up nearly a full minute of the 11-minute cartoon. The scene is long, awkward, relatable, and extremely funny. But what makes this scene work isn’t just the familiar blandness, it’s the juxtaposition of the mundane versus the bizarre. The scene subverts audience expectations by placing something we’re used to in a setting we wouldn’t expect to see. In this case, it’s the combination of frustrations from Uber Eats and Hell.
Audiences wouldn’t initially expect Uber Eats to exist in hell, so while it’s a very normal thing in our world, the mere fact that it exists in this scenario is humorous. And thinking of Satan, someone would reasonably expect him to act violently and maliciously, especially when it comes to a dull, boring situation. But in Smiling Friends, the ruler of Hell behaves in exactly the same annoying way as an ordinary person. He’s remarkably calm, understanding, and goes through the same monotonous motions that everyone who watches the show has gone through.
Smiling friends uses this same formula in scenes throughout the show. Even in the pilot, “Desmond’s Big Day Out,” there are examples to see. In this episode, Pim and Charlie are tasked with cheering up a dangerously suicidal man named Desmond (who holds a gun to his head the entire time). The three spend the day together and do all sorts of fun things, but at the end of the day, Desmond still hasn’t smiled. Pim is physically and mentally broken by his failure and cannot handle the fact that his boundless optimism has not cured Desmond’s depressed cynicism. With Desmond on the verge of suicide and Pim paralyzed, Charlie must break through the chaos and get the group back on track.
He informs Desmond that certain forms must be completed before he can kill himself, and Desmond politely agrees to return to the office with him. This exchange is the note on which the scene ends, and it is the perfect punctuation. Pim’s mental breakdown is completely ignored and Desmond’s suicide plans are put on hold only because tedious paperwork needs to be completed. Realistically, audiences would expect a suicidal nihilist holding a gun to his head to not care about some useless material. Just like in the Uber Eats scene, expectations are turned upside down and absurdity is juxtaposed with boring. This ultimately creates a funnier and more memorable scene.
But all this can be taken a little further. Even if the subversion of expectations in specific scenes were to be ignored, Smiling friends‘Common humor always works. This is because the existence of monotony is a form of comic subversion in itself. Many adult animated comedies lean into quirky humor filled with absurd gags and unrealistic storylines. It makes a lot of sense. When the sky is the limit, as it is in animation, why not use that freedom to create humor? But when that singular style of comedy becomes the dominant or sole source of humor in a show, all the jokes become less punchy. Shocking, outlandish situations are a lot less funny the more they appear, and when dozens of shows have used the same style of over-the-top comedy, the whole genre begins to stagnate. But the comedy of Smiling friends feels fresh, and that’s ironically because it embraces the boring.
Including these moments gives Smiling friends a more interesting identity and provides some of the series’ most memorable bits. With the introduction of mundane humor, the viewer is ironically more engaged because it’s impossible to know when Uber Eats will derail the plot, or when the suicide will be delayed because certain paperwork must be completed first. All the jokes in the series benefit from this unpredictability. When Smiling friends employs the trademark goofy humor used by other adult animated comedies like rick and morty, it’s funnier because it’s surrounded by normality in the other scenes. The episodes quickly switch between mundane and over-the-top, and despite the contrast between them, nothing feels disjointed when watching. Smiling friends. The co-creators of the show, Michael Cusackand Zach Hadel were able to create a world that was both hilarious and fun. The juxtaposition of these styles and the subversion of gender-defying expectations explain how Smiling friends creates humor out of monotony.
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