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Content warning: This article contains cartoon mentions and philosophical discussions of suicide.

“Smiling Friends” is an Adult Swim cartoon that is insanely absurd on every level, and it potentially holds the secret of happiness. The animated comedy is about colorful cartoon characters operating a hotline whose sole purpose is to make their customers smile. It has made the Internet more than just smile, however: So far it’s garnered massive amounts of positive reception and earned plenty of memes, a full-length fan animatic and even a video satirizing praise of the show. As the show becomes the target of my weekly obsession, I find it important to discuss the impact of absurdism — both in comedy and by French philosopher Albert Camus — and therefore, the impact of the Internet on the show, starting with its creators.

“Smiling Friends” is made by YouTube/NewGrounds creators Zach Hadel, an Internet-identified online goblin (known as psychicpebbles on the site) and Michael Cusack. Hadel is primarily known for his unique animations but has also made his way into other corners of the Internet in podcasts, Let’s Play channels and an uncannily accurate Trump impersonation beating the likes of late-night TV hosts everywhere. On the other hand, Cusack has his Internet animations in addition to more mainstream success with his Adult Swim show “YOLO: Crystal Fantasy,” Australian ABC Comedy pilot “Koala Man” and an absurd Australian “Rick and Morty” special. Hadel and Cusack uniting to animate a show together was a feat given the contrast in their styles — the former employs stylized smoothly-animated cartoonish characters in amusing and often hyper-violent situations, while the latter uses sketchy, often-jerky reflections of real life, deriving more humor from everyday awkwardness.

The visual resolution of this conflict is “Smiling Friends”, a combination of the two creators’ character styles into a cast that makes the cartoon’s world as chaotic as possible, mixing media styles on top of the hand-drawn 2D animation, such as 3D animation, live-action and rotoscoping. Hadel and Cusack get their giggles from a variety of different jokes: conversational dialogue that is both manufactured and improvised, constant background gags that contribute to the show’s liveliness and the creators’ philosophy that the funniest thing for their cartoon characters to do is to exist how humans do. Hadel elaborates on that last part best: “… they’re just real. That’s the joke. They blink and they have heart problems … these characters don’t hit a wall and flatten out. If you hit a character in the head with a hammer, they would have like (sic) a seizure.” Unlike the invincible creatures stemming from the rubber hose animation era, the “Smiling Friends” cast holds up a chaotically cartoonish mirror to reality. 

This execution of the creators’ vision and transition to a mainstream format is believed to be attributed to their top-down management of the project. Part of most YouTubers’ unsuccessful transition to traditional media is due to going from an online site where they have total control over every aspect of production to the restrictions by traditional rules of TV and film teams. On the other hand, Hadel and Cusack — who had already been animating, writing and voicing their shorts successfully for years — were involved with every step of the cartoons’ production. Hadel commented, “… we’re probably one of the few rare shows where the creators are literally going through and like, approving every prop, every fucking finger on every character, like I say, we’re really getting a bang for our buck.” Unsure if the show would be greenlit, the creators gave the pilot their all. However, “their all” includes humor to the absurdest extent when the cartoonish main characters — Charlie and Pim, voiced by Hadel and Cusack, respectively — are assigned to a client named Desmond who holds a gun to his head, threatening to kill himself in front of them if they can’t make him smile. Yes, this show is a comedy. In order to make light of a threat against one’s own life, we can talk about Albert Camus and, in the philosopher’s words, “broach the notion of suicide.”

To discuss the topic on Camus’ terms, we have to “purge it of its emotional content and know its logic and integrity.” The previous two quotations come from The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ essay conceptualizing “the absurd” as the chaotic consequences of everyday existence — that is, the vast amount of contradictions in rational layers of irrational modern life as we know it. Camus rejects suicide as an answer to the agony of this absurdity because he sees it as a contradictory assertion of life’s meaning. To end your own life means that you can’t find the truth of life and you’ve decided that the truth is that you must end it. That very same contradiction is what defines absurdity — learning to find joy in these contradictions and an unreachable journey toward the truth can give life meaning. 

The essay presents the Greek myth of Sisyphus — a mortal king who was punished for cheating Death by being forced to push a boulder up a hill for eternity, only to have the boulder always fall back down just as the peak is reached — as the absurd hero. Camus uses this as an allegory for the contradictory insanity and mundanity of everyday life but subverts Sisyphus’ suffering: “One always finds one’s burden again … this universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone … forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Perhaps we can do more than just imagine when we look at the Eastern version of Sisyphus — Malayalam folklore figure Naranath Bhranthan, who pushed boulders up hills of his own volition to laugh wholeheartedly at the sight of them falling back to the ground. Interpretations of this particular version of the myth include the journey towards detachment due to any efforts toward materialistic happiness ultimately being in vain. However, we can stay at the surface and respond to absurdity the same way Naranath does — with laughter. 

It is true that the looming suicide of “Smiling Friends” is a plot point that is used to create comedy, but contrary to this infamous review, suicide is not the joke. Not only is the absurdism of the show not used to mock suicide, but it also teaches us one of our only ways to cope with such subjects. Suicide in its contradictions is absurd, and so is living. However, Sisyphus keeps pushing, and Naranath keeps laughing. At the end of the pilot, Desmond finds a purpose for himself and motivates the “Smiling Friends” employees to keep going on with their jobs. Hadel and Cusack, in the contradiction of combining their comedic and visual styles together to create their own absurd universe, put everything they had into their pilot and their response to the premise of suicide, what Camus referred to as “the fundamental question of philosophy.” However, in succeeding to air such a dense and well-received pilot and then being commissioned for a season, how did the two motivate themselves and find more to put into the show? What would Sisyphus do if he finally made it up the mountain, only to see a new peak emerge?

Their attention to detail is in itself absurd — every layer of animation is checked repeatedly to maximize its comedy. Hadel has discussed many driving factors of making the show at length, but the two major components are his personal philosophy of always being goal-oriented and the need to leave behind a legacy. “Humans need to have goals or else you go insane. It’s better to be miserable and fulfilled than content but listless.” While you can disagree with the goals of humanity in his own philosophy, the display of his drive cannot be disputed, nor can the success of his show. From his failures, his friends, his fixation — Hadel has unceasingly marched his way upward. He and Cusack created something that is not only adored by the Internet — a refreshing dose of absurdism in the face of existentialist cartoons like “Rick and Morty” and “BoJack Horseman” — but has infinite reinterpretations. 

Doing research for this article was the first time in my life I enjoyed reading YouTube comment sections, as everyone gives specific bits of what they liked on clips and compilations of the show. In their monotonous work, Hadel and Cusack gave the Internet a show that has absurdly enjoyable repetition, as I myself have watched the pilot seven times and the entire season three times. Let’s go back to Sisyphus left at the foot of the hill. Sisyphus strives to push the boulder and gets stronger. If Sisyphus and Naranath knew of each other, they could share laughs over their struggles. In the seemingly unrelenting absurd repetition of everything, “Smiling Friends” finds a way to make you laugh — and for a kid raised by the Age of the Internet and its artists, it always makes me smile. 

Daily Arts Writer Saarthak Johri can be reached at