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Interview: Smiling Friends Creators Michael Cusack and Zach Hadel

AFA had an exciting chance to interview Michael Cusack (YOLO: Crystal Fantasy) and Zach Hadel, creators of Adult Swim's new animated comedy, Smiling Friends. Smiling Friends is a series that follows best friends Pim and Charlie. Together, the duo work for Smiling Friends: an agency that strives to brighten the day of everyone who calls their hotline. Smiling Friends' first season aired on January 9th, 2022 and will be available to stream from February 9th on HBO Max. The series is also available via the Adult Swim Channel on All 4 in the UK. In the interview, Michael and Zach discuss their personal careers, collaborative relationship, and the inspiration behind their new, hit show.

What inspired you to become animators? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

Michael: I always loved cartoons as a kid, and I just downloaded Flash on one of my computers when I was a kid and "tinkered" with it until I could make little cartoons. I was also inspired by people like David Firth, Marc M (Sick Animation) and a lot of other online animators.

Zach: I loved toons from both television and online as a lad and really wanted to create my own stuff. I found Newgrounds at a young age which allowed me to upload my work and, more importantly, to get the proper feedback to learn how to improve.

You both got your start as YouTubers. How did you transition to TV? Was your dream always to direct for Adult Swim?

Michael: I got my start in YouTube doing short animations. The goal for me wasn't to get into TV, but that certainly was a wish of mine. It didn't even seem possible when I started making videos for YouTube.

Zach: I'm not sure what the "standard" experience is because I only know my own, but the leap from YouTube to Adult Swim was really just a difference in scale. Essentially all the under-the-hood stuff like what programs we used and how we went in to change something were exactly the same as we're accustomed to doing things independently, which was really important.

How was Smiling Friends conceived? Where did the story come from?

Michael: Zach and I would just get together and draw and throw ideas back and forth, and a lot of the time it's coming up with characters, whether it be a voice or a drawing or both, then we figure out the funny circumstances to put those characters in. That seems to be the main writing process for us both when we come up with a show concept or even just writing an episode.

Zach: Michael and I knew we wanted to make a show and knew what humor worked well when we went back and forth, and from that characters, locations, and gags sprung up. Then we spent the next few years assembling all of that into something semi-coherent.

Can you tell us about the show's visual style? It's distinctly surreal, and you can definitely see the overlap with Michael's YOLO: Crystal Fantasy. What inspired that look?

Michael: The show is a stylistic mix between Zach and I. We also have characters and moments in the show that are completely different to anything we'd draw or even a guest artist. We like the idea that we can go anywhere stylistic in the show.

Zach: Michael and I usually just redraw the same character in each other's styles back and forth until something feels right. But you already knew that if you read what my friend Michael wrote above!

I understand that, in addition to directing Smiling Friends, you also voice the show's main characters, Pim and Charlie. How were those two created? Do you consider their friendship a reflection of your own?

Michael: Pim and Charlie aren't based on our friendship, although when Zach and I improv with each other, those characters seem to make sense interacting with each other, seeing as they are both very different.

Zach: We really didn't have a set in stone idea for what the characters were at the start of things, but as we went along it became apparent that we needed the main characters to be voiced by Michael and I to allow for easy back and forth improvisation and the ability to run in quickly and do re-records instead of forcing some poor voice actor to redo a small, inconsequential line of dialogue because it fit better.

Where do you see yourselves in the future, professionally?

Michael: Doing more cool fun creative things teehee!!!

Zach: Umm, same as above! ^_^

Finally: What is the Number One reason why viewers should watch Smiling Friends?

Michael: Because it rocks! Nuff said! :P Haha.

Zach: For every 10 people who do not watch Smiling Friends, Pim will lose a single digit on his hand or foot. This is the beginning of a long game, and we hold all the cards.

We would like to thank our friends at MPRM for arranging this interview--as well as Michael and Zach for their thoughtful responses.


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