Toon Zone Interviews Steve Purcell About "Sam & Max the Animated Series"
Cartoonist Steve Purcell’s resume reads like a cult nerd hit-list. When he was a boy, he would parody his younger brother’s comic strips, eventually creating Sam and Max, a duo of freelance detectives. Sam is a man-sized dog shamus in a shabby suit and Max was…well, you’ll see what Max is. During the 1980’s black-and-white comics boom kicked off by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Purcell turned Sam and Max into a minor indie comics hit, published alongside Steve Moncuse’s Fish Police. He then took a job with LucasArts, sneaking Sam and Max into the background as he provided artwork for their famed adventure games. Eventually, he began drawing a regular comic strip for the newsletters packed in with the games. As they grew in popularity, they got their own adventure game that still elicits wistful memories from old-school computer game fans everywhere.
From there, Sam and Max made the jump to Saturday morning TV on the Fox network with an animated series that lasted one season in the 1990’s. The complete series was just released on DVD from the Shout! Factory, and Toon Zone News was able to catch up with Purcell about making the jump from comics and adventure games to Saturday morning cartoons, where he showed more than rational patience with our silly questions. Unfortunately, Purcell wasn’t able to talk about his current position at Pixar Animation Studios (well, what he really did when we asked was to leap at us screaming, “Death from above! Death from above!” while clobbering us with a giant cartoon hammer, which is really quite impressive because we conducted this interview via e-mail). However, he had lots to say about the Sam & Max animated TV series.
TOON ZONE NEWS: In earlier interviews, you’ve mentioned that Sam & Max came out of cartoons your younger brother Dave drew and you finished. Has he ever come after you for any of that filthy Sam & Max lucre?
STEVE PURCELL: Because Sam & Max are so different from anything he was doing is the reason I’ve escaped his ire. Doing a parody of the way a little kid writes comics was the jumping off point and over time Sam & Max’s personalities evolved into how you know them today.
TZN: So what is Max, anyway?
PURCELL: Of course he’s a hyperkinetic rabbity thing! Isn’t it blatantly obvious?
TZN: How exactly did you hook up with J.D. Smith to produce the TV show?
PURCELL: Dan was a fan of the comics. I first spoke with him when I was making games at LucasArts. It wasn’t until years later after the comics and LucasArts game were released that I was able to work with Nelvana on a show. We developed the idea for a while before traveling to Los Angeles to pitch it to the networks.
TZN: Between you guys and Fox, who had to convince who that Sam & Max was something suitable for a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon?
PURCELL: I don’t think I can talk anyone into something they don’t want. I remember doing an incomprehensible, cotton-mouthed pitch at the network. That must have been exactly the right approach because they bought the show.
TZN: How involved were you in the production of the show? How heavily were you involved in monitoring the art and writing of the other crew members?
PURCELL: I was living in a barn in Northern California at the time. Every day I would get a ten pound bundle of scripts and artwork from the crew in Toronto. I would sift through it all and make notes and draw whatever I had time to. Dan Smith and I would yak on the phone for hours working out the scripts. We had great writers that Dan had worked with in the past. From time to time I would fly up to Toronto to be involved in casting and music discussions and such. At lunch the crew liked to go across the street from the studio to shoot pool and drink beers. The production had a nice vibe.
TZN: What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in moving from comics to TV?
PURCELL: There was one comic story we attempted to adapt — “Bad Day on the Moon”. My first draft was about thirty pages, way too long for a ten minute episode. We kept whittling things out of it and having to rethink some of the carnage. Though a lot of funny lines survived, eventually we realized it was more effective to design the stories for the medium we were working in.
TZN: How did you manage to sneak all the stuff in the show past Broadcast Standards & Practices? How often did you get in trouble with them?
PURCELL: I think certain weird jokes that made it in were just obscure enough not to raise anyone’s hackles. I remember in “The Friend For Life” Sam lamenting to Max about superfan, Lorne, ” What do you do with a guy like Lorne?” Max replies, “I know! Get him to follow a marshmallow peanut trail into the furnace!?” Sam answers, “That’s patently irresponsible Max. And besides, we don’t have a furnace.”
TZN: What was the strangest or most bizarre thing that they gave you grief about on the show?
PURCELL: I understand they have a tough job. The way the notes were written was very matter-of-fact and always with a “please”. I remember thinking it was bizarre that they wanted Max to wear a crash helmet when Sam tossed him into a wall. I guess they thought kids were going to lob their pets through a brick wall.
TZN: The Geek was added for the show, and she’s one of the rare “kiddie show” additions that isn’t horribly annoying. Who came up with the Geek? It was a suggestion from Fox that changed the Geek’s gender from male to female, but how much other stuff with her came out of network notes?
PURCELL: Strictly gender. I had a little brainiac guy in the pitch document and when they asked for a girl in the cast I switched him. There was no pressure to define that character in any other way. An early note had suggested making Max a girl so after hearing that note, adding a random girl in the cast felt pretty non-intrusive. At one point early on I had Honey and Hack Hatchet; a sexy landlady married to giant lug in a Mexican wrestling mask. They just sort of felt out of place as we developed the show.
TZN: No, seriously…WHAT is Max, exactly?
PURCELL: Max represents the unrealized potential of every brain addled, over-reactive fluffy white creature from the Id. Is that clear enough?
TZN: Is there anything specific in the show that you’re particularly proud of or would really, really like to change with the benefit of hindsight?
PURCELL: I thought that Sam & Max themselves were very true to their comic book personalities. There were plenty of weird random jokes that survived. There was a visual gag I boarded myself that I was proud of where Max is trying to amuse Gary, a little telekinetic boy. Max reaches into his mouth and peels back the skin off of his skull, then lets it snap back into place as Gary giggles.
TZN: Who was the insane genius who came up with the idea of doing an Apocalypse Now parody in Saturday morning cartoons?
PURCELL: Dan Smith and I would bat around most of the show ideas. I couldn’t tell you exactly who it was who hatched that one but I really wanted to see an Enormous Marlon Brando squirrel in it and wound up doing his character design.
TZN: How well did Sam & Max do in the ratings?
PURCELL: I’ve got a copy of Hollywood Reporter that listed Sam & Max among the top ten rated kid’s shows that season. I remember when it was on in the afternoon it got almost 25% of the audience.
TZN: Do you know why the show wasn’t picked up for another season?
PURCELL: There were some major personnel changes at the network at the time. We waited until the eleventh hour to hear if we were going to be renewed. By the end of the run we were really feeling like we understood how to do the show. I think a second season would have been great.
TZN: Have you ever had an experience where someone you never would have guessed has told you he/she is a Sam & Max fan?
PURCELL: All the time. Fortunately some of them run companies and I wind up getting to do a Sam & Max project with them. Right now I’m working with Telltale Games on Season Two of an episodic game series.
TZN: It’s hard work being weird. What kinds of things do you do/did you do if you felt like you were repeating yourself or getting stale?
PURCELL: I’ve always try to mix up what I do for my living. I like painting and drawing and writing things that have nothing to do with Sam & Max. Then when I come back to revisit Sam & Max the insanity flows like a mighty river. Or maybe a Slurpee machine. I always mix those two up.
TZN: Last question: what the screaming blue heck IS Max?
PURCELL: Max is everything I secretly aspire to be.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Steve Purcell for taking the time to talk with us, and to Tom Chen at the Shout! Factory for setting it up. The complete Sam & Max: Freelance Police DVD set is available now, and new Sam & Max game chapters are available from Telltale Games.