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"Sam & Max: Freelance Police!!!" – You Crack Me Up, Little Buddy

by on March 10, 2008

In the late 1990’s, cartoonist Steve Purcell and a band of like-minded miscreants managed to convince the Fox network to air an animated adaptation of his Sam and Max: Freelance Police, an irregularly published independent black-and-white comic book that had been turned into a cult favorite adventure game by LucasArts. The series ran for one 13-episode season, where it bounced around on the Fox Saturday morning schedule like a flubber superball dropped in a zero-gravity pachinko machine before it was ignominiously cancelled, and I can’t believe I just said “ignominiously.” Shortly thereafter, the world began seriously going to pot.

The duck who plays bass couldn't make it
Typical day at the office for Sam and Max: Freelance Police

I do not think that these two events are unrelated. The only question is whether Sam and Max: Freelance Police!!! was the cause of the general madness that afflicts the world today, or whether preventing that tragically premature cancellation would have avoided the global pain and suffering that followed. However, since the particular brand of madness that Sam and Max inflicted on their show is a lot funnier than the madness in the world today, I’m going to go with the latter theory. Luckily, those crazy clowns at the Shout! Factory have done their usual bang-up job getting the series into a package that may have the highest laugh-to-weight ratio of any DVD boxed set in recent memory. I expect world peace to kick in any minute now.

The show centers on Sam and Max, a six-foot tall canine shamus in a ratty suit and a three-foot tall hyperkinetic rabbity-thing, respectively. The pair are Freelance Police, seeking to right the injustices of the world and counter the uglier elements of society through colossal violence, indiscriminate mayhem, fast-paced and non-sensical dialogue, bizarre running gags, self-referential fourth-wall jokes, genuinely funny pop culture references and parodies, and the occasional perfectly placed joke centering on a disgusting bodily function. It combines The Tick‘s surreal theater of the absurd, the freewheeling anything-goes anarchy of classic Looney Tunes shorts, and fast-paced dialogue worthy of classic Hepburn and Tracy comedies if Hepburn and Tracy made occasional fart jokes. There ought to be a warning label on the packaging that you can laugh yourself into an internal injury if you’re not careful. It hasn’t aged at all, and could be dropped straight into the Adult Swim lineup (<- SUBTLE HINT) to become their next big breakout hit, if it weren't for the fact that it makes so much of the current programming look so bad. (There was a subtle hint back there, just in case you missed it. I know you're listening.)

Expect to use the rewind button on your remote a lot while watching this series. For convenience, I’ve provided a numbered list of common explanations you will need to justify what would otherwise seem like extreme obsessive-compulsive behavior:

The Victoria's Secret Lingerie show has really gone downhill.
Excuse #1 seems the most fitting one here.

1. “Did they just do what I thought they just did on a Saturday morning kids cartoon?”
2. “I’m sorry, I missed the last five minutes because I was laughing too hard.”
3. “I have to watch that again because that was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
4. “Hey, come here! You have to see this!” (Note: this excuse works far better if there is actually someone else nearby. It’s even more effective if you know this person, and aren’t attempting to just grab random passers-by. Not that I and my many restraining orders would know anything about this PERSONALLY, of course.)
5. “Death from above! Death from above!”

Note that these three explanations are not mutually exclusive, and you may need to fall back on more than one on a regular basis. In fact, all of them apply with great regularity in “We Drop at Dawn,” a pitch-perfect parody of Apocalypse Now (and even the documentary Heart of Darkness) that drops Sam and Max into an uncharted pocket of Central Park. The fact that they were even willing to do an episode like that at all should tell you plenty about the attitudes that drive Sam and Max.

I got your new TPS cover sheet right here!
Lots of computer problems can be solved with big cartoon hammers. True fact.

When you think about it, there’s just no way this show could have possibly survived on network television for more than a season. It was just too smart, funny, and good to last. It’s surprising to see how much of the tone and attitude of the original (not very child-friendly) comic strip survived the translation to Saturday morning animated kids TV. If the show didn’t drive Broadcast Standards & Practices into apoplectic fits, I can only imagine it was because the crew had either blackmailed or kidnapped BS&P for the duration of the season. Trying to pick out a best or a favorite episode is an exercise in futility—the show manages to maintain an incredible consistency throughout its run, both in the writing and the animation. Even before you’re halfway through disc 1, you’ll have seen too many pants-wettingly hilarious moments to try and keep track of. Sam and Max: Freelance Police!!! is a show made for DVD, since you’ll need that rewind button and it’s the kind of show that is still riotously funny after repeated viewings.

Luckily for us, Sam and Max has gotten the treatment it deserves for their triumphant return to TV screens across America. Shout! Factory has carved out its niche with their excellent season sets of slightly more obscure TV shows, and their 3-disc set of Sam and Max: Freelance Police!!! is outstanding. Two discs are dedicated to the 13 episodes of the show, presented in full frame with sensible chapter stops that let you skip over the opening and closing credits easily (they’re fun, but not when you’re watching them for the fifth time in 90 minutes). About the only thing to complain about on either one is the lack of subtitles of any kind, although you’d need to be a world-class speed-reader to keep up with the show’s rapid-fire patter. Keep an eye out for an Easter egg of Steve Purcell chatting with a fan during a signing at the San Diego Comic-Con, too. The third disc has a terrific set of extras: “A Comic Conversation with Steve Purcell,” detailing the long history of Sam and Max in comics, video games, and animated kids TV; a collection of the three hilarious animated interstitials from the show, especially useful if you want to attempt the Max hand puppet; a riotously crass Flash short titled “Our Bewildering Universe” that presents an alien autopsy Sam and Max style; a concept art gallery; and a documentary on Telltale Games, the publishers of the new Sam and Max computer games. Only the last one is a little disappointing, since it feels a bit too much like an extended commercial. There are also PDFs on the bonus disc of the original series bible and the concept art gallery, and a playable demo of Telltale Games’ Sam and Max: Ice Station Santa (Windows only—boo for no Mac version!). Add in a nifty Sam and Max sticker to announce your mental deviancy to the world on the appliance or body part of your choice, and you’ve got a sure-fire package of fun in two DVD slim cases.

I got it! I got it! I got it!
Expect similar scenes over the last Sam and Max set at the store

Clearly, what the world needs now is love, sweet love. Absent that, I’ll be happy to settle for a show that can give us the galactic menace Lactose the Intolerant, the Rubberpants Commandos strike team, the best clip show ever, a reason to rub a Sasquatch in your armpit, creative uses for a giant lagomorphic-shaped robot, and hilariously subversive Christmas and Valentine’s Day episodes. Sam and Max: Freelance Police!!! is a real gem of a show in a real gem of a package. It’s a sure bet for fans of the original comics or the video game, but even if you’ve never heard of Sam and Max, there’s no rational reason not to drive recklessly* to your local video dealer of choice and slap down your hard-earned cash for this set. If it doesn’t bring about world peace, at least it will produce a lot of good laughs.

*: Our lawyers are making us say that Toon Zone News does not endorse driving recklessly at any time for any reason. We suggest not to drive recklessly at all unless your death will be really funny when it makes the evening news and doesn’t take out too many innocent bystanders when it happens.

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