Deep beneath an apartment block there’s a cave full of scientific equipment. In one corner is a girl, working away at her desk with chemicals bubbling by her side. Suddenly the fridge behind her begins to emit an eerie green glow. The fridge door opens and somehow the household appliance edges forwards, unbeknownst to the headphone-wearing girl. Tentacles reach out of the fridge, creeping towards the girl, ready to capture her…
Luckily she notices at the last moment, slamming the fridge door shut and lamenting the regularity of this weird occurrence.
A repairman enters the cave. He’s come to sort out the girl’s – her friends call her The Geek – wacky fridge. Apparently he can have the unearthly presence fixed in no time, placing the trouble down to a power surge. Uh oh! The fridge opens again, the repairman screams and nothing is left apart from a rise of smoke.
“Computer, put out an urgent call to Sam & Max!”
The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police
That “who?” was likely echoed by the children sitting down in front of their television sets watching The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police in 1997. Before appearing as an animated series, the detective duo Sam & Max made their original outing in comic book form. Written and drawn by Steve Purcell, the cover of the first book series saw the dog and hyperkinetic rabbity-thing duo running along the dirty streets of New York, both wielding guns. Although the pair also brandished huge grins, this wasn’t really kid’s reading material. A lot of the jokes and references would probably fly over their heads. Chances are they just wouldn’t get it.
The first two Sam & Max comic books were released in 1987, drawn in black-and-white and a lot grittier than some of the later stories. They proved popular and Purcell was contacted by various different television companies, all keen to take the crime fighting pair from the page to the screen. However, Purcell wasn’t overly eager to do a television show at the time, so he let the deal fall through.
A year later Purcell was hired to work for LucasArts, a gaming subsidiary of George Lucas’ film production company. Purcell provided his artistic talent to adventure games such as Zak McKracken and Monkey Island, both titles that are still lovingly received to this day. Purcell also contributed new Sam & Max stories to LucasArts’ newsletter. This garnered attention from the higher ups and led to Sam & Max starring in their own point-and-click adventure, Hit the Road.
The experience of licensing his creations to LucasArts gave Purcell a good idea of how they could be adapted for a different medium. Adapting to a new format can be tricky; the worst route you can take is to try and shoehorn everything about the old into the new. Instead, taking the core concepts of the source material and letting it breathe in the other medium is better. This is what worked well in Hit the Road and it warmed Purcell up to television. When Nelvana came knocking once more, he decided it was an idea worth exploring.
Marty Isenberg is an animation writer who, at the time, was doing a lot of work for Fox Kids. He stumbled across a Sam & Max comic collection and thought it was one of the funniest things that he’d ever read. He thought it would make perfect material for turning into a television show. He took the comic to Sidney Iwanter, the director of programming for the station. Iwanter was vaguely aware of the comics at the time and he agreed with Isenberg’s notions.
“Someday…” he said.
A couple of years later, Isenberg met up with fellow writer Dan Smith. The pair had both worked together previously on the animated Beetlejuice and Dog City shows. Dan was a big Sam & Max fan and revealed that Nelvana had managed to secure the animation rights to the series, a prospect which they both found hugely exciting. However, despite holding the rights to produce a season, a pitch still needed to be made the network superiors at Fox Kids in order to get the show on the air. Smith made it his life mission to see it through.
Purcell met up with Smith and together they worked on a ‘series bible’, an outline of the characters and the intended tone of the show. Smith knew exactly how to translate the series to the screen and his love of the characters made him perfect for the job.
They both travelled down to Los Angeles and made the pitch to Fox Kids. They were successful and the show was green lit.
Toning it Down
The show made it to the air in 1997 on Fox Kids in America and YTV in Canada. It lasted just one series, made up of twenty-four episodes that ran ten minutes each (bar the first and last, which ran double the length).
A children’s show was the opportunity that presented itself to Steve Purcell, so the style of the comics had to be toned slightly down to fit Saturday morning television. That meant no bad language and no guns (just bazookas and flamethrowers, which still get the job done). Despite this, staples of the series still remained: Sam & Max drove to wacky locations in their DeSoto, took on bizarre cases and had a reckless disregard for most things. It was by no means a corruption of Purcell’s creations, just a different approach.
Sidney Iwanter says that there wouldn’t be any concern if the show was produced now.
“We knew the rules. You’re writing for kids. You don’t do double entendre, you don’t make sly remarks that can be misconstrued. You’re responsible. Nowadays there’s a lot more physicality and pushing the line.”
Regardless, that didn’t stop the writers from dreaming. One writer was Robert Skir, who co-wrote some episodes with Marty Isenberg. Dysfunction of the Gods was such an episode, an outing which saw the freelance police attempt to relight the spark in Zeus and Hera’s marriage.
“My most major memory of the show was coming up with the best joke I ever wrote knowing it would never make it to air. It was just perfect Sam & Max, so I had to write it,” says Skir. “I have Athena shout, ‘I’ve had it with men. I’m moving to the island of Lesbos!’ We then whip-pan to Max, who has a pointer aimed at an island off Greece, beaming, ‘It’s a real place. Look!’ The gag was pure Steve Purcell, so I had to write it. But NO WAY were they gonna let it pass.”
A lot was passed, however, including things that made some parents anxious. Some of them even apparently tried to get the show pulled. Nowadays there are loads of cartoons with crazy, off the wall characters, but back then it wasn’t really done to the same extent. Purcell believes Sam & Max are truly unique characters for an animated series. Shows like X-Men and Goosebumps were heavily promoted at the time, but Sam & Max didn’t receive the same treatment. You could say it was before its time.
Purcell believes that doing Sam & Max in the right spirit was capturing the insanity of the pair. Where the show lacked violence or swearing, he made sure that the weirdness factor was ramped up to 11. Talking guinea pigs think Max is their leader, aliens open a restaurant that serve up humans and the pair go to the Earth’s core to help molemen find dates. Offbeat and weird it certainly was.
When the show aired, some of the long term fans were disappointed that the gunplay and adult elements they’d come to expect from the comics weren’t on show. However, nowadays Purcell mostly hears from people who bonded with the show when they were kids and have grown up to have fond memories of it.
The Geek was a character added in for the show and was originally envisioned as being a teenage boy. However, Fox Kids wanted there to be a female character for Sam & Max to work with. They originally suggested switching Max’s gender, an idea which Purcell and Smith instantly dismissed. Apart from the gender change of The Geek, the role remained pretty much the same as planned – working out of the Sub-Basement of Solitude, seemingly unpaid and providing the detective pair with cases. She essentially played the part of a visible Commissioner.
Fan reaction to The Geek was mixed. Purcell himself believes that it’s unwise to add a character to an established duo as there’s a rhythm that risks being spoilt. Although he didn’t mind the character, he tried to keep her in the background as much as possible. Her biggest role was in Sam & Max vs. the Uglions, in which she probably appears more than the titular heroes, but apart from that she was kept mostly hidden.
Creating the Stories
The stories would usually be pitched by Dan Smith, often from ideas of weird places or scenarios the detective pair could end up in. A lot of the writers had read the comics before working on the show and were keen to create their own adventures.
“The comics were daffy and absurdist and violent and hilarious. Sam & Max didn’t just inflict violence on the villains in the story, they did so on each other, remorselessly and often with great joy. This stuff was hilarious and I loved it,” says Bob Skir, one of the writers.
“I loved the irreverent humour and the random cultural references,” agrees Bob Ardiel, who was introduced to the comics by Smith. “Things like an octopus boasting how smart he was because he could open jars, I found hilarious.”
“Steve Purcell would make references to things like Star Wars in ways that made them funny but didn’t undermine them. Having Sam piloting an X-Wing fighter with Max as his R2-unit… brilliant,” says Skir.
When the show was being produced, Purcell was living in a barn in Marin Country and the crew were in Toronto. He would get a huge load of packages every day and would then spend hours on the phone with Smith, going through the scripts and adding jokes or changing elements.
Purcell found it challenging to tell a complete story in ten minutes of screen time. One of the episodes was adapted from the Bad Day on the Moon comic. Purcell’s first draft was about thirty pages long since it included everything from its comic counterpart.
“It needed to be closer to ten pages,” Purcell explains. “I whittled it down over time but it was a good example of how it’s sometimes more effective to create a story for the medium you’re working in instead of trying to make one thing into another.”
The Dysfunction of the Gods This episode came from network executive Sidney Iwanter’s suggestion that Sam & Max needed worthy opponents – thus they were put up against Zeus. Writer Marty Isenberg remembered from his high school mythology class that Zeus was quite the philanderer, so he came up with the idea to make Sam & Max marriage counsellors to the gods. Marty wanted inspiration on jokes, so he went to the library and took out a book on marriage counselling. Marty was newlywed at the time and, upon seeing the book, his wife asked, “Is there something you want to tell me?”
The Invaders This episode was born from lead writer Dan Smith, who wanted to do a story with jokes in a similar style to Tex Avery’s Droopy. Marty Isenberg remembers a Comic-Con party thrown by his agent, where he and fellow writer Bob Skir met up with Dan and Steve Purcell. They hadn’t yet thought up an ending, so they decided that concluding with every sci-fi twist thrown together in rapid succession would work – “Its the Statue of Liberty!”, “To Serve Man is a cookbook”, “Soylent Green is people!”. Marty says they thought it was a good idea at the time, but “maybe it was the alcohol talking”.
AAIIIEEE, Robot! Dan Smith and Steve Purcell came up with the idea of the Totzilla, but they hadn’t quite figured out how to have it pay off. Marty Isenberg put forward the suggestion of having a professor going up into space with a rocket full of bimbos and then bringing him back seeking revenge. The scientist was named Professor Sidney in a tribute to the network executive Sidney Iwanter.
Ready, set, draw!
Typically, design work on an episode began as soon as a script was nearing completion. However, depending on how pushed they were for time, sometimes the art team started when a story had only been outlined. Chris LaBonte, the art director and design supervisor, would draw up a list what needed to be designed and then the work was delegated. Steve Purcell would get first pick and would send as many designs through as his time would allow. LaBonte and Steve Whitehouse would then make any adjustments needed to Purcell’s drawings (usually just making them more animation friendly), but this wasn’t a problem.
From here, LaBonte would delegate the work out to the design crew. The team was divided up into specialists: characters, props and locations.
The backgrounds were all drawn using with an inked style. Goran Delic was the lead designer and it was his decision to introduce the look to the show, despite it causing a bit of friction in the studio. Whitehouse was keen to have a different and distinctive look to the background art, but the inking was a labour intensive process for commercial animation which took a slight toll on the production schedule.
“I can be pretty persuasive,” says Delic.
“We really did have the cream of the crop of the artists that the studio had to offer for the show, since it was quite a demanding property,” says LaBonte.
All images in the slideshow above are drawn and provided thanks to Salgood Sam.
Salgood Sam was one of the self-titled “art monkeys” on the show. He had collected some of the Sam & Max comics when he was young, along with other underground strips. It was his job to take the layouts created in clean pencil lines and render them in ink using a heavy feathered brush style. He had previously only worked with pen and markers, but Delic trained him up and he soon took to the brush.
The inking was primarily done with the Pentel pocket brush, along with acrylic and white out pens. Sam’s task, along with the rest of the inking team, was to introduce texture details and depth through the inks onto the sparsely designed backgrounds.
“There would be lighting indicators from the layouts to guide the shadows and feathering directions for each shot,” says Sam. “I’d trace the layers on a disk on pegs on a fresh matching sheet and then ink that. It was pretty straightforward in terms of the work.”
Once the designs were approved, the colour stylists and background painters would take the black-and-white artwork and create it in colour on the computer program Corel Painter. These coloured versions would then be presented to Whitehouse and LaBonte for approval. Sometimes LaBonte and Purcell would do colour sketches in advance for important and key locations.
When asked what LaBonte is most proud of from the show, he finds the question a difficult one to answer.
“I really can’t point to one thing, since it’s one of those projects that I am really proud of as a whole. I always like designing the more monstrous characters though. It’s really fun to make something horrific and funny at the same time.”
The team would often refer to the original comics, either for inspiration or for fun. As the art director, LaBonte found the comics a dream because they were so well designed themselves.
“I had bought a Sam & Max comic a few weeks before I was asked work on it. I liked the artwork and the fact they drove a cool car and it was a little violent sometimes,” says Mike Bass, the assistant director. “I like graphic comic stories with added humour over those only motivated only by vengeance.”
the show was chock full of references. these are but a few.
Another hugely important component of the show was the voice acting. Sam & Max had been voiced previously in Hit the Road, by Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson respectively, but new talent was sought for the cartoon.
Karen Goora did the casting for the show, having worked with Fox previously on X-Men. She wasn’t aware of the series before taking on the job, thus had no perception of Farmer and Jameson’s takes on the characters.
For the casting, actors would come in and read specific pages of the script. From there, a shortlist would be created of the top contenders. These performers would then come in and read together, in order to decide which pair worked well together. Voice recording would normally be done separately for other shows, but the decision was made to record simultaneously in order to bring the necessary chemistry to the characters.
“It was crucial for the dynamic between the two characters to work,” says Jocelyn Hamilton, the producer. It took a while to find the right actors but, eventually, Harvey Atkin and Robert Tinkler were chosen.
“Harvey was a more experienced, established Canadian actor with a long list of credits and name recognition. Conversely, Robert Tinkler was a complete unknown. Sam & Max was his first union job,” Goora explains. “It was an interesting mix – a seasoned pro paired with a total newcomer.”
At first it was a bit tricky for Harvey Atkin, who auditioned two or three times, to get to grips with Sam and give a wide range, but he eventually found Sam’s voice. Robert Tinkler, on the other hand, was apparently a bit bonkers in the studio and gave some great outtakes.
“Harvey is a great actor and also happens to have a comedic, offbeat voice, so he was a natural fit,” says Goora. “Robert was young, keen, and had natural comedic instincts. We explored different voices, but for the most part it stayed within his natural range.”
“Both were amazing and it made my job much easier,” agrees Toffan, the voice director.
Tinkler was inspired by the script, which he thought was brilliant. Steve Purcell handed him the Sam & Max comics on the first day of recording; Tinkler would always try to make him laugh at the sessions, knowing that if he did then the take was solid. He built the voice from looking at the artwork of Max.
“I always start with the art. In Max’s case, he has a broad grin and a mouth full of teeth,” he says. Atkin had a similar approach to the voice of Sam.
“I saw Sam as this great big-eared sloppy dog who I guess is kind of slow and would talk that way,” says Atkin. “And then they wanted him to be a little bit smarter than that, so we just speeded up the voice. Kept him down and speeded him up.”
Three VHS tapes were released (The Y Files, All Creatures Great and Small and Come Fly With Me) by Sullivan Entertainment, each compiling together a select number of episodes. However, only a small number of these were produced and soon the show had disappeared from the airwaves and the shelves.
Years later, GameTap, primarily a game distributor, began putting out one episode a week on their website, to coincide with Telltale Games producing a new Sam & Max video game. All episodes were put up apart from Fools Die in Friday. Although no official statement was given as to why, it was likely that the plot, a terrorist attempting to fly a blimp into the Statue of Liberty, drew unwarranted comparisons to the September 11 attacks in America. All episodes were taken down in middle of 2008 when GameTap’s TV section was closed.
Rumours started stirring in 2007 that the show could once again see a release on home media. Brian Ward, a producer at DVD company Shout! Factory, soon confirmed that a DVD box set was in the making, featuring all the episodes and shorts along with brand new art from Steve Purcell. The series was spread across two discs, with the third hosting special features like an interview with Steve Purcell and the series bible that he wrote during the show’s pitching process.
Farewell, Freelance Police
Sadly, the show only lasted for one series. Fox Kids had merged with Saban Entertainment in 1996, a production company known for low cost programming. When the time came to consider a second series, a fight ensued over the license fee. The license fee is what Fox would pay Nelvana to produce the show. Fox were not willing to give Nelvana what they needed to produce the show and the financial shortfall fell into the millions. It was an ongoing fight and eventually Nelvana had to put their hands up and say they couldn’t afford to produce a second series. Sam & Max was not a cheap show, it was a quality show, and it didn’t pass through the executive decision making process.
“It’s always going to be about money,” says Sidney Iwanter. “The ratings were fine. Today, the show would have a real cult status. It could even be on primetime, something like Cartoon Network.”
There was disappointment amongst the crew who enjoyed working on the show and believed it could have gone on for longer.
“We were starting to find a groove and a tone for how best to do the show. There was intrigue and a regime change at the network and so we didn’t hear until the last minute that we were not picked up,” says Steve Purcell. “I think Sam & Max have a bottomless supply of potential stories so we could have gone for a long time.”
“Those things happen as takeovers change the course of programming decisions. So, the show just didn’t get long life, unfortunately,” adds Jocelyn Hamilton.
There’s a real sense that everyone who worked on the show is, understandably, proud of what they produced.
“I hope everyone enjoyed the show. It was a labour of love for most of us, since it was not a run of the mill project. I think we took the studio to some new levels of quality for the Saturday morning genre,” says Chris LaBonte. “We often took flak for it, since it seemed like we were constantly behind ‘the schedule’ due to the level of care we were taking and the shear amount of man hours involved. It was a very ambitious project.”
“The experience of working with Steve Purcell and all of his genius (not to mention he’s a really great guy) was the best part. The whole creative team at Nelvana was fantastic and dedicated to making a great show that showcased the best of Sam & Max,” says Jocelyn Hamilton. “Steve Purcell was one of the most lovely, smart and interesting creators I have ever worked with. He was collaborative, thoughtful and a real partner in producing the series. He has often been the example for me as to what a show runner should be like.”
If the show was to be produced today then it’d probably be handled differently. Back then, it was the beginning of digital paint, but the black inking style of Sam & Max meant that it was a lot of work for the layout artists.
“Today, it would all be digitally animated and the layout process wouldn’t even exist,” says Hamilton. “With all the techniques that exist today, I’m sure it would have been a little simpler and a little less time consuming. We could have played around with hybrid 2D and CG combinations which could have made it look really cool as well.”
“I think the show we did stayed faithful to the comic book look, for the times and for the money. I don’t think it would even be considered a viable option today, unless a feature was on the cards, along with several series to back the production values”, says Mike Bass. “Oh, and it would have to come in on budget!”
“I wish there was work like it around to do these days for the same kind of money,” jokes Salgood Sam. “It was nice to have had a part in such a cool show.”
“We’ve often discussed trying to do another season of Sam & Max today now that I work on the broadcasting side of the business. I have a sweet spot for the property,” says Jocelyn Hamilton. “Kids today, though, wouldn’t necessarily know the property so it’s tough.”
Sadly, though, those discussions were just internal and they didn’t go far. Purcell, however, has a different idea on how the show could be produced in the modern day.
“If I were to do it again, I think it could still work for all ages but it would be fun to do a version that was pointed at an older audience,” he says.
Even if the show never returns, fans still have a whole season of episodes to enjoy. The episodes still stand up to this day, ready for a whole new generation to discover. At seventeen years old, that’s quite a feat.
A huge thank you to Bob Ardiel, Bob Skir, Chris LaBonte, Debra Toffan, Goran Delic, Harvey Atkin, Jocelyn Hamilton, Karen Goora, Marty Isenberg, Mike Bass, Rob Tinkler, Salgood Sam, Sidney Iwanter and Steve Purcell for taking their time out to talk about their superb work.
Thanks for reading!