Human beings seem to have this idea that, if animals could talk, they would be terribly cynical about everything. One of the archetypal examples of this is Hobbes from the Bill Watterson comic strip. Even though Hobbes is a bouncy, joyous character, his view of humanity is pitch black. I bring up Calvin and Hobbes because those title characters make an informative comparison to Sam and Max.
Both are duos of comic characters created in the 1980s who have a great deal of cultural prestige despite not being as popular as, say, Snoopy. Where the two diverge is in tone. Calvin and Hobbes certainly had a satirical streak, overtly parodying Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Superman‘s overheated prose styles and flashy artwork. Wattersons’ characters also often took opportunities to mock disposable American consumer culture, conveying their creator’s well-known aversion to commercialism. The comic strip could also have a genuinely curious spirit to it, mocking hypocrisy but openly celebrating creativity and the wonder of nature. Sam and Max, however, descends from the Looney Tunes lineage. In all of its incarnations, the characters are manic, frequently self-aware, and almost totally amoral, committed to causing chaos and raising Cain. It’s not hard to see the deranged, sharp-toothed lagomorph Max as a 1980s update of Bugs Bunny with an appetite for destruction and a craving for stomach-churning junk food.
But now I want to focus less on the characters of Sam and Max themselves and more on their relationship to that junk food. And cheap toupees, celebrity-shaped gourds, circus freaks, and the world’s largest ball of twine. Yes, this is another salvo in my ongoing discussion of kitsch, the commoditized lifeblood of the American art market, the river of tripe that New York galleries blissfully glide over like unicorns in a summer meadow. One of Sam and Max’s defining characteristics is their prostration before almighty plastic doodads and greasy processed foods. They are head-over-heels ironically in love with everything chintzy and pandering. In many ways, they are the ideal post-Fordist consumers: ironically detached and able to mock the hell out of knick-knacks and fried foods but only too willing to purchase tons of it. In the comics, games, and the television show Sam and Max: Freelance Police (the first game being our main topic for the evening), the characters have an ambivalent relationship to filth and junk. They are “skeptical hedonists,” savants of the known-to-be-bad. Observe the following typical exchange:
This conversation happens early in the game and serves to establish the tone of the piece. Sam, the more moral one of the pair, sports both a faux-Bogart voice and a withered sense of duty. Max, on the other hand, is more like the aforementioned Bugs Bunny mixed with the Tasmanian Devil. His heart is in it for the anarchy, with any attachment to the cause of justice being tenuous at best. Jokes like this function in a specific way: they call attention to social problems, trite tropes, or other unpleasant business, but lacking any kind of critical edge. There is no imperative to the punchline because the jokes are subsumed in a text that dissolves everything into a cartoon triviality. The pace of such lines works differently in an adventure game than in a television show, of course. In a TV show, episodes develop themes and incidents over time in a linear fashion, which means that jokes can play off of one another and relate to each other in time in a very specific way. In a game, on the other hand, every joke is its own self-contained bit.
The little gag shown above happens when the player inspects a carnival game, which may not ever even happen. Of course, for the joke to work it still has to be in-character and have good internal timing, but the flow of language in the game is not predetermined or holistic but highly contextual: click on something and be rewarded for a joke. It’s a different kind of humor, and because of that these “political” jokes have even less impact than they would in the show. Lines like this pertain to a single situation, producing a witty retort or maybe some back-and-forth leading to a punchline, after which the player clicks on something different. There is a flow, and themes and plot lines do develop, but there’s nothing incisive or biting about it; it’s parody but, ironically given Max’s grin, toothless.
Chuck Kleinhaus notes that parody is “persistent under conditions of advanced capitalism. Parody stands as a means of accommodation to things that people think they cannot change.”¹ Sam and Max are almost utterly unprincipled, which is a winning trait for cartoon characters because they can embody a pleasant fantasy of consequence-free mayhem. It would be wrong of us, though, to mistake wry jokes as being in any way subversive. Let’s look at another gag to see another example of what I mean. The setup is that Max is appalled by the fact that the Siamese twins who own the local carnival are technically naked since their skin just grows as green vinyl––it makes little more sense in context––whereupon Sam reminds Max that he is also naked. Max responds:
I have to concede that, of the two technically naked characters in this scene, Max is easier on the eyes. More to the point, what we have here is a self-aware commodity. Not only that, but the mascot characters in this capitalist entertainment product are fully aware of their being shills for a game company. What’s notable is that not only are Sam and Max utterly at peace with their kitschy American world, they are knowingly kitsch themselves.
To delve once more into the scholarly realm, let’s quote Kleinhaus one more time:
The characteristic parody of self-aware kitsch promotes what John Fiske has called “skeptical hedonism” in audience response to much mass-culture documentary, that is, we all know this is a fantasy, but we want in on the fun of such phenomena, for example, as television wrestling or supermarket tabloid headlines. In this duality of response, self-aware kitsch is related to, or overlaps with, Camp.²
What we have here is an explicit example of what modern advertising thrives on: its ability to convince its audience that it is in on the joke. At this point, satires of advertising are often actually advertising themselves, showing to me that satire is ultimately toothless as a tool for social change. As long as capitalism needs to stoke consumer demand to absorb its immense surplus and avoid crises, advertising will evolve in response to culture’s attempts to render it impotent. People become aware of advertising ploys and, like in Sam and Max, call attention to them and make a show of being unaffected. Coincidentally, Bill Watterson provides us with an apt demonstration of this process:
Ultimately, Sam and Max make for weak satirists because they rarely draw connections between the obvious shortcomings of their daily lives and deeper social determinants. That doesn’t make them unfunny or bad cartoon characters, but as parodies or satires go, they seem distinctly lacking in substance. There’s no edge to them, which makes them, as Max astutely points out, marketable. But that tends to mean the opposite of critical, and Sam and Max tend to want to have their cake and eat it too a little too often. Though, with sweet teeth like theirs, I’m sure that sounds delightful to them.
1. Chuck Kleinhaus, “Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody,” in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Moe Meyer (New York: Routledge, 1994), 171.
2. Ibid, 160.