Created by the Canadian animation studio Nelvana, the Sam & Max cartoon series premiered on Fox Kids in 1997 (and aired on YTV in Canada) under the full title The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police* and lasted only 13 full-length episodes, with 24 individual stories. The show faced some inevitable Bowdlerization in heading to children's television, but make no mistake: it was made for fans of Sam and Max first and for kids second.
During the initial 2006 run of the first season of episodic Sam & Max games by Telltale Games, the portal/publishing partner Gametap aired the episodes for free online (no longer available for viewing there). They were released on DVD in 2008 by Shout! Factory and can still be bought through Amazon.
Tropes featured mainly in the cartoon include:
- Accidental Misnaming: The crazed Col. Kurtz-esque squirrel from "We Drop at Dawn" continually mislabels the duo as "Sam & Dave."
- Adapted Out: Flint Paper is the only character from the comics to not appear in the series. This is most evident in the adaptation of "Bad Day On The Moon", where the first section (which features a significant appearance of him) is omitted.
- Adaptation Expansion: Darla "The Geek" Gugenheek is a cartoon-only creation filling the role of gadget provider. She lives and works in the basement of Sam and Max's building.[Sam and Max are being sucked into Darla's school science experiment]
Max: That's COOL!
Sam: Wanna come live in our basement, devoting the rest of your life to fighting crime?!
Darla: [flatly] Okay.
- And Show It to You: During a flashback to junior high school, Sam and Max accidentally create a human sized protozoa. Max defeats it by ripping out its nucleus; naturally, it only dies after Max reveals the nucleus and squeezes it.
- And the Adventure Continues: How the show ended. Sam and Max defeated their entire rogues gallery by dropping them off an airplane and it's implied they, well, died. Sam is concerned that having no more mortal enemies means their adventures are over. Max, however, reassures him that the nearby phone will ring any second, with another call from the commissioner for another important case for them. After a few tense seconds, the phone does ring and we hear Sam and Max fight over who gets to pick it up while the plane flies off into the sunset.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:Refrigerator Repairman: [inspecting a fridge] What seems to be the problem?
"The Geek": Well, for starters, it's possessed by some unearthly presence, it sneaks up behind me a lot, and it doesn't keep my soda cold.
- Asian Cleaver Fever: In the second episode, the scene opens on an elementary school holding "Career Day", where one of the professionals is a sushi chef wearing golden samurai armor, who upon being introduced, immediately draws his katanas and leaps around the room screaming like a maniac.
- Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever:
- Back for the Dead: Exaggerated in "The Final Episode", which brings back many villains from the previous episodes who all then die one by one by falling from a blimp.
- Badbutt: Both main characters in this adaptation, as actual blood, guts, and guns were frowned upon so they're limited to more cartoonish mayhem.
- Bait-and-Switch Comment: Max's comment that spending Christmas at Granny Ruth's has "never been better" turns into this:Max: ...each year I wish it would get better, but it never does!
- Bare-Bottomed Monkey: The opening of the episode "The Second Show Ever" — which is a spoof of the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey — has one of the monkeys express an interest in wearing clothes and Max asking why he'd want that. The monkey answers by sticking his naked behind in Max's face, along with this exchange:
- Barefoot Cartoon Animal: Sam, as usual, wears a full suit and hat but no shoes.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Sam, Max, and various others talk to the kids at home (and their parents, and/or any potential Moral Guardians) at least Once an Episode.
- Brick Joke: In "The Trouble With Gary," when the titular child first demonstrates his Reality Warper powers, Max begs to be transformed into a Painted Turtle. Later, when Sam and Max enrage Gary with some roughhousing, Gary turns Sam into a bovid plushie, at which point Max complains that his earlier request to be turned into a Painted Turtle went unfulfilled. Gary, still upset, immediately complies, to which Max cheerfully thanks him.
- Brief Accent Imitation: Sam takes on an exaggerated hick drawl when explaining himself to a Southern lawman who's come to recover the young "sasquatch" the duo have in their custody:Sam: Easy, Festus; we's just returnin' this here Bigfoot youngin' to his kin, is awl.
Max: Sam, I didn't know you spoke Bumpkin!
- Canon Foreigner: The Geek, who was introduced so as to have a recurring kid and female character, and has yet to appear anywhere else.
- Christmas Episode: "Christmas Bloody Christmas", in which Sam's grandmother, a former prison warden, takes the boys to Blood Island Maximum Security Penitentiary to spread Christmas cheer — only to end up needing to foil a jailbreak instead.
- Clip Show: Parodied and lampshaded with The Final Episode, which is a Clip Episode composed of clips which are original material for the episode.
- Comedic Sociopathy: They still manage to get some in at least, with more implied offscreen.[a refrigerator monster morphs into a basket of kittens making Puppy-Dog Eyes to try and avoid being roasted by flamethrowers]
Sam: Gee, I don't know anybody who could firebomb kittens...
Max: Here, let me!
- Continuity Nod:
- In one episode Sam mentions it's like how his grandma always used to say: "Idle hands are the devil's monkey bars." In the Christmas Episode we meet Grandma Ruth in person and she instead says "Idle hands end up in the machinery.".
- We see one of the Mole Men with a Mole Woman underground a few episodes after they were featured.
- Contrived Coincidence: Hilariously invoked:[tiny invader attempts to fly into Sam's open office window]
Sam: [stops typing] I think I'll just close this window for no good reason!
- Convenient Eclipse: Sam and Max get thrown into dire peril and deathtraps in every episode, but always escape through some wit yet mostly blind luck, Contrived Coincidence, and Deus ex Machina, then retaliate with cartoon violence.
- Costumes Change Your Size: When Sam and Max infiltrate the Uglions, they look just like the aliens until they take off the costumes. Max fitting inside an Uglion suit? Plausible. Sam fitting inside an Uglion suit? Only if he recycled his ability to collapse his bones and bulky organs from "Max's Big Day".
- Creepy Circus Music: Used multiple times in the episode "The Friend For Life", such as when the funhouse lights turn on, and at the ending of the episode.
- Cryptid Episode: "Little Bigfoot" has Sam trying to rescue a young Bigfoot working as a busboy and return him to the wild. It turns out he isn't a Bigfoot, just the son of a sideshow freak.
- Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: Max offers up an especially funny threat to Arlo over his annoying verbal tic:Max: I'll make you a deal: you end one more sentence with the word 'Man,' and I get to remove one bone, of my choosing, from your body.Sam: Two bones if you refer to me as a cat again.
- Decon-Recon Switch: It's Dangly Deever Time! seems poised to rake the old-fashioned entertainment archetype that Dangly represents over the coals, only to show that as goofy and borderline naive as his kind of character is, they're still capable of genuine goodness and bravery, to the point that even protagonists like Sam & Max can't help but respect Deever.
- Demonic Dummy: Deadly Dangly Deever, a Howdy Doody expy. However, the original Dangly Deever (who averts the trope) is still around, and he helps Sam and Max round up his evil doppelganger.
- Deus ex Machina: Somewhat camouflaged by the sheer randomness and unlikelihood of everything that happens, but many if not most episodes end with the most implausible allies and events happening by with extremely convenient narrative timing.
- Diabolical Mastermind: Mack Salmon, the self-proclaimed, rhymingly named Arch-Enemy of Sam and Max. He's a villainous orange salmon in a fishbowl mounted on top of a fake body, upgraded from the comics to a hover chair instead of a regular wheelchair, with seemingly unlimited resources including an elaborate underground lab, with which he seeks his revenge on the duo for their part in causing his "condition"... of which they have no memory whatsoever.
- Don't Try This at Home: Invoked:Sam: Remember kids, we're professional cartoon characters. Don't try this at home!
- Doomy Dooms of Doom: One of the kidnapped repairmen in the first episode constantly yells "We're doomed man, WE ARE DOOMED!", much to the other characters' annoyance. His name is even Hudson, in keeping with the Aliens parody.
- Establishing Series Moment: In the first episode, there's a "Last time, on Sam & Max", showing them shrunken down and trapped in a bottle being poked by a nerd, having a wedding (Sam as the bride and Max as the groom), fighting an octopus underwater, riding a boar in the jungle, and parodying the The Lion King intro, with the rock breaking, to sell the series' wacky tone.
- Everyone Has Standards:
Sam: [inside of a prison shower] If these walls could talk.Max: I think I'd prefer if they kept their mouth shut
- Normally, Sam is willing to look the other way for Lorne, despite sharing Max's dislike of him as he knows Lorne is relatively harmless. However, when Lorne hijacked a blimp full of innocent Austrians and acted like he was being controlled by a villain into ramming into the Statue of Liberty in his second appearance as an excuse to hang out with the Freelance Police, he doesn't hesitate to have him arrested.
- In "Christmas, Bloody Christmas", Max finds the idea of Prison Rape to be utterly horrible.
- Family-Friendly Firearms: Like all the attempts at Bowdlerization, Purcell and company waltzed around this one, too:
- Sam is seen sporting his trademark giant revolver (albeit loading it with rubber bullets) in the opening of "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang", and normal firearms are shown numerous times throughout the series even if they are rarely fired. The duo's favorite handguns are a no-no in the animated series; flamethrowers and rocket launchers are kosher though.
- In "Tonight We Love", the president's bodyguards open fire on the Freelance Police with what are apparently real bullets. Well, one is a realistic bullet, the others seem to be a whole bullet, shell and all, fired, but not detonated, from the guns.
- In a cross between a lampshade and a parody, they put their fingers into a gun shape and brandish them as such, ala 4Kids' Yu-Gi-Oh!.
- Friend to All Children: A defining trait of Sam and Max in this adaptation. Although they rarely interact with kids in the rest of the franchise, here they get along great with kids. Perhaps, like the creators of the cartoon themselves, Sam and Max realized that kids would love their antics, as long as they're toned down a little.
- Furry Reminder: Despite having jobs and an office, Sam and Max are still animals and are occasionally treated as such. In "A Glitch in Time", Max even winds up in a cage at the vet's while Sam is busy running a pet wash. Don't think too hard on it.
- Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: When Max freaks out from discovering the discontinuation of Glazed McGuffins, Sam smacks him across the face to get him to snap out of it. It works maybe a little too well.Max: (smiling) Hit me again, I like it!
- Gosh Dang It to Heck!: No matter how intense the situation is, this is (almost) never subverted.
- The one exception, oddly, in "We Drop At Dawn" where Sam's narration contains the line:Sam: We were to be airdropped into a virtual hell on Earth in order to engage in a life-or-death offensive in order to locate and retrieve the Commissioner's lost keys.
- Also, Max does say "God's sake" at one point, even though in all the other episodes, "Gosh" seems to be the word that they can use, e.g. the extremely forced "Good Gosh" spoken by the Geek.
- The one exception, oddly, in "We Drop At Dawn" where Sam's narration contains the line:
- Hammerspace: Max, as per usual, produces random objects from about his person despite not wearing any clothes.Sam: (watching Max produce an object from seemingly nowhere) Wow, Max, I didn't know you were a marsupial.
Max: Me neither! Whatever that means.
- Homoerotic Subtext: Enough for a dedicated Ho-Yay page.
- Hong Kong Dub: Parodied in "The Second Show Ever", where one of the other Career Day guests is a samurai in full armour. He speaks Japanese with subtitles; Sam and Max join in, Painting the Medium by speaking in the usual stilted dub.
- Hypocritical Humor: Max is the one to tell Sam not to mess with the past, Sam agrees, only to find that Max is teaching his past self how to beat up a bully, Sam calls Max out on the hypocrisy.
- I Do Not Like Green Eggs and Ham: In "The Glazed McGuffin Affair", Kent Standit refuses to even try the titular sugary snack. Plus, half of the title duo is named Sam, so you get two Shout Outs for the price of one.
- Instantly Proven Wrong: "The Second Show Ever" does one with a fourth-wall break:Sam: Say, that reminds me. Feeling light-headed, kids? Are you suffering the ill effects of too many fast-paced hard-sell in-your-face adverts designed to compete for your parents' hard-earned dollar? Well, you're not alone!
Max: The folks in programming are sympathetic to your plight, and as such, have agreed to present today's episode in its entirety without any commercials at all.
Sam: You heard right, gang! One whole episode of Sam & Max without commercial interruptions of any—
(cut to commercial)
- It Came from the Fridge: "The Thing That Wouldn't Stop It", a monstrosity born of the Geek's leaky chemicals and a frozen steak dinner, both stored in the same freezer.
- Just the Introduction to the Opposites: In “The Friend for Life,” we’re introduced to the Mad Thespian, a diabolical villain, and Lorne, an obsessive nerd who idolizes Sam & Max. It’s the Mad Thespian who gets kidnapped by Lorne and used as bait to lure the heroes into a trap.
- Large Ham: Max gets his ham volume turned up somewhat compared to other adaptations. (Probably to make up for the parts of his violent side they couldn't show.)
- Leitmotif: Loony Fan Lorne's appearances are heralded by a '50s muzak chorus singing "THE FRIEND FOR LIFE!"
- Let's Meet the Meat: What the monster of the first episode really wants, as a mutated TV dinner, is for someone to eat it. Sam is all too happy to oblige.
- Lighter and Softer: Due to the Bowdlerization, the titular duo couldn't carry their realistic guns, the humor and plots were a bit more Looney Tunes-style slapstick, among other things. That said, fans still like it — according to some interviews, since they weren't allowed to be too dark in the cartoon, they decided to grab everything else which make Sam and Max, like the weirdness and the Parental Bonus, and upgrade them up to eleven. Steve Purcell has said that the show's use of bazookas and rocket launchers instead of handguns and firearms both placated the censors and brought the show closer to the spirit of the original comic.
- Loony Fan: Lorne, THE FRIEND FOR LIFE! is an nerd who's obsessed with Sam and Max. He thinks they're best friends — they can hardly wait to get away from him. He ends up pulling off supervillain plots to get their attention, and has more screen time than their actual supposed Rogues Gallery.
- Lorre Lookalike: In one episode, the title duo meet up with a contact who's a dead ringer for Peter Lorre. Max, being Max, annoys the little guy by asking Sam if they can keep him.
- MacGuffin: Parodied with the titular Glazed McGuffin from "The Glazed McGuffin Affair", in which the titular pastry snack is banned and Sam and Max go to desperate lengths to see it reinstated.
- Medium Awareness: They know they're in a TV show, all right...Sam: Looks like the party's over. I think we better cut to the chase.
[Cut to Sam and Max running from the tribe of angry New Guinea Pigs]
Max: Cut to the chase? So that's what it means!
- Mythology Gag: "Bad Day On the Moon" was based directly on a story in the original comic, which is, at the same time, based in one of the original comics Steve Purcell drew as a kid. The episode has Max lampshade this fact by holding up a copy of said comic which the original "Bad Day On the Moon" comic was based and proudly proclaiming "The preceding joke was originally conceived back in 1978."
Sam: "Can't think of a reason not to!"
- To further keep the Mythology Gag train going, Sam utters the iconic words he said in the Intro for the Freelance Police game.
- Never Mess with Granny: Max's, I mean Sam's Granny Ruth, who works at a maximum security prison on Blood Island. The duo visit her on Christmas Eve just as the prisoners attempt a jailbreak. True to trope, Granny kicks seventeen types of ass to get the rapscallions back into place. Sam and Max are in awe.
- Never Say "Die": Subverted with extreme prejudice, still unusual for a Saturday morning cartoon in The '90s. Sam and Max constantly talk about cheating death, brushes with death, etc. Similar to the case under Family-Friendly Firearms, the show gets around the ban on directly using the word "kill" by simply going more over the top and putting Sam's penchant for dense, flowery analogies to good use.
- Nobody Can Die: Averted once, otherwise played straight thanks to various unexplained recoveries. Max is vaporized in the adaptation of "Bad Day on the Moon" and bringing him Back from the Dead is a plot point.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Harvey Atkin's Sam voice seems to be heavily based on John Astin's Gomez.
- The Noisy Straw: In the episode "Little Bigfoot", Sam becomes extremely annoyed with Max for doing this, to the point where he takes the straw out of the cup and shoves Max's head through it. Max, oddly enough, takes this in stride:Max: Thanks, Sam! I couldn't help myself. There was more! There's always a tiny speck more!
Sam: Don't thank me, I did it for the innocent passersby that might have been mortally sucked! And because it was funny.
- Oh, No... Not Again!: In "The Thing That Wouldn't Stop It", The Geek's reaction to seeing something in the fridge creeping up on her is an annoyed "Not again! This is the third time this morning."
- Ominous Pipe Organ: Villain of the Week the Mad Thespian from "The Friend For Life" has this as his Leitmotif before he's supplanted by Lorne and his Creepy Circus Music.
- Parental Bonus: While the series was toned down for a younger audience, this is still an adaptation of a series known for its satirical elements and subtle innuendo originally meant for adults, and it's under the oversight of its original creator/writer. As a result, there's still plenty of bonuses hinting towards its original demographic:
- Several episodes are parodies of stories that most, if not all children watching probably wouldn't know about beforehand, such as Apocalypse Now, The Thing (1982), Moby-Dick, A Sound of Thunder, and The Man Who Would be King.
- Jokes about Sam and Max's implicit romantic interest and Max not liking girls are cut, but there still remains plenty of Homoerotic Subtext that suggests that their partnership is... rough.
- "Christmas Bloody Christmas" has a scene where the duo enter a prison shower room, leading to a quick pair of jokes that to kids may seem moderately naughty, but are loaded with a much more obvious, filthier connotation for adults:
- First, this exchange:Sam: The prison showers! If these walls could talk, eh Max?
Max: I think it's better if they keep their mouth shut, Sam.
- Second, Max picking up a bar of soap, with a sign saying "Do not open until Xmas" appearing over his rear-end.
- First, this exchange:
- The Password Is Always "Swordfish": Lampshaded in The Thing That Wouldn't Stop It.
- Perma-Stubble: Max gains a coating of stubble (over fur) while he has his army helmet on in "We Drop at Dawn".
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Being a kid's cartoon meant they had to tone down the Comedic Sociopathy a notch or two, but the show still retains the same flavor of eccentric, dialogue-driven humor that the comics and games do.
- Previously on…: Spoofed with a "Last time, on Sam & Max!" segment of the very first episode. It serves to give a general idea of the chaos soon to follow.
- Punny Name:
- Ms. Givens, the overly cautious and nervous schoolteacher. You might say she has some misgivings about the Freelance Police showing up for Career Day.
- There's also Kent Standit (as in "can't stand it"), the ban-happy Snack Food & Drug Administration head responsible for getting Glazed MacGuffins pulled from the shelves.
- Reality Warper: The spoiled, nigh-omnipotent Gary, based on Anthony from "It's a Good Life", is a young boy kept in an underground base by a group of scientists desperately trying to keep him placated so that he doesn't unleash his powers on the world at large... or them.
- Recycled Soundtrack: In the final episode, during the scene where Max stops Sam from choking on a wallet at a church, the same organ music from Stickin' Around is heard, as the music was composed for both shows by John Havelock Tucker.
- Running Gag:
- The fighting over who gets to answer the phone is also expanded to answering the door as well. In "We Drop at Dawn" they fight over who gets to open their mission instructions at the appointed hour. Also, Max manages to actually win twice, but those were extenuating circumstances. First was "A Glitch in Time": he'd messed up time so that Sam had become a monk. It's especially funny because he cringed right before he picked it up, insinuating he expected to lose. The second time, Sam warned him it was a trap, and the caller is Lorne, THE FRIEND FOR LIFE.
- A Couch Gag of sorts, the Cold Opening in each of the first episodes featured a character that had no idea who Sam and Max were.Monkey: Monkeys on skates? This truly is the dawn of evolution!
Monkey Elder: And we have Sam and Max: Freelance Police, to thank for it!
Monkey: Sam and who?
- Max randomly screaming. In, like, every episode.
- Sea Aping: One of Mack Salmon's nefarious plans involves creating his own species of "Sea Chimps" to harvest for meat and corner the livestock market. What makes this breed so special?Sam: Look, Max! These Sea Chimps actually look like the ones on the box! And they're playing with a tiny beach ball!
Max: Our prayers, they've been answered!
- Shout-Out: Sweet caviar nestled into the fur of a giant moon bear, are there shout outs, several per episode and many more than are listed here, from a Spy Fiction spoof to any number of parodies of specific works of sci-fi and horror.
- The first episode, "The Thing that Wouldn't Quit It", features the duo stranded at an outpost in a frigid wasteland, menaced by a shapeshifting creature that they fight with flamethrowers and dubbed, "The Thing."
- The Glazed McGuffin making machine looks like Mr. Bonestripper.
- A Dalek statue appears in the background◊ for a few frames in "The Trouble with Gary".
- And from "The Friend for Life", the Crimson Bonehead. (Ironically, Fox Kids was supposed to air a Captain America series the year after this show, but Marvel's bankruptcy put an end to that.)
- The New Guinea Pigs chant is "Ooga-chaka-ooga-ooga!"
- "Little Bigfoot" is something of an internal Shout-Out to Sam & Max Hit the Road, what with the duo interrupting a tour of kitschy roadside Americana to rescue an exploited sasquatch (or so they think).
- Slipped the Ropes: Sam and Max, captured by a Villain Teamup of previous foes, repeatedly escape from their bonds during the Just Between You and Me rant in the last episode because they're bored.
- The Smurfette Principle: Darla the Geek (even she was originally meant to be a boy).
- Stylistic Suck: Sam and Max's failed pilot "I Dream of Weenies", which is done in the style of an old Hanna-Barbara cartoon, complete with corny Laugh Track.
- Super Not-Drowning Skills: It's part of their abilities as Zany Cartoon characters:Sam: It's a cartoon, jarhead! We have remarkable lung capacity!
- Suspiciously Specific Denial:
- From "That Darn Gator":Max: We visited him many times after that.
Sam: And not because he swallowed our keys and we're waiting to the nature to do its thing!
- On a sign: Perfectly Normal Industries (And By No Means A Military Complex)
- From "That Darn Gator":
- They Called Me Mad!: Mocked, of course:Dr. Cerebri: They laughed at me at the academy! They laughed at me, at the institute!
Sam: [to Max] He must've been a lot funnier then.
- Time Travel: "A Glitch in Time", in which the duo must Set Right What Once Went Wrong. Includes the obligatory meeting with their soft, marketable younger selves.
- Title Theme Tune: "Sam & Max: Freelance Police" are the only lyrics, apart from some Scatting.
- To Serve Man: The Uglions are frying up people in their theme restaurant.
- Totally Radical: Brought up during "Aaiiieee Robot", where Max says that "Extreme Freelance Police" sounds like a rebranding cooked up for the next season.
- Villain Team-Up: All of the villains from the previous episodes team up in the last episode to ensure it was Sam and Max's "last episode". Sam and Max, however, calmly took it as a compliment that several villains would take the time and effort to plan their demise.
- Whole-Plot Reference: A few episodes provide some surprisingly esoteric ones for what is (nominally) a kid's cartoon, such as It's a Good Life, Apocalypse Now, and The Man Who Would be King.