SERIES SYNOPSIS: A trio of dim witted 1960’s stoners ingest a mystical strain of marijuana, sending them into Rip Van Winkle comas. They awaken in the year 2021, to a brave new world where pot is legal but the populace is too zombified by mobile devices and technology to care. Their adjustment is, to say the least, awkward.
Gilbert Shelton’s The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers was part of a vanguard of 1960’s underground comics. These alternative publications thumbed their nose at the stringent Comics Code Authority by including drug use, sex and violence. Shelton, along with artists like Robert Crumb (Fritz the Cat) and S Clay Wilson (Checkered Demon) aimed their works directly at the counter culture, selling them through head shops and alternative businesses. Woodstock era readers embraced these iconoclastic comics, inspiring regular reprintings and anthologies. At the tender age of twelve, I blundered across a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers anthology, and the taboo content made me an instant fan.
The Freak Brothers comedy utilized recreational drugs the way the Three Stooges relied on bodily injury. Phineas, Fat Freddy and Freewheeling Franklin were rudderless, none too bright stoners living in a roach infested tenement in the heart of San Francisco’s Haight Asbury district. Their endless search for drugs put them squarely into the crosshairs of law enforcement, particularly DEA agent Notorious Norbert the Narc, who played Javier to their Jean Valjean. Gilbert Shelton’s stories also took swipes at hippie culture, commercialism, and suburban America, but the humor was firmly rooted in the heroes’ ‘rebel without a clue’ lifestyle. It was a one note joke, but it struck a chord with readers, ultimately inspiring the likes of Cheech and Chong.
And that’s where the new Tubi animated series initially stumbles. Releasing these three stoned stooges into the modern world, where their raison d’ētre is now legal, short circuits the core concept. This problem is escalated by the fact that the boys aren’t bright, so their observations about 21st century society aren’t exactly rapier sharp.
They don’t get much comedic support from the contemporary characters. Social justice lawyer Gretchen (La La Anthony) only exists to solve the trio’s problems, while her silicon valley mogul sister Harper Switzer (Andrea Savage) is sentenced to endlessly repeating the same “Get out of my house!” schtick. I couldn’t help thinking that this all would be funnier if those characters were propelled back in time and forced to deal with the Freak Brothers in their own world.
It should have been a warning sign that the “stoned man out of time” concept was also the plot of a Cheech solo movie (Rude Awakening, 1989) and a Chong solo outing (Far Out Man, 1990). Neither were hits, and the pilot episode seemed to be hamstrung by the same limitations as those films.
The show’s synopsis states that, “The Freaks, who are unburdened by the baggage of modern life help the Switzer family embrace the values of a simpler time.” With that promise in mind, I streamed the second episode, only to have said promises flushed down the toilet… literally. Episode two resorts to cranking the scatological humor up to eleven. It felt like the writers had already thrown in the towel—and that’s coming from someone with no objection to bodily fluid comedy. The final moments of Fat Freddy spraying feces like a firehose pretty much sums it up.
But I hadn’t given up yet, and was happy to discover that episode three was genuinely funny. It took a few steps towards social satire, while keeping the fecal matter to a minimum. Jeffrey Tambor was great as an assistant to Jeff Bezos, who’s plotting to launch our trio to mars. If the show continues climbing a few creative rungs with each episode it will eventually live up to the comic that inspired it.
The Freak Brothers’ secret weapon is its great voice cast, especially Woody Harrelson’s pitch perfect Freewheeling Franklin. John Goodman’s voice is almost unrecognizable as Fat Freddy, but the sweet natured man-child character shines through. Pete Davidson’s manic Phineas certainly checks all that character’s boxes.
The genuine scene stealer is Tiffany Haddish as Fat Freddy’s Cat. Interestingly, the television adaptation gender swapped the cat from male to female, which is amusing considering that the comic’s tomcat sported the biggest pair of cullions in comic book history. The mini strip style Fat Freddy’s Cat adventures were one of the comic’s high points, especially his ongoing war against a fascist army of cockroaches. I hope the television version mines that material.
You can only go so wrong with the dream cast the producers have assembled. I truly hope the writers keep strengthening their creative muscles and, maybe, try doing some flashback (no pun intended) episodes, putting the boys back in their own time zone. The comic book’s longer story arcs like “The Idiots Abroad,” would make fun episodes. And perhaps we could call a general moratorium on jokes about Alexa, and the phrase, “LOL.” Those gags have been done to death.
Final verdict: Check out the first three episodes for the talented cast alone, and here’s hoping that the show finds its creative feet during the fourth installment. And, above all, more cat!
Fun fact: An unauthorized live action version of The Freak Brothers, along with Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural character, starred in the 1978 porn film Up In Flames. It’s an agonizing viewing experience, even by porn standards, providing neither laughs nor arousal. Its internet search keywords would be, hairy, flabby and sexual-performance-anxiety. This has been a public service announcement—you’ve been warned.
And if you’re looking for a mind-altering horror adventure check out my novel PRIMEVAL WATERS, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.