“Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope,” we hear in The Freak Brothers, Tubi’s first animated original series. It just about sums up the series. Pot is legal now, and all over the San Francisco neighborhood. It still costs money, but now it makes money, and capital means licensing, and licenses are for dogs. The characters at the center of The Freak Brother have mange, scratch themselves on rugs, but they have a cat, who Bogarts every joint.
The sad thing about The Freak Brothers is the jokes don’t go as far as it seems the series wants to go. The counterculture of the 1960s was an antidote to the culture. Cartoonists like Robert Crumb, who invented Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and Devil Girl, and Gilbert Shelton, who created The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in 1968, didn’t restrict themselves to pop expression, and had little respect for the sensibilities of the day-tripping squares, as we find in their 2020 reawakening.
The Freak Brothers has top talent. Woody Harrelson plays Freewheelin’ Franklin Freek. Fat Freddy Freekowtski is voiced by John Goodman. Pete Davidson takes on the role of Phineas T. Phreakers, and Tiffany Haddish plays their mischievous, self-pleasuring cat, Kitty, though she identifies as pussy. The series comes from the producers of King of the Hill, and was animated by Rick and Morty’s studio, Starburns Industries. It’s got scatology, swamis, dope and squatters’ rights activists. It even has a young Bernie Sanders sharing a sandwich, in the spirit of socialism. But it doesn’t push any of the buttons far enough for a counter-culture celebration. This is supposed to be a fish-out-of-water scenario, and yes, we do wish the main characters would have a better relationship with clean fluids, but the scenario has caught up with the underground, and mushed it into a soft and muddled version of itself.
The original comic ran in the underground Texas newspaper, The Rag, and maybe using all this big-time talent works against itself. Perhaps when they were younger, crazier and had far less success, they would have brought the right chemistry, but it’s not working here. Though I still believe it is because the writers are afraid to go where the original comic went: nowhere. While that is still true here, the nowhere of the early seventies was real gone, man. Times were strange, and it took strange men, and crazy cats, to make sense of it all.
The Freak Brothers does capture the essence of the comic. It is ambling, rudderless, unself-conscious and unconcerned with bags it might be stuffed into. Underground Comix didn’t give a shit about the restrictions of the Comics Code. But, in the series, the don’t-give-a-shit attitude extends to the jokes and, sadly, that’s no laughing matter. There is a comic code beyond the print industry’s censorship edicts, and it is to get as many laughs out of the material as you can. There are a few, extremely well-placed rejoinders which will push the smoke through your nose, but if you’re not actually high, they might go under your head. If this were the consistently the case, The Freak Brothers would be exactly what the Swami ordered. But out of the first two episodes, real and unexpected laughs occur less than half a dozen times. It would be better if all the jokes went over the heads of the audience than have them lobbed so tamely.
Not that the presentation is tame. It’s got beyond-risqué language, anti-authoritarian toilet habits, sex, innuendoes, and outright tasteless gags, one of which may actually make you gag. But without more full-throttle laughs, the series only provides a vague memory of the audacious comic that cared even less.
The bulk of the premise of “Pilot” actually goes back to the comic. In one drawn arc, Freewheelin’ Franklin, Phineas, and Fat Freddy took off for Colombia to score cheap dope, but got scattered to the four corners of the earth and encountered everything, from nuclear terrorists to religious freaks, but none of Bogotá’s greenest. Over the course of the comic’s run, they dodged the draft, narcs, and jobs. In the series, that’s all behind them. The Brothers are looking for the ultimate high, which is being peddled at Woodstock, but they go to the wrong Woodstock, in Georgia, and get their asses filled with buckshot. Barely making it to the festival, they dodge Jimi Hendrix’s greatest solo in order to capture Swami Bhajans’ magic elixir. The genetically mutated strain of marijuana knocks the Freaks out for 50 years.
When they wake up, their place has been torn down several times over, except the basement, and they are now in a much different San Francisco. Cops get high to make themselves feel better about beating people up, Stephen Hawking-clone-robots fit down garbage disposals, everyone is politically correct, feminists own refurbished hippie digs, gentrification owns the Haight, and they brothers believe cell phones are rotting people’s minds, which may be the most intelligent conclusion they come to.
When the episode opens, we hear voices singing “peace and love, got to get together.” 1969 San Francisco is all about free love, communal living and political protest, most of it right outside the Freak Brothers’ apartment. The animation blends the voice actors’ faces recognizably into The Freak Brothers comic characters.
As Freewheelin’ Franklin Freek, Harrelson infects each line with a laid-back, seductive invitation. John Goodman brings his inner child to Fat Freddy Freekowtski. Pete Davidson brings the chemical makeup of anti-establishment paranoia to Phineas T. Phreakers. None of them bring anything resembling short-term memory but do have a knack for laughing at the most appropriately inappropriate moments. Tiffany Haddish’s Kitty tends to purloin the best insults, noting Adam Devine and Blake Anderson’s Chuck and Charlie, are probably the only people in San Francisco dumber than the Freak Brothers.
Andrea Savage voices the tech startup player Harper, her sister is social-advocate lawyer named Gretchen, voiced by La La Anthony. Futurama’s Phil LaMarr plays Noah Switzer, Harper’s eager-to-agree husband. Danny Gendron plays Chomsky, a dog, who sounds like Stewie from Family Guy, but humps a toothbrush. The songs, especially a loving tribute to edibles, add texture to the character of the time.
The animation is a little too slick for what The Freak Brothers is trying to capture, as well. Yes, it is set in the present, and the rough squiggles of the late ‘60s are a handful for animators. But if they aimed lower on the animation, it would have worked better, giving the series more of an alternative entertainment glow over the easy-to-visually-digest clean lines.
The Freak Brothers doesn’t take itself, or anything else, too seriously. It succeeds in this, but fails to bring on the giggles.
The Freak Brothers premieres Sunday, Nov. 14 on Tubi.