Free for All (TV series)
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|Free For All|
The main cast of Free for All. From left to right: Angus, Sylvia Jenkins, Douglas Jenkins, Johnny Jenkins, Clay Zeeman, and Paula Wisconsin.
|Created by||Brett Merhar|
|Developed by||Merriwether Williams|
|Written by||Merriwether Williams (all episodes; also head writer) &|
Jeff Poliquin (episodes 2-7)
Gilbert Ferro (episodes 2-7)
Brett Merhar ("The Deal" only; co-written with Merriweather Williams)
|Directed by||Dave Marshall|
|Voices of||Jonathan Silverman|
Dee Bradley Baker
|Opening theme||Free for All (by Felix the Cat)|
|Ending theme||Free for All (instrumental)|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||1|
|No. of episodes||7|
|Executive producer(s)||Merriwether Williams and Brett Merhar|
|Running time||24-26 minutes|
|Production company(s)||Film Roman|
|Original release||July 11 – September 12, 2003|
Free for All is a 2003 animated series that aired on Showtime. The series was created by Brett Merhar. Set in Colorado, it followed the day-to-day life of Johnny Jenkins, an innocent 19-year-old college kid who has to deal with a bitter, cigarette smoking grandmother and a coarse, sometimes-violent, alcoholic father, in a rather dysfunctional family while his friend, Clay, is living large with the settlement money he got from suing a taco restaurant for personal injuries. In America, the series was rated TV-MA for explicit sexual content, including nudity and scenes of sexual intercourse (S), extremely offensive language (L), and adult content (AD on Showtime's content warning screen).
The show was developed for television by Merriwether Williams, the head writer for the first four seasons of SpongeBob SquarePants. The show lasted for only seven episodes that aired over the summer of 2003, the last ending on a cliff-hanger. Despite favorable to mixed reviews from critics, the show had very low ratings, due to poor promotion and basing the series on an already-unsuccessful property. Showtime cancelled the animated series shortly after the last episode aired. Though the series is now considered "obscure" and no DVD release has been planned for it, the entire series is legally available on iTunes and Amazon.com.
- Johnny Jenkins, the main character of the series, is a quiet, shy, blond nineteen-year-old and the main character of the show. Johnny sports bluejeans, sneakers and a black T-shirt whose anthropomorphic smiley face mimics Johnny's real expression or emotion (which goes completely unnoticed by other characters). When the naive Johnny isn't getting into trouble through his own fault, he is usually being bullied or pressured into dangerous, reckless and bizarre rituals of immature privilege by his rich best friend, Clay Zeeman.
- Clay Zeeman is a tall, charismatic, cunning, and evil friend of Johnny's. Having become filthy-rich before the story plot by faking an accident at Taco Hell, Clay now lives with his ferret Angus (which he rescued from an animal testing lab) in a luxury penthouse apartment on top of a skyscraper. Yet, he repeatedly commits insurance fraud and tax evasion to further increase his fortune. His obsession with money drives him to attempt to bribe and blackmail IRS employees and beat up his own friends just because they don't argue in favor of tax cuts like he does. Clay prefers to spend his masses of leisure time either playing video games and consuming drugs with Angus or with women in his Ferrari. He has tall, spiked, red-brown hair that looks better suited for an anime character.
- Angus is Clay's manic, attitudinal and violent drug-addicted pet ferret. Angus regularly consumes any drug imaginable (Vicodin, marijuana, wood glue, cocaine, and experimental fertility drugs to name a few). He is typically worn like a stole around Clay's neck much of the time when he is not in a social setting. He is physically cruel to Johnny, and his actions include defecating into his shoes and biting his genitals. In each episode, Angus goes into a drug induced fantasy which usually alludes to his sub-plot.
- Sylvia Jenkins is Johnny's ancient, wrinkled, nymphomaniac and chain-smoking grandmother, who is ashamed of her entire family, particularly of her son Douglas (Johnny's father). Sylvia, Douglas and Johnny live in the same house, which is a cause for frequent tensions. Sylvia has lusted over and successfully had a large number of men, some of which include Clay Zeeman, Eminem, an army ranking officer, an ogre, a doctor's husband and Tom Jones. She frequently torments Johnny about him having the room upstairs that she wants deeply, even to the point of being willing to quit her 100-year record of smoking. Her menacing cackle is usually cut short due to an attack of smoker's lung.
- Douglas Jenkins, Johnny's father, is an overweight severe alcoholic, suffers from incontinence and is occasionally prone to violence. He carries out his job as an office supplies salesman with a particular lack of success and, due to his chronic bankruptcy, constantly attempts to get Clay Zeeman to invest in useless business ideas. Clay, however, always rejects due to his lack of respect for Douglas. In the seventh episode, he finally gets Clay to invest in the idea of a bar exclusively for tall people (Clay was bullied for his height as a child). However, Clay ends up firing Douglas due to his instability, questionable behavior towards guests and overall incompetence. Douglas has blonde hair (like his son Johnny), a mustache, and a round belly. At all times, he is either drunk or depressed; nonetheless he is always helpless and dependent. Douglas has absolutely no respect for Johnny, as in his eyes, Johnny ruined his life as an unintended child. His mother always seems to be solving all of his problems, even if it means by arranging a date or handling the excesses of his incontinence.
- Paula Wisconsin is Johnny's next door neighbor, his childhood friend, and object of his desire. Johnny is hopelessly in love with Paula that is unrequited due to Johnny's reluctance of admitting his love and Paula's obliviousness. Most episodes revolve around Johnny getting himself into awkward situations as an attempt to impress Paula. While Paula is supportive of Johnny's escapades, she still remains completely in the dark about his true intentions. It is somewhat implied that Paula is not liked by most people, as some scenes have shown that many people she encounters (including Sylvia) refer to her as a, "tree-hugging bitch" due to her vapid pretentiousness.
- Omar is an Indian and Johnny's best friend. He attends the same college and is just as immature, naive and shy, sometimes even more extremely than Johnny. The two of them frequently become victims of violence, mostly by Johnny's father or by their "classmates".
- Johnny's mother does not appear in the series, her name is not mentioned. In the first episode, Douglas states to Johnny that they met during his half year at college and she skipped town after giving birth, leaving Douglas to raise Johnny alone.
From underground comic to animated series
In 1992, Free For All began life as an alternative comic strip published in college newspapers. The comic became nationally syndicated shortly afterwards, but eventually ended in 1998. A short pilot for the series - which was never aired on television - was made in 2001. Brett Merhar pitched the show to Showtime in 2001 as an animated series, wanting to do edgier jokes than what he could do in the comic. He brought in a friend of his, Merriwether Williams, who was, at the time, the head writer for Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants. She worked on Free For All as showrunner and head writer alongside her duties as writer for SpongeBob SquarePants.
The show had three writers: Jeff Poliquin (future writer for Comedy Central's short-lived animated sitcom Ugly Americans, and former writer for The Simpsons video games), Gil Ferro (who also served as the show's editor), and Williams herself; Brett Merhar also co-wrote the first episode, "The Deal", with Williams.
The show had an all star cast:
- Jonathan Silverman, from the 1980s farce/dark comedy Weekend at Bernie's, was the voice actor for Johnny.
- Brett Merhar himself voiced Clay Zeeman (originally, Jeremy Piven was going to voice Clay, but Piven turned down the offer).
- Longtime voice actor Dee Bradley Baker provided vocal effects for Angus the ferret.
- Juliette Lewis, known for such films as National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Natural Born Killers, voiced next-door neighbor Paula Wisconsin.
- Mitzi McCall voiced Sylvia Jenkins.
- Sam McMurray (who did voicework on such shows as Dinosaurs and The Simpsons) was the voice of Johnny's father, Douglas.
The show's animation was interesting, as it was a combination of CGI LightWave animation (cars/some buildings/panning backgrounds), and traditional hand drawn animation/backgrounds - drawn in pencil and ink on animation paper, then scanned into a computer and colored with Wacom tablets on ToonBoom Harmony. The show's animation was produced at Film Roman. Dave Marshall, a former animation director for Animaniacs, was the series director. William Reiss and C.H. Greenblatt, two SpongeBob SquarePants veterans, worked on the show as storyboard artists. The two of them would go on to work on the Disney Channel hit series Fish Hooks, while C.H. Greenblatt would also go on to create Chowder for Cartoon Network, and Harvey Beaks for Nickelodeon. Both Fish Hooks and Chowder would become far more successful and profitable than Free For All.
The show was also one of the first animated series to be broadcast in high definition. Free For All once held the distinction of being the first, and only, animated sitcom to air on Showtime up until the series Our Cartoon President in 2018. It is currently also the only traditionally animated, half-hour sitcom to air on a premium network (HBO has had six different animated shows, though The Ricky Gervais Show was not a sitcom, and was animated on Adobe Flash using the puppet tool. The Life and Times of Tim, while it was a sitcom, was composed of two eleven-minute segments, and was created digitally with Photoshop and After Effects, and Spawn and Spicy City were, while traditionally animated, serial dramas rather than sitcoms).
After the cancellation
After the show was cancelled, Brett Merhar went on to create a web series with Gabor Csupo titled "Beverly Hills Anger Management," which premiered on YouTube in 2007. He was beaten to death in July 2016. Williams went on to write for Cartoon Network's Camp Lazlo as the head writer, as well as Johnny Test (also on Cartoon Network), My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (on The Hub, now Discovery Family), and Pound Puppies (also on The Hub/Discovery Family).
The show had received very favorable reviews from critics. IGN said:
"The Free for All pilot episode definitely has the feel of a comic strip, with various short storylines in the beginning as we're introduced to each character. But where some animated series adapted from comic strips consist solely of just that – short little stories that have no effect on or relation to anything else in the episode – FfA starts up a couple episode-long storylines and follows through on them. When Angus steals some Vicodin from Clay's medicine cabinet, the ferret needs to be detoxed. And when Johnny is being tormented by his crazy grandmother who wants him out of the house, Clay says he'll take care of Johnny's situation if Johnny detoxes Angus. What follows are some bizarre sequences involving Johnny trying to help the ferret with the aid of The Robert Downey Jr. Guide to Cold Turkey and Johnny's grandma getting busy with Eminem and Dr. Dre. The pop culture references strewn throughout the episode are reminiscent of Family Guy – though not always laugh-out-loud funny, at the very least they make you think, "I can't believe they just showed that. " From old lady nudity to Eminem blissfully cuddling with another man, Free for All goes places you just normally don't see in an animated world. Overall, FfA is off to an enjoyable start; it'll be interesting to see where this bizarre group of characters go from here."
Entertain Your Brain.com Said:
The show was both funny and disturbing. I had a real concern that it was going to suck when I began my research on it. The name being touted around in all the promotional material was the show's head writer and executive producer, Merriwether Williams. She has been the head writer for the horrible hit Nickelodeon cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants" for the last three years. I was hoping I wouldn't see the lame stuff that passes for comedy on that show transferred to Showtime Late Nite. Fortunately, that didn't happen. I wonder if Williams was feeling the same pressure from Nickelodeon that John K. was when he was doing "Ren and Stimpy" for them. Anyway…the show was not lame and quite amusing. Watching the show felt much like reading a comic strip in its style of animation. Grandma was very gross, but still funny to watch. I found out that one of my favorite actors, Jeremy Piven, was originally supposed to be the voice of Clay, and I wonder how different the show would have been if he had done it. Merhar's voice-work of Clay isn't bad. In fact, his low, monotone style seems to fit the character. "Free for All" is yet another reason to stay home on Friday nights, behind the already entertaining "Monk, "Dead Like Me," and "Spider-Man: The Animated Series." Is cable determined to keep me from having a life? More than the whole non-life thing, I'm ashamed that it took me so long to become aware of this Coloradoan made good. Maybe someday Merhar will achieve the heights of local heroes Trey Parker and Matt Stone. You may have heard of them…they created a little animated series for cable called "South Park? '
and Variety stated:
"With a plot that involves detoxing the ferret, flying to Las Vegas for a Tom Jones concert and meeting Eminem and Grandma's seduction of Clay that involves a blend of "Basic Instinct" and "The Graduate," "Free for All" flashes moments of cleverness. Creator Merhar and Merriwether Williams (head writer of "SpongeBob SquarePants") have the characters. They just need to make their lives a bit more messy."
- http://homicide.latimes.com/post/john-doe-194/ Randall Brett Merhar,46