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Why the internet is obsessed with the truly bizarre Too Many Cooks

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Since late last week, the internet has been buzzing about — and passing around — the ultra-strange 11-minute video entitled Too Many Cooks. The production of Adult Swim — one of TV's foremost homes for experimentation — the video is one part elaborate parody of television, one part blast of surrealism, and one part apocalyptic hellscape.

If you haven't seen it yet — and you should — it's embedded above. Go and watch it, then return for the answers to all of your questions.

1) What is Too Many Cooks?

At first glance, Too Many Cooks is just an elaborate parody of opening credits sequences, starting out as a knock on bad sitcoms, before traversing everything from the cop show to the science fiction show to slasher films. But there's way more going on underneath the surface, and a surprising amount of depth to its commentary not just on its chosen medium, but the ruinous tug of nostalgia.

Though it came to fame as an online video, Too Many Cooks is perhaps best understood as a proper short narrative feature film, one that tells a complete story in just 11 minutes. The story, such as it is, is about the various characters of the show-within-a-show, also called Too Many Cooks, realizing that they're trapped by the series they're a part of. In and of itself, parodying the idea of the endless monotony of bad sitcoms isn't a new idea, but Too Many Cooks eventually encompasses almost every major television genre of the ‘80s and ‘90s, suggesting it has bigger fish to fry.

In particular, the short film turns its sights on the ways that an endless focus on nostalgia can poison our relationship to particular culture. The serial killer who stalks through the video is, in some ways, the ultimate expression of this. Imagine, the short seems to ask, if characters in your favorite shows were actually doomed to exist within them. Wouldn't that be hell?

But we'll get back to that.

2) Do I have to keep watching past the first few minutes?

Yes, absolutely. Again, this might seem like a parody of bad sitcoms, but after a couple of minutes of that, it shifts into something else. You really need to get through the whole thing to get the full effect. Or, at the very least, to meet Smarf.


Adult Swim

This is Smarf. Bow before Smarf. Smarf. (Adult Swim)

3) Who made this thing?

Too Many Cooks was written and directed by Casper Kelly, a writer and director who has worked on a number of other Adult Swim series, including Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell and Squidbillies. The cast of (seemingly) thousands was culled from the Atlanta acting scene and extras casting, to ensure every "character" would have the right look for the part, according to Kelly's Ask Me Anything session on Reddit. Kelly also said in the AMA that this took somewhere around a year to pull together.

But the short is also an unmistakable production of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network's late-night bloc of weird, outre programming aimed at adults that has become a haven for young male viewers — and for some of the most experimental stuff on TV. The network is home to everything from the anti-comedy of Tim & Eric to the strange narrative experiments of Rick and Morty, and it's constantly pushing the boundaries of what a "TV show" looks like.

But some programs are too weird for even Adult Swim, a category Too Many Cooks more than falls into. In such cases, the network will often program these shows in a 4 a.m. bloc marked "Infomercials" on programming grids. Those who are still awake and stumble upon them at that time will likely be blindsided by something that looks somewhat like regular TV but plays by entirely different rules. (David Cross's and H. Jon Benjamin's Paid Programming is another great example of this.)

4) Just what's being parodied here?

An exact list of every parody in Too Many Cooks would take up the rest of this article (and spoil much of the fun), so here's a short guide to some of the specific TV tropes being sent up.

Too Many Cooks

This shot of the family gathering for a photo could have been at the end of any number of Miller-Boyett credits sequences. (Adult Swim)

The sitcoms of Miller-Boyett: By far the greatest TV trope being satirized here is the production style of Miller-Boyett Productions, which you might know better as "those shows on TGIF in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s." (Among those shows were Perfect Strangers, Full House, and Family Matters.)

Too Many Cooks nails the Miller-Boyett schlocky house style right down to the typeface used in the opening credits and the overwhelmingly catchy, cheesy theme song. In the many, many characters introduced in the early going, we get the sense of a show about a massive family with many kids. That mimics Miller-Boyett's favorite sitcom sub-genre, and the sequence also pulls in many of the other character types producers Thomas Miller and Robert Boylett gravitated toward, including the nerdy kid, the unnecessary little kid twins, and the sassy grandma. Not every sitcom reference here is a Miller-Boyett reference — that spinning shot of the cast is Roseanne, through and through —but most of them are, a reminder of just how awful many of those shows were.

‘80s workplace dramas: The cop show sequence is one of the weaker elements of Too Many Cooks (see below), but it has echoes of the landmark ‘80s cop drama Hill Street Blues, as well as less acclaimed shows like T.J. Hooker. It's also the first indication that Too Many Cooks won't simply make fun of sitcoms, which makes a certain amount of sense. Cop shows were afternoon syndication staples that latchkey kids might have stumbled upon when flipping through channels after school, and the whole aesthetic of the short seems to be a raw regurgitation of the viewing diet of a 12-year-old with a huge cable package in 1992.

Primetime soaps: The lengthy sequence of the falcon cutting to the mansion, then back to the falcon, then back to the mansion is a brief nod to primetime soaps like Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest (get it, ha ha?). That this is where the serial killer first makes his mark is also appropriate, as huge, campy murder was a major plot point in many of these shows — and one of the major points of Too Many Cooks is how this sort of thing shifts contexts depending on where you put it. What is gleefully over the top on a soap becomes grim and horrifying in the context of a horror film or unsettling when juxtaposed with a family sitcom.

5) Are there any flaws with Too Many Cooks?

There are flaws in everything. Pointing them out here just seems churlish, but it's still hard to miss just how variable the level of parody is here. The bad sitcom stuff is dead-on, and the sci-fi stuff is pretty solid too. The sections with the cop show and primetime soap, however, feel a lot more like received wisdom, like an interpretation of those programs as deciphered by a kid who was only allowed to watch the opening credits of them before bed. (Then again, maybe that's the point.) Weirdly, truly good surrealism keeps one toenail in reality somewhere, and Too Many Cooks occasionally feels like it's abandoned that pretense.

The whole thing may prove too strange for some, too, but that's sort of Adult Swim's thing. For those of us on Too Many Cooks's wavelength, it's not going to matter that it turns into an ultra-grim rumination on the rotten core of most nostalgia, because we're too busy laughing at its utter insanity. What's impressive about Too Many Cooks isn't that it features a serial killer knocking off sitcom characters; it's that it properly prepares you for such a thing to happen.

Too Many Cooks

If this is too weird for you, Too Many Cooks may be too weird for you. (Adult Swim)

6) Are there any Easter eggs here?

Are there ever! Andy Baio culled a list of some pretty good ones here (and correctly points out that you can see the killer start to pop up in the background of scenes very early on), while Kelly himself pointed out one that many fans had missed in his AMA, while telling viewers to keep an eye on the paintings in the background of Too Many Cooks for further gags and foreshadowing.

7) So just what's this about?

The end of Too Many Cooks involves the puppet cat Smarf crawling toward a giant button, ready to push it and end the hellish existence that he and his fellow cast members are trapped in. But once he does, everything just resets, with all of the cast members becoming trapped in a giant grid of videoscreens, reminiscent of The Brady Bunch. In the world of Too Many Cooks, television and nostalgia are twin prisons, that nobody can ever escape — up to and including anybody trying to do something new.

I kept describing this to people as "one of those posts about how ‘you know you're a ‘90s kid if...' regurgitated all over a TV timeslot," and while that's an accurate description of the content, it's also a description, I think, of Too Many Cooks's themes. Living in the past, in nostalgia for something you liked when you were younger, is both a kind of youthful idealism and an inability to move past it. To become fetishistic about nostalgia is to become trapped by it — and the internet has done nothing if not make us fetishistic about nostalgia.

Or, at least, that's what I think this is about until Too Many Cooks 2 comes along — which, according to Kelly in his AMA, is actually possible (and probably likely, given the success of this one).

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