It has afflicted over 2 million people since last Friday, causing disorientation, increased heart rate, memory loss, and dizziness. And if you’ve been intimate with the Internet over the past week, it’s quite likely you’ve been exposed. Talk to someone you love about “Too Many Cooks.”
The 11-minute clip, conceived as an “ ’80s sitcom fever dream” by Casper Kelly for Adult Swim, the late-night tenant of the Cartoon Network, was originally aired at 4 a.m. under the inconspicuous listing of “Informercials,” but it spread like the flu from a community lollipop once the Internet got a hold of it.
Adult Swim regularly airs parodic “infomercials” in the dead of night to mock the dreck of the telesphere (including a spot-on spoof of for-profit online universities and an unexpectedly dark pitch for a toy/killing machine called “Fart copter”). And while those parodies routinely degenerate into something between promo and dada, the experience of “Too Many Cooks” goes a few coils deeper down the spiral.
Introducing itself through the standard singalong routine of classic sitcom openings, we meet one family member after the next, each pausing from whatever activity they were engaged in to smile for the camera. “These must be the Cooks,” your brain chimes in helpfully. From here, the brain’s usefulness grows questionable.
As the jaunty jingle extends long past the industry standard minute, and as the logic of the lyrics slowly begins to pull apart, and as the Cooks multiply into impossible numbers before morphing into a sequence of actual cooks, the replica degrades into something more like a feral simulacrum. All reference points begin to recede, and one’s bearings give way as “Too Many Cooks” asserts swift control; the cheery hope so synonymous with shows like “Full House,” “ALF,” or “Family Matters” is mulched into something more like helplessness. Like food poisoning, you quickly realize that the only way out of “Too Many Cooks” is to see it through.
“Too Many Cooks” goes on to inhabit the forms of office comedies, cop procedurals, vintage late-night soaps, slasher flicks, space sagas, and hospital dramas — but it never quite finds peace. A machete-swinging serial killer stalks the frames (even the paintings on the walls), slashes its stars, and spreads like a virus.
Then, more or less, the very physics of opening credits invert themselves, the form itself becomes a sentient being terminal with infection, and “Too Many Cooks” has mutated into a metaphor for the body of television itself violently rejecting the parasite of its content.
(It’s also a laugh riot!)
But the strangest part of the clip is that it’s really not so strange at all. “Too Many Cooks” arrives as the newest entry to a deepening lineage of experiments in absurdist metavision. TV about TV is nothing new; a rich tradition connects “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and on to “Episodes” and “The Comeback.” But while each of these shows added a few of its own mirrors to the hall, none of them made you wonder if some peyote got mixed into your burrito.
A pair of recent sketches from “Saturday Night Live” — the unaired “Wing” (starring Andrew Garfield) and the follow-up “Bad Boys” (starring Chris Pratt) — condensed the cheesy transition music, stock exterior shots, and standard plotline templates of sitcoms into deeply satisfying deconstructions of pre-“Golden Age” TV, when happy endings were the default, along with the oohs and aahhs of a studio audience.
Online, the Ben Stiller-produced Web series “Next Time on Lonny” employs the teaser montages routinely affixed to the end of reality shows as a starting point for intense absurdist detours. The star-studded roster of cameos (including Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, Haley Joel Osment) offers only enough familiarity to confirm how lost you feel otherwise. That each episode exists as coming attractions that never come lends the whole project an existential edge.
And for his four-epsiode Adult Swim series “The Greatest Event in Television History,” Scott enlisted stars like Jon Hamm and Catherine O’Hara into a string of mockumentaries detailing the process of crafting shot-for-shot remakes of the opening sequences of defunct television shows (from “Simon and Simon” to “Too Close for Comfort”) in a quest to create the ultimate television event.
Adult Swim has been dabbling in various forms of surrealist send-uppery since launching in 2001. And by 2005, MTV’s “Wonder Showzen” had set a high bar for just how deeply upsetting a counterfeit kid’s show could be. But perhaps thanks to the absurdity native to so much of the Internet’s humor, our appetite for confusion seems to be growing, and we’ve acquired a more refined taste for nonsense.
It’s not just about madcap laughs. This month in the Guardian, Lili Loofbourow proposed that our contemporary tendency to recap TV shows together online — which has become a new national pastime — is a demonstration of vital intellectual engagement; that in discussing fictions, we are “rehearsing our collective understanding of what reality should be and, perhaps more importantly, debating how reality should be interpreted.”
In the same way, the Internet’s many attempts to come to terms with “Too Many Cooks” reveal an advanced level of interpretive sophistication. TV, with its de rigueur unreliable narrators, complex character arcs, psychological twists, and endlessly forgivable antiheroes, has grown more complicated, and in ways better and worse, it has shaped our very ability to discuss it.
Meanwhile, “Too Many Cooks” and similarly surreal forays into the machinery of television actually help restore our upper hand as an audience, reminding us of the ways that TV’s tropes limit our own expression, and keeping us conscious of the proverbial matrix (which in “Too Many Cooks” takes the form of an infinite “Brady Bunch” grid).
While its 4 a.m. time slot and the stuffed cat shooting rainbows out of its paws may suggest “Too Many Cooks” as little more than bong-hit fodder for insomniacs, it actually carves out a vital critical space. “It’s an unfortunate truth about our culture,” noted Loofbourow in the same piece, “that we can only debate things that matter deeply when we think we’re wasting time.”
Whether your time is indeed wasted by nonsense really depends on your tolerance for the stuff. The magic of absurdity is that it puts viewer and character on the same level, each of us finding our way forward. To be lost, after all, is to be more finely attuned to discovery.
As filmmaker David Lynch observed in discussing his own antihero in his legendary head-scratcher “Eraserhead,” there’s heroic potential to be found in the absurd: “He’s totally confused, yet he struggles to figure things out and do what’s best,” he said. “Isn’t that fantastic?”