One of the qualities of life that makes it delightful is that, except in things like chemical reactions and laws of motion, it proves itself again and again beyond our power to predict. Popular culture, especially, is full of things that nobody knew they wanted until they wanted them and whose success came as a surprise even to their creators, who may have just been having a lark, or high at the time. (Conversely there are the supposed sure things that sink out of view like a barbell dropped in quicksand. This is the story of television programming.)
In the age of the Internet, when a video of a cat not killing a bird or of a baby with a funny laugh might be viewed a million times, and anyone with a cellphone is a potential content creator, the possibilities for surprise have been greatly multiplied. That is why the Web has sometimes been regarded as a kind of Yukon gold field, out of which any lucky prospector might pluck a nugget. And yet surprise when it comes is always … a surprise.
Topping the list of things you didn't see coming this last week was the viral sensation "Too Many Cooks," an 11-minute odyssey through the opening credits of an imaginary 1980s TV series that, after being broadcast at 4 a.m. for a week in late October on Adult Swim, made a delayed leap to cultural hyperspace when it was posted on YouTube, then blogged and tweeted about and linked to by some key arbiters and aggregators of pop stuff until even your sainted granny might have asked if you'd seen it, and in its very unaccountability became a thing you needed to see if you hadn't. (It's on its way to 3 million views as I write.)
Although "Too Many Cooks" holds up to -- and indeed demands -- repeated viewings, one's initial impression of it profits greatly by ignorance and what might be called the "What the -- ?" factor. In fact, if you haven't seen it yet, you should probably go watch it before you read any further. I will wait for you.
OK. As I said, and as you've seen -- you watched it, right? -- it's a kind of parody, or perhaps a celebration, and certainly a deconstruction, of an early 1980s credit sequence. To be more accurate, a seamless sequence of credit sequences, for a show called "Too Many Cooks" that keeps reintroducing itself as a slightly different show, for 11 minutes. It was made by Chris "Casper" Kelly, who has worked on the Adult Swim cartoon series "Squidbillies" (hillbilly squids) and created "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell," a satanic workplace sitcom.
Credit sequences of the 1980s are the stuff as well of Adam Scott's four-part "The Greatest Event in Television History" -- which also ran on Adult Swim -- in which People of Modern Comedy insert themselves into shot-for-shot re-creations of the opening titles for "Simon and Simon," "Hart to Hart," "Too Close for Comfort" and "Bosom Buddies." So clearly they exert deeply powerful effect on people who might have experienced them at an impressionable age, and who are of an age now to think up or pay for things like "Too Many Cooks."
Although some reports describe the video as if it had been sneaked into a spot usually reserved for infomercials -- a guerrilla move -- "Infomercials" is actually a 15-minute, sometimes 30-minute Adult Swim programming slot that begins every morning at 4 or 4:15 a.m. It is not a time when the network (which operates as Cartoon Network by day) actually broadcasts infomercials, but rather airs parody infomercials at an hour when real infomercials would be shown. If. They. Showed. Infomercials.
Other things that have occupied this space, each 11 minutes long, include pitches for For-Profit Online University ("FPOU does away with crumbling campuses full of corrupt anti-Israel professors"); for Swords, Knives, Very Sharp Objects and Cutlery; Broomshakalaka, an "all-purpose broom" that winds up killing its subsequently resurrected inventor; and an immortality-by-avatar program called "Live Forever As You Are Now (with Alan Resnick)."
It is possible that you might surf in on one of these pieces and be confused and amazed, but for regular Adult Swim viewers, 4 a.m. is like the middle of the day. Still, this is an hour at which people are not particularly paying attention; maybe they're just chilling, or can't sleep, or have just gotten in from some late-night weeknight party. Maybe it's on in the background while you're up on a deadline for this blog post.
What makes "Too Many Cooks" work especially well is the way it keeps subverting expectations; it is always turning into something else. It begins as a pastiche of an old-fashioned extended/blended family sitcom title sequence, perfect down to the title font and last fabric swatch. To a theme song as catchy as its words are banal ("It takes a lot to make a stew/A pinch of salt and laughter too/A scoop of kids to add the spice/A dash of love to make it nice"), the cast is introduced in a series of those "Oh, hi! I didn't see you standing there!" shots. You might easily mistake it for an actual series you'd somehow missed.
The changes are subtle at first -- the way the theme begins again, just at the point you think it's done, with slightly different words, and different actors, and morphs from a family comedy to a workplace comedy, from white family to black family. Then the variations begin to range more widely, though still within the same historical key, to a cop show ("It takes a lot to make a stew/I couldn't face these streets without"), a superhero cartoon, a sci-fi series, a nighttime soap; and then a killer is introduced, roaming freely through this strange cyclical universe, which comes loose from its axle; noise is introduced into the signal; the actors become detached from the credits, though still wearing their names like badges; there are decapitations.
This is all very much in the Adult Swim vein, in which homely items from the thrift-store shelf of childhood memory are turned, some might say perverted, toward twisted ends. Is it comedy? Absolutely, as intended. Is it art? I'm tempted to say so, though surely it was on no one's mind in the making of it. But either way, it is here and it wants your blood.