For a smattering of Adult Swim viewers who happened to be watching infomercials at 4:00 a.m. on Halloween, history was witnessed. It was at that time, unexpectedly and without warning, that “Too Many Cooks” first aired on television.
At first, it went ignored. No-one was talking about it, and those who had watched live were likely still trying to figure out what had happened to their cable sets.
But on November 6, nearly a whole week later, the video was posted to social news monolith reddit, with the headline: This aired at 4:00 AM on Adult Swim between infomercials earlier this week, not listed on cable guides or anywhere else. It’s one of the best pieces of surreal comedy I’ve ever seen. – [11:25]
Quickly, the video raced to the front page, and in the days since, it’s become a monster impossible to handle.
Adult Swim posted the video to their YouTube channel seven days ago. It’s already racked up more than a million views since. The title words began trending on major social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Online news outlets and blogs like Buzzfeed, Gawker, Grantland, and Mashable declared the video a must-see. Even the mainstream media have jumped in, with Rolling Stone calling it an instant cult classic and Esquire deeming it a revelation.
Rian Johnson, director of Looper and the upcoming Star Wars movie, deemed it Oscar worthy.
No joke, this should be in the Oscar running for best short. “@JayWadeEdwards: This is amazing. Too Many Cooks: http://t.co/zeR5KrHLzE
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) November 6, 2014
The video’s been featured on CNN and Entertainment Tonight alike, and in the pages of the Los Angeles Times and The Atlantic. Trying to decipher meanings and understanding various plot elements have caused pop culture debates not seen since True Detective, and has maybe even reached the level of importance from the days of Lost.
There have been analysis and think pieces from the New Yorker, Salon, and the National Post. For anyone who’s seen the video, the theme song has probably reached earworm status, which actor Simon Pegg seems to understand well.
🎵Too many cooks🎵
— Simon Pegg (@simonpegg) November 10, 2014
Of course, all of this reminds us that predicting the next viral hit is nearly impossible to do. Weirdness seems to go a long way, as evidenced by the viral hits like Gangnam Style and the Harlem Shake. Of course, both of those have an interactive angle that allow viewers to remake the video and upload it for their own channels, like those here:
Prank videos and Monte Python-style comedy videos also tend to race up in views, like the ones Jimmy Kimmel is now famous for producing.
Yet, Too Many Cooks remains a different beast altogether. By viral video standards, it’s long at eleven minutes, like a screening of Titanic at a short films festival. It’s complex, with a basketful of Easter eggs that requires multiple watches to collect them all. It’s also not a “web” video, or at least it wasn’t at first. This was a short made for television, filmed over 72 hours in October 2013 with a cast of over 50 actors, written by Casper Kelly, who’d previously written for shows like Squidbillies, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and CatDog.
Even the idea fails to lure in everyone. Kelly, in an interview with Vice, describes how hard it is to not stray over the line of making the joke too repetitive, too monotonous, to the point that any humour involved becomes meaningless (I’m looking at you Family Guy):
You know, it’s like that whole gag of when David Letterman repeats something and its funny, and then it’s annoying, and then it’s funny again, it’s a hard to figure out that line. But we worked on it hard, and hopefully it works.
The unpredictable, slasher-flick segment midway through (if you’ve read this far without watching the video, you were asking to be spoiled) is gorey and also takes the joke into a totally different, much darker direction, again risking isolating some viewers.
Yet, throughout it all, Too Many Cooks remains one of the funnier videos of the year. It seems more like something you’d find in an SNL Digital Short rather than buried as a 4:00 a.m. “infomercial.” And maybe that’s why we love it, it’s a classic underdog story.*
*Full disclosure: I, like I’m sure many of the authors I’ve linked to here, just wanted an excuse to write about the video and share it gleefully with anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure yet. In all seriousness, viral videos are unpredictable and always will be. Next time your C.M.O. asks for ideas on how to make your recent winter tire ad go viral, show her/him Too Many Cooks.