“Too Many Cooks” is a Sublime Postmodern Masterpiece

One part parody, one part biting metafiction, “Too Many Cooks” is a sublime postmodern masterpiece.

It’s an 11-minute special that aired on Adult Swim (Cartoon Network at night, if you really don’t know). Adult Swim is distinguished by the fact that most of its original programming runs in 15-minute blocks, instead of 30-minute blocks. Every once in a while, in addition to its various original series, Adult Swim runs specials. Often, these are parodies of infomercials, and part of the joke is that these air in the early morning, when other channels are running actual infomercials. These specials vary in quality, but none of them can compare to the mad genius that is “Too Many Cooks.”

But before I say more, you need to watch it for yourself.

Before I continue, you should know that the following contains spoilers.

I normally don’t like spoiler warnings. If a story hinges on a plot twist, and it’s lessened so terribly by knowing it in advance, it’s usually not worth seeing. It’s how the story pulls its plot twist off, how inevitable it feels, and how well it’s done.

In this case, I fully support the spoiler warning. Not because I might spoil the plot. I’m not sure there’s a plot to spoil.

Rather, “Too Many Cooks” is something you have to experience.

It’s one of the most bizarre things you’ll ever see. But it’s indisputably brilliant.

Perhaps the best way to encounter “Too Many Cooks” is the way I did — with no expectations whatsoever. I’m a night owl, and I often play Adult Swim in the background while I work. Without a doubt, Adult Swim is the strangest network — well, nighttime network — on television. It airs reruns of Fox cartoons, but its original programming specializes in the offbeat, the bizarre, and a peculiar kind of humor that seems random, even deliberately unfunny. I’m only half paying attention, and Adult Swim seems to know it. If one of its specials, or a show I haven’t seen before, starts, it may take me minutes to notice something different’s on. In the best of circumstances, I get interested halfway through. “Wait, what the hell am I watching?” is the thought that drives my eyes to the TV. I’m lucky, I get to discover a new show, and by the end of the episode or the special, I wish I could go back and watch it from the beginning. Sometimes I do, through the Adult Swim website, although shows are rerun often enough. I’ve discovered some amazing shows this way, and there’s a joy to simply stumbling into something wonderful or even mind-blowing. But nothing’s quite like “Too Many Cooks.”

So I’d rather you encounter “Too Many Cooks” like I did. Just watch it.

If you’ve already seen it, watch it again.

Okay, I’m going to assume you’ve seen it now.

“Too Many Cooks” (in quotes to indicate the special) is an episode of a fictional show entitled Too Many Cooks. At its essence, “Too Many Cooks” is a parody of 1980s sitcoms that goes off the rails and just keeps heading for the hills as fast as it can. You can read “Too Many Cooks” as a gag that runs out of steam in a couple minutes, then fills the remaining time with whatever cool ideas it feels like. That feels very much like the formula for an Adult Swim special, by the way. But here, these ideas and sequences pile atop each other, interacting and distorting the original concept, over and over, until it becomes impossible to even classify what you’re seeing. Some of these expansions of the original concept are into other parodies, including of other shows and genres. But because many of these ideas tossed into the continuing perversion of “Too Many Cooks” are metafictional, that becomes a second mode — along with parody — as the special goes on.

The parody aspect is easiest to ascertain, and it’s unsurprisingly been the most discussed aspect of the special — and “Too Many Cooks” has been discussed widely, including by The New Yorker. The special begins entirely as a parody of 1980s sitcoms, especially ensemble sitcoms like Eight is Enough, complete with a terrible title based on the old saying that “too many cooks can spoil the broth.” It’s a close parody, with characters doing mildly silly things that aren’t really funny, then pretending they noticed the camera and smiling for it. The footage throughout is aged to look like a videocassette recording, although this effect isn’t overdone or distracting. The entire cast — presumably the Cook family — takes a group photo, but its unimpressive patriarch doesn’t quite make it to the couch on time. It’s a pitch-perfect recreation of a subgenre best forgotten, which is on its own an interesting exercise.

Just as we think the title sequence is ending and the show itself is about to begin, the music begins again, and we meet new members of the family. It’s a clever little twist, instantly recognizable as a gag about ensemble casts. Now, things begin to distort, and we meet Smarf, a puppet member of the family that recalls Alf. We meet not one but several actual cooks. And then we begin for a third time. The camera rotates around a circular table, long past 360 degrees, introducing one increasingly incongruous family member after another. It’s clever, but it’s essentially a single gag.

Smarf

And then suddenly we’re in the title sequence of a police drama like Hill Street Blues. Although the show takes metafictional detours, it continues these kinds of parodies throughout, including send-ups of the 1980s G.I. Joe cartoon and a low-budget 1980s sci-fi series like the original Battlestar Galactica. There’s undoubtedly a joy simply to seeing all these other shows parodied. Indeed, it’s fun to play “spot the reference” with the entire special. Some references are as quick as a few musical notes, such as the distinctive Seinfeld transition music, here used in a wildly inappropriate way, like a laugh track played right after a murder. But each of these other sequences, despite being set in a different genre, adapts the “concept” of the fictional sitcom Too Many Cooks and also adapts the theme music. For example, the sci-fi series focuses on the heroic C.O.O.K.S. battling the evil B.R.O.T.H.  We’re not seeing a collection of unconnected parodies here; we’re seeing Too Many Cooks filtered through genre after genre.

It’s hard not to see this as a parody of how shows sometimes radically reinvent themselves, as well as of our current culture of reboots and reinterpretations. Sometimes, people claim that a concept’s “adaptability” illustrates its strength. “Too Many Cooks” demonstrates how weak this argument is, at least on its own. Because there’s nothing to adapt, except the theme music and the idea of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

It’s easy to see some of these title sequences as belonging to shows other than the sitcom Too Many Cooks — shows that reinterpret the original “concept.” But in fact, they are different aspects of the same show. All of these characters interact. The first generic departure, into detective drama, illustrates this concept: what we’re seeing is more akin to a spin-off, depicting the workplace adventures of the member of the Cook family who’s a police officer. Except, of course, this isn’t a spin-off. The title sequence is still continuing, so we’re simply reflecting the fact that Too Many Cooks is such an ensemble show that it has a whole second cast, focused around the police department. In fact, “Too Many Cooks” establishes this idea even earlier, when we meet a set of characters in an office. Even the sci-fi sequence, which feels the most like a reinterpretation or a separate show, is actually just another setting explored on the same show. After all, it’s also part of the same title sequence.

It’s like Too Many Cooks is an ensemble show squared, featuring a set of ensemble casts. But it’s also like Too Many Cooks takes place in a wild universe, in which content normally separated by generic boundaries — the sitcom, Hill Street Blues, G.I. Joe, Wonder Woman, etc. — are rammed up against one another and forced into a single series. The is clear from the final family shot, in which the lizard-man from the sci-fi characters is part of the family. Genre classifications collapse. Too Many Cooks is neither animated nor live-action, neither sitcom nor sci-fi drama, neither detective show nor super-hero show. It’s all of these things, and it doesn’t care that none of these genres mean anything when slapped together.

Although “Too Many Cooks” dives into metafiction, the parodic strain never disappears — as evidenced by a rather brilliant, very late sequence in which the famous nine-panel grid of moving heads, from title sequence to The Brady Bunch, is expanded into mind-bending absurdity. And all of this material is clever and fun enough. But it’s the metafiction that takes “Too Many Cooks” to the next level.

If the parody aspect of “Too Many Cooks” continues almost until the end, the metafiction extends almost to the beginning. The metafictive strain is focused around a character who’s a machete-weilding serial killer. He appears in the background of several shots, and he’s obviously incongruous. Who’s that creepy guy in the background of the police station? How did he get into the police station? And why, despite these appearances, has he not been introduced, with the name of the actor playing him appearing on-screen? He’s even seen at the end of the animated G.I. Joe sequence, running after the other characters with his machete. As eccentric as the G.I. Joes were (and are), this overweight guy carrying a machete and trying to keep up doesn’t fit. Later, this man begins killing cast members as soon as they’re introduced. It soon becomes clear that he’s able to move and kill characters while they’re frozen, as part of the title sequence.

The killer (who reminds me of the mystical killer Bob from Twin Peaks) is able to interact with the fictive world of “Too Many Cooks,” ignoring its artificial conventions, such as freeze-frames.

Is it thinking too much to ask whether the title sequence always included these murders, or whether the killer is changing the title sequence? It’s funny to have a character killed off as they’re introduced with the fanfare of an actor’s name. But it’s possible that the killer is able to alter this fictional world. There’s definitely a sense that he’s infiltrated the title sequence somehow.

In a key sequence, a female character, although frozen, senses the killer creeping up behind her and runs. As she does, there’s a kind of breaking sound. She flees through the set, presumably of the sitcom. As the killer chases, we see other actors — all of whom are still frozen, and all of whom, like the fleeing woman, still have their actors’ names hovering beside them. The killer ultimately kills the fleeing woman, after spotting her due to her actress’s name glowing from the closet.

The sequence is the first to play with the idea that these actors’ names have some kind of real existence, within the world of the title sequence. Normally, characters aren’t able to see titles, including actors’ names. It’s not entirely clear that they can. Even the fleeing woman doesn’t react to hers. But the killer does.

Only he can see them. The same way he’s able to move normally during freeze-frames. The same way he can enter houses and police stations, apparently unseen. The same way he can change the title sequence.

He also appears able to replace cast members. At one point, the title sequence replays an earlier sequence, in which a peeping tom on a ladder peers into a girl’s room, except now the killer has replaced both characters simultaneously. The actors’ names are covered with videotape distortion, perhaps a sign that they’ve been possessed or replaced. As evidence of this, these names are clearly different from one another, so it’s not like the title sequence is repeatedly attempting unsuccessfully to credit the actor playing the killer.

The killer stages a cannibalistic feast, at the end of which he is himself killed by Smarf, the puppet member of the family, who’s revealed to be a Terminator-like Cyborg. This segues into the sci-fi sequence. During this sequence, we see the killer appear on a viewscreen, dressed in futuristic clothes. Later, we see the killer’s head on the front of a spaceship, and a laser fires out of his mouth. Then we see a horde of killers, all with machetes, on the march through a burning spaceship. While this is all very silly, the appearance of the killer on the viewscreen is unique, in that we haven’t seen him interacting normally with anyone else. Is it possible that the killer is actually from this future, and that his army of clones (or robots or whatever they are) have developed some sort of fifth-dimensional power to not only go back in time and possess characters but to exist outside of the in-universe rules that govern the title sequence? If this is true, the killer zapped by Smarf is only one killer.

Is this thinking way too hard about a silly short film? Probably. But then again, after zapping the cannibalistic killer, Smarf takes on the appearance of a Terminator — a character who was sent from the future, sometimes to eliminate other robots from the future.

The killer may also parody our love of violence. But his chosen weapon also connects to how “Too Many Cooks” slices across genres, and the true object of his violence is often television conventions.

But even if the killer seems like he’s a metafictional character, able to ignore the constraints of this fictive universe, he’s not the only metafiction in “Too Many Cooks.” In one of the most brilliant sequences, we see a doctor and a nurse attending a patient whose disease causes him to repeat bad sitcom lines, followed by saying “laugh track.” Another symptom of his disease is that his actor’s name appears over his body, and both the doctor and the nurse seem able to see this floating yellow name. “You can even hear the theme music,” says the doctor, and of course the theme music is the theme to Too Many Cooks. To the doctor, this disease is so terrible that, upon becoming infected himself. And he becomes aware of the camera, which the uninfected nurse does not acknowledge, and he says, “Kill me,” presumably to the audience.

Here, the stupidity of sitcoms (and perhaps television more generally) is literally presented as an infection, an illness you can catch and easily spread.

From this point on, the sense that the characters are trapped in the title sequence becomes increasingly palpable. Something has broken. Characters hop from one genre to another, their settings changing moment by moment. If the walls separating genres have been deconstructed, they’re now inconsistent, moment by moment.

Then comes the utter brilliance of reversing the actors’ titles and the actors themselves. The actors scream, as if trapped in some unimaginable sort of hell. This conveys the sense that something has become terribly broken, and it carries the postmodern strains of the short film to their logical extreme. In fact, this sequence actually conveys deep philosophical meaning. The signifier and the signified have literally been reversed. The label is now the thing, and the thing the label. This sort of reversal, between symbolism and substance, is strongly associated with the postmodern condition, in which representations like images can seem more “real” than “real” experience.

This is one of the things I really admire about “Too Many Cooks.” On the one hand, it’s hard to take seriously. But it has the courage to take its premises to their conclusion. It follows its ideas through, piling them atop each other, distorting and distorting until it can’t go any further.

Personally, the idea of being caught in a sitcom title sequence is actually pretty horrifying to me. I’ve had dreams like this.

It’s not clear what the red button, to which the bloody Smarf hauntingly crawls before apparently dying, actually does. But perhaps it restores order. After he pushes it, he apparently returns to life, and the ensemble show resumes as if nothing had ever gone awry. As evidence, the Wonder Woman analogue is present, despite having been murdered by the killer earlier.

Except, of course, this restoration of order hasn’t been entirely successful, because in the very last shot of the title sequence, we see that the killer has replaced — possessed? — the family patriarch. Perhaps the damage the killers have done has been reversed, but not all these metafictional killers from the future have been eliminated.

The final joke of “Too Many Cooks” is that the show itself is only a few seconds long. It’s an amusing little gag, reminiscent of similar breaking of TV formats, such as Arrested Development using its “next time on” segment, at the end of the show, to offer a denouement or run the episode’s plots forward in quick succession.

Perhaps this ensemble show has simply expanded its cast so much that each episode is this short. But it’s an inescapable fact that, whether the killer has altered the title sequence or not, that title sequence has told a sort of story. We might guess that the killer is himself fictive, even if he has metafictional powers, and that the show, in order to accommodate this character’s ability to enter his own universe’s title sequence, had to expand that title sequence until it dominated the show’s runtime.

What’s indisputable is that the very brief show after the title sequence reverses the normal relationship between title sequence and the “content,” much like the actors and their on-screen names reversed earlier. A show’s title sequence is a kind of glorified label. It’s equivalent to a book’s title page. It’s supposed to indicate what’s inside, but it’s not supposed to be important in its own right. “Too Many Cooks” is a book that mostly consists of its title, stretched across a hundred pages. Order may have been restored and the killer set back, but symbolism and substance are still reversed at the end.

“Too Many Cooks” is a short film you can appreciate on multiple levels. If you want, it can just be a manic, crazy, parodic romp that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. But if you’re willing, there are plenty of fascinating postmodern themes to explore. And plenty of ambiguity to discuss. I suspect we’ll be doing so for longer than anyone imagines.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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4 Comments

  1. Brent Holmes says:

    Julian, after reading the title of your article and seeing the first image I stopped and went to watch Too Many Cooks on YouTube.

    At first I took it as a nice and overdue critique of television formula. Simplified marketing can get my back up; and every genre skewered in Too Many Cooks is guilty of that at one time or another. I actually took “Smarf” as a parody of Snarf from Thundercats rather than ALF. (Or perhaps someone making each television show wants it to be “smart” but can’t quite make it?) On the South Park 3-parter Imaginationland even the gentle Butters was driven to frustration by the repetitive banality of Snarf.

    But your references to metafiction are illuminating. After “Wonder Woman” transforms; a “Green Lantern” is killed, splitting into two as he dies. Was his identity cleaved by a machete even as his body was, in broad reference to the cleaving of actor and character in this program? A rich 11 minute presentation, full of creative and interpretive moments. It could be discussed and debated for logarithmic multiples of its duration.

    • Thanks for your comment, Brent!

      I also thought about the Snarf reference. And yes, Snarf was very annoying. I mentioned ALF because of the live-action puppet connection, but I think you’re right that the creators know of Snarf and had to be thinking that way.

      The Green Lantern decapitation is a great moment that reminded me of stuff in Miracleman about two bodies sharing the same space. Of course, it’s played for a quick laugh, but it’s smart stuff. And you’re right that it plays on this sense of doubling and identity.

      You’re right that “Too Many Cooks” is so rich for analytic mining. I’ve had some conversations about it with teachers and students, and it seems like everyone points out something new. Just today on Twitter, someone suggested that the red reset button could be the reset button all sitcoms have, hidden by the floorboards, the pressing of which restores the status quo after the end of the episode. That’s fascinating!

      Thanks again for your awesome comment!

  2. Black says:

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t forward the idea that the killer is the viewer. He’s been up all not binge devouring this swill. No matter how many characters he stalks and devours, he never fills up, never tires. Smarf, finally revealed to be a piece of corporate technology (a la the Terminator) finally stops him and returns the onslaught of senseless entertainment to order. This audience member then finally finds himself trapped in the role of the milquetoast, patriarchal head of the family. His own identity almost entirely subsumed as he takes his seat on the couch before the completely empty and pointless 11 seconds of entertainment begins.

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