Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Exactly the right number of cooks

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Too Many Cooks

By now, many of you have probably already seen, and can’t unsee, “Too Many Cooks.” If not, you can watch it here, and I’ll wait until you’re done. For those who can’t be bothered—and I don’t entirely blame you—I should explain that it’s a viral video, written by Casper Kelly, which starts out as a savage takedown of insipid sitcom opening titles from the likes of Family Matters and Full House, only to evolve gradually into something much darker and weirder. I’m not going to even try analyzing it here; there are already plenty of think pieces that cheerfully read too much into it. (I’m looking at you, Todd VanDerWerff.) But I will say that it feels both utterly insane and strangely inevitable, like watching all of Mulholland Drive in the span of eleven minutes. It isn’t perfect, and the quality of the parody varies considerably, but there’s a reason why it’s making so many heads explode. As Dave Sims writes in The Atlantic: “It’s the classic anti-comedy premise of taking so long with something that it goes from being funny, to being not very funny, to being boring, to suddenly becoming hilarious again.”

In other words, it’s a rake gag, which is partially true, although this really only explains the first few minutes. “Too Many Cooks” is a lot of things, but it’s also a sketch engaged in a constant dialogue with its own length, as well as the viewer’s expectations of how long a joke like this can be sustained. Sims goes on to point out—with a nod to his colleague Joe Reid—that “Too Many Cooks” would work even better if the video didn’t have that little timer at the bottom, telling you how long it had left to run. It would work beautifully, for instance, as a short subject before a midnight movie, maybe Mulholland Drive itself. In fact, that’s more or less how it originally aired, as part of Adult Swim‘s infomercial block, which unleashes odd, self-contained sketches on unsuspecting viewers at four in the morning. And what interests me the most about it, at least from a writer’s perspective, is how its strangest and most memorable qualities naturally arise from the format in which it was first presented. It acquired a new life online, but it came out of television, and it’s as a piece of television that it can best be understood.

Marc Farley in Too Many Cooks

A few days ago, on Reddit, writer Casper Kelly shared the following story about how the short was conceived:

I think it was a shower idea—just simply the idea of a show sitcom [sic] open that doesn’t stop. It made me laugh. But I didn’t think it could work for eleven minutes so I didn’t do anything with it. Then my coworker Jim Fortier (Squidbillies) told the idea to Mike Lazzo (head of Adult Swim) at a party and he laughed. So I decided to go for it. I told Mike I wasn’t sure it could work for eleven minutes—just adding actors. Mike said even Andy Kaufman would only do that for about four minutes—and then I needed to start zigging and zagging. He was right.

Which highlights a crucial, easily overlooked detail: nearly every informercial that Adult Swim airs is exactly eleven minutes long, give or take thirty seconds or so. If “Too Many Cooks” had been conceived from the beginning as an online video, without any length restrictions, Kelly might have been content to stick with his original four-minute conception, and the result would have looked a lot like the superficially similar sketch from MADtv that failed to set the world on fire.

Instead, Kelly was forced to think harder to fill the space he had, and the constraints of the format with which he was presented took him into increasingly demented, and inspired, places. In a way, it’s an inversion of the phenomenon that I’ve discussed here before with regard to television, in which fixed network timeslots force creators to deal with less room, not more. As I wrote then: “For most shows, though, the episodic format provides a useful set of constraints…It’s a force for selection, compression, and external structure, all of which a series discards at its own peril.” When a show lacks those boundaries, as we often see with Netflix Originals, the result can seem sloppy or overlong. And while shorter is generally better than longer, “Too Many Cooks” proves that even the opposite constraint can push the material into interesting directions, as the writer stretches himself further than he would have if left to his own devices. It’s like structure in poetry, in which a poet often has to fill out a thought to make it to the end of a line or stanza. Sometimes, this leads to simple padding, and not even “Too Many Cooks” is entirely exempt. But it’s still a valuable lesson. In fiction or film, you can do anything you like, but it’s only when you give up some of your freedom that you learn what “anything” really means.

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2014 at 9:01 am

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