If you haven’t yet seen Too Many Cooks, Casper Kelly’s short film for Adult Swim, here it is:
Too Many Cooks compels and rewards/punishes its audience not because of its comedic elements, but rather for its horror. Kelly has made one of the finest little horror films I’ve ever seen.
The central techniques of Too Many Cooks–repetition, collage, and genre parody—are fairly obvious and wonderfully synthesized. The film relies on an understanding that its audience has a particular way of seeing. The intended audience of Too Many Cooks has:
1) An understanding and acceptance of the postmodern tradition of repeating a punchline (or set-up) past the point of humor. And–
2) A particular ironic vision that delights in seeing commercial TV genre conventions of yore skewered.
Too Many Cooks succeeds by disrupting both ways of seeing. Its audiovisual repetitions (oh my lord the song!) become insane tics in a horror story that the viewer did not expect to happen—despite a number of early clues.
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe suggests that when “men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect.” Let us substitute “Horror” for “Beauty” (Poe would not mind, I think) and we have a fair description of what the filmmakers behind Too Many Cooks have created: A short piece of art that, by its arrangement, editing, of particulars—including its audience’s preconceptions—creates the effect of horror.
That horror emanates from the secret protagonist of Too Many Cooks, a mad-eyed killer who haunts the film first from its peripheries before eventually overtaking it. (He bears a slight resemblance to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek).
The Killer is the organizing principle of Too Many Cooks. He’s right there from the beginning, a specter whose agency throughout the piece subverts audience expectations. It’s not the uber-Father (who begat too many Cooks) who is the film’s central figure, but the infanticidal Killer.
Here is the first time we see The Killer, just 20 seconds in. He’s there on the right, sweater-vested (like a dad):
And then a few seconds later, lurking on the Brady/Cosby/Bundy stairs, still obscure:
The Killer next shows up about 90 seconds in; this is, unless I’m wrong, the first time we see his visage. It’s also the moment when Too Many Cooks’s early joke on corny nineties sitcom intros really starts to wear thin—the filmmakers offer us repeated images of cooks as if to underscore the tedious point.
And there’s The Killer in the second family photo:
When Too Many Cooks makes its first major genre shift (a strange moment of relief for the viewer), The Killer walks through the background of this workplace comedy:
The quick shift into a cop-show also helps to assuage the early anxieties that the repetition of the first few minutes helped create—the viewer can see a new pattern, a new repetition emerge. But there’s The Killer again. He’s the central thread in this narrative, but we have yet to realize that:
Too Many Cooks transitions its medium even more radically here, moving from film—
We can take the nod to Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier as a silly in-joke, or read it—and I do read it as such—as a reference to absurdity, nihilism, and an attendance to strict formalism.
It’s in the animated section (a parody of G.I. Joe) that The Killer emerges in full, armed with his killing blade (note the pattern on the sweater, which matches the image at 00:21 above):
Too Many Cooks then quickly moves into a mash-up of ’80s prime-time soap operas (clearly referencing Falcon Crest) with ’80s slasher horror films.
The first few moves through the mash-up are unsettling, and the disruption produces an odd, defensive laugh in its audience.
The audience gets the repetition here—(but hey, hasn’t the repetition become violent, murderous?); the audience gets the irony here (weren’t all those old TV shows so silly, so dumb, so unsophisticated?).
The turning point comes not quite half way in, when Too Many Cooks gives over to ’80s teen slasher genre conventions for a few moments, but mashes them into the same TV-intro tropes it has been repeating for the past few hypnotic/unbearable minutes:
Too Many Cooks then plays out its full horrorshow, repeating and restaging earlier scenes with The Killer in all his vile glory:
By the short film’s final third, The Killer has inscribed himself into the titular would-be family: He is a cook/Cook, his cannibalistic feast horrifying but also banal.
The taboo violence spills out over genre, over the bounds of the comedic expectations of its audience into absurd abject spectacle:
The short film’s final moments turn The Brady Bunch’s famous intro squares into an ever-repeating TV hell, where form dictates content. The disease of television:
In its last few seconds, Too Many Cooks takes a turn worthy of David Lynch. The Killer assumes the paternal mantle, overthrowing the image that the poor father, who our genre-bound expectations—ironic or otherwise—may have fooled us into believing was the much-put-upon hero in this farce. The Killer is the bad father.
The filmmakers fade out on the absurd, chaotic group, focusing on Too Many Cooks’s secret, awful protagonist, The Killer:
And then the whole thing starts again, a repetition promising fresh (or not-so-fresh) hell: