Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Too Many Cooks vs Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared!
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Too Many Cooks vs Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared!
Written by: Leo Cookman
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Too Many Cooks vs. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared: Decoding the Disturbing – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, disembodied Jared again, here to ask you a question: why are a repetitive sitcom intro and an ode to British children’s television two of the most disturbing things on YouTube? Besides the obvious, is there a reason that this; or this; is more unsettling than say, a dude who murders you in your dreams? Instead of cheap jumpscares, Too Many Cooks and Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared induce a kind of existential horror, but to different ends. So, if you’ve ever pondered the eternal question of whether you’d rather be stuck in a song that never ends or acid-induced muppet nightmare, then this is the video for you. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Too Many Cooks vs Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. And I guess spoilers ahead… For those of you who don’t know – here’s a quick recap. Too Many Cooks begins like the opening credits of most 80s sitcoms, like Full House, Different Strokes or My Two Dads, and then just… keeps… going. As the jingle repeats, the opening credits mutate and begin to resemble things ranging from GI Joe to Battlestar Galactica. And it keeps going. And going. And going. And then a serial killer shows up and… look if you haven’t seen it, go watch it. It’s so good.
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, is a 6-episode web series that resembles British children’s television shows like the Teletubbies. Buuuut each episode quickly descends into terrifying psychological torture, complete with cultist bees, disembowelment, and uncomfortable amounts of raw meat. Although they don’t seem terribly similar, both utilize a special nightmare sauce that really gets under our skin: That sauce? f**king with nostalgia. In Too Many Cooks, the aesthetic of the comforting TV families of the 80s and 90s are quite literally murdered. While in Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, our childhood mentors are inverted into Orwellian despots. But what makes this worse, than say, watching Nightmare on Elm Street? Y’see, nostalgia offers three psychological benefits: it acts as a repository for positive feelings, a contributor to self-esteem, and as a method of social connectivity. Because who hasn’t read all 52 ways you know you’re a 90s kid? Since nostalgia makes us feel so good, disrupting it can really mess with your head. According to one school of thought called Terror Management Theory, nostalgia can be a handy way to combat the terror of our mortal existence. No longer able to take comfort in God or an afterlife, our secular age has put more emphasis on other kinds of immortality: like having kids, making your mark on the world, having a national identity, or having your dick cast in plaster. This is where nostalgia comes in.
A 2006 study found that nostalgia helps to provide meaning in our lives by allowing us to relive idealized memories of our past in order to feel better about the future. But unlike some media that shamelessly parrots nostalgia to give us the warm and fuzzies, Too Many Cooks and Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared use nostalgic references to draw us in and then give us a good ol’ fashioned mindf**k. Rather than dressing up like Ghostbusters, Too Many Cooks and Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared over-identify with these references to the point of horrific absurdity. They use the sappy intro music, dated retro graphics, and simple puppets with bright colors to pull you in to a nostalgic state, and then undermine it. So, when everything goes to hell they’re literally ruining your childhood. And not like ‘The Last Jedi’ did. The nostalgic feel-good memories that pacify you on your meaningless trudge toward death are now being murdered, both metaphorically and literally. But while both of these properties utilize this subversion of nostalgia, it’s how and why they subvert it that sets them apart. To understand what sets Too Many Cooks Apart from Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, we need to look at the early 20th century theater practitioner Bertolt Brecht. Brecht rejected realism in theater, arguing that because film was so much better at it, why even bother? Theater doesn’t have the endless takes, multiple locations, camera angles, and perfectly mixed audio that puts you in the moment the way cinema does. Theater requires a lot of suspension of disbelief and audience imagination.
So, Brecht developed what he called “epic theater”. Epic Theater sought to disrupt the audience-performer relationship. Where traditional drama expected an audience to be sad when the protagonist is sad, frightened when he or she is frightened, and so on, Brecht wanted an audience to view the performance more critically and dispassionately. To do that, he used a technique called ‘Distantiation’ or ‘the Alienation Effect’. For instance, he would show the workings of the performance on stage to reveal its falseness. In his play ‘Mother Courage and Her Children,’ costume changes happen on stage, props and scenery are brought on and off during dialogue and placards are held up to explain the action; all so the audiences can’t escape the awareness that they were watching a play, and thus are able to judge the characters more critically. Ol’ Bertie basically patented our culture’s favorite thing: breaking the fourth wall.
Like Brecht, Too Many Cooks draws our attention to its own falseness. Characters run between sets, they’re stalked by their chyrons, the audio and video are disrupted, and whatever this is. Another characteristic Too Many Cooks shares with Brecht is repetition. In almost every Brecht play there is form of repeated dance movement, gesture or phrase, even in the music. Consider “The Alabama Song,” which you might recognize as an awesome song by The Doors. Well, Brecht wrote it. The lyrics, rhythm, and instrumentation are highly repetitive, and the harmony uses a lot dissonance to achieve the general feeling of creepiness this song bestows upon the listener. And if you, too, are creeped out by this song, then congrats — Brecht’s alienation effect worked. The more you repeat something, the more likely you are to look at, or listen to, it critically, seeing it a different way. Like, have you ever repeated a word until it sounds like gibberish? Just like saying “pigeon,” “pigeon,” “pigeon,” pigeon” for a minute straight will make the word “pigeon” sound extremely weird, hearing the phrase Too Many Cooks, over and over throughout a 11 minute video will remove any and all meaning the phrase “Too Many Cooks” ever had. But where Brecht would often use this distancing effect to explain an injustice or challenge a prejudice, Too Many Cooks has a much more nihilistic view of the whole thing. Every component of popular entertainment is distanced and robbed of meaning. For instance, the repetitiveness of the phrase “Too Many Cooks spoils the Broth” seems to parallel the repetition of other Sitcom catchphases like — “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” “Ayyyyy.” “Did I do that?”
Even as more and more unsettling elements are introduced, the repetition renders it all meaningless, and uses this opportunity to show how interchangeable it all is. As our characters get murdered, our greasy serial killer begins to inhabit the generic and interchangeable tropes and aesthetics of television. By deconstructing these old shows in this graphic way, Too Many Cooks upends any attempt at Terror Management through our nostalgic love of He-Man, Married With Children or Buck Rogers by revealing them to be empty, easily-replicated junk, all for a joke — and a great one at that. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared uses a lot of these same techniques of Distantiation too, like breaking the fourth wall by rotating a digital image of their set and repeating camera moves and dialogue over and over — “I wonder what will happen.” “I wonder what will happen.” — but Don’t Hug Me has more in common with a different type of pop culture deconstruction. Whereas Too Many Cooks is deconstruction for its own sake, Don’t Hug Me subverts nostalgia to not only to criticize children’s television, but to offer a way forward.
But how exactly? Well, first we need to talk about something that sounds really boring — the British Television act of 1954 — which allowed commercial television networks to compete with the government-owned BBC. Following the television act, a new commercial channel, Independent Television, was created in 1955, a fact not lost on Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. In the eerie fundraising campaign trailers, a violent bear-monster demands money from the audience — “Money! Money! Money!” — using a ransom video conspicuously time stamped as 1955. With this in mind, the reason for deconstructing children’s television becomes a bit clearer. Subtle clues take jabs at the very idea of children’s television for profit, or even profit in general. Throughout its six episodes, the three main characters, Red Guy, Duck, and Yellow Guy, are terrorized by different guest ‘teachers’, like a notebook that explains creativity — “What’s your favorite idea? Mine is being creative!” — a clock that explains time — “Time is a tool you can put on the wall, or wear it on your wrist. The past is far behind us. The future doesn’t exist!” — and a bee that explains love… for some reason — “Together, we can understand about love…” On the surface, this seems like any episode of Barney – or whatever kids watch these days – but as the fourth wall starts to dissolve, everything gets weird, murderous, trippy, and even profound. All this batsh*t insanity in the unexpected guise of a kids show reveals an authoritarian and consumerist messages, using a method known as Culture Jamming.
Culture Jamming is a tactic used by anti-consumerist groups to subvert the dominant narrative and iconography of our era: mainstream media, advertisement, and so on. This means revealing the message that is “really behind” popular media and advertising, and injecting their own meaning to serve their agenda . Think of the Coke billboard that says ‘Love’ but someone sprayed ‘Profit’ underneath it, or a McDonald’s billboard modified to read “I’m Loving Diabetes”, or anything Banksy’s ever done, or Vermin Supreme, a man who wears a boot on his head and wants to mandate brushing your teeth by law – all to mock our political process. “This election year, vote early. Vote often. And remember, a vote for me, Vermin Supreme, is a vote completely thrown away.” This method of deconstructing a well-known institution, like children’s television, by ‘jamming’ it with another, more graphic, image highlights the disparity between wholesome, edutainment for kids and the excesses of profit-driven media that the Television Act introduced. Throughout the series, the ‘teachers’ in every episode explain what something is or means but start to suggest ‘better’ ways of doing things — “I don’t see what you mean.” “‘Cause you’re not thinking creatively!” — correct the main characters — “It’s easy to be a clever, smart boy like me, if you just do it all digitally!” — and punish them if they do or say what the teachers see as the wrong thing. Wanna be creative? Don’t use green, that’s not a creative color. Wanna eat fancy foods? Sorry, they’ll clog up your body. “The bad, not healthy foods are very rude, and must leave through the cat flap.” While these choices, of excluding green, or choosing a computer over a globe to learn, may seem inane and meaningless at first, they slowly begin to reveal what is at stake. The saccharine notion of a child’s TV mentor is “jammed” to reveal the dangers of letting media teach your child in the harsh realities of the commercial age, and the touch of authoritarianism that is inherent to it all.
Attempts to question their teachers are always shut down. “That doesn’t make sense!” “Uh duh, duh, duh, duh!” “I mean, time’s just a construct of human perception, an illusion created by —“ “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah!!” Furthermore, the danger of empty platitudes about love devolve into a cult. “His name is Malcolm.” “Our king!” “He the king of love!” Optimism about technology is juxtaposed with some Clockwork Orange sh*t. In the same episode, what you can “do” with a computer seems to be dancing, graphs, and more importantly, style – as in, you know, buying clothes. “Hey, this is fun!” “Wow, look a line graph!” “Digital style!” “Do a digital dance… Hey, this is fun!” The last few episodes even seems to drop hints that this is all a plan to sell oats to kids. Our computer teacher asks the puppets a series of questions like it’s for a focus group and, on the question of “what do you like to eat,” our beloved computer shows us another picture of oats. In the next episode, our teacher tells us the merits of “plain foods” and more oats are seen next to the healthy juice. This gives Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared a much more moral message than Too Many Cooks. While Too Many Cooks literally self-destructs, the message of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared hints as alternate methods of childhood education. Try managing your terror with that. Just like almost everything else in pop culture right now, Too Many Cooks and Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared recognize how we use nostalgia as a safety blanket and then soak that blanket in blood and rip a few holes in it. But while Too Many Cooks says that’s because this kind of nostalgia is a lie and ultimately useless, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared ruins our childhood because it loves us. It wants you to challenge the lessons you’ve learned instead of blindly obeying that comforting kids show voice. So don’t listen to the smooth voice of video hosts, and think for yourself. Thanks for watching, Wisecrack. Peace.