A few months ago, Adult Swim aired “Too Many Cooks,” a brilliant, searing, and absolutely hilarious send-up of sitcoms, and particularly the family-friendly ABC TGIF staples of the ’90s. The 11-minute video surprised and shocked viewers, taking a dark turn from nostalgic tribute to twisted slasher flick, all while the same upbeat, cheesy theme music played. “Too Many Cooks” quickly became a huge viral hit for the network. While we already knew that there was a big market for nostalgic sitcom parodies, Adult Swim has proved that the best parodies are of the darker and weirder variety, ones that don’t elicit warm and fuzzy feelings but instead go for real laughs and even provide insight on why we’re so attracted to these cheesy programs in the first place.
Adult Swim doesn’t just focus on sitcom parodies, though — no genre is safe from its gentle mocking. Childrens Hospital is the best satire of the medical drama genre that you will ever see, skewering everything from excessive voice-over to multiple doctors living in one apartment to the entangled, overlapping relationships that form in a hospital. The underrated The Eric Andre Show is a screwed-up late night program, a low-budget public access-style show that begins every episode with Andre destroying the set. Patton Oswalt’s The Heart, She Holler lampoons soap operas by relying on surrealism, while Hot Package parodies entertainment programs like Access Hollywood with segments that rely on fake entertainment news or obscure movie reviews. Mike Tyson’s Mysteries is inspired by Hanna-Barbera shows like Scooby Doo, and Eagleheart parodies the old-fashioned cop genre, borrowing heavily from Walker, Texas Ranger. Adult Swim also hosted the sublimely and enthusiastically odd Greatest Event in Television History. The four-installment mockumentary series featured Parks and Recreation‘s Adam Scott attempting shot-for-shot recreations of famous TV opening titles sequences like Hart to Hart and Bosom Buddies.
But it’s still sitcom parodies that reign supreme on Adult Swim. After the success of “Too Many Cooks,” last week brought two new takes on the format. The Jack and Triumph Show, featuring Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) as a former child star and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (Robert Smigel) as his co-star in the Lassie-like program where they both found fame, is a dirty joke-filled send up of family comedies. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Bagboy special, meanwhile, is an absurd and pitch-perfect sitcom parody starring Steve Brule. The Jack and Triumph Show still hasn’t quite found its own voice; the parodic elements are all there, from the multi-camera format and live studio audience (I attended a taping a few months ago) to the opposites-attract buddy roommates to the ridiculous hijinks, but it has yet to come into its own. Bagboy, however, was impressive throughout its first (and likely only) episode, though credit is due less to Adult Swim’s seemingly new foray into sitcom parodies than to the singular genius of Tim and Eric.
“We’ve been doing this kind of stuff for years on Awesome Show, a couple of sitcom parodies. It’s a fun little place for us to play in,” Heidecker told me during a phone interview. Bagboy was born out of Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, when Heidecker and Wareheim were seeking out a way to make side characters a bigger part of the show. Watching Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! or Check It Out!, it’s easy to see why Steve Brule (hilariously portrayed by John C. Reilly) is the character they chose to focus on. He’s goofy but totally sincere, and both the humor and absurdity are heightened by having a beloved character anchor Bagboy.
“One of the things that makes it work is that there is a clear point of view established from the beginning that this is not just a parody of a bad sitcom, but the product of a character that everybody knows, so it’s consistent with the point of view of Steve Brule,” said Heidecker. “It’s got lots of self-congratulatory elements to it: his unique perspective on ‘hunks’ and canned food. I feel like it begins as a parody, but it’s much more than just a straight parody.” This added element — Brule’s unique point of view, the occasionally sad and put-upon way that his mind works, the crazy things that he spews on a regular basis (all while meaning well!) — is what makes Bagboy succeed in ways that other sitcom parodies don’t. It doesn’t just take a sitcom’s inherent cheesiness or will-they/won’t-they plot and insert random characters for laughs; it goes a step further in having a familiar character, Brule, create the entire show himself.
Brule breaks the fourth wall, he cracks bad jokes and stares at the audience while waiting for nonexistent laughs to kick in, and he feeds lines to his mother. “One of my favorite parts of the whole thing is his relationship with his Mom,” says co-creator Eric Wareheim. “He has this really sensitive moment where he’s giving his mom these lines — ‘I love you so much’ and ‘You’re the best son I ever had’ — obviously scripted by Dr. Steve and from his point of view. Which is really fucked up, to cast your mom in a sitcom and make her say these nice things to get that kind of love.”
It is fucked up, but it’s also what sets Bagboy apart. It remarks on why we tend to gravitate toward innocent sitcoms: Everyone loves each other, and everything is resolved within 22 minutes. When watching a show like Full House or Family Matters, you never question that the parents love their children. It’s a given. In Bagboy, we get to see a different approach: What if your mother doesn’t love you? Well, you can always “fix” that relationship in a made-up sitcom. “He’s sort of acting like God where he can control the universe for 22 minutes,” Heidecker adds. This is basically what all sitcom creators do: They play God, and create idealized versions of people.
Then again, maybe it doesn’t pay to pick apart what is best appreciated as a funny and entertaining sitcom parody. It can be argued that “Too Many Cooks” was ruined by viewers revealing too much info — even just knowing how long it runs kills the joke — or over-analyzing viewers’ love for it. When I asked Tim and Eric why they believe Adult Swim parodies are doing so well, their answers are simple: “I think a lot of viewers are dumb,” says Wareheim, “It’s just a dumb way for people to know these properties and continue them.” Heidecker adds, “There’s also a nostalgia or a familiarity with this format. We all grew up watching these low rent, cheap, crappy sitcoms that were pointless. And it ingrained in our brains. I know a lot of people that saw Bagboy were just like, ‘That felt so much like the stuff I was poisoned with as a kid.'”
Whatever the reason is, it’s clear that Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim — and Adult Swim — have struck gold with these surrealistic parodies, tapping into something that resonates with viewers, whether it’s nostalgia or poison.