In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
In November 2014, the sitcom-theme-song parody Too Many Cooks captured the attention and the imagination of the Internet, a viral hit that spun off intellectual takes, musical tributes, and parodies like so many interconnected shows-within-shows. But the video didn’t originate online: Like You’re Whole, For Profit Online University, and In Search Of Miracle Man, Too Many Cooks debuted in the 4 a.m. “infomercial” slot on Adult Swim, the premier spot for absurdist TV comedy that wouldn’t air on any other network at any other time. Curious about how these reality-blurring, occasionally disturbing shorts are conceived and produced, The A.V. Club spoke with David Soldinger, who has worked on several infomercial projects for Abominable Pictures (the production company behind Childrens Hospital, NTSF:SD:SUV::, and other comedies), including his directorial debut, Salad Mixxxer, a fake ad for a kitchen appliance that has a surprising second function.
The A.V. Club: Abominable Pictures was in on the ground floor for the “infomercial” timeslot, starting with the NTSF spin-off Swords, Knives, Very Sharp Objects And Cutlery and the You’re Whole series. Is this something you came up with, or did Adult Swim approach you with the idea?
David Soldinger: From my understanding, it was always [Adult Swim executive] Mike Lazzo’s idea to have something that they could put on real late at night that people would kind of mistakenly tune in to and get hooked on, not knowing it wasn’t an infomercial. And I think, simultaneously, Michael Ian Black came to Abominable with this idea for a self-help DVD series, You’re Whole. I think it was a happy marriage between Abominable and Adult Swim. [Laughs.] We’ve had them churning out for that lucrative 4 a.m. time slot since then. [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s the process for pitching these, and how does it differ from pitching a pilot or pitching a series?
DS: I can talk about Salad Mixxxer more than any of the other ones, because that’s the one that was my baby: I’d been developing with two other writers, Ben Mekler and Chris Amick. [Abominable Pictures founder Jon Stern] found it’s a low-risk way to introduce more writers into the Abominable family. “Maybe your current pitch isn’t quite right for Abominable, but why don’t you guys pitch some infomercials, because it’s a great way to see how you guys work, and to get your tone, and see if you’re a good fit for Abominable.” The three of us formed about 10 short pitches for infomercials. Funny enough, Salad Mixxxer was the one that came immediately. I believe it was Ben who said, “Hey, you know, what if a host is selling a mixing implement for a kitchen, and it turns out to be a vibrator?” And we were like, “Well, I don’t know if there’s much to it, but let’s add it to the mix.” And I even emailed Jon Stern saying, “I’m not sure if there’s enough to this one, but let me know if you like it.” And his email came back, and it was like, “Not quite there? This one’s perfect!” Then Jon amasses about 10 more of these pitches that he likes from other friends or people like Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, and directors that we’ve worked with in the past. He basically gives one-sentence pitches to Mike Lazzo, and based on the first sentences, Lazzo picks and chooses which ones he likes.
They let the creatives run with it, which has been great. They give minimal notes and good notes. That was our case with Salad Mixxxer—I don’t believe that we got any notes back on the script. When we sent out the cut, they wound up giving us a great note about the end where Kurt Braunohler realizes that his creation has been used for [Laughs.] “making whoopee.” The note that we got back from Adult Swim was that maybe he shouldn’t be aware, maybe he should think that these people are using his product incorrectly. He’s not aware that he’s been selling sex toys for his whole life. That wound up being such a great creative note, and I think it helped make the end of the infomercial funny, rather than sad.
AVC: Are you given any restrictions in terms of content?
DS: Well, yeah. The Standards And Practices is another thing. We got a lot of great notes like, “Don’t make this look anatomically correct,” “We can’t show anybody inserting the SaladMixxxer anywhere that it shouldn’t be,” or “The blurs have to be a little bit bigger.” Nothing that oversteps creatively. And they’re always really, really good about letting us send cuts to them, or letting us send our ideas, like, “Okay, what if we were to show a porn star’s arm moving under the table, but you don’t see what she’s doing…” [Laughs.] Which is a weird email to send to a network, but then they send back, “Well, let us see it, and then we’ll see if you have to blur it more.”
AVC: In terms of casting for this, was it difficult to find actors who were interested in the concept?
DS: No, it was actually easy. We got [Laughs.] basically everybody that we wanted to get. I think it’s liberating for the actors to work on something that isn’t such a time suck. We shoot all of these in one day, and they basically come in for eight hours, and they’re in and they’re out, and they have a fun time. And we’ve had some great actors come in and do them. I think that that’s enticing, when you say, “Look, it’s just a one-day shoot. This is the script, go ahead and give it a read, and, if it’s something that you want to do, just come play with us.” Nobody [Laughs.] said that they didn’t want to do it based on content.
The porn star at the end was actually a sorority sister of my wife. [Laughs.] It was really funny and a great coincidence that we were able to bring her aboard as well.
AVC: Working connections from all parts of your life?
DS: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] If you had told me about a year ago that the first thing that I directed would have Bridget in it, I would have thought that maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere. [Laughs.] I’m very very happy that she was able to do it, and I think that she added the perfect tone for her character, so that was really great. And happy to—happy that she was one of my wife’s friends from college.
AVC: The infomercials debut on TV, but they find a second life and a larger audience online, as happened with Too Many Cooks. With that in mind, what does it mean to you to direct a project like this for TV, rather than taking it directly to the Internet?
DS: Well, this was a dream come true for me. Being given a chance to actually have something on TV, no matter what time slot it’s in or what channel it’s on, is an absolute dream. It was such a great way to get my feet wet, and in something that I’ve been trying to do for years. The fact that it comes on television a couple nights a week at 4 a.m., and then it lives on the Internet, is unbelievable. Just five, 10 years ago, you’d have one chance to see it. You missed it, you missed it. Maybe it lived on your DVR, but you wouldn’t get a chance to show it to friends or family or anybody unless you had a copy of it yourself.
I’m equally excited about having something that’s living on YouTube. It’s refreshing to see how many people have watched it, and what people are saying about it. You know, you just feel more connected to the viewer. [Laughs.] I know that seems clichéd and weird to say: It was a dream to have something that found its way on television, and then I’ve just been equally excited to have people find it after it was on television. And I’m so thankful for something like Too Many Cooks to come out to direct people to the infomercials on YouTube. Without that one huge hit, people might not have found Saladmixxxer, or people might have just glanced over it because it’s not Tim and Eric, it’s not Rick And Morty, it’s not Mike Tyson.
AVC: Have you stayed up to watch it live, or have you just recorded it?
DS: [Laughs.] The funniest thing that happened in all of this was that the day that it aired—Monday, October 13th—was the day that my wife had our baby. [Laughs.] I’ve been up almost every night at 4 a.m., so while we’re trying to soothe the baby back to sleep, I actually have caught some of these live.
It’s fun to see Salad Mixxxer with, you know, commercials in front of and behind it. Something that I made is actually on television, has its title in the DVR—it was kind of like seeing yourself in the background of the local news [Laughs.] as a kid, or, like, if you had a family member that got on The Price Is Right.
AVC: No judgment, but which are you prouder of: Salad Mixxxer or the baby?
DS: It’s a toss-up. [Laughs.] You know, right now, the baby is, like, almost not-human. [Laughs.] She’s awake only to eat, poop, or pee. She’s not quite at the point where she recognizes me yet or smiles or anything, so, it’s like a really tough question that you asked. Both of them have me up at 4 a.m. [Laughs.] but one of them keeps me up for 15 minutes, and the other one keeps me up for an hour and a half. Right now, I’d still say the baby is a good accomplishment, and the fact that, a month later, she’s still alive and growing, you know, is probably my greatest accomplishment. But, I will say Salad Mixxxer is probably a very, very close second. [Laughs.]