The 13th Floor

Die Laughing: The Nightmarish Humor of ADULT SWIM’s “Informercials”

The comedy and horror genres often cross over, though in theory they target completely different demographics… so why is this so commonplace? Maybe it’s the way they both explore the extreme and absurd, even if their approaches vary; that’s why works that can successfully embody both categories are so impactful — laughing and screaming come from the same illogical subconscious response. But sometimes the mixture of genres can be used in brilliantly cruel ways, to subvert viewer expectations and turn humor into trauma.

Naturally, one of Adult Swim’s witching-hour offerings manages to achieve this perfectly: The “Infomercial” block.

SALAD MIXXXER

These disconnected shorts make up an erratic, limited series that all start off as you would expect — with accurate but increasingly unsettling TV content selling allergy medicine, dog food or a multi-purpose broom. Then the videos explode into completely unpredictable sectors of madness, ending in existential and visceral nightmares. They’re funny, of course — but the humor masks an undercurrent of terror.

The content is structured brilliantly; the actors play it straight, and the filmmakers never overreach in their attempt to recreate the style. For all we know, these could be real commercials… until things go so deliciously wrong.

ALPHA CHOW

Some of the shorts, like SALAD MIXXXER or SMART PIPE, are just well-played jokes, but most episodes veer into the insane at some point. ALPHA CHOW starts as a dog food commercial that slowly turns into a PLANET OF THE APES-style canine takeover; while it is also a parody of online avatar culture, FOR-PROFIT UNIVERSITY also introduces us to Howard — a frightening A.I. taking over the internet one identity at a time.

FOR-PROFIT ONLINE UNIVERSITY

BROOMSHAKALAKA, directed by the geniuses behind SWISS ARMY MAN, appears to be a cheesy ShamWow-esque advertisement for a multi-purpose broom that saves “9 whole hours over the course of a year”… until the tools start chopping off limbs. It gets even weirder when we learn the inventor’s intention: for each broom sold, he saves enough time to bring his dead daughter back.

THE BOOK OF CHRIST is an effective satire on Public Access TV’s religious obsessions… but it approaches an ending straight out of Jonestown as its characters unknowingly poison themselves with lethal gas:

Perhaps the most frightening of these shorts is UNEDITED FOOTAGE OF A BEAR, which starts out as — you guessed it  — a static HD shot of a bear in the wild. Then an ad pops up for a generic allergy medicine. Try to skip it, and you won’t be able to… it continues on until the ad ends, and we’re trapped in a hellish landscape.

UNEDITED FOOTAGE OF A BEAR (2014)

The actress from the commercial finds herself in a Lynchian suburbia full of raving murderers and violent doppelgangers. When the woman finds herself attacked by her own blood-soaked clone, the episode devolves into a hallucinatory nightmare that plays like a REAL HOUSEWIVES episode, with the woman apparently possessed by child-tormenting demons from the outer realms of space…

These shorts remind us that some of the most effective horror starts normally; fear is strongest when it’s unknown, and each infomercial is constructed in a way that makes it impossible to guess what will happen next. BEAR is the most obvious example of this, with the ingenious concept of the pop-up ad that you can’t escape — but each episode creates the same false expectations. For another example, BROOKSHAKALAKA is simply a silly spoof… until the violent revelations begin.

BROOMSHAKALAKA

THE BOOK OF CHRIST introduces silly religious satire that gives no indication of the story’s nihilistic conclusion; ICELANDIC ULTRABLUE starts as a commercial for a health pill, until it morphs into a rabbit-hole advertisement for Nazi Gold and embalming fluid (to name a just a few disturbing products). Some of their narratives veer so far from the original concept that it feels as if you’re watching a nightmare curated specifically for you.

The filmmakers trick us relentlessly, until we question our own sanity…. are we really seeing this?

ALPHA CHOW

Perhaps these comedies-gone-wrong resonate so deeply because they examine our most shameful sectors of media — re-imagining content originally made by people who didn’t quite make it into the mainstream. There is a desperation, a hopelessness, to their efforts. Adult Swim’s late-night shorts reproduce this underlying sense of mundane doom, then exaggerate it to comical, horrific extremes.

When viewed at their intended time (the wee hours of the morning, when they first aired), these works truly seem like they’re born of our culture’s collective subconscious — a mutated hybrid of parody and pure existential dread. Watch at your own risk, however… you might be tempted to buy into some of those products and seal your own doom.

[Also be sure to check out our feature on Adult Swim’s incredibly creepy security-system promo THIS HOUSE HAS PEOPLE IN IT!]

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