Eight years ago, comedy writer Casper Kelly captured the internet’s attention with his delirious, violent sitcom parody Too Many Cooks. The format was just as vital to the short’s viral success as the hijinks within; Adult Swim first released Too Many Cooks as part of a 4 a.m. “infomercials” block, where Mountain Dew-fueled night owls might catch it without knowing what the hell they were watching. Whispers about the video grew to thunderous raves when Adult Swim finally put the video on YouTube. Us weirdos have been talking about Smarf the cat ever since.
At the time, Kelly was already in the Adult Swim mix, having worked on Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Squidbillies. Too Many Cooks’ literal overnight success opened the door for Kelly’s own series, Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, and one-off work on the Cheddar Goblin sequence in Panos Cosmatos’ equally unhinged thriller Mandy. On Sunday, Kelly returned to the Too Many Cooks mode of hiding a work of genius behind generic late-night programming with the no-fanfare premiere of Adult Swim Yule Log, aka The Fireplace. Anyone who tuned into the Rick and Morty season 6 finale, but clicked away from the crackles of Adult Swim’s mild-mannered yule log that immediately followed, missed yet another cavalcade of bizarre imagery, trope inversion, and unexpected social commentary — but in this case, behind the flames was an entire feature-length film.
The Fireplace stars Andrea Laing and Justin Miles as a couple at a crossroads, hoping a romantic getaway might nudge them in the right direction. A group of stoners rolling into the overbooked Georgia cabin on the same night immediately kills the vibe. A bunch of maniac hillbillies kill the people.
True to the impulses Kelly displayed in Too Many Cooks, this is only the beginning. What starts with a locked-off shot of a yule log explodes into a giddy horror exercise warped by weirdo dream logic that puts the filmmaker in a camp with David Lynch, Sam Raimi, Quentin Dupieux, and Malignant and M3GAN writer Akela Cooper. The Fireplace is funny, it’s scary, and it’s constantly upending expectations. It’s a Casper Kelly joint, and if you missed it on TV, Adult Swim has given viewers the ultimate holiday gift by dropping it on HBO Max on Monday.
With Adult Swim Yule Log/The Fireplace out in the world, ready for people to stumble across it, Polygon spoke to Kelly about how he did the thing.
[Ed. note: This interview contains spoilers, so go watch the movie first.]
Polygon: Where did The Fireplace start for you? Did you set out to goof on yule logs? Have you always wanted to make a horror movie?
Casper Kelly: This has been on the bucket list. I’ve wanted to make a movie for a very long time. It’s always been, like, the attractive person across the room I’ve been too shy to approach. But I finally found a way to back into it. And a quick aside: Thank you so much for saying you liked it. I have not watched it with anyone. We have not done a screening. We had to do this so fast. So I’m living in pure terror of “Does this work?”
So last year, during the holidays, watching a yule log, this image came to me of blurry legs, walking in front of the yule log, talking about something. And I thought it would be funny to have a yule log and then that happens, and then it just becomes a movie. Originally, I thought I might do the whole movie with audio, staying on that shot the whole time. But then I decided… maybe I should not do that [laughs].
There is probably a traditional “movie” version of this, but as with Too Many Cooks, you’re really extrapolating the look of the movie from the yule log TV experience, and it has that sheen throughout. What about TV attracts you, or even unnerves you?
I definitely have aspirations for doing pure film things, but this idea of a yule log just naturally lends itself to streaming. It’s something you would click and watch. The yule log is a TV grammar thing, so it just seemed natural to lean into that for this project. But, yeah, I guess I do love it! I keep coming back.
It’s not just TV — it’s any programming people accidentally catch while they’re bleary. At 4 a.m., even the most mundane stuff feels like Videodrome. So it didn’t surprise me that in the credits for The Fireplace, you give a special thanks to Rodney Ascher, who has made some great documentaries, including the short The S From Hell, which was all about people who were afraid of the old Screen Gems logo that would appear in front of The Monkees. What’s the connection there?
I’m glad you asked that. Rod reached out after Too Many Cooks, and we’ve become very close friends. He was an early reader of the script, and he had a very good idea, which I’ll share with you: I had the idea of a reflection [where we see the murderer watching the couple while the camera is still pointed at the yule log]. But I was gonna try to do it with a wine glass, and he said, “Why don’t you use a champagne bucket?” And I’m like, “Oh my God. Yeah, that’s much better than a wine glass.” Easier to see! So that was one of his contributions. But yeah, he’s a very close friend, and we’re just mutual fans. We’ve been trying to do a project together, bouncing around, talking about that, too.
Too Many Cooks, Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, and the Cheddar Goblin stuff from Mandy all feel connected to this unique space you’re carving out between horror and comedy. Did The Fireplace feel like the next logical step?
I think there’s a part of it career-wise where you sort of build on what people seem to respond to, and extrapolate there. Like if I’m making the leap into a movie, I should try to incorporate some of what people seem to like about Too Many Cooks to some degree, maybe? I don’t know if that was a conscious thought. Maybe it was an unconscious fear, an ego self-preservation thing.
I’m actually a late bloomer with horror. I was too scared to watch it as a kid. I remember my parents were watching The Omen when I was very young, and there’s the point where the maid hangs herself and yells “It’s all for you, Damien!” And I was so young, I didn’t even understand the idea of hanging. Why is she on that rope?! It scared the hell out of me. So I’m a late bloomer. I just watched The Exorcist for the first time a month ago. I was like, OK, I think I’m ready. So it’s a surprise that I got into horror, but after doing pure comedy for so long, it’s fun to get to try other directions.
The movie draws from so much horror iconography, though. You’re twisting the Evil Dead cabin-in-the-woods formula, you have Texas Chain Saw-adjacent murderers, you have an alien element — it gets wild. Where do you find the elements for this movie, if not out of a love for horror? Or is it more about comedy, and improvising your way to horror-level escalation?
I think a lot of them are my core, like in ways I probably shouldn’t admit. Some aspects of Pleatherface, his awkwardness… I’m sort of a big oafish, awkward person, but I’m not a killer or horrible! I just push it to the nth degree.
But I think “improving with escalation” is a great statement. It’s sort of a creative problem of, “If the camera’s locked off, what can you do?” Oh, I can have a reflection, that’s interesting. I can have time travel, that’s interesting. Then I think about time, and when you’re in your house, or out looking to buy a house, or in an Airbnb, and you imagine what else has happened in that house? I live in the South, in Georgia, so what happened on this land before? Thinking like that just leads to those questions. I probably should do a movie that focuses on one thing, but right now, it’s fun to cram in every idea I’ve got.
Adult Swim has always been located in Atlanta, but this might be the most Atlanta thing it’s ever released. The movie is very silly, successfully so, but it’s also confrontational about race and history! You meld time through overlays, and it’s pretty wild, but how did you piece that aspect of the film together to make it land?
It’s very scary. Like, I hope I did it right. I certainly tried very hard. My dad is from Georgia, I’m a Southerner, and while I don’t want to go into it too much, the million-dollar question is always: Well, here I am, Mister Progressive Guy in this purple state, but what if I was alive 200 years ago? What would my beliefs be? I like to think I would be a good person, but would I be? It’s a scary thought. But it’s an interesting, important conversation, and I took a real chance. I would lay awake at night thinking about it. Am I really doing this? I could have easily made just a fun movie about a log flying around killing people.
The impressive thing is, you did that, too.
The killer log was the natural extension of, Well, what am I going to do with this yule log shot? But I think you can improv in a way that gets at things you’re concerned about, even unconsciously. It can have meaning.
The movie wisely doesn’t overexplain those elements, either. And it really helps that you have a typical stoner character who can hallucinate their way to new planes of thinking. When did you decide to connect the dots of all the temporal bits with the dream logic of the “fireplace world”?
My daughter, she’s in the special thanks too, actually had an idea of an elevator with a fireplace in it that could go to other fireplaces. And I’m like, “That’s amazing. I’m taking that right now.” So that was a big idea, and I kept “Yes, and”-ing it. I’m obviously a big fan of David Lynch, so there’s a bit of Black Lodge, or the woman dancing in Eraserhead in there, to have a little break away from the movie proper. Or with the aliens, I’m even thinking of Life of Brian, the Monty Python movie about a Christian group of apostles, and these aliens come and just abduct one of them, then drop them back off.
Speaking of the aliens, yours is completely whack. Where did this design and costume come from?
I work with this wonderful person, Shane Morton, who worked on Too Many Cooks and Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, and he just has a warehouse of stuff. He keeps everything. When people are throwing away stuff from other horror movies, he grabs those. I’d say, “Could we have a person who’s just all eyeballs?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I got a thousand eyeballs in my truck right now, we can glue that!” He’s just a can-do guy. So we were spitballing and adding the idea of tongue appendages that pop out of the alien. He’s like, “Let’s do it!”
What does it take to sell Adult Swim on any of this stuff? Even the idea of doing a movie hidden behind a yule log seems antithetical to traditional business, but for some reason it makes sense.
This started as a “4 a.m.” Then, as I was pitching it, I just said, “Hey, what if we made it a movie? I’d love to make a movie.” And they were like, “If you can make it for about the same budget, go for it.”
My relationship with Adult Swim is wonderful. It is a wonderful home for creativity. It used to be run by Mike Lazzo, who is amazing and a genius, and it now is run by Michael Ouweleen, who is also a genius, created Harvey Birdman, and is a longtime executive at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. We have a great relationship, too. So it’s wonderful to do things with them. I know there’s a lot going on with the mergers and everything, but I feel optimistic about Adult Swim. I think it does very well with audiences, so they’ll continue to support it.
Cartoon Network Studios’ merger with Warner Bros. Animation has affected a lot of people in the animation industry and at Cartoon Network — how do you feel about the future?
It’s an interesting time in streaming and animation, but I worry about everything anyway, and I’m so bad at predicting the future. I’m terrible at it. I’m a horrible investor in stocks, and whenever I try to invest in a stock, I’m so wrong. I thought we were gonna run out of oil like 15 years ago and be in Mad Max. So I don’t know anything!
There’s a tinge of meta-comedy in The Fireplace about the streaming era, where the lead couple imagines who might play them in the true-crime dramatization of the horrific crime they’re experiencing. So who will play you in the movie version of the making of The Fireplace?
Should I just say George Clooney and pretend I’m very confident? Yes. I know we gotta get butts in seats.