In February, country singer and vlogger Adley Stump shared a video documenting the creation of what can only be described as bacon, corn, and Oreo casserole. On an episode of The Adley Show, her ongoing Facebook Watch series, Stump filmed a man slathering his kitchen counter (yes, counter) in sour cream, and then dumping corn, corn muffin mix, a stick of butter, and cheese on top of it — all the while mixing it together using his bare hands. He then put the concoction into an Oreo pie crust (yes, Oreo) before finally adding uncooked popcorn kernels and bacon (yes, bacon) to the whole thing. After pulling it out of the oven, and marvelling at how the popcorn kernels popped, he assures viewers that it smells really, really good. Stump agrees: "NEVER seen POPCORN do THIS!!" she captioned the video. "But it TASTES AMAZING!!!"
Commenters, however, were not so sure. Instead, they expressed shock, disbelief, and even horror. "Oh dear heaven it's got Oreos in it too?! The way he was preparing it was so gross that I must have skipped by that part!!" one person wrote. "He was onto something until he mixed it with the raw popcorn," added another. Several commented that it was off-putting to watch someone use their hands instead of a spoon when mixing the ingredients. But if the commenters don't like what they're seeing, then why do they keep watching them?
Stump claims that, actually, some viewers do like this recipe, and others like it that she's shared. "We know some people who have tried the recipes and loved them. It's always fun to see their pictures in the comments," she tells Refinery29. "And others think they're bad and would never try it, and that's fine too! Not all our recipes come out the way we envisioned them either, so it's understandable." Either way, she adds, "Viewers seem to be entertained by seeing us try new things. Even if the recipes or DIY turned out less than we hoped for."
Stump, who first rose to fame after competing on The Voice in 2012, has now entered a new phase of her career: hosting her eponymous show that features short-form prank videos, recipes, DIYs, and (sometimes disastrous) life hacks — things she calls "short-form reality TV." She also shares these videos to YouTube and TikTok, the latter of which has recently become inundated with other cooking tips and tricks ranging from disgusting to delicious.
But Stump isn't just another TikTok food blogger — she's actually a part of a close-knit network of entertainers that churn out dozens of these kinds of videos a week. And all of them can be traced back to the same place: a digital production company owned by entertainer and producer Rick Lax.
Even if you don't recognize his name, you'd probably recognize Lax's content — he has over 14 million followers on Facebook and shares daily videos from a network of creators like Stump, Paul Vu, and Janelle Flom. These videos include pranks, DIY tricks, and surprising — but sometimes unsettling — food videos. It's easy to spot them because the videos all promise the "CRAZIEST way to catch someone CHEATING!!" or ask "Who knew you could do THIS with a COCONUT."
Apart from being credited for some of the most viral videos that have made their way into mainstream TikTok channels, Lax also has a background as a magician. In 2011, he started working as a consultant for famed magician David Copperfield, and he also created a short-lived magic competition show that aired on Syfy. Many of his most popular videos today, though, are completely unrelated to magic tricks and are instead focused on pranks, hacks, and shocking interactions between strangers.
He's gained quite a bit of attention, too: Earlier this month, Lax received recognition after Eater's Ryan Broderick published a comprehensive look into his "constellation of accounts churning out completely bizarre prank videos, street magic, weird inspirational content, and, of course, videos of beautiful women making awful food."
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all kinds of quick recipes, shortcuts, and kitchen hacks have run rampant across social media platforms, which makes sense. Between all the people stuck inside, everyone who got really into TikTok, and those of us who just appreciated anything "EASY!!," creative DIYs definitely found their audience. In an interview with Refinery29, Lax says his network took a stab at the trend and started sharing their own food-related content in late 2020.
"Many of the biggest Facebook pages do food hacks and recipes," Lax says, pointing to Tasty and Tastemade as examples. But Lax's straddle the line between absurd performance art and, for lack of a better phrase, greasy, sugary food porn. Sometimes, recipes get generally positive feedback. And sometimes, the cooking process looks pretty nauseating, but the finished product turns out to look so normal that commenters suspect the video was cut and edited. In other videos, viewers are mostly just left with the shock factor. (Just watch this "spaghetti trick" that involves dumping and mixing pasta, sauce, and meatballs on a kitchen counter.)
But these aren't run-of-the-mill food hacks a la BuzzFeed's Tasty: They seem intended to shock, confuse, or even upset viewers — and many of the creators frequently proclaim that their content shouldn't be taken too seriously. "Please be advised that this page publishes videos that are intended for entertainment purposes only. This includes scripted dramas, satires, parodies, and magic tricks," Lax captioned one "PERFECT SUMMER DESSERT" recipe that starts with a woman dumping a can of orange Fanta into a pie crust.
The recipes aren't even the only unsettling parts of these videos. Many have what Lax describes as "moments of irreverence." For example, in one tutorial, a creator opens her fridge for ingredients, and viewers can spot paper towels and Lysol inside. In another, there are Tide Pods in the fridge, and a fake dead body is dragged away in the background. According to Lax, it's all supposed to be fun. "Fans enjoyed spotting these Easter eggs and letting us know in the comments," he said. "And when a video gets a lot of comments on Facebook, the platform will send it out to more people."
More than anything else, the misplaced supplies (or... fake dead bodies) really just add to the surreality of these videos, and only spur on the commenters who question whether these people know anything at all about cooking. They also, of course, encourage viewers to keep watching, whether they find these "Easter eggs" confusing, funny, or even disconcerting. Since it's clear that the main point of these videos is to entertain, not actually inspire people to cook, what is it about Lax's videos that keep people coming back for more? Is there no limit to how much someone can be shocked or disgusted?
According to Dr. Rosanna Guadagno, PhD, a Stanford University professor and author of the forthcoming book Psychological Processes In Social Media: Why We Click, these videos are so intriguing precisely because they make people uncomfortable. "We have all these social rules that dictate how we're supposed to live our lives," Dr. Guadagno tells Refinery29. "Social norms are wonderful for helping us understand other people and understand customs and understand fads, but one of the other things that tends to draw someone's attention is when we have someone violate social norms."
Lax's videos most definitely violate cooking norms — we aren't used to watching someone make eggs in a waffle maker, or boil barbecue chips. But according to Dr. Guadagno, there's a greater psychological reason these videos are so compelling. "Negative emotions spread more broadly than positive emotions, provided they're more active emotions, like anger and disgust. So it does not surprise me at all that this type of video would go viral," she says. "I think that [viewers] probably don't enjoy watching them, but they can't look away. Kind of like an accident."
Dr. Guadagno explains that we're "evolutionarily wired" to observe and take note of potential threats and contagions. So, watching a woman dump pounds of ramen into the bathtub might trigger this sense of caution, shock, and disgust.
Dr. Jonah Berger, PhD, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, agrees. He also adds that the videos seem designed to spark curiosity. "Shocking stuff grabs our attention," he says. "We want to find out if a hack actually works, or whether something that seems gross is actually as gross as we think it is... And once we watch, emotions boost sharing. High arousal emotions, like disgust, drive us to take action and pass things on."
Lax, however, adamantly disagrees with viewers who write off his videos as weird and told Eater that he would "object to" people who call the recipes disgusting. "Some people are quick to label unfamiliar things as 'gross.' Especially when it comes to food," he tells Refinery29. "What's gross in one culture is popular in another. It's subjective." According to Lax, his followers enjoy the videos because they are "novelty-seeking" and "like to see us take risks." In a sea of food-related content, life hacks, and easy DIYs, viewers "like that our videos don't look like anyone else's," Lax says.
If I had to guess, I'd say that maybe some of Lax's most loyal viewers can't always decide if they're watching or hate-watching, if they're disgusted or intrigued, or both. "They take normal, everyday things like eggs, chicken, and popcorn, and do crazy things with them, making you wonder what they'll do next," says Dr. Berger. "You have to watch to find out."
There are people, myself included, who would never mix chicken and Kool-Aid, but still can't look away — we want to see if the finished product resembles something edible and we actually hope that it will even though we know, on some level, that none of this can possibly be real. And in that way, maybe these videos are a little like magic. Even if the culinary creations aren't.