Q&A: Tim and Eric
(Originally appeared in The Believer, September 2008)
If you’ve ever been in close proximity to someone explaining what’s funny about a Monty Python skit, or doing their best to reenact a favorite scene from a Marx Brothers movie, or pontificating on the comedic genius of the Firesign Theatre, you know just how insufferable it can be. Absurdist comedy—any comedy, really—does not translate well in the retelling. Sometimes you just have to be there.
The same can be said of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, a cult favorite on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim since early 2007. (The show airs every Monday morning at about 12:30.) Created by college friends Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Awesome Show is an eleven-minute deluge of sketches, songs, and other assorted routines that are perhaps odder than anything before seen on television—not including the mid- to late-career shenanigans of Dan Rather. In their first two seasons, Tim and Eric have taken satirical aim at everything from local TV news to advertising to telethons, instructional videos, and—perhaps most satisfyingly—high-school talent shows.
What can you expect from a typical episode? You might see Tim and Eric improvising a jingle about Alien actor Tom Skerritt; or a commercial parody for “Candy Tails”—edible, clip-on hair for children, available in three flavors; or comedian Zach Galifianakis playing “The Snuggler,” a backwoods hero prone to lifesaving and denim short-shorts.
A show filled with hair snacks and too-tight shorts may not sound all that hilarious on the page. Off the page, maybe even less so. But the secret to Tim and Eric’s comedy is in the details. It’s not so much what their characters are saying, but the vacant look in their eyes, the extended silences, their clumsy attempts at sincerity. Even at its most bizarre, there’s something very human about Awesome Show’s cast of eccentrics and weirdos. There’s a frailty behind the madness that only becomes more evident the closer you dare look.
The Believer spoke with Tim and Eric by phone, in their Absolutely Productions office in Los Angeles. They explained that they’d just returned from an audition for a Steven Soderbergh thriller called The Informant, starring Matt Damon and set for release in 2009. If they do end up winning the parts (Eric as an FBI agent, Tim as a friend of Matt Damon’s), their characters will no doubt come across as awkward, bizarre, and extremely funny in ways that are almost impossible to describe.
At least on paper.
—Mike Sacks and Eric Spitznagel
I. “REAL PEOPLE, FOR BETTER OR WORSE—MOSTLY WORSE—WILL ALWAYS BE PREFERABLE.”
THE BELIEVER: I watched your early videos on TimAndEric.com, and what really struck me is that no matter how bizarre you acted in public, the locals never seemed to take much notice.
ERIC WAREHEIM: [Laughing] Oh yeah! You can get away with anything in Philadelphia! We shot a video called Humpers which consisted of the two of us running around downtown Philly in skimpy outfits, humping trees, light poles, and other objects. If you watch the video closely, the only people who seem to take notice are a young couple riding in the back of a rented horse-drawn carriage, enjoying a romantic afternoon. They look perplexed, while everyone else is going about their usual business.
BLVR: Has that changed over the years? When you now go out in public as your various characters—say, the smarmy show-business types LA Guyz, with their gelled hair and open shirts, or the Beaver Boys, with their skimpy bathing suits—do you receive any reaction from passersby or onlookers?
EW: We were in downtown L.A. two nights ago performing as hobo prostitutes—clad in these glittery outfits, in a real shit-hole part of town—and these guys drove past us, then circled back. They screamed, “Tim and Eric rule!” and then sped off. Very surreal, but we loved it.
BLVR: The great thing about your shooting and editing style, even as early as in your first show, Tom Goes to the Mayor, is that it’s always allowed for a higher degree of error: even if you make a mistake, it’s still going to work.
EW: Oh, sure. Anything we edit, whether good or bad, really works well with this style of comedy. Nowadays, we actually spend a lot of time going out of our way to make these videos look really awful—sort of like the local Philly TV and cable-access we loved growing up. We run digital video through the VCR to make the end-product look less crisp.
TIM HEIDECKER: The Awesome Show is one of the few shows on television where you can really just go for it—you don’t have to worry about failing. In fact, a lot of ideas need to look bad to work. If certain ideas look too sleek and precious, they’re not as successful.
BLVR: How bad, or good, was local Philly-area cable TV when you were growing up?
TH: Terrible. Just atrocious. I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. There was a show I loved called Al Alberts Showcase, which was on on Saturday afternoons. Al was an old man who would have these four- and five-year-old kids on his show. The kids were barely able to put a sentence together, but they were made to sing old standards. Bizarre.
EW: What I really liked, maybe even more than cable TV, were these old videotapes of high-school performances from the ’70s and ’80s. I was president of the A.V. club in high school, and I came to fall in love with that amateur style—in both the production and entertainment sense. Everything was so earnest and yearning and, in the end, very sad. It was riveting.
BLVR: Why was this amateurish style riveting for you? Did you find an authenticity with these old videotapes you couldn’t find elsewhere?
EW: Yeah—it was real. There’s a real person up on that stage; it’s not an actor in front of the camera. There was an awkwardness I always found fascinating. Why are they shooting this? Why are they performing this? Shit, why am I watching this? It was mesmerizing.
Tim and I still have this theory that the realistic will always outdo the inauthentic. Always. That’s the main reason we haven’t hired a professional sketch troupe for the Awesome Show. Real people, for better or worse—mostly worse—will always be preferable.
When we started Awesome Show, we knew we didn’t want to hire graduates from the Groundlings or Second City. If we were going to parody, say, a commercial for a local car dealership, we’d want to hire a real person who would just read what we told him to read. We knew we could get solid performances this way that we couldn’t have gotten otherwise.
TH: Even when we were doing Tom Goes to the Mayor, from 2004 to 2006, we would bring in nonprofessional actors and record their voice-overs. These people would produce such laughs—such genuine laughs—that it really improved the work. It made everything just sound better. These weren’t photocopy cutouts of people purposefully acting strange.
BLVR: I’d imagine it’s not too difficult to find these types of performers in L.A.
EW: Oh, it’s so, so, so easy. You’re just inundated with them in L.A.! Everyone is so desperate to be a star. Literally, practically every person who lives here has some sort of acting aspiration. Every once in a while, Tim and I will sift through these low-end websites and pick out hundreds of amazing headshots.
When these actors come in, they more or less don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And that’s exactly what we want. We stick them in front of the camera and just experiment.
BLVR: Are you concerned that once these actors become too self-aware, they’ll stop being funny? I always thought that was the case with Larry “Bud” Melman on Late Night with David Letterman, in the ’80s and early ’90s. As soon as he found out he could be intentionally funny, he ceased to be.
TH: Very much so. We have to guard against that all the time. Some of these actors want to act in a certain way, either to play up a joke or to sell a certain line—and it’s our job to tell them not to do that. We tell them to just act normal. Otherwise, it’ll never be as effective. In fact, it would be really lame.
BLVR: One of the things I like about the Awesome Show is that even though most of these performers are quite bizarre, you don’t mock them. They’re on the show and they’re doing their thing, but it’s almost like they’re part of the family.
EW: Part of the fun, right. And that’s really important to us. We never, ever want to seem like we’re manipulating them too much. We were never into bringing people onto the show and mocking them. Howard Stern sometimes does this, and we don’t like how he treats his gang of crazy people. It’s too brutal. Sometimes it’s funny, but mostly it just feels exploitative to us. I’m not into that idea of mean comedy.
TH: Not to sound too mushy, but we are also fulfilling a lot of these performers’ deepest dreams and wishes—which is to be on television. There is no other opportunity for these people to appear on TV. This is it.
BLVR: It also helps that you’re down in the mud pit along with the rest of them; it’s not as if you’re lording above them with your intellect and good looks.
EW: Exactly. We never put ourselves on a pedestal and make ourselves look like the cool guys. Even if we tried to do that, it would be impossible. We look terrible. You can see our double chins hanging out. We’re wearing makeup. Our faces are covered in Vaseline. We’re disasters.
II. “WOW, THERE ARE ACTUALLY SOME FUNNY IDEAS IN HERE.”
BLVR: Watching the Awesome Show reminds me of the late-night jams that would take place in New York jazz clubs in the ’50s and ’60s. The musicians felt a freedom to let loose. I see that same sense of freedom with the actors who appear on your show.
EW: It really is all about freedom. When you have freedom to fail, both as a writer and performer, you have more chances of succeeding. We were doing a sketch for the show recently that was very rough at first. It was about a British guy answering questions in a really strange voice. The joke was that this guy didn’t know any of the answers, but pretended he did.
We set everything up, shot it, but it just wasn’t complete. We kept doing it and kept doing it, and forty minutes later it evolved into something completely different, something that became very funny. That’s the way we approach most sketches. We think, Let’s try this idea here and see where it goes. Let’s just keep shooting and exploring and having fun with it.
BLVR: Your philosophy sounds like the opposite of most other sketch-comedy shows, especially Saturday Night Live.
TH: Probably. Sometimes we have no idea what will work or what won’t. For instance, we did this sketch called “Burps,” where we played ourselves in a sort of Charlie Rose”“type set, talking about how one can get away with burping, as long as you burp out the words you want to say. This is an idea that sounds really lame—at least at first. But if you have the freedom to improvise and take chances then magical things can happen. This was also an idea you couldn’t just stumble upon by sitting in front of your computer and writing. It had to develop from something else—which was building the set and having a basic idea and then just hitting it harder and harder until the joke emerged intact.
BLVR: How closely do you follow the script?
EW: [Laughing] Not very closely. We were in the middle of a shoot the other day—it was a big, complicated shoot—and I said to one of the writers, “Give me the script for a second.” And I thought, Wow, there are actually some funny ideas in here.
We ended up using a couple of lines, but that just goes to show that once we get an idea, we don’t really need the script. It’s a process that allows us to make changes up to the last moment—we’ve done that many times.
BLVR: Woody Allen once said that the perfect length for a movie comedy is less than ninety minutes. I’d think eleven minutes just might be the perfect length for a comedy show on television.
TH: We had some performers from SNL watching our new episode yesterday, and both were like, I wish we could end a sketch the way you guys do. You get to the joke and then you get the hell out of there. You never run any sketch just because you have to fill time.
We can do a thirty-second bit, whereas SNL might have to run a four-minute segment to fill up that hour and a half. And I think a shorter bit is better in the long run anyway—especially in this fast-paced world.
EW: And on the Internet. It’s a better fit.
BLVR: How did you come to work with Bob Odenkirk, who became one of the producers of Tom Goes to the Mayor and now appears as various characters on the Awesome Show?
TH: That was incredible. In 2002, I sent a packet containing headshots and DVDs to Odenkirk, Conan O’Brien, and Robert Smigel. We sent each of them early versions of Tom Goes to the Mayor. We also included glossy headshots and a letter on stationery labeled: “From the Desk of Tim Heidecker.” Very professional. We had no idea how the system worked. Bob was the only one who ever got back to us.
BLVR: Were you a fan of Mr. Show when it aired on HBO, from 1995 to 1998? Or did you discover the show after it was released on DVD in 2002?
TH: Both of us came to it later. We couldn’t afford HBO during our starving-artist days in college, which was when Mr. Show was on the air. I remember first seeing it on videotape, and it was just the best sketch comedy ever. I had never seen anyone curse in a sketch before, let alone say “fuck.” That show seemed aimed directly at us, almost as if Bob and Dave had infiltrated our brains.
BLVR: Sounds similar to what your fans now say about your work. There’s a degree of adoration that is very strong.
EW: We hope so. It’s a great feeling. We’ve been there ourselves.
TH: And that’s why it was so important that Bob give us a lending hand. He took us under his wing and gave us a lot of advice—not only about humor but about the business end.
BLVR: What specifically?
TH: He told us that it was OK to take a bad monetary deal from the Cartoon Network. It was more important that we put our show on the air; this would pay off in the long run, even if we weren’t making that much money in the short term. It was important to have as many people see the work as possible. He also told us that creative control was vital.
BLVR: What comedy shows do you currently find funny? Are there any that you like?
EW: I’m blown away by some of the shows that the Brits have made, especially in the last decade, like the BBC’s Look Around You, which features parodies of educational films from the ’70s and ’80s. I also love Brass Eye, a show that broadcast hilarious fake documentaries on everything from drugs to pedophilia. These types of shows make our show look almost dull. The Brits push the envelope far beyond what we do.
What I find most funny, though, is observing people and interactions that are incredibly awkward. A few weeks ago, I overheard two businessmen at an airport bar talking very loudly and excitedly about a new BlackBerry and their “SkyMiles.” That to me is a different world: two adults unbelievably energized over such lame things.
It goes back to the local cable shows we liked as kids. There’s an authenticity and a sadness.
III. “THE NOTION THAT WE WERE RAISED BY FUNNY WOLVES OBVIOUSLY ISN’T TRUE.”
BLVR: I find your material less strange than most of what’s broadcast on television: sitcoms, local TV newscasts, advertisements.
TH: Oh yeah. All of our humor is very connected to the real world. I find most of what’s on television to be very odd. All you have to do is watch one commercial, or any game show, to see what we’re doing is not such a stretch from what’s out there. I don’t know if people are zoned out, or just so used to it, but I find most mainstream television bizarre.
BLVR: A lot of your humor is soft-edged, but certain subjects really seem to upset you: advertising, for one. I’m thinking in particular of your “enthusiasm” for Papa John’s pizza. You’ve produced a few fake commercials about them—one featuring a montage of you both eating “pizza dips” to Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”
TH: We both despise advertising and marketing. You can’t avoid it, and it’s always so inane. There’s a new Pizza Hut commercial, speaking of pizza, with a slogan that goes something like “Get more, not less!” Or that McDonald’s campaign: “I’m lovin’ it!” What the hell is that? But it’s not just advertising. I find that we’re constantly being treated like children, even with other forms of media.
BLVR: And yet you shot three short films for the Absolut vodka website. I’d attempt to summarize them, but I don’t think there’s time. I’ll just say that they involve lots of screaming, beehive hairdos, and, in one instance, the death of parents.
EW: We wanted to work with the comedian Zach Galifianakis, who we love. We were also allowed to do anything we wanted. Absolut had approached Zach, and they were basically paying all of us to make an anti-ad. How could we have said no?
BLVR: Where do you go from here? I would think that the transition to other mediums, such as movies, might be very difficult.
TH: We would love to pitch a sketch movie, but it’s very tough to get such a thing produced. Sketch movies are not usually successful—in the business sense, anyway. And, in a creative sense, they usually bite off more than they can chew. I can’t remember too many sketch movies that have really been a hit with audiences and comedy fans. Maybe The Kentucky Fried Movie. But that was made in 1977.
We’d love to get involved with film, but we want to make something small and under the radar—maybe a midnight or cult movie. This would be for our TV audience. Our type of humor is not for everyone. It wouldn’t be for someone who wanted to go see the new Rob Schneider wedding-theme film. But if anybody wants to join the party, they’re welcome.
It is time for a humor revolution!
BLVR: Have you seen the influence of your work on other shows?
TH: I don’t mean to brag, but I do see it already. I’ve seen it on Saturday Night Live. Five years ago, you would not have seen the deliberate awkwardness on that show that you see now—such as actors staring at the camera for an extended amount of time.
SNL did a fake commercial during an episode when Tina Fey hosted. It was about a hot-air balloon company run by one woman [played by Kristen Wiig]. I could see our influences with that commercial: uncomfortable silences and rough editing—everything played super straight.
EW: More than anything, you can see how the editing has changed with some comedy shows. You see more jump-cutting and video scratching. We hold these little contests every couple of months where viewers send us their own videos of themselves covering songs from our show. And you can see that the kids are now editing differently than they used to. They’re willing to put themselves out there, and they’re willing to make themselves look ridiculous.
I saw one video on YouTube recently of a fat teenager performing a version of our “Sit on You” dance from Awesome Show. He was doing it 100 percent. There was no irony involved. He was not laughing, and he was very, very sincere. He took what we do and used it for his own style. And that was just great to see. I mean, why hide behind irony? Why not just put yourself out there?
BLVR: Sounds like the kid’s now a part of your bizarre, insular world.
TH: Well, insular only goes so far. I hope people realize we didn’t exactly invent this type of humor. The notion that we were raised by funny wolves obviously isn’t true. We have a ton of influences. We loved Late Night with David Letterman; we loved Steve Martin; we loved many things. The difference is we didn’t come up through an established comedy group, such as Second City or the Groundlings or the Upright Citizens Brigade. We emerged on our own terms, in our own way. There was never any scheme, any design. We may come across as these two bizarros who had a big scheme all along to get where we are now, but that’s not true: we’ve only done what we’ve done because it was fun and because we felt like we needed to do it.
1. BOB ODENKIRK [via email]: What really impressed me, maybe more than anything, was that inside the envelope was an itemized bill for the DVD and the “glossy promos” and the shipping. I still have the bill—it came to $148.
BLVR: Have you paid?
BO: I have yet to reimburse them.