Sorta-Comedians Tim and Eric on Influences, Audiences, and What's Not Funny
Watch any 11-minute episode of Adult Swim's warped, experimental sketch series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, and then try to explain what Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim — the show's stars and creative engine — do for a living. "'Comedians' never seems the right word for it, does it?" asks Heidecker, the team's fair-haired half. "We're not quite filmmakers, either," says Wareheim, the taller drink of water in glasses. They're certainly craftsmen, with much of their uncomfortable humor coming out of counterintuitive editing and glitchy, grotesque effects that suggest an insane asylum with its own public-access TV studio. They're "multimedia comedic artists," Heidecker concludes with a laugh.
The rubber-faced duo's next medium, then, is the big screen. As freaky, funny, and fucked-up as the havoc that they wreak on television is, Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie ups it: The two squander the biggest budget in cinema, attempt to reinvigorate a dead mall overrun by hobos and a killer wolf, and run into a cast of weirdoes, including Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, and Will Forte. I sat down with Heidecker and Wareheim for a decidedly serious-minded chat about their work at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn.
Aaron Hillis: You two are often hailed as "cult" figures. Doesn't that mean your audience is limited?
Tim Heidecker: The world has become so niche and fractured that you don't have to be a big superstar anymore to have success. Magnet — who's putting this movie out — realizes that this is a good business to be in.
Eric Wareheim: Yeah, we're right in the zone financially of flying under the radar of suits looking into our work. This movie was pretty true to our original vision. No notes. No compromising, really.
AH: One of the challenges of adapting TV comedy is keeping the momentum in a longer format. How did you approach the screenplay?
EW: We knew we didn't want to do a sketch show for that long. After 11 and a half minutes, you're done with that. We made a couple short films for HBO. They're 15-minute narratives that gave us confidence that we could carry a movie. A simple story done "Tim and Eric"-style, but keeping an audience engaged, so it's not just random silliness.
TH: We had to give up the idea that every second was going to be a laugh. This movie had to breathe. It needed to have sustainability throughout and change. The third act almost becomes a real movie. For a minute, you start actually caring about all these characters. [Laughs.]
AH: If you're not exactly comedians, who or what are your non-comedic influences?
TH: As we were coming up, those DVDs of TV Carnage were great. They're collections of random TV crap from across the country — Canada, actually. David Byrne was also a big influence in his aesthetic and commitment to his ideas.
EW: Our friends would collect these weird videos, like James Brown being high on the news report or Chuck Berry doing something crazy. We're so fascinated by how fucked up TV could be, and that inspired. Also, working with shitty equipment.
AH: There's that famous line in Crimes and Misdemeanors: "If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it isn't." What subjects do you shy away from because you know they break?
TH: We very rarely do pop culture that's within the last decade. We don't do much politics of any kind. That kind of stuff dates your work. Even though some people think we don't have a meter on taste, we certainly don't cross certain lines that are personal to us.
AH: Thinking about the "Shrim" sequence, which crosscuts between a highly unnerving sex scene and a scatological ritual I won't spoil for anyone, are you still capable of being disgusted?
EW: When you make that stuff, you're not grossed out, because you're involved. I thought it was going to play way more fake than it does. People are really grossed out by it.
TH: It's [like] John Waters. It's eliciting an emotion out of an audience. It happens in horror movies all the time; it's not very far from that. We think it's funny because it represents three minutes of screen time in the movie, but it's what everybody talks about. There are much more subtle and, in my opinion, funnier moments. But they're in there for this reason, because it's something to talk about.
AH: Both the movie and show feature odd-looking, awkward performers in bit roles. Where do you find these people, and do they understand why they’ve been cast?
TH: We have producers we’ve worked with since the beginning that know what we want and sift through the shittiest casting sites in L.A. Sometimes, it’s a case of shooting something, having a bunch of extras, and seeing somebody that’s like: “Whoa. What’s that guy’s story? Bring him up. Let’s get him in front of the lens.” It’s up to them to tell you if they’re in on the joke. We’re always explaining to people that this is a comedy. I don’t know if they understand exactly what’s funny about them, necessarily. I guess I don’t know what’s funny about me, either. [Laughs.]
AH: How do you stay ahead of the curve when so-called “cutting-edge comedy” is regularly co-opted and injected into the mainstream?
TH: In general, comedy is a young man’s game. Stuff has a short shelf life, no matter how good it is. Eventually, this thing that we’re doing is going to run its course, and we’ll have to evolve, or we’ll be considered boring and irrelevant. If you make Austin Powers 4 and The Love Guru, people aren’t going to have any respect for you. Right now, we’re feeling like it’s in the pocket, and we’re running at a good speed. But people are going to rip us off, and they have been, and that’s fine.
AH: Your fictionalized selves are in a bromantic affair, but has your friendship changed because you work together so much?
TH: We know the success of this depends on there being space. We both enjoy our personal time, our lives outside of this business we created.
EW: People at screenings are like, “So do you guys live together?”
AH: Is there anything you’d both agree is inherently funny or not funny?
EW: Mentally handicapped children . . . For “not funny.”
TH: Isn’t it George Carlin that said that everything’s about context? You can take anything and probably find a way to make it funny in the right context. Mentally handicapped children aren’t at all funny . . . But they’re making me laugh now for some reason. [Laughs.]
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