I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Tim and Eric: A Calculated Disaster


by Kristen Bialik
Feb. 12, 2013

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s comedy sketches were once referred to in a New York Times review as “outtakes from a public-access channel that’s broadcast only in hell.” But for many cult-like fans of Tim and Eric, the duo’s sketches and shows are like the long-awaited comedic coming, a parting of the proverbial clouds to reveal something new, innovative, and just well, wacky. The pure unfiltered strangeness of the experience has had an incredibly polarizing effect. When it comes to Tim and Eric, you either love it or just don’t “get it” with a fervent loathing.

But it’s in this polarizing rift that the dividing line of comedy tumbles into its own darker elements. It’s long been recognized that comedy and tragedy share far more than separates them. At the root of great comics is often a feeling of incredible sadness, anger, or a perception of the general fucked-upperies of the world. Tim and Eric seem to straddle this intersection and then blow it up with low-grade dynamite. “We have a very strict set of rules of what we think is funny, “Eric Wareheim said, with Tim Heidecker adding, “And I guess those would be, in no particular order: darkness, discomfort, confusion and things that shouldn’t exist.”

In an interview explaining why viewers would be “very scared and disturbed by” season five of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Tim and Eric said that to them, there is basically no difference between comedy and the dark stuff. “We just think that scary things are funny,” Tim Heidecker said, “Actually, we don't often see the difference.”

Eric Wareheim added, “We try to capture that same feeling you get when you're watching an episode of The Office or a David Lynch movie and there's this really uncomfortable, awkward moment between characters. I guess The Office is supposed to be funny and David Lynch is supposed to be creepy, but for us it feels like the same thing. It inspires the same kind of tense, cautious feeling that we both just love.”

Heidecker also said in an interview, “The simplest way to do comedy is to take a situation and just do the opposite of what should happen,” which oddly enough, does seem like a perfect how-to guide for making any Office episode of Lynch film. And all of Tim and Eric’s comedy is almost deliriously discomforting. It’s varying degrees of unease that never end, between stuff like the many child abuse scenarios to the simple stilted conversations or poop jokes.

What makes this intersection between hilarity and horror all the more pronounced is that Tim and Eric didn’t set out to be comedians at all. Tim and Eric met at Temple University, where they were roommates and friends at film school, both imagining they’d become “serious” filmmakers one day like their then-cinematic idols: for Eric, Kubrick, Lynch, and Godard; for Tim, the Coen brothers, Mike Nicholas, and Woody Allen. The two started goofing around together, played in a Philly band, and started making short films as a kind of protest against what they began to feel as the stifling pretensions of an artsy film school curriculum. Comedy wasn’t an option; it wasn’t a “serious” form of expression, and therefore not artistic. “What Eric and I were doing, we didn't even realize was comedy. We thought it was crazy and weird and artistic and also funny, but it wasn't ‘comedy.’" Tim said.

Once they graduated, Tim and Eric continued to make humor-driven shorts as a release from the dead-end jobs they found themselves in. They started sending tapes (along with a $50 invoice) to their idols, including comedian Bob Odenkirk, co-creator of the sketch series “Mr. Show With Bob and David.” Odenkirk became their mentor, got the two an agent, and helped strike a deal with Comedy Central’s Adult Swim to produce an animated show “Tom Goes to the Mayor.” Tim and Eric experimented with live-action fake ads and infomercials for the show, with a kind of twisted, garishly low budget aesthetic that would shape their next project “Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!”

“Awesome Show” attracted a number of huge guest stars (including Rainn Wilson, Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Johny Mayer, Zach Galifianakis, John C. Reilly, and Jeff Goldblum) that Tim and Eric often treated like props or throwaways, while they elevated series regulars, local semi-pro talents with lovable eccentricities, to the status of stars. Take picked-off-the-street cast regulars David Liebe Hart, a cable-access ventriloquist singer who writes songs about the greetings of aliens on other planets, and senior citizen actor Richard Dunn. They help make for a very real-feeling parody of the kind of media Tim and Eric are poking fun at.

“Our comedy is like a series of calculated disasters,” said Wareheim. “It’s written to fall apart, but we try to play it as naturally as possible.” And later, “When people come in to act on the show, we say, "Just be extremely dry and not funny. Let the idea be the joke."

So what is the idea? The idea behind all the diarrhea jokes, traumatized kids, and vomit? “A lot of ideas start as simple parody, because we are consumers of media just like anyone else — we watch all kinds of crap,” says Heidecker. “But it’s our job to camouflage that parody in another idea.” Tim and Eric especially love the desperate margins of media and society, the hokey infomercials, people hocking useless and overly complicated products on late-night TV, the people whose hearts are more set on fame than on earnest artistry or talent. They find anything that shouldn’t exist (and definitely shouldn’t be televised) hilariously funny. Their shows are intentionally bad in a way that holds up a dark and distorting mirror to the often already-terrible media we consume on a daily basis, media that already reflects the incredibly weird society we live in.

So all the unease, the awkwardness, and awesome weirdness is not a matter of accidents or bad choices, it’s a wonderfully calculated disaster. Tim and Eric’s epic disaster is calculated so precisely that it mirrors the common catastrophes of the real world. It’s a show without punchlines, simultaneously pre and post punchline in that you’re always waiting for one and that there is always a build-up of comedic tension, even with short moments of comedic relief. But it never comes because, like the onslaught of weird and terrible moments in life, they never end. Like Tim and Eric said, the idea is the joke. As for the delivery? That joke’s on us.

Resources:

The Bizarre Brains of Nightmare TV ” by Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times (2008)

Twisted Minds Spawn an Awesome Show” by Philip Brown, The Toronto Star (2008)

Q&A: Tim and Eric on Child Abuse, Diarrhea, and Yerba-Mate Tea ” by Eric Spitznagel, Vanity Fair (2009)

The Warped Tour” by Audra Shroeder, The Austin Chronicle (2008)

Tim and Eric” an interview by Josh Modell, The A.V. Club (2007)

A Chat with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim” by Jason Thompson for Bullz-eye.com (2008)

Tim and Eric: Awesome Interview, Great Job!” by Dylan P. Gadino, Laughspin.com (2007)

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim: Dyspeptic Duo” by Alissa Walker, LA Weekly (2008)

How the Internet Got Awesomer” by Jocelyn Guest, New York Magazine (2007)

Interview with Capone for Aintitcool.com (2012)

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.