Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim started making videos to entertain each other and alleviate film-school tedium, and wound up stumbling into comedy careers almost by accident. They sent some of their absurdist, uncomfortable bits to Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk, who helped them usher the dry, divisive, often wonderful Tom Goes To The Mayor onto Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Heidecker and Wareheim's next show, the live-action, sketch-based Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, gives the uninitiated an easier entry into their minds: Inspired by Mr. Show and Monty Python but truly original, Awesome Show mixes over-the-top absurdity with subtly weird bits and guest stars like oddly engaging senior citizen Richard Dunn and cable-access personality David Liebe Hart.
In just 10 11-minute episodes, beginning early in 2007, Awesome Show introduced a slew of unforgettable characters who magnify everyday ridiculousness: John C. Reilly plays painfully uncomfortable "expert" Steve Brule on a news show starring Heidecker and Wareheim as "the only married news team"; they also play "Casey and his brother," a public-access nightmare duo whose jokes are simply horrible, wonderful songs. It's painful at times, but also some of the funniest, most innovative comedy on TV right now. Heidecker and Wareheim are in the midst of producing 30 more episodes of Awesome Show, with season two set to begin airing on November 18. They recently spoke to The A.V. Club about their new Internet talk show, the return of Awesome, and the rules of absurd comedy.
The A.V. Club: How much time are you spending preparing the Internet show, Tim And Eric Nite Live?
Tim Heidecker: We're trying to make it as impromptu as possible.
Eric Wareheim: It's a totally different energy than making Awesome Show. It's live. If you mess up, you mess up. If you start laughing and can't stop, like I probably will, that's gonna happen for maybe 10-12 minutes.
TH: We feel like we've set the pieces up for lots of accidents to occur, lots of mistakes and awful moments, so hopefully they will.
AVC: Season one of Awesome Show ended with a cliffhanger, which is unusual for a sketch show. So is Casey dead?
TH: Who would watch the season première if we just announced it candidly here? It's a huge episode for us, a huge storyline.
EW: A lot of things will be answered, and then a whole new set of questions will be asked.
TH: Either way, you'll still get your Casey fix. We made lots.
AVC: Do you remember creating Casey? He's so horrible and scary-looking, which in a way provides a perfect starting place for your humor.
TH: I was writing the "Right Way To Rock" song as a joke. I just liked the way the keyboard sounded and how dumb the song was, and Eric suggested we do it as a promo—that I do a karaoke singer and Eric dance to it. It was decided that I was going to put a little makeup on, because that's what we do, we just experiment with makeup and wigs and glasses and stuff. I'm not a makeup artist, but it was basically just taking lipstick and mascara and putting it all over my face, and it started looking really horrifying, so we went with it.
Casey and his brother
AVC: What's all over Casey's mouth?
TH: It's very simple. It's lipstick, hair gel, and mascara on the eyebrows. The hair gel really makes your face shine. It's like a mucus covering all over my face.
EW: That's gotta be one of our number-one fan-mail questions: "What disease does Casey have? What's wrong with him?" We watched a lot of really great local talent shows and stuff like that. The whole Uncle Muscles Hour [one of many shows within Awesome Show] thing is just that, the most awkward, uncomfortable stuff.
TH: We always laugh when we're editing it, like "Why would they have ever kept this take? Why wouldn't they have done it again?" Because there are so many sneezes and coughs and burps, looks in the wrong camera—just the opposite of what a show should be.
EW: We started doing this live, which totally freaks people out. They just cannot believe they're seeing it.
AVC: How do you prepare for live shows? It must be very different from whittling down sketches.
EW: We did a tour earlier this year that was pretty much just Tim And Eric stuff, then we did a big fake charity event for Richard Dunn called "Muscles For Bones." We're pretty much doing that in Vegas for this big comedy-festival thing. It's a lot of people from the show doing their bits, so they come prepared, and Tim and I will use some older bits and intercut that with video. It takes a lot of rehearsal, but…
TH: We found these guys that are just naturals, and they would never have the opportunity to perform for so many people if we didn't create this show that allowed them to be celebrities. When these guys come out, like Ron Austar, who sings the "do da do do" song… When we played at the Troubadour here in front of 500 kids, it was like Elvis came out. To that man, who's like 50 years old, it's this incredible moment. It's also completely absurd and ridiculous.
EW: The L.A. version of this was a huge experiment. We knew they'd enjoy it, but these kids were screaming. Tim and I were backstage when he came out, and it was like this intense roar.
AVC: Is there any part of you that's uncomfortable putting these people on TV?
TH: We're very careful not to cross a line, and the line's impossible to see. We have to find these moments that make them loveable and funny at the same time. But we're not pointing our fingers and cackling at them.
EW: A lot of people that are on our show, the only reason they work is because of how sincere they are about what they're doing. David Liebe Hart is really into singing these songs about hellos and goodbyes on other planets, and how these other planets work, and I think that comes across. We don't want to abuse anybody. Tim and I, when we started out, knew that we weren't into really cruel comedy, making fun of people.
TH: Eric and I don't put ourselves on a pedestal, either. We're happy to go down and be as ridiculous as anybody else. We're not Johnny Knoxville or Ashton Kutcher, sitting up top and laughing at the people on our show. We're as ridiculous as everybody else.
EW: These people are part of our world now. David Liebe Hart stops by the office once a week, so does Richard Dunn. They've integrated into everything we do now. They're part of this community.
David Liebe Hart and friend
AVC: How do you cast somebody like Richard, who just seems like somebody's doddering grandpa?
EW: We were looking for Tim's dad for the first episode of Awesome Show; we wanted it to be a much older guy, as if Tim hired some old guy to pretend to be his dad. Richard was just this old guy with funny glasses and an older sweater.
TH: We actually saw him from our office, in the parking lot, getting out of his car, smoking a cigarette. He was wearing that sweater… It was immediate to us. We looked at each other and jumped up and down. Then once he started talking, it was unbelievable.
AVC: Are people aware of what type of show they're auditioning for?
EW: Most of the time what happens is they're actors and they're, umm, not very successful actors…
EW: Not much experience. We found that out early on in this show. We prefer these kind of actors with no experience, trying to be sincere, and really talking about [Awesome Show fake products] B'Owls and T'Irds, rather than a comedian coming in and being funny.
TH: When we announced we were going to do the show, on a message board someone scoffed about how there could be a sketch show with just two guys. We always knew that the show would be cast, that if we were going to do a fake commercial, it wouldn't be done by a Groundling or a Second City guy, it would be done by a guy who might really audition for a commercial, a real actor, a real guy that would try to sell this product. But someone who really wouldn't get that job because they weren't talented enough, or they didn't have the experience.
EW: That goes for some of the comedians that come in, too. The ones that can really transform into a real person work, and the ones that just stay comedians don't. John C. Reilly transforms into Steve Brule. It's unreal.
AVC: How did you hook up with John C. Reilly?
TH: He did a voice on Tom Goes To The Mayor and we all got along really well, and we decided we'd try to work together on something else, maybe a movie. At that time, we were developing Awesome Show, and he basically just offered his services. He said, "Why don't I just be on this show, and we'll get to know each other better?" He brought this idea of Steve Brule, basically, to us. So we just got the cameras up, set the green screen up, and let him roll, let him go as far as he wanted to. And five Steve Brules came out of two hours of goofing around.
EW: And he loves it, because there are no rules. He's like, "It's just like anarchy here!" The day before, he was shooting a movie, which is very regimented and organized.
TH: Here, there's a 24-year-old bearded man with an ironic T-shirt running the camera, and a couple of interns, and we basically roll until they want to stop. We just hope that we're going to capture these little moments if we just keep rolling and trying.
John C. Reilly as Dr. Steve Brule
AVC: You two met at Temple University?
EW: We met at film school, freshmen year. We both went to school looking to be artistic filmmakers and started goofing around, played in a Philly band together, and then made a couple of short films, kind of in protest of our film school. Comedy was not an option at this particular film school, so we kind of went around the system and made this one video together.
AVC: Did you intend to become serious filmmakers?
TH: When you get into that early-20s college mentality, everything is so serious. The curriculum is designed to make you want to make French New Wave films and Stanley Kubrick films. At the time, comedy was also not cool at all. We didn't really know about Mr. Show or anything like that. Comedy was bad Saturday Night Live. 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."
EW: A lot of the stuff we made in the beginning was literally just for us, and maybe a couple of our friends, just because of some weird desire to make these little bits.
AVC: What was the first piece you completed together?
TH: It was probably the thing in college, where we were given an assignment to give a presentation about filmmaking, like about art direction or editing. It was kind of a busywork assignment. So Eric and I got together and shot an instructional video with two points: One was that lobsters are in film, and the second was that VHS is better than 35mm. The middle of the piece was a montage set to a Boston song, with Eric and I running around the park. It was just really funny, and everybody was pissed because everybody wrote a little paper and gave a little talk, and we just slid the VHS in.
EW: I remember Tim and I talking about this, and thinking, "We're fucking going for this." At the time it was like, "You need to get good grades!" It was kind of a fuck-you to this, like "Why are you wasting our time?"
TH: At Temple University, and I'm sure this was the way in a lot of film classes, comedy was not an option, and not considered a serious form of expression. You had to make a film about an issue.
EW: It's funny how they can steer you, once you're in this little cocoon of college—you just do what everyone else is doing, what your professors tell you to do.
AVC: Does that subversive streak carry through to Awesome Show? You mentioned that you're not interested in being mean-spirited, but there's an element of pointing fingers at everyday stupidity.
TH: We are making fun of stuff. It is subversive, I think, and in many ways political. It's a reaction against the society we live in, very much so. When we make a commercial for a product that doesn't do anything… B'Owl doesn't serve a purpose, and by the end of the commercial, it gives you information on how best not to use the product. That comes right from watching all the garbage that people try to sell us every day. It's pretty direct.
AVC: Do you have those sorts of serious conversations when you're putting together something so ridiculous? Your Shrek 3 promo parodies were hilarious, but they didn't seem angry at all.
TH: No, I think we all just come from that perspective already. We all accept that we're fucked.
EW: All of us here are over the debate. All that we're concerned with now is what we can do to highlight those horrible things in our life, like Shrek. We got obsessed with that. And it's still such a confusing thing to people.
TH: And that's a direct response to being just bombarded with promotion and advertising. It's our way of striking back and putting the magnifying glass on it. A lot of our stuff is like, "We're fucked, so let's dance." Things have become so absurd that we just have to make poop jokes. [Laughs.] We don't hand jokes to anybody on silver platters, and we don't make it easy for someone to necessarily like it or get it. You have to be on our side already. Of course, there are certain things that can appeal to more people than others. In an episode like the anniversary show, we have an animated character, Grum, come out and sing a song about how he likes crackers and snacks, and that really happens. If you watch the Oscars, they have animated characters come out and perform for the audience. You have to be an idiot to think that's really happening, that the audience is seeing this cartoon on stage. So Grum comes out and sings off-key for a minute about how he likes crackers and snacks, and the audience loves it. That's not real, but it's not far away from what we see in entertainment—people applauding garbage.
AVC: So are you sitting there shaking your fist at the TV, or just furiously scribbling notes and laughing?
TH: We send each other YouTube clips every day. We always focus on how they package and present things. What were you watching, Eric, the MTV Movie Awards, where they were having commercials within the segments?
EW: Oh my God, the latest Awards, before they would present a new video or movie, the celebrity would look right in the camera and say, "You gotta check out the new Ford Expedition." I couldn't believe it, like a huge picture of a Ford Expedition in back. There's also seeing kids coming out of McDonald's with green Shrek ears and green straws. The kids have no choice. They're gonna be buying DVDs!
TH: There was that when we were kids, but I don't think it was anywhere near as bad as now.
EW: Moving to L.A. has heightened our senses to people trying to make it, people trying to promote things, people doing anything to push products and themselves. That whole idea of that performance aspect comes across in what we do.
AVC: Do you ever see yourselves moving closer to that realm, doing something more mainstream?
TH: I think as long as it has our sensibility. I don't think we'd be able to write a sitcom or a political thriller. We'll do whatever idea comes to us, and hopefully a bigger audience will embrace that. We know there are things we could do to make it easier for people to take, but it'll always probably involve Eric and me trying to do something ridiculous with ridiculous consequences.
AVC: Looking back on Tom Goes To The Mayor now that it's over, how do you feel about it?
TH: I'm surprised that we got to make it.
EW: After making Awesome Show and then watching a couple episodes of Tom, it's actually quite shocking, how it's paced and how it looks.
TH: But we got to do some awesome, crazy, far-left ideas on that show that we would never be able to do anywhere else. We got to talk about so many things that we wanted to talk about, and be more political than this show, and maybe talk more about the society we live in and how gross it is.
EW: Making a singular idea like Tom is somewhat simpler than what we're doing now, which is all over the place. It was a great way to start.
TH: It was a great education. We had never made television before, and suddenly we were writing, directing, and producing a series—only 11 minutes, but still—every episode had to have a beginning, middle, and end, and had to be funny to some people, and had to make sense. Bob Odenkirk was around to teach us a lot of that. It was amazing that Adult Swim let us be in charge. We didn't have to go to some kind of school to make TV shows. I guess that's what college was supposed to be for, but it didn't help.
AVC: Did you have any idea that Tom would be as polarizing as it was? People loved it or just didn't get it at all.
TH: I don't remember feeling like it was going to be polarizing. It was a surprise. I guess the only people that had seen it before were friends, and people that were interested in seeing it, so we'd only gotten positive reactions. Obviously, when it came out, there was this other side. We were warned by Adult Swim, who said, "Listen, there's this element out there of pathetic, sad people that feel it's important to write on these message boards if they don't like something. It happens to all our shows, and it's kind of meaningless, and it represents a very small portion of people." There's also 90 percent of the public that would never know the show exists at all, and probably wouldn't get it if they did. So we're talking about this really small percentage of people that watch the show, and then out of that, there's this little, little group of people that hate it—and love talking about how much they hate it.
AVC: But it's still easy to take personally.
TH: It's never fun to read death threats. It was always like, "I hate Tim and Eric, I hope they die, they should die."
EW: Coming from a 15-year-old kid. Where you hear reaction is on the Internet, and you know who that demographic is. We've gotten such a huge positive reaction from people that we respect. A lot of awesome bands and actors have reached out to us; they just want to be on the show because they like it.
TH: Frank Black loves Tom Goes To The Mayor. That's all I needed to know. You can send me a million notes about how you fucking hate the show, but if Frank Black says it's okay, I can go home.
AVC: How long does it take to do one episode of Awesome Show?
TH: Three weeks. About 15 people are involved.
EW: That's not including writing it.
TH: Writing takes about 10 minutes.
AVC: Do you write with guest stars in mind?
TH: Most of the time, we write something and then figure out who would be best to do it. Rainn Wilson wrote us and said, "Hey, I'd love to be on the show." He's one that we had something lying around that seemed right for him. It's not like there's a big pot to pick from. There's only maybe 10 people that are really good on the show, really funny.
AVC: Who's going to show up on season two?
EW: Jeff Goldblum, Tom Skerritt, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Fred Armisen, Will Forte, Zach Galifianakis. John C. Reilly obviously. Weird Al.
AVC: It was strange to see Weird Al as a semi-regular on Awesome Show. EW: He wrote us and wanted to be on Tom Goes To The Mayor, and that was around the time we were starting to make this show. We were both fans of his, and we had him come in. He did a couple of things, and being the host [of The Uncle Muscles Hour] just kind of worked for us.
TH: I don't think anybody's ever asked him to do something besides be Weird Al. We were so lucky that we got to be the ones to ask him to do something different.
EW: We were big fans of his movie as well.
TH: You can't not like Weird Al. He's the nicest guy in the world, which isn't that surprising. You can't get away with being an asshole if you're Weird Al. The career wouldn't have lasted very long.
AVC: The first season was 10 episodes, and now you're working on 30 more. Does your sensibility change with that many on the horizon?
TH: We've gotten technically better. We have the capacity to make something that looks really good, and it's trying to control yourself and also making stuff that doesn't look good, because that's some of the charm of the show. Just because we can shoot something that looks like a movie doesn't mean we should. Sometimes if something looks too good, it's not funny. Some things need to look good, because we think it's funny that you'd spend so much time and be so precious about such a stupid idea.
AVC: Your fans for both shows seem pretty diehard; how was your fan gathering this year at Comic Con?
EW: It was great. We wanted to do something outside the convention. Two years ago, we had Tomicon, where all the Tom Goes To The Mayor fans got together and ate nachos at this sports bar, and then we marched through the convention screaming "Tom Goes To The Mayor!", which caused this huge mess. For Awesomecon, we just wanted to have a picnic, play some games. Hundreds of kids came out, it was pretty cool.
AVC: And they dress up, right?
EW: Some of them did. Some Beaver Boys, Carol and Mr. Henderson. My new blog has pictures of people from Halloween, which is so crazy and flattering, how many Beaver Boys and Casey and his brothers were out there.
AVC: Are you getting approached more in public now?
EW: It happens more and more. The other day, I was at this bar with my friend, and this bartender comes out, right in the middle of a conversation, and goes, "Hey, good job, man." I didn't respond, and he's like, "Good job, man." He didn't even get it right. We get a lot of "Great job!"
AVC: Do you think Awesome Show has the "comedy of discomfort" sensibility that's been used to describe Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office?
TH: Absolutely. Every bit in our show has an element of that. Steve Brule is a great example, just watching this man have a breakdown or forgetting his lines or losing his mind. This latest one we just shot, he's doing a wine-tasting segment, where he drinks too much and reveals lots of things you wouldn't want to be heard saying. There are also lots of weird child-man relationships. Child clowns.
EW: There's a lot of tension and then release. I was just talking to a friend who loves Carol and Mr. Henderson, but the first bit she said she could barely watch, because it's so brutal and uncomfortable. But then you've gotta watch the love song at the end. We're huge fans of The Office and Christopher Guest movies, and those are the same principle, just setting up these really awkward experiences.
TH: We know we can't just create uncomfortable moments; you have to let them go a little bit, and dance around and sing a song, too.
EW: We had A.D. Miles in here the other day, and we were having him selling some products on a home-shopping network. And then we said, "Oh, then we thought you could go crazy and break stuff," and he's like, "Oh, of course." He's like, "That's your whole show, these strings of people really losing their minds." Which we like.
AVC: In a way, it's like avoiding an actual punchline. It's like post-punchline humor.
TH: We let the punchlines happen in people's heads. We just create a dead beat, then you know what to do. We don't need to spell it out. We joke about explaining it in a pamphlet, with explanations of why this should be funny to you.
AVC: Do your parents get it?
EW: My parents watch the show. They're super-proud of us. My parents love to tell their friends about it, like, "Oh, my son's on TV!" But they have to be careful of what they show. For most parents, it's not the funniest thing in the world.
TH: My dad is in the show, he's the "abso-lutely" man at the end of every show.
EW: People always wonder whether we have some major family or dad issues. A lot of our comedy is about dads. But we both had really nice upbringings, our families are really great. I was just remembering recently that, growing up, one of my friends' parents were divorced, and he was constantly the butt of discussion. "Where's your dad going tonight?" It's that whole idea of being a kid, and when your dad becomes a man, that idea comes across a lot in our stuff.
AVC: The kids singing "I smell my dad's dirty socks" is both funny and rough.
TH: That kind of stuff never happened to us directly, but it happened to people we knew. My dad is a very quick-witted, sarcastic, dry, humorous guy, whereas my mom's very silly, and that side of the family is very musical. I think those two things come together and make our show. It can be witty and dry, then a minute later, you're dancing in underwear and singing silly songs.
EW: Adultery is easier to swallow when you're dancing around, smelling socks.
AVC: You have pretty strict parameters about what you do, though, right?
EW: We have a set of rules, not a big set… It starts with us thinking it's funny. When people come in to act on the show, we say, "Just be extremely dry and not funny. Let the idea be the joke." That holds true through a lot of our stuff.
TH: And also in the way the idea is presented. We never do a sketch where it's just a scene. There has to be something else, a commercial or video or something that can exist on its own. The question is always, "Where is this idea going to exist? Where do you see this in real life?"
EW: And obviously there are things we don't do. We don't do any overtly political stuff. We don't touch current events. We don't do much with celebrities, like Lindsay Lohan jokes. That stuff's just not interesting to us at all. We prefer things like tiny hats.
TH: It's size-comedy mostly. [Laughs.]
EW: Dad issues.
TH: Technology from 10 years ago is good. We're doing commercials about fax machines, and treating the Internet like it's just fresh off the block.
EW: And the idea of capturing real people on camera who shouldn't be on camera.
AVC: The upcoming Robin Williams sketch, in which he's basically treated like an annoying pet, seems to go outside those boundaries a bit.
TH: That's a great example of breaking our own rule and being comfortable with that. There are a few people that we allow in, to make fun of. Robin Williams and Billy Crystal and a couple other guys. Robin Williams is at the core of what we think is wrong with comedy, and in a lot of ways, entertainment. I was a huge fan of his as a kid, but then you grow up and realize what he's doing—it's garbage. But even in that episode, there are layers. We're getting this guy to play Robin Williams who actually is a Robin Williams impersonator, and we never really acknowledge that. We're just kind of pretending that Robin Williams is a puppy dog, and that you could get somebody a Robin Williams as a gift. As a story, that could work with a puppy, or anything that's annoying and takes a lot of care and energy to take care of. In our world, that's a Robin Williams.
AVC: How long do you see Awesome Show lasting?
EW: We're making 30 in a row, which will take us another year, and I think we'll be ready to try something new at that point.
TH: We don't want to overstay our welcome. We have a lot of respect for the British Office and British television in general, where they don't make 300 of something. They make 12, and then they do something else. We'll have made 40 of these, and I don't know how many more dilemmas we could get ourselves in.
AVC: It's old news, I realize, but can you recount your story about being stabbed in the back?
TH: That is a little bit old news. I was stabbed in the back, literally, by a neighbor. Twice. With a kitchen knife.
EW: He was an intern on the show.
TH: That's right, he was. It was a middle-of-the-night, drug-fueled scenario where I was trying to… The mother came asking for help because she was worried that her son was going to do something terrible, and I thought he was going to be upstairs choking on his own vomit, but he was on PCP or something, which made him come after me. It was the worst nightmare you can imagine, running down the street in bare feet, being chased by a lunatic with an eight-inch kitchen knife. He got me twice in the back, which I didn't feel at the time. I ran into a gay bar and collapsed behind the bar. He ran in after me and was subdued. I was okay. It didn't put me out of commission for too long. It's just one of those things that happens that makes you glad you're not dead. And makes for a good story. We got some good publicity out of it. [Laughs.] Got some good pats on the back, not too hard, and some good scars to remember. The kid is fine, though, I think. He spent some time in the slammer. He really didn't know what happened. "Say no to drugs" is my message. But our show is better on them. But good drugs.
AVC: Any drugs in particular? TH: Ibuprofen.
TH: A nice glass of white wine.