Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s story isn’t typical: While film students in Philadelphia, they sent some of their shorts—unsolicited—to Bob Odenkirk, who took an interest and helped them get a cartoon show, Tom Goes To The Mayor, on the air. That show’s success led to the brilliant, bizarre Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which ran for five seasons on Adult Swim. That show’s success led to work in commercials—and to lots of commercials copping the duo’s absurdist style—as well as an appearance on The Simpsons, a spinoff series called Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, and now, a feature film called Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, about a pair of Hollywood wannabes who blow a billion bucks making a terrible movie and must take over a mall in order to earn the money back (or be murdered by Robert Loggia). The day after a screening of the movie in Chicago, The A.V. Club spoke to Heidecker and Wareheim about spinning an 11-minute style into 90 minutes, as well as their roles in the dark comedy The Comedy, a Rick Alverson-drected film starring Heidecker and featuring Wareheim that, like Billion Dollar Movie, premiered at Sundance.
The A.V. Club: Was last night’s audience reaction typical? Has it been super-excited diehards everywhere?
Tim Heidecker: It’s the same exact audience every night, somehow. I don’t know how they bus around, but they follow us. [Laughs.] Chicago’s just always been super-enthusiastic about what we do.
AVC: Is it just Chicago? It seems like you guys have purposely cultivated a closeness with your fans. They feel like they’re your pals, even if they haven’t met you.
Eric Wareheim: Yeah, that’s definitely how it is. But people are just warmer here. I don’t know if it’s a Midwest thing. We’ve always gotten a lot of love.
TH: I think our success has been sort of gradual over the years, where we started with a hundred fans in a city, or something really reasonable, and we’ve always been comfortable. We don’t put on an air of a celebrity or anything, we just talk to people after the shows and try not to be too pretentious about it.
AVC: Does it get to be too much at some point, though? Because now when you’re doing live shows, there are 1,500 people there.
TH: Yeah, that becomes a little unmanageable afterwards sometimes, if it’s not handled right. I had one experience in Denver a couple years ago: Somebody saw me coming out and they’re like, “Hey, I just wanna hang with you for, like, 10 minutes. Is that cool?” I’m like, “I honestly can’t. We’re gonna go sign and then we gotta go to the next town.” And he looked really offended. He was like, “I just wanted to hang for 10 minutes! What’s the big deal? I’m in comedy!”
EW: [Laughs.] That guy was crazy.
TH: Yeah, he was really offended that I couldn’t hang. I’m like, “What do you wanna do for 10 minutes? Hang? What are we gonna do?”
AVC: Did you actually stop and have that conversation?
TH: I just kept going. I got really freaked out, ’cause then I pictured being assassinated by this guy in 10 years. [Laughs.] He’s gonna be waiting outside some office building.
AVC: Is that an actual worry of yours? I feel like last time we did an interview, which was a long time ago, you said something about how you already had gotten death threats.
TH: There does certainly seem to be a lot of vitriol out there toward us. I don’t think it’s dangerous or anything.
EW: I don’t think people really wanna do anything, ’cause we’re not political. People are usually cool. It’s usually just a lot of… They think they’re our friends, but at the same time, all they wanna do is quote the show, and show you that they know what they’re talking about, which is not fun for us. But the bartender last night at [Chicago bar] The Aviary was a big fan, and she just had a different take on it, which I thought was really cool. More eloquent. I don’t know how to say it without being like, “A regular person doesn’t have anything to offer me,” but she was a skilled craftsman of drinks, and she was just sharing. At the end, she very respectfully was like, “You’ve given me a lot in my life.” And I was like, “That’s amazing.”
AVC: Something else you alluded to last night was people and critics using “Tim And Eric” as an adjective. “This is Tim And Eric-like.” You pooh-poohed it, but it must be a little bit flattering and a little weird. How do you guys react to people doing things in your style?
TH: We have created an aesthetic that we’ve been doing consistently for a while now, so there is a frame of reference for it. There is a definite style. Like anything that gets replicated, it’s not gonna be as good as the original, usually.
EW: My friend Don works in advertising, and his creative directors, all the time, are like, “Well, this needs to be Tim And Eric-y, and let me explain why. This is how they do it.” And my friend doesn’t ever say that he’s friends with me, so he listens to these guys really deeply analyze what’s funny about a bit, and how they can use that for a product, how they can surprise people. That’s really crazy to me.
AVC: What do you suppose the specifics of that conversation are?
EW: Probably one is just the visual nature, like too-tight close-ups or bad editing or a glitch-y kind of humor; and another is focusing on the awkward, using different kinds of casting to get your attention—not your normal, Hollywood-looking person.
TH: A lot of people think that there’s a randomness to it that makes it successful, so you have people in commercials that have the kitchen-sink attitude, like, “Just make it crazy and have this goin’ on!” All sorts of bells and whistles. And we look at that and just say, “No. You guys went too far. You guys tried to be too wacky, and now it’s just a mess.” [Laughs.]
EW: We’re actually in that situation right now. We’re doing a commercial that was obviously written for us. A lot of these ad guys will write commercials for us, and try to write in our style. And exactly what Tim said happened: It was like the kitchen sink. You don’t even understand what’s going on, because there’s too many jokes and you can’t follow anything.
EW: We just did another round with Terry Crews recently.
TH: It’s like a little hidden secret. All these directors do it, because the money’s good. It’s a reliable thing, and it doesn’t take up a lot of your time. But it’s not something we aspire to do. You wanna be busy enough doing your own shit that you can’t do it. When it works out, timing-wise, and there seems to be a reasonable idea that seems doable, we won’t say no. And sometimes we’ll get offers for shit that we can’t be a part of. We can’t be a part of the Burger King campaign or something, you know? There’s weird lines that we’ve created that make it okay for us. But it’s something we don’t like to really talk about, it’s something we don’t really like to do, but you gotta make a living.
AVC: The Old Spice ads, at least, stand as Tim And Eric-style art.
TH: Also, it feels like we’re getting to con the system a little bit, because we think they’re pretty funny, and if you’re gonna have to put a commercial up for some product, you might as well try to make it entertaining on some level.
AVC: Those almost could’ve been on the show with an imaginary product.
TH: Right. And he’s great. He’s really nice and funny, Terry Crews. He’s up for anything.
AVC: Did you guys write that one?
TH: No, we don’t write ’em. But we throw out the script when we get there. We say, “Don’t say that, say this.”
AVC: Let’s talk about the movie. How was the process, everything from writing to shooting, different from what you had been doing? I know you guys talked about how when you did the show, it was always super-busy. How did the dynamics change?
EW: With the movie, we had to be more serious about it. In terms of the sketch show, we had a lot more fun, in a way, making sketches, and experimenting, improvising, and it was less risk. If it didn’t work out, either the editors would fix it, or we’d just scrap it. With the movie, it was a super-ambitious script. Our producers kept telling us it was double what we budgeted for: the mall, the wolf, all this stuff. So, as we’re shooting, there’s a lot more pressure on each scene. “We gotta get this shot. It’s gotta look good.” It left Tim and I with a little less time to really have fun and explore what the joke is about in every scene. Also, as directors that are on camera 90 percent of the time, it was a little more difficult than the Awesome Show to do everything. We’re kinda control freaks, and it was just a little more strenuous on the movie.
TH: The lesson I learned about movies was that—and I’m sure almost every director would agree, unless you’re Steven Spielberg or something—is just that it’s a series of compromises you make because you’ve got budget limits, you’ve got time limits, you’ve got things that need to be in the movie to make other things work. Everything’s connected, so you might have to sacrifice a joke because it’s going to spoil another joke, or this scene needs to be cut down even though it’s funny, because it’s going to weigh the movie in this one direction too far. Compromises are fine and the sum should outweigh the parts. I would love to make more.
AVC: When you talk about making the compromises in order to make it a cohesive feature film, did you guys instinctively know what you had to do, or did you have people helping you because you hadn’t done a feature film before?
EW: We made a couple shorts that I feel were like mini-movies, with little mini-story-arcs. We gave the script to a couple of friends and didn’t get as much feedback as we wanted. We had that feeling, too, of, “We’ve never made a feature,” but then we thought maybe it was good that we’re just doing it on our own, trusting our guts. We’ve seen a billion movies, we’re really big fans of movies. We can understand a story and caring about characters a little bit more than you do in a sketch show, so it sort of came naturally.
TH: It’s not rocket science, really. And we weren’t worried about trying to tell the greatest story ever told, we just wanted a good story that was going to allow a lot of funny things to happen and allow a lot of conceptual ideas about movies to take place. So we tried not to obsess about the structure and that kind of stuff. We also knew that so much was going to be about the editing room, pacing the movie through editing, not necessarily through the script. The script had 30 more pages in the first half of the movie before we get to the mall. And I think we knew it seemed funny, but we gotta get to the mall, that’s when the movie starts happening.
AVC: Did you shoot that stuff?
TH: Some of it was shot, yeah; a lot of it got cut before we shot.
EW: One of the biggest things we’ve learned was pacing and how to tell a story in that kind of format. It was like, when is this movie really starting? [Laughs.]
AVC: Most of my favorite scenes were actually early, particularly when you guys are transforming from Hollywood assholes to regular Joes.
EW: You know what’s interesting? That doesn’t get that many laughs. Were people laughing at that? We haven’t sat through a screening, like last night, with fans. We’ve only done the Sundance one, which was not as fun.
TH: Yeah, but I think that laughs aren’t the best judge of funny, necessarily. Like, there are a lot of funny things that elicit loud laughs, but I think a lot of funny shit just doesn’t get me to laugh, but it’s fucking hilarious, and it’s something I remember and think about later and maybe laugh about it the next day or something.
AVC: Did you guys cycle through a lot of overarching story ideas before settling on this plot?
TH: The only big difference was that we had more origin stuff at some point: “Where did Tim and Eric come from?” kind of stories. I think the mall was originally more of a town, like us going to town, and that was sort of based on how cites are falling apart, the recession in these small towns that are dying. Going back to Tom Goes To The Mayor, we were kind of using a town as a place to have funny characters, and as a launching point for scenes. That became just impossible to try to do; it was too big of a scope. The mall just seemed like a nice microcosm of what a town could be.
AVC: Were you intending some social and media or Hollywood criticism in the movie? It seems like that’s dialed back a little bit more than some of the most direct stuff on the show.
TH: I think there’s some of that implicit in just the big, bloated idea of this original movie, the Diamond Jim movie within the movie. It’s not as satirical as the show can get sometimes, I guess. In the show I think it’s easier to satirize television because a lot of things can be played off as fake TV shows and stuff. The whole movie is kind of satirizing movies in a subtler way, like the way the structure becomes solidified toward the end and it becomes sort of like a real movie. That’s sort of our subtle way of making fun of movies in general.
EW: It’s also kind of a reflection of our real lives, like we can’t believe we got any amount of money to make a movie.
AVC: Did you consider not having a big plot, and just doing a sketch movie?
TH: Almost immediately we didn’t entertain the idea of a sketch movie. They don’t really work. We felt like they’re just—no one was asking for that.
EW: Yeah, after 11 and a half minutes of our show, a lot of people are like, “I need to take a shower and think about it for a day.” So anything longer than 11 and a half minutes would be fucked.
TH: And it would be like, “Oh, they just made a long version of their show. Why do I need to go see that in the movie theater?” So we tried to do something different.
AVC: But it’s fair to say that the movie’s an extension of the show’s aesthetic, right?
EW: I think it’s a combination of the aesthetics of everything we’ve done, going back to Tom Goes To The Mayor. A lot of people comment that the idea of this bad mall is sort of a theme that we’ve worked with throughout all of the shit we’ve made.
TH: But we weren’t interested in making a fan movie that was like, “Oh, if you don’t know the show, you’re going to be lost.” There are no references to the characters. We’ve had people who have never seen the show who’ve seen the movie and thought it was really funny. At Sundance, somebody was like, “So what is this TV show you mentioned?” From the beginning we thought that, for this movie to make sense to make, the idea of Will [Ferrell] and Zach [Galifianakis] being in it—obviously we love them and we’re fans of their comedy—but there’s also a practical element that they will bring some people in that haven’t seen the show.
EW: It’ll be interesting to see what happens when it’s in theaters, to see how many people do go see it. I mean, there’s no way to measure fans versus noobs.
TH: Some of our hardcore fans are going to look at this movie and say that it’s tame, or that it’s tamer than the show, or that we’ve kind of tightened things up or made things a little too literal. But I think for people that aren’t hardcore fans, this is going to feel like the craziest movie they’ve seen in a long time, so we kind of had to play a little bit to the middle in that respect. You know, we didn’t want to consciously go out and alienate everybody.
AVC: But you still get to crosscut scenes prominently featuring poop and dildos, so it’s not like you’re holding back.
TH: Our Godfather homage. I think in all the Godfathers, there’s all those montages. Right? Definitely in Godfather, though I can’t remember the one in Godfather II, but that was a reference for sure.
EW: And the ending, the shoot out, is not an homage to anything in particular, but it’s more of a genre. We kind of changed the colors, slowed it down to make it this cool Western shoot-out or something.
TH: There’s definitely a Scooby-Doo reference in the Taquito yogurt man scene where we see the shadow, and it’s clear: “Oh, it was the guy at the mall the whole time. It wasn’t a real ghost!” [Laughs].
AVC: Does the movie feel like a culmination of the show? Is the show done?
EW: Awesome Show is pretty much done.
AVC: At some point you guys thought 50 episodes…
TH: That’s sort of our message: five seasons, 50 episodes, Chrimbus Special. I think Check It Out should be considered part of that world. I think there’s room for specials. If we come up with an idea we’d probably try to do it, because why not? We didn’t get to that point of repeating ourselves, but we felt that if we kept doing it we would have eventually hit that wall. I think the great sketch shows, like Python and Mr. Show, they didn’t stick around for very long. There’s something kind of cool about that.
AVC: So, is the ideal situation to make more movies in the vein of this one? Or do you have some things that you want to do outside of this?
EW: I think we’d like to make more Tim and Eric movies, like Tim And Eric’s Trillion Dollar Movie—same kind of format, but then try some new shit. Everything we do—it sounds lame—but we sort of are challenging ourselves to try new things. We do get bored of shit really fast. Maybe after a couple of these movies we’re going to try something that’s just Will Forte starring in it. I’d love to do a movie just with him.
AVC: Can you talk a bit about the release method for the movie? It’s kind of a new thing, to be released on-demand a month before a theatrical release. A lot of movies have gone out the same day as on-demand, but I don’t know of any coming out that much before.
TH: The movie’s only going to be in theaters in 20 or 25 cities, so the majority of people in the country are just not going to be in driving distance to see the movie in a theater. So if that early group of people sees the movie on-demand and tells their friends, I guess [Magnolia Pictures] feel that that’s going to potentially create movement toward the release having more attention driven to it. We’ll see. But at the end of the day, they’re trying to make it easy for you to see this movie, to legitimately see it, to not download it illegally. As long as you have iTunes or cable or Xbox or Playstation or Amazon or any of these platforms—Olympus, the new Olympus device—you can see this movie legitimately. Magnolia gets the same split that they get at the movie theater. Financially, it seems to make sense.
EW: The only downside is that we made this movie so that you can see it in a movie theater. At first we were like, “Fuck, that sucks.” But a lot of people have good home theaters now, you know? And some people don’t go to the movies.
TH: And sometimes going to the movie theater fucking sucks. You know there’s just assholes there. It’s super-expensive to buy your popcorn and there’s people texting during the movies. I’ll go to see movies, but I also love being at home on my couch and pausing every 10 minutes to pee.
AVC: Can you talk about your tweeting habits, Tim? You did a lot of “Don’t you dare fucking pirate our movie” tweets, and they read sort of serious.
TH: I’ve developed this persona of this guy that doesn’t take shit on the Internet. Some people don’t get it and are like, “Wow, you’re a real asshole.” I’m not really, really upset. But it’s funny. People think they’re being anonymous online, so I like to reel them back in and go over the top. I think that most people get that I’m sort of joking when I’m saying someone’s the worst person in the world. But also the torrenting stuff, it occurred to me that we should just stop pretending that it’s not happening and really bring it out and talk about it as much as possible, because that’s not going to increase the amount of people that are going to torrent it. But it’ll make people think about it from a different angle, like, “Yeah, these are real people.” There are consequences to how many people spend money on this movie. It’s not like the TV show, where there are these amorphous ratings. It’s hard to quantify how many people are watching. This is like a really simple math equation.
EW: I think by us putting out those pledge videos and stuff, we saw the results after one week. Everyone was really pleased. Opening weekend, we were No. 4 on comedy downloads on iTunes and No. 1 on YouTube downloads. People have said to us, “I’ve never paid for a movie, but I’m going to support you guys.” Like what Tim said, they associate with us, like two real dudes trying to make some shit happen.
AVC: Speaking of personas, can we talk about The Comedy a little bit? It provides an interesting juxtaposition to Billion Dollar Movie.
TH: [Laughs.] It’s a good double-feature.
AVC: It was! It seems that your character in the movie—really both of your characters, but mostly Tim’s—are what a lot of people on the Internet think you’re actually like in real life. Like you’re deliberately provocative just for provocation’s sake, and not funny, and obnoxious, and mean-spirited.
TH: Maybe. Some people probably think we’re just constantly on and aggressive or disrespectful or whatever those characters are in the movie. That’s what the director was going for. There’s some of that in our lives. I never go to the lengths that that character goes with the offensive stuff. But sometimes to amuse ourselves, we’ll act a certain way around waiters or around other so-called normal people in the world, like adopting a strange accent in the middle of getting your order taken.
EW: There’s scenes in The Comedy where there’s a group of people busting on each other—we do that. A lot of people do that.
TH: I guess a more direct way to answer your question: It’s certainly connected to who we are. All we did in the movie was that we took it to the nth degree. We just took it way further than we probably would in our real lives. I would never say some of the things in my real life. I think all of the scenes are meant to be not the way the character feels but the way he’s trying to get somebody to feel uncomfortable.
AVC: And he’s a horrible person, more or less, or at least a deeply troubled person.
TH: Yeah, I guess. It’s also such a small part in that person’s life captured in the film.
AVC: Bad week, maybe?
TH: [Laughs.] Yeah, bad week.
AVC: The ending is ambiguous. Does he turn a corner?
TH: In the sequel he does. [Laughs.]
AVC: Seriously though, the final scene was pretty striking.
TH: That was not in the script. It was a directorial, an editorial choice to end the movie the way it did, which is the way that we work all the time. Things change all of the time. It kind of reminded me of 2001 in a weird way, where the ending is just very ambiguous and meant to sort of make you just think about what you just watched, less about resolution, less about having a period at the end of the movie.
AVC: There really are some interesting parallels, though they’re obviously very different types of movies.
TH: We don’t wear that tight of clothing in real life.
EW: It was cool to have both of those movies at Sundance and one of them called The Comedy.
TH: Yeah, from the beginning I was like, “Rick [Alverson, Comedy director], this is going to be a problem. There’s going to be people that are going to not pay attention close enough to realize there’s a difference.” Rick’s attitude is like, “The more confusion, the better. Bring it on.”
AVC: What were the audience reactions like to both movies at Sundance?
EW: Mixed. Billion Dollar Movie, people were laughing at the right parts, but there were a lot of people who didn’t know who Tim and Eric were. It wasn’t like last night. Fifty percent of them didn’t know us. There were walkouts during some of the more offensive scenes in both movies. Full rows would get up, which was kinda funny to see.
TH: We had an experience with The Comedy where some old, uptight guy was at the Q&A and said, “Why did you make this movie? I thought this was the biggest piece of garbage I’ve ever seen in my life.” He was pissed. He felt really assaulted by the film. I think it’s just amazing that you can draw that kind of reaction out of somebody.
EW: The movies that I like to see are ones that move me one way or another, like fuck me up or make me laugh out loud. So it feels moderately successful that we made people either happy or saddened.
AVC: Or a little disgusted?
AVC: Speaking of disgusted, we should get on the record what the “shrim” in the movie is actually made of, assuming it’s not actual human diarrhea.
EW: Shrim was warmed almond milk and some oatmeal added I think, for texture.
AVC: How long were you in the shrim bath?
EW: A couple of hours. It was a long process to get tanks of shrim with lots of tubes and hoses. And we were all like, “This is totally not going to work.” We actually had a stunt department that operated it, and it totally worked fine.
AVC: You guys never had a stunt department on Awesome Show.
EW: Usually it’s just a bunch of interns.
TH: Even on this movie, a lot of stuff was flying by the seat of our pants. We had a stunt guy, and the special-effects guy did some of the explosives and stuff. We were rigging the body that explodes…
EW: With dynamite.
TH: And there’s a glass door to the mall like 10 feet away, and Wayne, our special-effects guy, goes to our first A.D., “We shouldn’t be doing this.”
AVC: You probably get asked this about every seemingly unusual celebrity you work with, but how game for his role was Robert Loggia?
TH: He’s definitely older and needed a little more attention than other people. We just respected him and treated him like a godfather on the set. You know, “Mr. Loggia, is there anything we can get you?” The degree of respect gets upgraded quite a bit as opposed to the way we talk to Will Forte or somebody.
EW: He gave us equal respect back. He gave us exactly what we wanted. He didn’t try to silly it up. We just wanted a scary motherfucker.
AVC: Presumably he’s somebody you had in mind, but what’s the process like for signing him up? You go to his agent and hopefully they know who you guys are, and you talk him into it?
TH: There’s characters in the movie where from the beginning we decided, “This guy’s gotta be serious. We can’t cast a comedian.” Certain characters are going to work as a comedian, certain people are going to work as a weirdo, and certain people are really going to need to hold their own as an actor. That character’s one. We knew that we needed somebody that could really command the screen and be scary, be intimidating. I can’t remember who we thought of except that we knew that we wanted a Robert Loggia kind of person. Our producer worked the phones and just made the deal so easy for him.
AVC: So did you end up needing him for just a couple of days?
TH: Yeah, it was like one day of shooting in the office and then maybe a day at the mall out in front.
EW: We make it very easy for these people, you know? We turn the schedule inside out. We shot the end scene first for these guys.
AVC: You said that working in the mall was kind of a pain in the ass. That was a real mall, right?
EW: Yeah, but abandoned for like, 10 years. It was a real shithole, but a better shithole than some other malls that we weren’t allowed to work in because they were so hazardous. It was a dank, dark, dusty mall. Everyone worked with facemasks on—most of the crew. It was so dusty. But I think that in the end it was awesome. It helped everyone’s performance. These people had to really live and work in these environments.
TH: The real challenge was the continuity. What point in the mall had we started cleaning, and what does the mall look like when it’s supposedly open for business again?
AVC: What else is on the horizon? There’s obviously Check it Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, season two.
EW: It’s good, man.
TH: It’s fucking funny. We sort of figured out how to make the show toward the end of the first season. So we knew the show the second season. We knew it was going to work. It was much easier for us and John [C. Reilly] to go and shoot it and edit it. We had different ideas, but then we were like, “No, let’s just pick any word out of a dictionary and that’s what the show is about.” [Laughs.] We made a show about boats.
AVC: What else? You’re doing something with Comedy Bang Bang, right?
TH: Our company is producing their show for IFC. We started the company to produce our own stuff, but now we’ve got this great stable of talented people and when we’re out here promoting the movie or touring, our company is able to make stuff for other people.
AVC: So do you have creative involvement in that?
EW: Not that one—other than that they’re using some our people, our directors and stuff like that. We hope to make another one of these in the style of the Billion Dollar Movie, another Tim and Eric something.
AVC: Trillion Dollar Movie—is that the scoop?
TH: It’s the scoop that we’ve given to a lot of other people this week. Run with it though, get it online.
AVC: Anything that we missed?
TH: Just that it’s always been a pleasure to work with The A.V. Club, we’ve talked to you guys for many years now and we appreciate the support, despite my Twitter rampage the other day. I want to apologize on the record. Just don’t forget where you came from, as we should not either.