24 hours of discomfort, comedy, and discomfort-comedy with Tim Heidecker of The Comedy
Tim Heidecker made his name—mostly alongside Eric Wareheim—with absurdist comedies on Adult Swim, specifically Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Tom Goes To The Mayor. Those shows always had an undercurrent (and occasionally overcurrent) of discomfort, with real-life weirdos set up against fake talk shows, commercials, and songs. The aim, at least most of the time, was laughs. Perhaps because of that experience with making people uncomfortable, Heidecker was cast as the lead in Rick Alverson’s squirm-inducing dramedy The Comedy. In it, Heidecker plays a depressed, aging Brooklyn hipster who spends most of his time trying to get a rise out of everyone he encounters. He’s deliberately irritating and provocative, whether insulting his dying father’s nurse or trying to convince a bar full of black people that he’s cool. (Or maybe he’s just trying to get beat up—it’s hard to tell.) The film—which also features Wareheim, along with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Gregg “Neil Hamburger” Turkington—inspired some walkouts at Sundance, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But as a character study of an extremely unlikable person who may or may not deserve redemption, it’s a rousing success. Rather than bombard his 24 Hours Of marathon with all discomfort, Heidecker came up with a list that includes comedy, discomfort, and some films that mix the two nicely.
The A.V. Club: Did you put your list of films in any particular order? What time would you like to start this film festival?
Tim Heidecker: I didn’t, but maybe we can collaborate on what would be a good place to start. And let’s do 8 a.m. on a Saturday.
8 a.m.: This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
AVC: Why don’t we start with Spinal Tap, since presumably you know it by heart?
TH: How many times does this movie appear on lists? I felt bad being so obvious with it, but it really is the essential cringe-comedy, in my opinion. There’s just so many great moments where these guys present themselves as such dopes, in such an embarrassing light, like when no one shows up for the autograph signing. It’s the first movie I saw where the idea of cringing and being uncomfortable is what’s funny.
AVC: Have you listened to the in-character DVD commentary?
TH: I have. I love their defiance of negativity. It’s in so much of our work. Their attitude is this dopey optimism, and it’s so committed.
9:30 a.m.: Hands On A Hard Body: The Documentary (1997)
TH: I don’t know how many people have seen this, it never really got much distribution. It’s not available on Netflix, I don’t think. It’s about this contest where people have to keep one hand on a truck, and whoever lasts the longest gets to keep the truck. You see these people that are really funny characters; some are kind of eccentric. It’s in the South, so you have some very redneck-type people who say really ridiculous things. If you’re in a position to be competing in this contest, you’re already a little wacked. It’s just a great character study of people and what they’ll do to win a truck.
AVC: It’s about physical discomfort as well as mental.
TH: Yes. There’s a great scene where this guy… It goes for like 70 hours or something, and this guy says that all he’s been eating is Snickers bars. That’s not going to be your key to success. And what’s really heartbreaking is that it comes down to one winner, so there are people who’ve had their hands on this truck for 69 hours, 69-and-a-half hours, and your heart just crumbles for those people. They just wasted all that time, and it’s so pathetic.
AVC: So do you feel bad for them, or are you rooting for them?
TH: They did a great job of keeping it suspenseful, and you really hope a couple of them don’t win. A couple of them are terrible people, it seems like. It’s like a great sports movie.
AVC: I actually just read that they’re making a musical of it, with songs by Trey Anastasio of Phish.
TH: So there will be super-long musical interludes that go nowhere?
11 a.m.: Lost In America (1985)
TH: I think we should stay in comedy. Let’s go with Lost In America. It’s fairly traditional and easy to watch. I love Albert Brooks, and I think this is his best movie. It’s got so many moments where it’s uncomfortable to see this implosion of a life and a marriage. And it’s really pretty raw at moments, when they’re just going at each other. It feels real. The situation is fantastical and absurd and comedic, but they play it so real. It’s funny, but at the same time you feel like you’re watching… I’m thinking specifically of the Hoover Dam scene where he basically kicks [Julie Hagerty] out of the van. They really break up. They really end things because of money. There’s the great scene with Garry Marshall, where Albert Brooks is trying to angle a way of getting his money back. It’s just never going to happen, and it’s so funny, but the reason it’s funny is that it’s so uncomfortable. I saw this movie when I was pretty young, in high school. The scene where he becomes a crossing guard, and he’s got the Albert Brooks afro. The kids are circling around him, and they keep calling him a “Brillo Pad fathead.” These kids are being so mean to this adult. Tapping into the humor of depression and pathetic loser-ism is so great. That’s my kind of humor.
AVC: There’s a nice parallel there with The Comedy. They’re both movies about depression in many ways, though there are far more outward laughs in Lost In America than in The Comedy.
TH: Sure. The intention of Lost In America is ultimately to make you laugh and entertain you with a story that’s funny. That’s not necessarily the intention of The Comedy, though I think there are funny moments in it that will make you laugh if you have a more modern sense of humor. They’re probably not the closest movies in terms of style. I was thinking of writing Steve Martin on Twitter and saying, “The reason our movie is called The Comedy is because you took The Jerk.” But it also reminds me of a movie that I don’t have on my list, The Lonely Guy. There used to be these movies—and I think The Comedy comes out of that tradition a little bit—that were slower, not-story-heavy character studies that you don’t see of a lot these days.
AVC: Have you seen The Comedy with audiences? Do people laugh in the right or wrong places? Like the first cab scene, which starts out funny and then gets a little raw, with you guys making fun of the driver, singing, “No tip!”
TH: I haven’t seen it at an old-age home or anything. I’ve seen it mostly in the context where 70 percent of the people want to be there, either fans of ours or cinephile types. The tolerance is much higher for weirder stuff. I think it’s interesting that there are several laughs in the first 20 minutes, like genuine jokes or funny conversations, and then it completely dries out for a while. Then toward the end, there are more funny moments and some nice relief. Laughs return, and that’s a sign that people have been engaged the whole time, and haven’t written the movie off. In [Tim & Eric’s] Billion Dollar Movie as well, there are dips in it, but when you see people laugh toward the end, it’s clear that they haven’t checked out. It’s kind of a new experience for me, watching long-form stuff with people. If you go see any comedy, it’s rare for there to be sustained laughter.
AVC: Do you consider your character in The Comedy to be depressed?
TH: I haven’t thought about it too much. I think the conditions certainly lead you to that assumption. His father is dying, and he doesn’t have real structure in his life. He seems pretty unhappy. If I was a psychologist looking at this fictional tale, where no other evidence can be gathered, there’s certainly signs of that.
12:30 p.m.: About Schmidt (2002)
AVC: Here is a parallel between The Comedy and About Schmidt, which is on your list: Both your character and Jack Nicholson’s don’t have any outlet for their emotions, especially the positive emotions they might have.
TH: That’s right. I love this movie. I love Jack Nicholson in general. A lot of people have compared The Comedy to Five Easy Pieces, and I think the director would agree; it’s one of his favorite movies. Jack is a caricature in a lot of things, but he has a way of playing very imperfect people. In About Schmidt, he’s playing somebody that reminded me a lot of my grandfather. Coming from a sort of German, closed place. My character in The Comedy is that way as well. There’s not a lot of sharing, not a lot of exposing yourself. In About Schmidt, the comedy comes from the culture shock of him having to deal with all these people who are the opposite. In The Comedy, he’s surrounded by other people who are the same way as him, and then it becomes a suffocation, claustrophobia problem. The only relief comes in acts of terror. But there are some really funny scenes in About Schmidt, going back and forth between cringe-y and uncomfortable to genuinely sweet, sad performances.
AVC: You’re supposed to sympathize with Nicholson in About Schmidt, but that direction is not so clear for your character in The Comedy.
TH: [The Comedy director] Rick Alverson is not interested in creating sympathy for a character. In his storytelling, he wants to challenge the audience’s perceptions of why they sympathize with a character. At the same time, some people have said that despite everything my character does in the movie, there’s still moments where you feel sorry for him, or you feel sympathetic for a moment. And the ending leaves open this feeling—some people have said that they feel like the ice is thawing. There appears to at least be an attempt to break out of this cycle of depression and cruelty. But that’s very speculative, and it’s not really what the movie is about. It’s not looking for sympathy.
AVC: Without the final scene, you have a very different movie.
TH: You could say that for any movie! [Laughs.] I think there are two moments earlier in the movie where there are glimpses of that. There’s the scene with him and his sister-in-law on the dinghy, where he kind of collapses a bit. They’re really small, and that’s the palette in which Rick wants to work. But I think that in the context of the rest of the movie they can be really big, when you look at them in the context of all this nastiness.
2:30 p.m.: True Stories (1986)
TH: What were our categories again? This is almost none of those. It falls kind of in the comedy mind. It’s one of my favorite movies. There’s a lot of awkwardness in it, and a lot of questioning about America and consumerism. I guess it connects a little bit to The Comedy in that way, since David Byrne is questioning the value of all this leisure, wondering whether this celebration of stuff is a good thing. In The Comedy, the whole treatise of the movie is that this is what happens when you have people with nothing to do, this leisure class with lack of structure and too much money.
AVC: That movie seems to inform Awesome Show quite a bit, too, with the fake corporation—
TH: We were huge fans of this movie. There’s a scene that we always talk about, with Spalding Gray. He does this speech, and he does this thing with his hands, where they go right up into his armpits when he’s making this speech. It slayed us, we’d watch it over and over again. You see it a lot in our comedy, where Eric will take a pose and his hands are way up. David Byrne is the king of that as well. It’s an essential movie for us.
4 p.m.: California Split (1974)
TH: I like a good gamblin’ movie. It’s a great, meandering, kind of structure-less movie about two degenerates. It’s one of these movies that couldn’t happen anymore. Even though it’s only from about 30 years ago, you can’t imagine that people like this exist anymore. Nowadays you can’t just get by. Things are so expensive and controlled and monitored. These guys just really lived under the radar, and were maybe semi-criminal. Maybe that underworld still exists, but it certainly doesn’t seem like it would be as fun. There’s something really charming about these guys. It ends on such a bummer, and it was really inspiring that you could end a movie with such a harsh, depressing moment.
AVC: It’s a comedy that ceases to be a comedy and then ends.
TH: Yeah, it’s dark. These guys are not going to come out of this life. But great performances, Elliott Gould and George Segal. And it’s got all that Altman talking-over-each-other stuff. It doesn’t get put on lists of his best movies very often, but I fell in love with it.
6 p.m.: Off The Charts: The Song-Poem Story (2003)
TH: You could also put American Movie on this list, since it’s about finding these outsider-art folks. There are moments that are just incredibly hard to watch, watching delusion. It’s about these people that want to become songwriters and famous, and it’s just so obvious that it’s never going to happen for these people. It shows the cruelty of the music industry, and how some people take advantage of these people. People send in lyrics, and companies put music to it and produce the track. There’s a whole subgenre of these recordings that have become collectors’ things. There’s a couple characters that they follow who are writing these songs and paying to get them published, and you just feel terrible for them. But at the same time, they’re very funny in how delusional they are.
AVC: When you watch a movie like this, do you feel complicit?
TH: I know what you mean, and certainly you could say that in our own work, there’s that dance with the devil. It’s something that I think about quite a bit. Most of the time it’s pretty harmless. Yes, we are laughing at people, but people are funny and crazy and entertaining. I know how exploitive it can end up being. We see it all the time, on reality shows. It’s definitely not the most noble thing to do, to watch something like this and laugh at people’s misfortunes. It certainly creates a reaction in me, and lots of other people. But I can’t just sit around reading Spinoza. I can’t claim to be the purveyor of the highest forms of art at all times.
AVC: Did you guys have those discussions when you were hiring odd people for Awesome Show?
TH: There was certainly stuff that we would shoot and then cut, that wasn’t appropriate. That’s always a judgment call. Some stuff is really funny, but might be too mean. We always would monitor that, and sometimes we were too loose with that. Sometimes in the heat of making comedy, it’s a little hard to have that kind of judgment available all the time. But most of the time we felt like we were skirting the line, but trying to stay on the right side of it. Everybody involved with it has seen it and is cool with it, and wants to do more. People are weird and entertaining and quirky, and they don’t behave appropriately. As long as you’re not throwing shit at people’s faces… There’s certainly a line, and there are people that have crossed it. But I think it’s okay to show people being eccentric and weird and vulnerable, as long as there’s a point to it.
7 p.m.: The King Of Comedy (1983)
TH: Rupert Pupkin is just one of the great characters of all time. It’s that uncomfortable, cringe-y, “Stop, stop, back off!” The guy just doesn’t have the capacity to keep things inside. He’s completely delusional. I wish Sandra Bernhard wasn’t in the movie, because she’s so grating and annoying. And then the movie kind of sputters out at the end, doesn’t it?
AVC: It draws to what some people think is kind of a quick, convenient conclusion.
TH: It’s like Taxi Driver, it has that “this is a lesson you must learn” thing going. Both of those cases feel sort of like studio-note moments that might have been crammed in there. I wonder if Scorsese had other intentions for either of these movies. Jerry Lewis in the movie doesn’t know how delusional De Niro is, so the audience is watching Jerry Lewis’ patience wear thin, and waiting for that time bomb to go off. You know that he’s not going to be able to tolerate any more; it’s fun to watch that tension build and boil over, when the audience knows it’s coming.
9 p.m.: A Woman Under The Influence (1974)
TH: I felt like I needed to put this on the list, because it’s the quintessential Cassavetes, watching somebody fall apart on camera. Very uncomfortable, and as real as can be. It’s shot like a documentary, kind of. Great performances. Peter Falk just kind of makes you weep with his ability to go from a really hard guy—there’s scenes where he’s smacking his kids and his wife—but you can sense this deep love and compassion. He’s really an old-country guy, and the sense of community he has with the construction guys… I love the way time happens in this movie. There’s people at the house in the early morning and the middle of the night. They live almost like a clan of cave men might, with people coming in and out, and this big extended family that are all comfortable with each other. It’s really uncomfortable to watch.
AVC: And it’s pretty long.
TH: I always find I’m watching it from the middle. Like I turn it on in the middle and just get sucked in. It just occurred to me, I should add another movie to this list!
11:30 p.m.: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
TH: This is like the original fucking cringe/uncomfortable movie for me, just watching people destroy each other. It’s one of my favorite movies!
AVC: What does that say about you?
TH: I’m a masochist! If you’re gonna take two hours to watch something, it might as well stir you. It’s like being slapped in the face—getting your attention. I very often don’t want to watch these kinds of movies, I wanna watch a Nancy Meyers movie or James L. Brooks, a movie that makes you feel good, or doesn’t make you think at all. Or a Star Trek movie or something. It’s not like I sit around watching these movies like a freak, but I do when I’m in the mood.
1:30 a.m.: Carnal Knowledge (1971)
AVC: From one Mike Nichols movie to another.
TH: Yeah! This movie really reminds me of The Comedy in a lot of ways. These guys are just shit guys. Beautifully played by Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson. It’s all talking, all dialogue. It’s beautiful and just terribly mean about women and how guys talk about women, sex, and obsession. It’s this great movie about settling and becoming schlubs, these depressing white-collar losers. I think it’s a pretty harsh satire of men and this depressing life that a lot of people get into, becoming just cogs in a wheel. Whatever, people have to do what they do, but it’s probably an early movie that gets into that.
AVC: You see the characters in Carnal Knowledge over a couple of decades. Did you and Rick Alverson ever talk about what might happen to your character down the road?
TH: No, we never did. We weren’t really interested in hypotheticals. But like I said earlier, I think there’s a sense that there’s some room for escape and potential goodness coming out of him. I liked looking at Nicholson again in this movie for his ability to play a really lecherous creep, but he’s also super-dynamic and fun to watch, and funny. They always play this clip on Howard Stern where he’s yelling at Ann-Margret, “Get a job! Clean the house! Open the blinds!” And I heard a story that they had done all this coverage of Ann-Margret first, and that Nicholson, because he wanted her performance to come off as genuine, was giving 100 percent for all these takes, off-camera. Just laying into her, over and over. And then they turned to him, but he had completely [blown] his voice. So if you watch that scene, his voice is breaking and he’s really hoarse, because he’d been spending an hour doing it at that level.
AVC: Did you get depressed or surly playing this guy every day?
TH: The experience of making this movie was so different than the movie itself. I like to say that the moody, atmospheric music wasn’t playing on set. The truth is, we were on a boat, in the summer, and I was wearing shorts and often not a shirt. And it was quite pleasant a lot of the time. I was around people I like, and getting to act with friends. The crew was really cool. The mood of the movie wasn’t the mood on set. And some of those scenes where I just get to be completely awful, those are fun to do, to go that dark, see how far you can go. There are no rules, and it’s all fake, all pretend. We can all access the most horrifying things to say to each other, it’s just a question of why you’d do it. It’s good therapy, I recommend everybody to do it.
3 a.m.: Snowtown (2011)
TH: I just saw this, it’s new. It’s an Australian movie about a serial killer, a true story. I put it on the list, because—though I’m pretty thick-skinned—there are murders in there that are really gruesome. I had to close my eyes. It’s so real, and the acting is phenomenal. It’s this really blue-collar, depressing trailer park where all these white racists, protectionist, homophobic people live. The guy that becomes the serial killer comes in, and he’s just the most dynamic, cool, nice guy, but he starts inciting these people. It leads to him forming this posse where they just start rounding people up. And he kinda converts this one kid, who’s like 17 or 18, into his accomplice. It’s just brutal. Not funny at all, completely uncomfortable. I had to take muscle relaxers after it. I’d recommend it, but know going in that it’s pretty harsh. This is straight discomfort.
AVC: Have you ever seen Dogtooth?
TH: I just added that to my list, because I thought we needed one more! Same situation, though that one has some humor in it.
5 a.m.: Dogtooth (2009)
AVC: But the humor in Dogtooth almost makes it more painful.
TH: The story is this family that has raised their children in the confines of their property, to the extent that they’ve never been outside the house. They don’t explain why. Obviously the mother and father are completely demented and crazy. But they’ve created an alternate universe with rules, and have taught their children a different language and a completely different structure of laws. I recall there being some funny moments where he’s created this universe, and it almost seems like the only reason for doing it is pure absurdity. A funny version of it would be to have two kids and raise one of them really poorly, like a life experiment. Just teach the kid the wrong way to read… It’s kind of what they did in this movie. The Comedy feels so tame compared to some of these other movies. We didn’t go anywhere near that line!
6:30 a.m.: Moment By Moment (1978)
AVC: Where did you see Moment By Moment? It’s not available, right?
TH: I wanted to put it on here so this movie would get the most exposure possible. My accomplice Gregg Turkington was obsessed with this movie and found a way to get it. It aired at some point on one of these Universal HD channels, and somebody grabbed it. So we watched it, and then we do this On Cinema podcast, and we were offered the chance to do a screening somewhere in San Francisco, and we requested Moment By Moment. That theater contacted Universal and requested a copy, and they said yeah. When the movie came out, it was such a flop and so poorly received that John Travolta and Lily Tomlin both had it shut down. We thought that they had destroyed all the negatives, but I guess that’s not something they have control over. But apparently they prohibited it from coming out on VHS or DVD.
AVC: What do you love about it?
TH: It is as funny as The Room. It’s like The Room with movie stars. It’s just this meandering summer romance between this older woman who’s a rich divorcee and this young beach bum, pot-smoking hippie kinda guy, played by Travolta. There are a million things that are funny about it. There’s this comical loop that happens, where the same kind of scene happens four times in a row. Basically him flirting with her. But the big funny thing is that they look like brother and sister; they have the same haircut. And I don’t think I should say this for risk of being sued, but we know the sexual preference of Lily Tomlin. And John Travolta, you could say…
AVC: There have been questions?
TH: Yes. So there’s no chemistry at all between these two people. And there’s love scenes, sex scenes, and it’s just really uncomfortable and cringe-y, but if you watch it with the right people, it’s really funny. We screened it in L.A., and two people from Universal came because they were like, “Why are you guys screening this?” I talked to the woman afterward, and she was like, “I’m really good friends with John Travolta, and I don’t really see what’s so funny about this.” That was the most cringe-y experience for me. It’s 30 years later, you’ve gotta lighten up. This movie is not good, and that’s okay. We all make crap. It’s funny because this movie came out right on the heels of Travolta’s huge movies, so it was like “the new John Travolta movie!” It’s like if Leonardo DiCaprio came out with the worst movie of the past 20 years. When we screened it in San Francisco, it was a laugh riot.
8 a.m.: Schizopolis (1996)
TH: I watched it again recently, and it didn’t age quite as well for me. But it’s really just a mindfuck of experimenting with what a movie can be. The little things, like the credits sequence at the beginning, and the one at the end… It’s just the greatest wellspring of creativity for a filmmaker. I think [writer/director/star Steven Soderbergh] is really funny in it; I can’t believe he doesn’t act more. He’s so dry. My only negative thing is that it does feel like it was made in the ’90s now, which is just an aesthetic that doesn’t appeal to me.