Up to this point, the absurdist humor of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim has been confined to the audiovisual offerings of television, film, and the internet. The duo jumps to the written word with their latest endeavor, Tim And Eric’s Zone Theory, in an effort to send up both the self-help genre and oft-questioned religious belief systems (they’re looking at you, Scientology).
From the outset, the devices of parody and satire are readily apparent. The fictional Zone Theory is based upon “seven easy steps to achieve a perfect life,” but Tim And Eric—who portray themselves here as spiritual gurus—admit early there are actually thousands of zones and are already discussing the future editions needed to truly achieve that perfect life. Add to that the fact that the book regularly announces it is not for certain people (namely women), demands things be completed without providing the proper resources, and tries to reinforce its points through mindless celebrity endorsements, and it amounts to an entertaining (if not fairly obvious) belittling of the “real”-deal books on the market, as Zone Theory quickly reveals it will not actually deliver on any of its promises.
Tim And Eric stray, however, from straight-up mocking their targets, and instead rely on devices common to their other endeavors—most notably gross-out and grotesque humor—on the way to the finish line. Longtime fans will likely go in for sections the likes of “How do I get my diarrhea talking?” but newcomers may find themselves turning away from certain pages in disgust. It is signature Tim And Eric, sure, but it detracts from the overall theme, which otherwise already packs a punch and the laughs to go along with it. Yes, the idea of literally talking shit makes for some on-the-nose criticism. And there is something to be said for the in-depth nature of sections like “removing your tubes” and “bottling and storing probo (semen)” in terms of how they reflect the outlandish procedures often associated with fringe religions.
But Zone Theory is more entertaining when it goes for the throat. Its “Is this book right for me?” page belittles the reader, both instilling and preying upon a lack of confidence, like these endeavors often do. Its diatribes against soup are a finely absurd example of twisting ambiguous information to the whims of an argument.
There are also what seem like a few unrealized opportunities in Zone Theory that may disappoint some readers. An attempted call to a phone number provided in the book elicits nothing more than a Google subscriber who cannot be reached—no clever message. An email to firstname.lastname@example.org bounced back. And it’s hard to find out whether a star known as NSHF-359358 was officially re-named “Tim and Eric are Best Friends.” One might wish to see all of these things fleshed out into more of an interactive experience, but what would a self-help book be if not somewhat unfulfilling and its creators conspicuously unreachable? At the same time, a gag that relies upon being unfulfilling still has a tendency to actually feel unfulfilling when it works.
The jump to written word is particularly fascinating, though, because Zone Theory is not so much a book you read as it is a book you behold. Its humor is still very much rooted in visuals, with the design elements playing a huge role in its execution. Fans might wonder why Tim And Eric did not simply opt for audiovisual again, and it is easy to see the two portraying leaders of a faux movement on the screen. But every quasi-religious following seems to have a book at its core that guides all else, so Tim And Eric starting there makes plenty of sense. It should be interesting to see, though, how (or if) something so visually demanding translates well in its upcoming audiobook release.
But Tim And Eric ultimately prove adept at using the medium to their whims, while maintaining the production stylings that have made them popular. Zone Theory is, at the same time, something familiar and something new. It takes the essence of what makes Tim And Eric who they are and distills it into written-word adaptation, for better or worse. It’s mostly for better, provided the reader doesn’t mind several pages on the shapes and stenches of the male anatomy.