What are Tim & Eric Actually Saying?

It seems like it’s a contractual imperative that any article or review — even favorable ones — analyzing the comedy of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim must point out, as quickly as possible, the comedy’s most bizarre or gross or scatological moment.

I can understand why a critic delivering a negative review focuses in on Tim & Eric’s most jarring sequences. At their apex, Tim & Eric are uncommonly intense and they throw pretty astonishing sights at the audience almost constantly. Poor Roger Ebert was never really intended to be in Tim & Eric’s audience, and should probably have never had Tim & Eric’s comedy foisted on him just because one of their projects stretched to 90 minutes long. Ebert eviscerated Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012) with a half-star review that reads, in one of its milder moments: “There is a scene in this film where a character is defecated on by several people at the same time, and I dunno … I didn’t enjoy it.” Hard to argue with Mr. Ebert when he puts it like that.

What puzzles me is when an ostensibly positive review of Tim & Eric’s work deals a backhanded compliment, at best, in response to these same let’s call them eye-catching moments. When The A.V. Club bestowed a lukewarm-positive B+ grade on the duo’s 2014 anthology miniseries, Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, they did so while proclaiming that the show had “ratchet[ed] up the ‘WTF?’ factor.” The headline’s somewhat dismissive sentiment is echoed in the article, which judges that the show “finds Tim and Eric boiling down traditional creepshow beats into concentrated doses of ‘WTF.’” To me this sounds like The A.V. Club meant to stamp the show with a D- grade.

A recent profile in, of all places, Bloomberg Businessweek heaped praise on the innovative business model of Tim & Eric’s blooming comedy production company, Abso Lutely Productions — but only dipped a hesitant toe into the actual comedy itself. The profile appraised the comedians’ zeitgeist-establishing sketch show, Tim & Eric’s Awesome Show (2007–2010), with what certainly sounds like a dismissal: “The editing was shaky, the acting was worse [than Tim & Eric’s previous projects], the story lines were threadbare, the lighting and music were epileptic.” The Bloomberg reader encountering Tim & Eric for the first time through this article can fairly wonder why such a shitty-sounding show has been the foundation for real-life profits.

These surprisingly unflattering moments within supposedly flattering reviews confuse me because, as a pretty dedicated fan of Tim & Eric for about four or five years now, I don’t see anything reflected in the reviews that I actually enjoy about the original work. (Actually, the only piece on Tim & Eric I’ve fully resonated with was also written on a personal blog — and it’s unfortunately been lost into the Internet netherspace.) (Edit: Just kidding! Cathy Fisher’s wonderful essay can and should be read right here.) It feels like I’ve watched something entirely different than what the reviewers saw. I certainly experience a Tim & Eric comedy differently, since I usually feel like I’ve witnessed something with poignant artistic merit. Really.

It’s true that Tim & Eric certainly provide heaps of what you could call “WTF moments.” Like, indeed, somebody getting pooped on by several other people at once. But seeing the most outrageous flash of nudity or the most splattery poop joke is not, by itself, a reason to like something — even though an older critic tasked with reviewing Tim & Eric may suspect this while ruefully dismissing whatever they believe “millennial culture” is. Yet if getting grosser and poopier is really what hit people’s funny bones, then really, why not a show consisting entirely of people hitting their gonads with a hammer while having explosive diarrhea? (Admittedly there have been worse ideas.)

I see additional, thoughtful, layers in the work of Tim & Eric, but I’ve never seen anybody try to articulate that thoughtfulness.

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Tim & Eric can be very easily classified: they are satirists. They are different from most satirists because they aim their satire at huge and sometimes abstract targets. Lots of satire, including tons of incredibly effective and hilarious satire, has a relatively narrow target. Probably a better way to say it is a “pinpointed” target.

Two of the most successful recent satirists, artistically and commercially, are Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, whose sketch show Key & Peele (2012–2015) iconically lampooned a number of individuals and personality types, almost always within the broader umbrella of black-and-white race relations in America. For instance, here Key & Peele gleefully collide suburban and urban together with their widely viewed substitute teacher sketch:

There are glimpses at thornier issues here — why has the same country’s public schools provided such a more confrontational experience for the black teacher than for the white students? For the most part, though, this particular sketch backs away from the brink in order to focus on satirizing the archetype of the hard-ass substitute teacher. I think the sketch was incredibly effective in doing so. Watching it immediately brought to mind, as it was designed to do, the directionless and unhelpful power trips of so many of my own teachers growing up. Also — here Key & Peele’s universal sketch skillfully speaks into my personal experience — I was flooded with memories of the many fumbling, authoritarian teachers I briefly dealt with from the unusual angle of an adult, in-class tutor at an underserved public middle school.

Still, I think it’s fair to say that the Substitute Teacher sketch has a relatively narrow/pinpointed target. Does it mock or point beyond anything other than the substitute teacher? Not that I see.

I want to emphasize that there is not a “better” way between the style of Key & Peele or the style of Tim & Eric — only that they are very different. By contrast, here is a 90-second sketch from Awesome Show:

This sketch is formatted like a mock-infomercial; but it’s worth noting that neither the ad nor the actual Face Time Party Snoozer is a direct parody of a specific infomercial nor a specific product. The infomercial format is being gently satirized in the sketch, but without falling back on some more obvious hallmarks of faux-infomercials: there are no prices, specific deals, or phone numbers with operators waiting. Instead, Tim & Eric use the Snoozer as a vehicle to satirize what they see as critical societal ills. I see jabs being taken at:

-Stale Gender Roles: The husband can barely be rustled out of bed for his own “engagement party” — an occasion that his fiancé has clearly organized on her own.

-Lack of Interpersonal Connection: Not only is the groom-to-be content to sleep through his own party, but all three guests we see are not bothered by having obviously one-sided conversations. (If that feels like a ludicrous fiction-within-fiction generated by the “ad,” consider our new daily practice of talking to a perhaps-not-there audience on, ahem, the internet.)

-Laziness as a Goal: The entire purpose of the Snoozer is to maximize the consumer’s individual comfort while minimizing the amount of effort and sacrifice they must make in moving through the world.

-Being Sold Useless Products that Don’t Work: The Cinco company is shoving a loud, annoying ad on its customers with extreme confidence even though the product is so flawed that it’s inherently unusable.

There’s no way that Tim & Eric actually spell out these themes at any point while making their work, which means that the themes sit comfortably in the background instead of smacking you in the face. But it is these broad, abstract themes that are the objects of Tim & Eric’s satire. Even though each theme is just briefly touched on in the sketch, it’s a lot happening in just 90 seconds.

In the same way that Key & Peele must make exaggerated gestures in order to effectively satirize real-life substitute teachers — snapping a clipboard in half on his knee in a fit of rage — the Party Snoozer sketch must also make gestures that are bigger than the real-life attitudes it is skewering. If Key & Peele have to take one step away from reality in order to satirize their pinpointed target of the hard-ass substitute, Tim & Eric have to take two steps away in order to effectively satirize their broader target of a selfish society.

I also think it’s significant that the Party Snoozer sketch would be, on its own, rated G. There is no nudity, bodily functions, or even curse words. Tim & Eric do not need to lean on any sophomoric touchstone in order to make an effective satire. So what happens when they do make a poop-focused faux-infomercial?:

Is the E-Z Kreme sketch about diarrhea? I know that it discusses diarrhea almost exclusively, but I’d argue that it is, thematically and spiritually (if you will), very similar to the Snoozer commercial. E-Z Kreme and the Snoozer are both tools to avoid showing up for life because life demands things like hard work and some degree of selflessness. Both sketches by Tim & Eric are satirizing the great effort and innovation in the marketplace, and subsequent consumer demand, in the interest of avoiding life’s tiny discomforts.

In order to effectively satirize this societal attitude, Tim & Eric need to make an exaggerated gesture that’s bigger than what already exists in real life, and part of what is baked into modern life are apps that simulate phone calls — a technological lie. The main unspoken joke of E-Z Kreme is that it inherently — even its satirical commercial must fess up — inflicts a debacle on its customers of even greater severity than the moments in life they looked to avoid. Is the joke as funny if E-Z Kreme inflicted something more G-rated to its customers’ bodies, like fits of uncontrollable sneezing? Probably not. Tim & Eric earn their use of diarrhea by leveraging it as a tool to build the satire.

Here’s another example, this time featuring Tim & Eric in their usual spots in front of the camera. Again the sketch targets the uselessness, intensity, and rudeness of consumer culture. A negative review of this sketch might focus in on its use of poop, (simulated) masturbation, (cartoon) decapitation, and manic editing pace. I propose that these gross elements are, again, tools are used to effectively exaggerate, and thus satirize, the already-real commercial landscape:

A frequent criticism of Tim & Eric’s work is that uncommonly rapid editing pace, an innovation from their longtime editor Doug “DJ Douggpound” Lussenhop, who is also a skilled comedian as a solo act. I see where the critique comes from: some of the more aimless moments in Awesome Show, for me, take place when the on-screen actors are washed away by a wave of glitching pixels. Most of the time, though, Lussenhop’s editing is working in uncommon tandem with the show’s writing to build the tone and message of the sketch. Here, the duel between the price salesmen is not as intense — and not as effectively exaggerated, for the satire’s sake — without the increasingly rapid pace that Lussenhop’s edit generates.

Still, Tim & Eric have largely stayed away from the strobe-speed cuts since the 2010 conclusion of Awesome Show. As Tim & Eric have repeatedly shown in newer work, such as their more conventionally paced 2013 web series “Tim & Eric’s Go Pro Show,” the edits were never an irreplaceable part of making the work effective. (The same goes for Lussenhop himself.)

Once again, Tim & Eric do not satirize any particular show or celebrity, instead skewering the broader, abstract issues of: a general eagerness for public and private life to be melted together; the tendency for studios and channels to produce content that has no creative substance; and a societal reflex to relentlessly self-congratulate. And again: these more serious concerns sit comfortably in the background of the work, allowing the audience space and time to frequently laugh.

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Another skill from Tim & Eric that makes their work so enjoyable, while going mostly unmentioned, is their skill and versatility in mimicry. There’s not just the pair’s ability to portray a wide variety of characters, cross-dressing as necessary. This is usually enough to carry a sketch show. But there’s also their team’s production-wide ability to adopt the voice of seemingly any genre or idiom. In addition to the loud infomercials and reality-TV beats from the videos above, any given Tim & Eric project is constantly snapping in and out of the voices of the multi-camera family sitcom, X-Games cable derivatives, VHS-era educational documentaries, daytime cooking shows, vaguely exploitative modern documentaries, and, most often, inventing a slightly but profoundly distorted alternate dimension.

Now that Tim & Eric are currently in a phase of their careers when they create projects separately as often as they do together, it’s also clear that they have their own individual skills at mimicking an even larger array of voices. The pair has recently showcased incredibly different concerns at the helms of their own projects after starting out their show-biz careers with something like a decade of collaborating on virtually all of the same material.

In addition to being a regular actor and director on Aziz Ansari’s incredibly popular Netflix series Master of None, Wareheim also works extensively as a music video director — projects that barely if at all feature the song’s musical artist. Most of Wareheim’s work satirically targets those who are at the forefront of cool, usually questioning the shallowness of that pursuit. This happens gently in Master of None, where Eric’s character is essentially a child who is an adult’s age, equipped with a smartphone, credit card, the bottomless selection of stores and restaurants in New York City, and an apparently bottomless well of free time.

The gentleness is gone in Wareheim’s music videos, where being absorbed in consumption is portrayed as literally being lethal. His video for Charli XCX’s “Famous” personifies the timesuck of social media as an alternate dimension that a Charli XCX fan prefers to succumb to instead of living in the actual world. Wareheim’s video continually makes dark interruptions to the breezy pop song that Charli XCX recorded:

Using the blank canvas of Mr. Oizo’s instrumental “HAM,” Wareheim puts John C. Reilly in a haunting fat suit and creates a cinematic version of the grainy handheld videos that cycle through the Internet each Black Friday:

Instead of using poop or masturbation to satirically exaggerate the ills of the broader culture in “HAM,” Wareheim uses blood. It’s a couple steps removed from our reality — but only a couple steps. What, really, is the difference between “HAM”’s thrift store stuffed animal and the off- or on-brand electronics that incite real-life riots?

Where Wareheim has shown that he’s concerned with the gatekeepers at the front of pop culture, Heidecker has focused on the gatekeepers at the front of critical culture with a series of much more lo-fi projects. Comedians and critics exist, at least in theory, to help confront the bad and stupid elements that seep into a culture, and Heidecker embodies them both in order to offer (it’s hard to disagree) that they’ve fallen asleep at the wheel.

Heidecker’s lengthy webseries “On Cinema at the Cinema,” made in collaboration with Gregg Turkington (a.k.a. Neil Hamburger), is probably the most avant-garde project of anything in Heidecker’s or Wareheim’s careers. It’s certainly the quietest. Each 6–8 minute episode “reviews” two new mainstream movies each week by way of barely getting through a description of the movie before bestowing it with four or five bags of popcorn (read: four or five stars):

Much like the Awesome Show infomercials don’t reference any particular real-life infomercial, “On Cinema” doesn’t directly parody any individual real-life vlog or podcast. Instead, by patiently recreating the lazy, soda-sticky vibe of the air-conditioned suburban multiplex, “On Cinema” deflates the pomp and importance from the constant churn of studio movies. Tim & Gregg’s characters both have the lack of taste that is almost required in order to genuinely enjoy a particular breed of relentlessly focus-grouped movies. (Since exclusively focusing in on this dynamic would probably get boring in a hurry, Heidecker and Turkington have spent considerable effort creating memorable comedic tension between their two self-named passive-aggressive characters.)

Heidecker has also created an effective stand-up comedian character — also named Tim Heidecker — who forgoes attempting to make any meaningful statements with his work by choosing to focus instead on the brutally boring details of the stand-up industry. Skillfully, Heidecker shows what is essentially the same comedian pumped full of loud confidence off-stage, such as while getting lunch with Brett Gelman, before tripping around in aimless circles on-stage:

Tim Heidecker the performer earns laughter here — but Tim Heidecker the stand-up character is too clueless to know that his audience’s laughter is coming at him, not alongside him. There’s a lot of invention and creativity quietly going on here.

The sheer quantity of projects that Tim & Eric have produced, maintaining an incredibly high quality on virtually all of them, is genuinely the sign of work habits that would merit, say, their authoring of an entirely non-comedic book about how to produce artistic work. Not that they actually would ever write such a book. In an era where many comedians react to early success by releasing increasingly bloated and aimless projects from the lucrative top of the industry, Tim & Eric have to this point shown incredible artistic integrity by never bending their voices for commercial purposes.

The cumulative effect of the massive Tim & Eric cannon — incredibly, I’ve only touched on a moderate slice of it here — is that there is hardly a cultural norm or value that they have not effectively satirized. This means that the work of Tim & Eric frequently pops back into mind, unbidden, when the many objects of their satire are encountered in the real world.

For instance, a number of Key & Peele sketches — like the substitute teacher sketch, the football names sketch, or the Black Republicans sketch, to name a very few — will pop back into their viewers’ minds when these pinpointed targets are encountered in real life. Since Tim & Eric have broader and more numerous targets, though, their sketches come back to mind more frequently and universally. The power of any advertisement’s desire to shame its audience and/or its competitors withers once the outrageous self-importance of Tim & Eric’s fake advertisements are recalled. The allure of any well-maintained social media account is broken when remembering the emptiness of the lens-loving characters in the “Go Pro Show” or “Famous.” The tropes of any remotely cruddy piece of art — a movie, comedy, TV show, whatever — are knocked over when recalling Tim & Eric’s magnification of the same techniques.

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Are Tim & Eric optimists or pessimists? This is a harder one.

Cultural critic Will Leitch, writing for Deadspin in 2012, went nuclear in his negative appraisal of “On Cinema” and the Billion Dollar Movie, calling Tim & Eric “oppressively nihilistic” off the top and continuing from there. Quoth Leitch:

It is one thing to have a certain wry ironic distance, but it’s quite another to make you feel stupid for thinking there might be any laughs here to mine. The “joke” of Tim and Eric is that you are a jerk for wanting to laugh. Sure, it would be soooo easy to make you laugh, you morons; Tim and Eric work doubly hard to show you just how high above that they are, and how low you are for thinking comedy is supposed to be fun.

I understand that most viewers of Tim & Eric cannot peer past that initial wave of gross-ness, as happened to Roger Ebert. Some sort of repulsion effect is very much destined to happen, one way or another, when an artist intentionally works outside of the mainstream, as Tim & Eric do. Unfortunately, I don’t understand what has motivated Leitch to take his stance here. I think that Leitch accidentally conflates the difference between working outside of the mainstream on one hand, and being plain confrontational to your audience on the other.

Tim & Eric frequently work to achieve some sort of satirical poignancy — but they work at least as frequently to achieve pure silliness. This is something of the opposite of being confrontational to one’s audience. For instance, their organic Awesome Show spin-off, Check It Out with Dr. Steve Brule (2010–2016), is entirely an exercise in silliness. Starring John C. Reilly in the titular role, Check It Out is formatted as a parody of low-budget public access shows. But the show is not a parody as much as it is a chance for Reilly to unleash anarchic physical goofiness. Period. It’s very satisfying:

Leitch prescribes practically sinister motives to the increasingly long list of actors with more mainstream success who collaborate with Tim & Eric:

This is another reason so many comics and actors tend to gravitate toward Tim and Eric, appearing both on the show and in the movie in small parts. (Will Ferrell and Jeff Goldblum have some good moments in Billion Dollar Movie; Zach Galifianakis and John C. Reilly decidedly do not.) It’s a way to show they get it, that they’re not like the comics Tim and Eric are satirizing, that they’re In On The Joke.

A simpler, and I think more likely, reason that so many people collaborate with Tim & Eric is: it’s fun. The recent Bloomberg profile notes that their Abso Lutely Production offices “has a general air of cordiality and calm,” with the journalist dropping in to find Heidecker & Wareheim “giggling” while teleconferencing with Reilly, working together on a new season of Check It Out. Tim & Eric have maintained incredibly long working relationships not only with each other (they met in college roughly 20 years ago), but also with Lussenhop (over a decade), Bob Odenkirk (over a decade), Reilly (nearly a decade), and have spent years securing actors like Will Ferrell, Will Forte, Zach Galifianakis, and Maria Bamford in roles small and large. Watching all of the shows they produce through Abso Lutely is enough to entirely fill up a screen-time diet, with comedians like Scott Aukerman, Eric Andre, Derrick Beckles, Nathan Fielder, and Brent Weinbach, among several others, all producing remarkable, innovative comedy underneath Tim & Eric’s supportive wing.

I appreciate the dreamy music video that Wareheim directed for Beach House’s song “Wishes,” but what I like even more is the behind-the-scenes video that Wareheim released on his own YouTube channel. While making a five-minute behind-the-scenes video for a not-quite-five-minute song could be gratuitous, I appreciate the chance to see Wareheim’s laid-back direction send good vibes rippling throughout the production:

Contrast this culture of relaxed collaboration up against the lengthy string of beefs and feuds that sucks up plenty of more popular comedy news (not to mention massively downloaded podcast episodes). Does all of Tim & Eric’s innovative artistic work really come from a place of meanness? I can’t see it.

There is little optimism within the actual work of Tim & Eric. Wareheim’s spiritually lost music video characters tend to meet quick deaths, Heidecker’s self-absorbed movie critic character is always embattled in a trivial argument, and many of the longer narratives in their visually polished Bedtime Stories series are also swift descents down into destruction. But in the same way that the Tim & Eric cannon is a meta-story that sprawls across many different shows and even mediums, I wonder if the meta-story of Abso Lutely productions is also an essential part of learning from their work. That the best response to the world’s fucked-up elements of meanness, emptiness, and dumb-ness is to go have a fun time making creative work with your friends. Perhaps this interpretation of Tim & Eric’s work is faulty. At least I have company when it comes to misreading it.