Two weeks ago, 300 young and youngish people gathered at the Landmark Sunshine Cinemas on Houston Street to watch a film they’d already stolen. Some had, anyway: Many among them had made a pledge (against their natural inclination) to pay for seeing this film by buying either a legitimate download or an old-fashioned ticket. Others—making a highly postmodern moral bargain—had both stolen and paid.
The event they’d come to see (again) was created by two sweetly unprepossessing gentlemen in their mid-thirties, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, best known for the modestly rated avant-comedy sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! that ran for five seasons on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. They specialize in creepy absurdist sketches like the “Child Clown Outlet” series, in which kids are bred and sold as tiny greasepainted slaves (“Never touch the clowns! Let the clowns touch you!”) and “It’s Not Jackie Chan!,” a poorly produced commercial for a nonsensical board game. They’ve also made hundreds of other cockeyed videos that reproduce the tackiest, most primitive visual effects and production techniques from the eighties’ golden age of cable-access and local television: stupid “graphics,” profoundly awkward “acting.” Their discoverer and original Hollywood sponsor, Mr. Show’s Bob Odenkirk, has characterized their style as “media disintegrating in front of you” and, with a straight face, likens them to David Lynch. They also do poop jokes and do them enthusiastically.
Bolstered by Will Ferrell’s Funnyordie empire—many of their videos perennially thrive on that site—the pair shot their first feature film, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, in an abandoned, grotesquely neglected, and non-osha-compliant mall in Palm Springs. The story contains, among other things, a diseased man-child in a pizza suit, a “Prince Albert” penis-piercing sequence augmented with perversely exaggerated sound effects, and, most glorious of all, a bathtub brimming with feces. (The plot setup, such as it is: Tim and Eric are given a huge movie budget by a corporate entertainment megalith, then blow it all on a rock-star lifestyle and find themselves ruined.) On the eve of its March 2 theatrical premiere, the film is already quoted chapter and verse by its core audience. This is either a mutant media anomaly or the future of the entertainment business. There’s a chance it could be both.
Unlike the brain-rapingly abrasive series (“Anything more than eleven and a half minutes of [that] format and you lose your mind,” Eric says), B$M, as it’s pungently abbreviated, has a linear if ridiculous story line and features no Awesome Show characters. It does, however, make use of the series’ stable of stock weirdos (the shambolic stand-up James Quall, the cracked public-access puppeteer David Liebe Hart) and loyal celebrity pals, among them Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte, and John C. Reilly. The last spends B$M stuffed into undersize children’s clothing, playing a terminally ill boy-man named Taquito who was raised by wolves in a mall. He does this as a favor to Tim and Eric, whose comedy he reveres. In return, the boys take pains to make Reilly look awful.
Which is what they do best—what they do meticulously, almost scientifically, lavishing attention on each unflattering cut, shaky eyeline, and budget-mortuary makeup job. “To make things look really bad,” says Eric, “you need a high skill set.” (One trade secret: Transfer all footage to VHS, beat the tape machine senseless, then transfer the video back with all that precious damage intact.) Their gestalt—let’s call it the New Decrepitude—looks exactly like that nightmare you had during the first Clinton administration, falling asleep to a 4 a.m. infomercial over a sack of garlic knots—you know the one I mean?
If you’re under 30, you probably don’t. Most of the fresh-faced superfans at last week’s screening, for example, were far too young to have had that particular nightmare. A significant fraction probably don’t even own television sets. They know “cable-access” as a comedy subgenre, a sort of Instagram filter, thanks largely to the archival auspices of Tim and Eric. Who were on hand, after the final onscreen mêlée—mass beheadings, human shields, an exploding child—to accept their acolytes’ gratitude, take their questions, and answer in the traditional T&E fashion: with insults.
What made you want to make a movie? one guy asks.
“I dunno,” said Heidecker. “Probably … seeing a movie at some point in our lives?” He scanned the audience. “How about a lady this time?” He zeroed in. “You, sir.”
Tim looked flabbergasted. “This is the director’s cut. Do you think any company would cut a movie like that?”
Another fan wanted to know why Awesome Show’s Dr. Steve Brule—a mushmouthed local-TV lifestyle adviser played by Reilly, star of the Tim-and-Eric-produced spinoff series called Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule—doesn’t appear in the movie. “One reason is, it’s a terrible idea,” Heidecker replied.
This produced a burble of laughter, followed by an expanse of strained silence. Heidecker took in the room approvingly: “I like the awkwardness that’s developing here.” Well, naturally.
Then Tim and Eric asked for a show of hands: Who stole our movie? Only two brave people admitted to it. Tim singled out the nearer guy—a 24-year-old waiter-musician, who’d earlier been telling me how Tim and Eric’s comedy was “a very intimate type of humor” that was “all done with a lot of love and understanding and consideration and respect, in a way”—and had him thrown out of the theater. The president of Magnolia Pictures marched the confessed thief up the aisle (amid ambivalent, slightly guilty audience jeers) and into the lobby, where he spent the remainder of the Q&A waiting for his friends—still inside—to emerge. No joke. Or was it?
Tim and Eric do not like being addressed as Tim and Eric—especially in the street, especially when they’re not together. Nevertheless, they have been together for quite some time, since film school at Temple University. Bob Odenkirk remembers the day he received their extensive unsolicited demo reel out of the blue, which included the sketch that would become their first Adult Swim show, the cheaply animated Mayberry deconstruction Tom Goes to the Mayor. Enclosed with it was a neatly itemized bill for postage and the cost of the DVDs at highly inflated prices.
“My first question to them was, ‘What scene are you in?’ ” Odenkirk recalls with discernible awe in his voice. “Usually if you’ve made that many shorts, you’re part of a larger [comedy] community. But they were like, What do you mean? What scene? Nobody knows us. Our friends know us. And I was like, That’s great! That’s why you have your voice! One of the things a ‘scene’ can do is, you’re surrounded by people, some of whom are better than you. And you’re naturally going to slow down and say, ‘I’m not nearly as good as that guy.’ It can stop you from following your own voice. But they weren’t from anywhere.”
Which is a nice way of saying they’re from central Pennsylvania, a place that shaped their po’-faced misanthropy and abiding love of ugliness. Their signature look-and-feel is the product of “living in shitty towns, where the town center is a Wal-Mart or a McDonald’s, and prefab disgusting malls,” rhapsodizes Wareheim. “Also being involved in the AV club in high school. And even later, starting to collect strange tapes from all over the world—cable-access stuff and outtakes. We’d have screening parties, and friends would send us stuff, and we’d send them stuff back. You know the video where [allegedly] Chuck Berry is pissing on a girl? That was one of our first.”
In Allentown, where Heidecker grew up, “we had this channel, Channel 69—no joke. It was local TV, locally produced commercials. They had that ‘gain’ thing, with the audio, where the gain is really loud? Shitty K-tel commercials. That stuff was always on in my house. The community calendar [that opens Check It Out!]? That’s straight from the public-access channel, the one with the school closings. It’s a direct connection to our youth.”
“That’s our love of realism coming through,” says Wareheim. “You can never watch our shows and think even a second of it is cool.” In their search for ghoulish ordinariness—the shopworn, wabi-sabi stuff that fuels their machine—the two root through casting directors’ slush piles, drilling tirelessly for the Dream Factory’s least employable subcaste. And even when they find them, Tim and Eric are rarely content to let those unfamous faces go untreated. If someone is “too normal,” out comes the effects toolbar. (“One of our terms is to ‘drop the eyes,’ ” explains Wareheim, showing how they distort brows, elongate foreheads, crush liplines, and generally devolve the human face to pre-Cro-Magnon proportions.) Anything to make everything feel that much more “local.” “We share this sensibility of loving local businesses and people trying to make it,” adds Wareheim, with Heidecker chiming in, “And presenting themselves as bigger than they are.”
Heidecker and Wareheim seem precisely aware of how big they are, which is to say a little bit big and no bigger. They’re a niche taste, with page views in the hundreds of thousands, not the millions. Tom Goes to the Mayor ended after just 30 episodes on Adult Swim—where Nielsens are measured with a micrometer—though it’s considered a cult classic now. Awesome Show fared far better, but its jagged, edited-with-a-woodchipper style proved divisive even among Adult Swim’s stoner-centric constituency. Like their fellow Pennsylvania polarizers Andy Warhol and Rick Santorum, Tim and Eric are unmistakably a love-’em-or-hate-’em proposition: They run tight margins, but they can also turn out the base. Their young fans are a devoted, earnest, nerdy crowd—not quite as fratty or stony or anarchistic as you’d expect, and willing to give up even the treasured prerogatives of their generation (stealing intellectual property, for example) in obeisance to T&E.
They’ve even been known to turn in their coevals. When someone uploaded B$M, in its entirety, to YouTube the day after it debuted on iTunes, a fan immediately informed Heidecker via Twitter, and the videos were taken down. Every day is a struggle to make their case to a fan base that sees bit-torrenting as a righteous act. “If it doesn’t make that money back, we probably won’t get to make another one” is how Tim explains it to his thieving flock. “It’s not like TV, where there’s ratings and other amorphous ways of gauging things. It’s ‘This dollar equals that dollar.’ ” Hence “The Tim and Eric Billion Dollar Movie Pledge,” an affidavit certifying that the signer will actually pay for the film, turn in friends who don’t pay to the police, and promise not to see The Lorax (because it “looks bad”). The pledge may have actually had an effect: B$M has performed well on YouTube, iTunes, and video on demand, grossing in the mid-to-high six figures in its first three weeks—and that’s before it actually comes to multiplexes. If theatrical grosses follow suit, Tim and Eric may have threaded the new-media needle, leveraging fan love against cross-platform saturation and building a whole new business model in the process. But they’re not popping the corks just yet. “We still need a lot of people to see it just to get there,” notes Heidecker: “Three hundred thousand people at ten bucks a pop.”
In all likelihood, their main revenue stream won’t be from this movie, or any movie, because Tim and Eric have begun the profitable export of their aesthetic. They’ve produced an unhinged series of nationally televised Old Spice ads, starring the manic former NFL player and champion hollerer Terry Crews. In them, Crews bowls with his own head, holds conversations with his animated abs, and bursts violently into commercials for other, actual products. (In one, a soccer mom hawking Bounce fabric softener is startled when Crews explodes through the wall of her laundry room on a Jet Ski.) On TV and the Internet, these spots have probably been more widely viewed than any comedy short the pair has ever produced. A bizarre Absolut campaign starring themselves and Galifianakis attracted similar attention. And their company, Abso Lutely, is producing two new series, The Eric Andre Show (for Adult Swim) and Comedy Bang Bang (for IFC). But mercenary success, no matter how welcome, is a touchy subject. “Oh, man,” Heidecker said with a sigh during the Q&A when a fan asked about prospects for new Old Spice commercials. “We could not give a shit about that.”
Their movie’s premise calls for them to make and then blow through a fortune, and the real Tim and Eric have considered and rejected that strategy. (“Seems like that would be a trap,” says Heidecker, and Wareheim adds, “We come from a place of Making Shit for Cheap.”) But they’d like to keep making movies. Why not? Says Heidecker, “There’s always going to be people turning 17 that this kind of humor is designed for.”
It’s a kind of humor that requires a lot of vigorous support—touring, tweeting, and making strenuously uncomfortable media appearances. (A recent sit-down with Good Day Austin was particularly squirm-inducing.) One way or another, “you can’t keep up the energy of doing a bit,” says Heidecker. “If Andy Kaufman had lived, I’m sure he’d have let his guard down.”
From the look of things, Tim and Eric’s guard won’t be coming down anytime soon. Nor should their fans’. Take that pledge-breaker from the Landmark. His name, he told me, is Stephen, and he was eventually welcomed back into the fold: Tim and Eric took pictures with him as a huge Kumbaya moment accreted. Stephen, moving apart from the scrum, said he enjoyed rolling with the “bit” T&E threw at him. He gets it: the combativeness, the dangerous shifts in tone, the hostility to clueless media and clued-in fandom alike. “The message is, I’m smarter than you, but you and I both know what this is about, so let’s just shed the bullshit.” So they don’t really care that he stole their movie? “Uh,” says Stephen, dropping his eyes. He steals a look at Tim and Eric. They can’t hear us: Both seem to be buried in a pyramid of pulsating adorers, posing for a kind of yearbook picture. Stephen lowers his voice. “I wouldn’t mention that to them again, if you don’t mind.”
Moments from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! With guest star John C. Reilly. Photo: Courtesy of Absolutely Productions
With guest star Dave Navarro. Photo: Courtesy of Absolutely Productions
With guest star Zach Galifianakis. Photo: Courtesy of Absolutely Productions
Photo: Courtesy of Absolutely Productions
With Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. Photo: Courtesy of Absolutely Productions