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.