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.