"The misconceptionis always that based on our work we're lunatics who are complete acidheads,
TIM AND ERIC ARE THROWING UP A COMEDY VIDEO FACTORY FOR THE POST-CABLE WORLD
Inside a two-story office building on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are grinning into a computer screen. On a wall nearby, a painting depicts the comedians in pink suits and on fire. “Hey Doc!” Wareheim says. “Hey Doctor!” Heidecker says. “Hi friends,” says John C. Reilly, who’s on a video call from a studio in Australia. Reilly, the Oscar-nominated actor celebrated for his sensitive character work in Magnolia and other art-house classics, has built a second career in cult comedy. He’s Skyping in to record voice-overs for one of Heidecker and Wareheim’s television shows, Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule. The fourth season premieres this month on the Cartoon Network; it’s airing after dark, when the channel’s candy-colored animations for kids make way for the nighttime programming block Adult Swim.
On the show, Reilly, as Brule, an eager and incompetent local-TV health expert, sports a bad suit and a helmet of thinning curls. In the Australian sound studio, he’s wearing a sharp short-sleeve shirt. Wareheim, a huge man, is draped on a couch facing the computer. On the floor in front of him, Heidecker folds his body into a crouch. “We have one shot at this,” he says. “One shot,” Reilly answers. “All right, let’s make some ho-hos.”
What they’re really making here is the kind of TV Heidecker and Wareheim have refined over 20 years. It’s wobbly in a way that suggests their equipment has broken down, the tapes are disintegrating, and all the adults have fled the station. The style has made the comedians into alt-humor heroes, and, as they help other oddballs make TV, it’s turning the two into emperors of the new fan-driven, platformpolygamous comedy landscape. “Action!” Wareheim screams from the couch. “When he says action,” Heidecker says right away, “you’ve got to start.”
“Do it again!” Wareheim screams, pretending to boil with Hollywood rage.
“Here we go,” Reilly says and then pauses. When he speaks, what comes out is Dr. Brule’s voice, mushy and crooked. “Jail’s where bad boys live,” he says. “It’s where all the meanest hunks sleep.”
“It’s pretty cool,” Heidecker says, feeding him a new line.
“Jail is where all the bad boys live,” Reilly says. “It’s pretty cool,” Heidecker says again. “I heard you,” Reilly says, not understanding. “Oh! Say ‘pretty cool’?”
“Like you kind of like it,” Wareheim says. “Cool place.”
“Jail is the clubhouse where all the bad boys live,” Reilly says. “It’s where all the meanest hunks sleep and live. Pretty cool!”
The three giggle and pass lines back and forth about big-boy crimes and handsome mug shots. Heidecker leaves the room, Reilly hangs up, and Wareheim runs a rough cut of the episode, which follows Dr. Brule into jail and on a highly unprofessional police ride-along. Just like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, the series that made the two semifamous, the work is too peculiar to count as slapstick but so funny that it doesn’t qualify as conceptual art—though their augmented ugliness brings to mind the artist Ryan Trecartin’s kamikaze post-apocalyptic videos. Watching the climax of the episode, which involves a kiss for Dr. Brule from a small man named Scott Clam, Wareheim laughs so hard that the noise rising out of him sounds like a hungry baby’s wail.
For a company devoted to the antic and off-color, the headquarters of Abso Lutely Productions has a general air of cordiality and calm. (Its name comes from the answer Heidecker’s dad gave in an old home movie when asked to sum up their vacation in two words. “Abso,” he said, shirtless but wearing a neon-orange hat. “Lutely.”) At the end of an open workspace, past some pink couches and the portrait, there are three offices in a row. Wareheim’s is on the left, with a big poster of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Heidecker’s is in the middle, and on the right is the office of Dave Kneebone, who, despite his vaudeville name, is the company’s business chief and straight man.
Last year he managed a $26.6 million production budget, up 16 percent from 2014, making nine different shows. For roughly the same sum, you could pay the Big Bang Theory leads for a handful of episodes.
Tim and Eric are figuring out a new method of comedy production. Depending on which subreddit stream you’re reading, they’re either geniuses or pointlessly nihilistic and digressive. But their ability to pump out content—from their Super Bowl advertisement for Loctite superglue to 15-minute segments of Check It Out!—while enticing household comedy names to make cameos is allowing their fiefdom to grow.
Their timing is good. There may be murmurs of a TV-content bubble, but right now there’s money flowing as streaming services multiply and cable companies scramble to invent new business models. Offshoot Abso Labs, for instance, has been promised about $1 million from Super Deluxe, an arm of Time Warner, to deliver short digital videos and more. That includes a satire of celebrity magicians, Mind Jack, starring Brent Weinbach, whose power involves semen.
“It’s been a crazy, seismic megashift in how TV is done,” says Matt Selman, a Simpsons executive producer. As media empires crumble, he says, distinct voices that speak to loyal fans, even if they freak others out, will only become more valuable. “There’s no one in a better place right now for where TV is going than them.”
Kneebone says that Abso Lutely has turned a profit the past two years and that a potential buyer has shown interest. Wareheim is glad he
doesn’t worry about the business side: “I try to stay focused,” he says as the sun sets behind him over L.A. “A lot of people are like, ‘What do you want to do?’ I’m actually just doing my dream job right now.”
In the past year Abso Lutely has produced Comedy Central’s Nathan for You, hosted by an awkward Canadian who foists outlandish advice on struggling small businesses; Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show, a talk show whose episodes open with the obliteration of its set; plus IFC’s
Comedy Bang! Bang! and Netflix’s W/ Bob & David. Also in development: a show starring rapper and Bernie Sanders activist Killer Mike, a special about the beauty industry with the exceptionally dry Esther Povitsky, and a series with the hammy pair Kate Berlant and John Early.
On a bright morning the day after the
Check It Out! recording, Heidecker is emptying boxes of vinyl records onto the floor of his office. It’s his new album, In Glendale. He released another record in 2013 with joke songs about urine, but this one is sincere. “I’ve lived right here for over 10 years, don’t ever think I want to move away,” he sings on the title song, about the L.A. County neighborhood where he lives and works. “Have a couple of kids and take them to the beach to play.” It’s almost soft rock.
“My guy is Randy Newman, who can mix the silly and stupid with very sweet and sad,” Heidecker says, finding a marker to start signing copies. “This isn’t a character, really. It’s just about me and my family.” At work, Heidecker, who is 40 and married, wears the crumpled T-shirts, baggy jeans, and tired eyes of a new dad. He coos over videos of his young daughter, which is discombobulating to anyone familiar with the monstrous babies and cruel parents who populate his comedy.
“The misconception is always that, based on our work, we’re lunatics who are complete acidheads, who just go around with underwear on our heads,” he says. “We’re having fun; we’re goofing around; we’re laughing. But we’re very responsible—very responsible to the work.” Behind him hangs a framed 2002 rejection letter from Comedy Central.
Wareheim also turned 40 this year, but he’s a bachelor. When he makes it into the office, he’s wearing a white shirt, white pants, and white shoes. He’s been posting Instagram photos of late nights out with young female artists and motorcycle rides into the desert. “I live like I’m 25 a lot of the time,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a midlife crisis.” The 6-foot-7-inch comedian has a flair for stretching his face into pouts and grins, which can give the impression on screen that he’s an oversized boy. He might be most widely recognized as the hipster sidekick on Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show, Master
of None (which isn’t produced by Abso Lutely). He and Ansari went to Europe this year, shot video of themselves feasting on local delicacies, set it to Kanye West’s Famous, and put it online. The rapper approved, and it’s now on Wareheim’s YouTube page as the “unofficial official video.”
Wareheim grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he liked high school less than playing a kind of music called screamo, which is emo but with screaming. It has few followers. He and Heidecker met as freshmen film students at Temple University. “Everyone was doing these artsy black-and-white emotional nudes,” Wareheim says. He and Heidecker made videos about film class. One early short is supposed to be a promotion for a cat film festival. “For example, like a Sundance Film Festival,” Heidecker explains to the camera feebly and sighs, before the video cuts to a bedroom, where he tries and fails to give the due date for submissions. He and Wareheim lie on a bed, interviewing a house cat. There’s an illustration of a defecating kitty. And that’s it. Already the duo was undermining the formulas behind advertising and entertainment pablum.
Before graduating, they drove a van to Los Angeles and got Hollywood internships. Things didn’t go well. They lived in a Burbank building filled with child actors who’d moved out West to make it big. “It was us and these kids … ,” Wareheim says, sounding spooked. They moved back East. While Heidecker lived in New York, Wareheim shot wedding and bar mitzvah videos in Philadelphia. The bad part was bumping into people he knew from school while wearing a silky tuxedo shirt; the good part was being allowed behind the scenes with highstrung families feeling pressured to look their best while seething behind tight smiles. On days off, the two tapped that deep discomfort for the videos they made together. This was before anyone with a phone and laptop could shoot and edit, so Wareheim’s videographer equipment and software came in handy. They also borrowed the gaudy fades and shabby wipes from family videos, infomercials, and corporate promotions for their loopy gags about mayors, mimes, and murder.
They sent a few to Bob Odenkirk, now known for his role as a slimy attorney on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Back then, Heidecker and Wareheim worshipped his idiosyncratic HBO comedy, Mr. Show. Odenkirk responded to one in particular, a crude but distinct mix of animations made with photos that looked like they’d been run through early copy machines. They packed up the van and headed back to California. Together they turned that video into Tom
Goes to the Mayor for Adult Swim. It drew in guests
like Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, and Garry Shandling, but it lasted only two seasons.
What came next, the live-action Awesome Show, was on a different level. The editing was shaky, the acting was worse, the story lines were threadbare, the lighting and music were epileptic. Commercials for the products of Cinco, a fake conglomerate, including a game whose only rule was to not say Jackie Chan’s name and a fecal dam whose ad was set at a wedding, reached grotesque depths and psychedelic heights.
Even the casting was eerie, combining street performers and B-movie eccentrics with the cool kids of comedy on breaks from mainstream hits. Will Ferrell showed up to hawk the Original Child Clown Outlet (“I’m going to have to put them in cages they can’t see through”); Zach Galifianakis lectured child actors on accents; and Michael Cera starred in a TV drama as an orphan who turns into a kitty. Most memorable was Reilly’s Dr. Brule, who graced Awesome Show’s local newscast before Check It Out! spun off.
The comedians threw a picnic in a San Diego park only a few months after Awesome Show’s 2007 debut, and fans arrived in homemade costumes, spouting show trivia. After a few seasons, the sensibility infected Saturday Night Live: In 2010, connoisseurs complained online about the parallels between an SNL skit about tiny hats and a Heidecker and Wareheim bit. Last year, San Antonio Spurs center Matt Bonner got three teammates to film a shot-by-shot remake to post on YouTube of an Awesome Show music video about sports. By the end of 2010, after finishing 50 episodes and a holiday special, Heidecker and Wareheim had decided to build the team that wrote, filmed, and edited the show into a full production company that worked on other projects. “The outside world is scary to us,” Wareheim says. “You carve out your own world? You can live a wonderful existence.”
Their first hit as producers, The Eric Andre Show, premiered on Adult Swim in 2012. When André, a Berklee College of Musictrained bassist, sent them his demo comedy video, they recognized a kindred mayhem, and helped him channel it. The right pieces for a standard talk show are here—monologue, celebrity guests, sidekick, studio band, and man-on-thestreet gags—but it’s all scrambled. In the opening minute of his debut as the host, André appears to pry out one of his teeth, tackles his drummer, and stands naked with both hands in raw chickens. On one episode, he throws up while interviewing reality star Lauren Conrad, who freezes, aghast, until he slurps the oatmeal-colored goop off his desk. “I like her,” he says calmly to his sidekick, Hannibal Buress.
One floor below where Heidecker and Wareheim brushed up Check It Out!, André is working with director Kitao Sakurai on their show’s fourth season. Wearing Reebok high-tops and a shirt covered in photos of women’s nipples, André slouches with his feet up on his desk, eating a banana. “They don’t want to get sued, that’s the only time we get pushback—but rightfully so,” he says about Abso Lutely. “Thank God, we don’t have to deal with an uphill battle.”
Sakurai sits across from him, under an enormous chart that plots out episodes. “Their infrastructure and what they’ve created as a company is part of the art of television,” Sakurai says. “When you make an organization, a constellation of people that are able to do these things, that is a form of expression. That’s what they’re doing here, consciously or not, which I think is the most powerful thing about Abso.”
That same day, in a studio across the street from the office, Heidecker is in a makeup chair on-set for a new show, Decker: Unclassified. The idea for it can almost be pinned on Roger Ebert. In 2012 they released their first feature film, Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which followed the pair after they waste a mogul’s fortune on a movie-within-a-movie starring a Johnny Depp impersonator. The film was financed by a real billionaire, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. (“I wasn’t involved in the production beyond writing a check,” he wrote Bloomberg Businessweek in a one-sentence e-mail. According to Box Office Mojo, its ticket tally was $201,436.)
Ebert declared in his review: “Describing the movie is bringing down the level of my prose.” Heidecker took revenge. He started a movie-critic web series called On Cinema at the Cinema, praising all blockbusters. His critic character then launched his own action show, Decker, all Trump-style pursed lips and patriotism, whose episodes were posted online. Adult Swim picked it up for six installments that premiere this month.
In the small room overwhelmed by the thick stench of his special-agent character’s hair spray, Heidecker waits as a makeup artist puts tiny dots on his earlobes. “In the last season of On Cinema, I had my ears pierced,” he explains. “So, since my character on On Cinema is playing Decker in the season, you at least have the holes. Two people are going to pick up on that.”
Heidecker really seemed to mean it when he said he and Wareheim aren’t lunatics who go around with underwear on their heads, but he’s now in a makeshift dressing room in light-brown Walking Co. socks and his underwear.
“What we’ve been doing, the numbers aren’t that big, but they’re really consistent—and there’s an audience there that keeps coming back to the same thing,” Heidecker says. The Eric Andre Show’s third season averaged 1.2 million viewers watching live or up to seven days later, according to Nielsen. Nathan for You’s third season got about half a million. “Are we more popular than whatever sitcom is on?” He doesn’t answer his question.
Heidecker and Wareheim don’t want to be making work in the lo-fi style forever. Episodes of Adult Swim’s recent Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, their version of a horror anthology series, were shot cinematically. Even so, the plot lines involved castration and diapers. Heidecker puts on his costume and walks on-set, where the other actors have taken their places. “This is what it’s about! Comedy! Everybody, come on,” he says. “We’re here to create mirth!” He gets into his spot in front of a camera. “You see somebody not laughing? Tickle them! Tickle them!” <BW>
KNEEBONE, THE MONEY MAN; PREVIOUS SPREAD, WAREHEIM (LEFT) AND HEIDECKER