For my interview with comedian, actor and musician Tim Heidecker, my plan was for the two of us to get fake tattoos, go grocery shopping and buy tacos for tourists. But when I greet him backstage at Harlow’s Nightclub, I find that he isn’t up for it. “To be honest, I don’t feel like performing right now,” he says.
Until that moment, my itinerary had seemed like a good idea. The show that Heidecker is best known for, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is an anti-comedy public access-style show in which he and partner Eric Wareheim, dressed in nude outfits with basketball-sized balls, roll around in brown sludge singing about diarrhea in order to teach a high school class about the digestive system. For example.
Sacramento is the final stop on a short West Coast tour Heidecker is doing with his 10-piece band. Actually, there are only nine members onstage; “the tenth is the audience,” he’ll announce during the show. Before meeting Heidecker, I spoke with his tour manager while the band soundchecked. A nervous, rail-thin man, and also the opening act—one-man-comedy outfit JP Inc.—he warned me that Heidecker was “a little irritable today.”
It’s understandable, of course. When he takes the stage, he’ll play an almost two-hour set. Besides, while he might have the reputation for doing anything to incite uncomfortable laughter, he is on the road promoting what he claims is a truly sincere, personal album, In Glendale.
“There’s humor in the music, but it’s not a character. It’s about me and my life. It’s not a joke,” Heidecker explains, noodling on an acoustic guitar. His characters can get ridiculous, like Decker, the ultra-right wing vigilante secret agent, or the stuttering, obsessively note-checking stand-up comedian character that plays actual comedy clubs. “I generally don’t have much to sing about, so that’s why I do comedy. I get that there’s confusion about anything I put out. I’m not known for being sincere.”
Backstage at Harlow’s is a tight space. There’s a couch, a couple of chairs and a table filled with unopened bags of chips and cans of Tecate. Heidecker slouches in the chair closest to the door, more focused on his guitar and beer than me. Three of his bandmates come in at Heidecker’s insistence and sit down on the couch, half-heartedly scanning their phones: Taylor Plenn (sax), Jordan Katz (trumpet) and Jonathan Rado (keys). The latter also runs In Glendale’s label Rado Records and plays in Foxygen. The rest of the band, Heidecker says, are “not allowed in this room. They got the van if they need to sit.”
Heidecker has already released several albums, but the others, self-released on his website, take the form of outright rock ‘n’ roll parody (e.g. Life on the Road) or just plain absurdity, like the piss-drinking obsessed Yellow River Boys project. (The blues-rock jam “Hot Piss” is a favorite: “Hot piss on the tip of my lips / Dribbling down my chin.”) For the first time, he’s got a modest promotion machine behind one of his albums, and the reviews have been generally positive.
I’m honestly surprised to hear the album isn’t just the work of another one of Heidecker’s bizarre characters. The topics on In Glendale revolve around his suburban life, homeownership, cleaning up dog shit and having babies. The music is clearly inspired by early '70s L.A. soft rock. There has to be a punch line in there somewhere, I assumed after 10 consecutive listens.
“There’s really isn’t another level,” he says, adding that I’m only suspicious of the album because of my familiarity with his other work. His trumpet player Katz, one of the only members of his band in his '40s (most are two decades younger), jumps in and tells me he’s never seen Tim and Eric or any of Heidecker’s comedy work and never once questioned the project’s intentions. “They’re just good songs,” he says.
Like with most musicians, the conversation continuously veers towards the topic of music and albums everyone loves. We get in a lengthy conversation about “road albums.” In response, Heidecker starts strumming Jackson Browne’s “Running On Empty” and we all sing along. Back to the album, he explains the '70s L.A. rock 'n’ roll influences.
“It’s just working within the group of instruments that I like to hear: some horns, some backing vocals, some rock 'n’ roll,” he says.
He pauses, as though he’s about to make a sarcastic remark. “There’s this place I wasn’t going to go in my career for a while, which was my personal life. I lived with that for 10 years. It’s like I’ve created a false no-go zone, which is now exciting to go to. I love fucking with people. I love making comedy and making ambiguous situations. But this one record that I’m doing is just another side of my brain, because I love music.”
His reputation for creating “ambiguous situations” extends beyond the surreal toilet humor offered on Tim and Eric. The duo delight themselves in feeding journalists false information and just treating the entire interviewing process as a performance piece. Now that Heidecker’s willing to reveal his true self, or so he says, there isn’t really anything dramatic to tell—just an ordinary life on the sleepy East Side of L.A. He’s got a baby and another on the way. “I feel like I’ve accomplished something major,” he half-jokes. “It keeps you focused. It’s better than weed.“
This leads us to the topic of the Grateful Dead. Heidecker and his band have been listening to nothing but on this tour, mostly out of morbid fascination. “It’s astonishing how bad they are,” he says. “We’re like, ‘We should just write these songs.’” He and Rado have already worked out a handful of fake Dead songs, which may be the next thing Heidecker releases.
Rado grabs an acoustic guitar and the two of them strum a couple of their “Grateful Dead” songs for me. They have titles like “Shit Stain City,” and they are hilariously spot-on. “Apple Orchard” is the most developed. Imagine one of the Dead’s upbeat whimsical folksy tunes. Heidecker sings with his face contorted like Joe Cocker. He and Rado can barely get through the songs without cracking up.
When the seeds are planted, the trees will grow
How tall they’ll grow, anybody knows
Then my woman and I, along with everyone
Will take a trip on down to the apple orchard
Everything’s gonna be alright.
“If you’d ask me 20 years ago what I wanted to do, it would be like this,” Heidecker says, letting that statement linger for a moment. Heidecker and Wareheim have taken their show on the road, but that’s always been a much bigger production. Heidecker likes the simplicity of the rock tour, hanging around with other musicians and talking about music. Heidecker had a band while he was in college that didn’t really go anywhere. With a little prodding, he plays us one of their songs. It sounds strikingly like something John Lennon might have written in the '70s.
“That’s nice, right? It could have been a hit,” he says.
I thought I was getting an exclusive first look at Heidecker’s fake Grateful Dead songs, but later in the evening during his set, he plays a couple of them for the crowd. The club is half full, but these there are hardcore Tim and Eric fans, and they love everything he does. Despite all the “personal record” talk, his act is a comedy show, mostly. He sprinkles in some tunes from In Glendale but mostly sticks to his more absurd material like the piss-drinking Yellow River Boys tunes. Even during the new songs, he and his band wear smirks.
“We’re doing all requests. Just kidding, we’re not interested in what you want,” he says to the crowd’s delight. Later, they bust into the Who’s “It’s a Boy,” Heidecker aping Roger Daltrey’s falsetto. They abruptly end the song and he re-emphasizes the earlier joke. “We’re playing songs for us tonight.”
Heidecker stays in character the whole set as the egotistical, hyper-sensitive rock star. He repeatedly yells at anyone in the crowd that’s talking. “You wouldn’t talk during Jurassic Park! You wouldn’t talk during Godfather II!” During one of the final songs he announces that his wife allows him to “go outside of their marriage on tour.” The band goes into a smooth ‘70s soul song and he brings a young woman from the audience on stage. He sings a love song to her and twirls her around, and then takes her backstage. Moments later, he re-emerges for an encore.
At that point, nearly 1:00 a.m., most of the crowd is still around and form a long line at the merch booth. In the spirit of the evening, I too stand in line and get him to sign my chest, and he’s happy to oblige.
I already had another photo with Heidecker from hours earlier when we finished the interview. Unprovoked, he had scrambled around backstage for the photographer, holding a bunch of bananas over his groin and sticking it in Rado’s face. Whether he felt some obligation to make sure there was some humor in this piece or that’s just his natural reaction to any serious conversation was unclear. Most likely it’s a little of both.