On November 9, millions of people woke up to a nightmare. But Tim Heidecker, who writes and stars in Adult Swim’s Decker–part spy spoof, part absurdist rightwing fever dream–found himself in an eerily, uncannily prescient position.
“We were literally shooting a scene where Decker is president and is sitting in the Oval Office, dictating his agenda to his secretary,” Heidecker says, explaining how he and the Decker crew were then in their second week of filming the new season (the premiere airs June 4). There’s no element of self-congratulation in his manner. “That was the first thing up that day.”
Oh my god, wait, I want to interrupt. Decker becomes president? You were shooting that scene on November 9? Dude, have you got a crystal ball in your garage?
I’d arrived to our interview at Manhattan’s Dream Downtown already armed with a grand, and maybe grandiose, theory about how Decker predicted Trump’s triumph. But for the moment, I keep quiet, because Heidecker has started recalling the mood on the set that morning.
“People were in tears, just absolutely crushed,” he remembers. “Especially the women… It was really heavy. That’s the word. And I said listen, we’re here to make fun of this prick.”
Now, of course, every comic in America is trying to nail Trump with satire. Heidecker got in much earlier, hence why I am here. Decker began as a web series in 2014, coming to TV in the summer of 2016. While the show has developed over time, the satirical aspects that seem so prescient today were evident from the beginning, from special agent Decker’s Trumpian politics–his questioning of Obama’s legitimacy, his portrayal of Democrats as ineffective in the face of terrorism–to the way he physically resembles one of Trump’s weirdo sons.
Heidecker has always demonstrated a laudable ability to capture and transmit his sense of the world’s absurdity. His best-known work, much of which comes from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! that aired on Adult Swim from 2007 to 2010, includes quasi-music videos about men with undersized feet and Totino’s Pizza Rolls. These skits are short on obvious punchlines and layered with endless visual jokes about dad jeans, terrible haircuts and 1980s public-access television. Basically, all codes Trump supporters might understand.
It certainly isn’t mainstream–Heidecker characterizes it as having a “nihilistic unconventionality.” To convert to this style of comedy now–far more heady and bizarre than, say, Family Guy–could feel like changing kiddie horses in midstream. Yet now that reality itself has taken what to many feels like such an unexpected direction, isn’t this a particularly apt moment for absurdist comedy? I put the question to Heidecker.
“Yeah, I think with Decker, at least, the timing is fortunate,” he says. “When we were making the first season for television, we thought, well, if he [Trump] flames out like we expect he will, this might get old quickly. Now it’s like every day there’s a new plot based on what’s going on. Without being super current-events specific, there are overarching themes in the world that translate very well to the show.”
It’s a natural progression, in a way. Decker is an extension of Heidecker’s character work as a rightwing ideologue in On Cinema. This is Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s other series, now in its ninth season, which purports to be a film-review show a la Siskel & Ebert but plays more like a soap opera. (The basic issue is that Turkington keeps trying to make the show about his supposed movie expertise when most viewers, myself included, would prefer to hear more about Heidecker’s health, musical projects and personal life.)
“My character in On Cinema is like a moth to the flame of any bad idea, or gross thing, whether it’s his political views or his vaping or his EDM music,” Heidecker explains. “Trump came around and it was such a natural thing for him to be in to.”
The closest parallel, at least to my mind, is Andy Kaufman’s work in professional wrestling. In the early 1980s, the comedian engaged in a long-running feud with another wrestler, Jerry “The King” Lawler, which was later revealed to be kayfabe–that is, drama that appears spontaneous yet is actually staged. Heidecker cites Kaufman as an influence and says he sees Kaufman’s wrestling days as a way of “playing outside of the lanes” of typical formats like stand-up and sitcoms. His own in-character work in On Cinema and Decker can be understood as a kind of kayfabe, too, though it’s not a term he uses.
So here’s the rub: A major reason that Tim Heidecker is creating, in Decker, the best satire of the Trump era is not just that he’s a brilliant comic but because he’s tuned into a performative legacy that Trump himself shares. Like Kaufman, Trump did a stint in professional wrestling, is a WWE Hall of Famer, and almost certainly knows what kayfabe is. His ring connections still run deep: Vince and Linda McMahon donated millions to his campaign, and shortly after assuming office, Trump made Linda McMahon head of the Small Business Administration.
I’m not the only one to point out how kayfabe has lurched from the fringes to the center of culture. Heidecker is also a fan of Adam Curtis, the BBC documentarian whose Hypernormalisation, released in October 2016, suggests the last 30 or so years of political life have been largely staged, largely a ruse. In other words, kayfabe on a grand scale. And if you buy Curtis’s version of events–Heidecker says he appreciates it, but remains skeptical–then the implications are grave.
When “a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility,” Neil Postman wrote in 1985, and the jury’s still out.
Still, in talking to Heidecker, I realized my theory was bolt-on, ex post facto. Decker is anything but didactic. It’s much goofier, much more fun than that. The new season contains references to The Bodyguard, a Britney Spears-like figure (Decker vapes in her face and I laughed so hard I pulled a muscle), as well as an extended allusion to Spike Lee’s framing of the “magical negro,” which makes for one of the best lampoonings of supposedly benevolent racism I can recall having seen.
There’s also a slew of off-beat special guests. “We really went after brothers and sons of famous people this time. So we have John Travolta’s brother and Morgan Freeman’s son. And Patrick Swayze’s brother. There’s this weird alternate universe where you can squint and you’re like, oh, these are famous people.”
And as always, Decker delights in flouting the contrivances of popular entertainment. “There’s this great thing in the new season where Joe Estevez, the president, says ‘Decker, we need you now.’ But he says it twice. And you know that as the actor he’s doing two reads of the line. We just used both and it’s good stuff… I don’t see anyone else doing it.”
The good news is you don’t have to indulge in nerdy, grand theories to find Decker hilarious. You can nerd out, or tune out. “Comedy,” Heidecker says, “always has a role in re-contextualizing the world and providing a catharsis.”
Besides, Jack Decker becoming president “doesn’t play exactly like you might think.” Which sounds about right.