Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! debuted a decade ago. What do its creators make of the fact that our president may as well be one of the show’s grotesquely comical characters?
“Someone give me a goddamn belt! My pants keep falling off!”
Tim Heidecker kicks off a pair of Kenneth Cole slacks and crosses the floor in black boxer briefs and matching socks, jiggling his belly to the AM classic “Rich Girl” blaring from the next room. Meanwhile, Eric Wareheim is shaving his face with an electric razor, fashioning a luxurious mustache. There’s no air-conditioning in this downtown Los Angeles loft, and sweat glistens across his brow. Peeling off an XL T-shirt—he stands an ursine six-and-a-half-feet tall—Wareheim exposes his richly carpeted chest. “Damn, I look good,” he says to the mirror as he adjusts a pair of aviators.
These two aren’t quite household names, but they’ve spent the past 13 years carving out an unmistakable and ever-growing niche in the pop-culture landscape. They’re currently at work on the second season of their horror-comedy anthology Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories. Heidecker also heads up the Adult Swim series Decker (think 24 on a public-access budget), as well as On Cinema, and Wareheim has reached new heights of visibility playing Aziz Ansari’s best friend on the Netflix series Master of None. But as a unit, they’re best known for Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, whose 10th anniversary they’re commemorating with a live tour and a special episode, which aired last Sunday. Spanning five seasons, Awesome Show delivered lo-fi production, gross anatomy and frenetic non sequiturs in 11-minute doses. Some of the more memorable sequences include a holiday episode in which both men unexpectedly start lactating (they proceed to hand out bottles of their “man milk” as gifts); a scene featuring a pubic-hair milkshake, which Heidecker drinks in the hopes of growing an epic “pube mound”; and a series of ads in which a mangy-bearded Wareheim hawks live child clowns.
The creative process behind retina scorchers like these was surprisingly mundane. During the show’s run, Heidecker and Wareheim would meet up in L.A. restaurants to eat BLTs and discuss forthcoming episodes. No matter how surreal (or gross) the finished product, most of their ideas came from scanning their environment.
We have to be razor-sharp. To act weird is a lot of work.
“I’ll be driving and think, Ah, Lamborghini. What can we do with that?” says Heidecker. “It’s a very layered process. We go out and make a lot of raw material that doesn’t become what it is until it’s edited and put together.” Wareheim agrees, adding that he “loves to fuck with people—not as a mean thing but to entertain ourselves.”
Heidecker insists he has always rejected the idea of “anti-comedy.” Despite material that strays far from the traditional setup-to-punch-line framework, their goal is not to alienate or unnerve audiences, the way Andy Kaufman did in his heyday by reading The Great Gatsby onstage; they simply want to make people, themselves included, laugh. Nor is their comedy meant to appeal only to stoned hipsters. In fact, many would be surprised to learn they actually create their comedy while sober. “I thought it was cheating when I was high or tripping. I don’t consider that as coming from me,” says Wareheim. “When it came to what made me laugh, it was a realness and the man on the street who wasn’t an actor doing something weird. We do what we love and love what we do, but we have to be razor-sharp. To act weird is a lot of work.”
The two concede that not everyone comprehends their absurdity, stoned or not. “I met a guy the other day who told me he got a divorce because of us,” says Heidecker, giggling. “He said, ‘My wife always hated you guys and she just couldn’t get it.’ But it’s just a comedy show!”
“Sara Smile” begins in the background, and Heidecker sighs. It’s possible he has hit his quota of Hall & Oates for the day. Now Wareheim is prancing around in his underwear, caressing his throat in slow motion. “Let’s do this!” he yells to the crew. A wardrobe team surrounds Heidecker, guiding him into a baby blue Byblos suit.
“Awesome Show is definitely deep in our hearts,” Wareheim says. “We were making the same exact thing in college. We were outsiders even back then. We didn’t like anyone in our Film 101 class.” He pauses, rethinking. “Well, it’s not that we didn’t like them,” he says, laughing. “We didn’t respect them. We knew we could eventually make something better.”
Now 41 years old, Heidecker and Wareheim met at Temple University in Philadelphia as freshmen in 1994. On their first day, they swapped inappropriate stories to make each other laugh, causing a disruption in the auditorium. “We immediately got in trouble and had to see the teacher after class,” recalls Wareheim. “We were bad and got yelled at—in college. Then we ended up in the same dorm as all the basketball players. So it was one big jock party, and then us.”
Heidecker adds, “They were like, ‘Where is all the pot smoke coming from?’ ”
The first video assignment they did together was a bit called “Find That Chicken.” “Even then there was a lot of Tim and Eric in it,” says Heidecker. “It was this stupid thing with a British phone booth, and I was wearing a full chicken suit. It was the dumbest thing ever, but we knew we would be making so many more projects.” Eventually they decided to launch a website, TimandEric.com, expanding their catalog of strange and transgressive humor.
After college, Wareheim began shooting videos for weddings and Jewish events in Pennsylvania, and Heidecker took an office job in Manhattan. In 2002, they packaged a selection of shorts and sent it to Robert Smigel, Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and other comics they admired. The first to respond was Bob Odenkirk, co-creator of HBO’s seminal sketch series Mr. Show. (Nowadays, Odenkirk is best known as the title character on Better Call Saul.) To Odenkirk’s surprise, the two upstarts had included glossy head shots, a letter on proper stationery, DVDs—and an invoice.
“At first I thought I should throw it in the garbage, which I would usually do,” says Odenkirk. “But then I was like, What the hell? I opened it, and alongside was this itemized bill for the postage, tapes, dubbing and editing. It was ridiculous and wonderfully executed, so I thought these guys were probably funny. I watched it, and I remember thinking it was inventive and very different, some semi-animated and music-video stuff, but it all came from this comical mix. If you like their voice, it was unique and rare.”
But as Odenkirk, their eventual executive producer, admits, not everyone understood the humor—and maybe the humor didn’t quite understand itself yet. They learned this the hard way when they launched their first show together on Adult Swim, Tom Goes to the Mayor. “It didn’t work very well. I certainly knew it was funny, but I also knew what would become Awesome Show would work better,” Odenkirk says. “They did whatever the hell they wanted to do. There were no rules to Awesome Show.”
Odenkirk offered creative input, but Heidecker and Wareheim often delivered their own skewed version of what he’d pitched. “It was their own voice,” Odenkirk says. “They are self-starters in every way. They didn’t need me. I’m just the biggest fan, that’s all.”
He continues, “Their influence was clearly massive, though. They even influenced Saturday Night Live to the point where they have two or three pieces that look like—well, you can almost call them rip-offs. That’s a pretty big deal.”
Indeed, SNL aired a 2010 sketch with Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler titled “Ladies Who Lunch,” in which a gaggle of socialites try to one-up each other with smaller and smaller hats. It bears distinct similarities to “Tiny Hats” (a commercial parody about an auto-parts store that sells very small hats), which had aired on Awesome Show years earlier. In March 2016, the good folks at Cheez-It Baked Snack Crackers uploaded a Facebook video that resembles a sequence from season four of Awesome Show. (In both cases a man has his “mind blown” with the help of some lo-fi visual effects.) Fans cried foul, and Kellogg’s pulled the ad—but not before it had garnered nearly 4 million views. Heidecker weighed in via Splitsider, saying, in part, “Pretty straightforward rip, and I hope Turner’s legal department digs into this and helps protect our ‘intellectual’ property!”
The two have infiltrated mainstream entertainment more directly through their commercial and video work. A campaign with Old Spice starring Terry Crews and another with Loctite adhesive (who could forget that notorious Super Bowl XLIX ad?), along with music videos for acts including Depeche Mode, Maroon 5 and Major Lazer—all constitute a stealth infiltration, a steady creep of DIY weirdness onto prime-time TV.
“It’s extremely difficult to do what they do and make it work,” notes Odenkirk. “At first it just seems like absurdity and a kind of studied editorial clumsiness or visual crudeness being played with. But the truth is, what makes their presentation work is an instinctual awareness of how to play the moment. You can’t copy it. Only they can do it.”
A week before their playboy shoot, Heidecker and Wareheim are sipping cran-raspberry LaCroix at the Glendale office of Abso Lutely Productions. They founded the company in 2006, toward the end of Tom Goes to the Mayor’s run, because they’d had a bad experience with the company they’d been working with and wanted complete creative control. They even own a sound studio across the street from the headquarters, where they film many of their sketches.
Trump’s a dictator. But it’s the funniest thing every time he talks.
On a coffee table is a copy of PAPER magazine’s winter 2014 issue with Kim Kardashian ass-naked on the cover. (Heidecker and Wareheim, flaunting Tammy Faye–level drag, appear in a beauty feature in that issue.) Beneath that is a copy of their quasi-Scientologist self-help book, Tim & Eric’s Zone Theory: 7 Easy Steps to Achieve a Perfect Life. They can’t decide if they wrote the book together or not. They tell me it’s unreadable.
Inevitably the conversation turns to our president. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by him,” says Heidecker, laughing. He was part of the “30 Days, 50 Songs” campaign (previously known as “30 Days, 30 Songs” and since updated to “1,000 Days, 1,000 Songs”), contributing “Trump’s Pilot,” which envisions Trump dying in an intentional plane crash. (Father John Misty later covered the song.) In addition to his 2016 solo album, In Glendale, Heidecker has written a handful of satirical songs about 45, with lyrics such as “And on Saturday night when Melania’s a-fast asleep, I tiptoe to the only room where I really wanna be, and I crawl into that beautiful king-size bed and I snuggle between my true loves, Ivanka and Jared” and “Take me down to the bowels of Trump Tower.… I’ll be hell-bent to call that motherfucker president.”
It’s no surprise that Trump has inspired the two comedians. “He’s a Tim and Eric character, and he has been for years,” Heidecker says. And he’s right. The baffling hair, uneven skin tones, lowbrow speech patterns, ill-fitting attire and befuddled arrogance—all these are qualities Heidecker and Wareheim visit time and again in their work. It says something about the relevance of Awesome Show that the president of the United States makes it look a lot less hyperbolic than it would otherwise.
“I mean, it’s horrible,” Heidecker says about Trump. “He’s a disaster for our country, our future, our children, everything and everybody. But it’s the funniest thing every time he talks.”
The political climate comes up again when the two are asked to name one thing they can’t live without.
“Sean Spicer,” Wareheim shouts.
“My preteen sex dungeon,” Heidecker says. “Now you have to say, ‘Just kidding.’ I heard myself saying, ‘Don’t say anything about my preteen sex dungeon.’ There’s a conspiracy theory that globalists are running sex dungeons. It’s called Pizzagate. Look it up.”
They look at each other and laugh. You can tell they have a rare bond. When Wareheim was younger, he was awkward. He was over six feet tall by the age of 11, always felt self-conscious and never had a girlfriend. After meeting Heidecker, he came to realize he shouldn’t care what other people think. These days, he understands the insecurity and awkwardness and tries to use them to fuel his creativity. But no matter how mature or successful Wareheim and Heidecker become, the insecurity and awkwardness offer themselves up in spades. Heidecker admits he has a fear of death. “I was stabbed in my back by someone I know, and I didn’t immediately feel it,” he says. “I fear the moment of death, something we’re all going to experience at some point.” Wareheim has a fear of illness, and sometimes his dark thoughts take over. He believes he may have cancer. He doesn’t actually have it, but he fears it. He thinks he’ll eventually get something debilitating and lose his mind. “That shit is crazy,” he concludes.
That jittery muse has led to some extreme methods of achieving their vision. Sometimes while taping Awesome Show the two had trouble telling the actors and amateur talent what they wanted them to do, so they would bark orders into a microphone from another room. This was partially because what they were asking was ridiculous and partially because they wanted the performers to have no idea what was going on so they could capture an honest moment. It wasn’t a prank, though some clearly felt it was.
In one instance, Steve Schirripa, a.k.a. Bobby Bacala from The Sopranos, was doing a commercial spoof called “MyEggs,” about a pill that allows users to produce eggs out of their behinds. Schirripa had to sit on a toilet and pretend he was…using it. He had no idea going in that he would have to pull down his pants in front of an entire crew. On top of that, he had to say “Capisce?” “He just looks at me with this ‘Fuck no’ look on his face,” says Heidecker. “I felt bad. You can sense in the spot that there’s depression and disappointment there.” Wareheim adds, “But a lead on The Sopranos was sitting on a toilet, fake shitting. That’s insane!”
Asked if they might ever revive the “intellectual” property that is Awesome Show, the two are vague. They suspect it would eventually become a parody of itself. “There are probably lots of notes I would give it now, but what’s the point?” says Heidecker. “I’m not a very nostalgic person. I understand people who hate us. I get it. If you’re not on the same page, you can quickly become disgusted with us. If you’re not a fan, that’s never going to get better. We just become more and more annoying.”
“Yeah, you’re always going to hate us,” Wareheim says. “But, hey, I love us.”