After spreading their twisted, lo-fi humor to cartoons, music videos, commercials, talk shows and 50 episodes of their Adult Swim series, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, it was only a matter of time before Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim tackled a feature-length movie. The end result is Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, a divisive gem that is every bit as disturbing, bizarre, nonsensical and hilarious as can be expected from the guys behind the latest Old Spice commercials and a concept album based on Herman Cain’s presidential bid.
But fans of the surreal, line-crossing skits like Child Clown Outlet, Brule’s Rules and The Puberty Song won’t be surprised to find the anti-comedy duo have their detractors, especially with their abrasive style now reaching beyond the cult confines of Adult Swim and into movie theaters. Noted critic Roger Ebert began his Chicago Sun-Times review thusly: “As faithful readers will know, I have a few cult followers who enjoy my reviews of bad movies. These have been collected in the books I Hated, Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie; Your Movie Sucks and A Horrible Experience of Unendurable Length. This movie is so bad, it couldn’t even inspire a review worthy of one of those books. I have my standards.”
But polarized reactions are nothing new to Tim and Eric, whose first Adult Swim show Tom Goes to the Mayor was banished to the 12:30 a.m. slot, where fans tended either to love it or to beg the network to kill it. The show began as an animated web series until Bob Odenkirk became a fan and started producing it for Adult Swim. After a 30-episode run from 2004-2006, Heidecker and Wareheim launched the live-action Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which ran until 2010. The bizarre editing of both shows gave them a unique tone that differentiated them from the rest of the Adult Swim lineup.
“Tim and I edited our first shorts together,” recalls Wareheim. “And we added a bunch of sound effects there, and it just made everything a little larger than life. And some of the editing stuff came from us not really knowing how to edit at first. Other things came from our editors who are all art students, rather than Hollywood directors. They contributed their aesthetics to it, and it just grew into our vibe.”
The pair’s impact on comedy, though, is undeniable—from the celebration of local ads on IFC’s Commercial Kings to the hyper-cutting style found throughout YouTube parodies to Saturday Night Live‘s Tiny Hats, which looked very similar to a (funnier) Awesome Show sketch.
“We see it here and there,” Wareheim acknowledges, “and our fans are really quick to point it out when that happens. But we feel pretty flattered when we see that. Most people know where it comes from.”
“You have to imagine that most of these places have writers rooms,” adds Heidecker, “and writers rooms are made up of young comedy writers, who have been watching us for five or six years now. So of course we’re going to be influencing people now that are actually responsible for content that you’re seeing. As long as it’s just not ripping us off, where it’s just clearly an idea that we did, we understand that that’s going to happen.”
Since the TV show ended in 2010, there’s been a Crimbus Special, several videos for web, but a movie idea had been percolating for a while.
“We had made some short films for Funny or Die for HBO,” says Heidecker. “It was just something that felt natural to do. Our agent said, ‘If you have a nice idea for a movie, let us know.’ So we just avoided it for a little while and eventually started thinking more seriously about it. [It was] stressful and exhausting—we were exhausted, but in good spirits. We were excited to be in the position we were in.”
The awkward entertainers enlisted a cache of long-time collaborators including Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and Zach Galifianakis in an epic about two filmmakers gentrifying a mall inhabited by a pizza-loving wolf, a used toilet paper salesman and a healing cult with a very unconventional baptism. Most have brand new roles in the film instead of the ones they played on the show.
“We didn’t want to rely on the Awesome Show,” says Wareheim. “We wanted to keep the Tim and Eric aesthetic, but try new characters. Tim and Eric fans aren’t complaining that they’re not seeing their favorite characters, because they still think the actors are good and trying something new.”
“We’re interested in trying new ideas, not relying on old references,” Heidecker agrees. “There are plenty of shit shows that cater to that. We want to keep exploring new ideas.”
The cast ranges from A-list celebrities to normal guys like James Quall, who was recruited because he was neighbors with Awesome Show regular David Liebe Hart. But the qualifications are the same as far as the duo are concerned.
“For the famous people we’ve had on our show, it’s generally people who are naturally very funny and don’t have a lot of ego and aren’t concerned with the Hollywood trappings,” Heidecker says. “It’s a fun time to work with them. And for the regular folk out there, it’s generally the same thing. We’re looking for interesting faces, people who are naturally funny, have a natural kind of vulnerability or something unique or special, and also people that we like being around.”
They’d love to eventually follow it up with a Trillion Dollar Movie, but they remain quite busy in the meantime, starring in a second film, The Comedy alongside James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and Gregg Turkington (anti-comedy pioneer Neil Hamburger).
“The Comedy is a very dark, sort of meditation on a character who’s suffering a premature mid-life crisis,” Heidecker says about the Rick Alverson-directed film that debuted at this year’s Sundance. “It’s also a comment on the aging hipster population. [The protagonist] is a really, really irresponsible, horrible guy, and his life is devoid of meaning. It’s pretty grim but it’s also pretty funny, considering that it’s a drama. It’s beautifully shot and very well-crafted.”
Aging, cynical hipsters aren’t a stretch for Heidecker. “They’re probably most of the people I know,” he says. “A lot of it was picking people I know and taking it way further than would be appropriate, exaggerating.”
Though The Comedy is a drama, that idea of “taking it way further than would be appropriate” is at the heart of their humor. What’s funny to them, Heidecker once told The New York Times is darkness, discomfort, confusion and things that shouldn’t exist.”
Viewers are bound to find all those elements in just about everything Tim and Eric do. And some of them will also find them hilarious.