Talking to Tim Heidecker About 15 Years of Tim and Eric

In the 15 years since their uncanny cartoon Tom Goes to the Mayor debuted in the wee hours of a later-than-late-night Adult Swim programming block, comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have amassed a mammoth body of work, from the beloved Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to the theatrically released Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie to one very stressful Totino’s Pizza Rolls commercial. Their CVs quadruple in length when you factor in solo credits: Eric’s music videos for artists like Charli XCX and Beach House, Tim’s albums as a singer-songwriter and his long-running labyrinth of a movie-review show On Cinema, not to mention both of their appearances as actors in other people’s work. 

What unites the widely varied universe of Tim and Eric is that the duo’s output is always as much about the medium they’re playing with as it is about the punch line. Whether it’s public-access programs or the classic multi-camera sitcom format used on their recently announced show Beef House, Tim and Eric are always subverting what’s unique and specific to a certain genre or style. That applies to the pair’s live shows as well — their ongoing Mandatory Attendance Tour is a theatrical production, full-stop — more of a demented dinner theater than your average night of live comedy. We talked to Heidecker by phone ahead of the tour’s Nashville stop.

So for a Tim and Eric fan like myself, who is familiar with your work but hasn’t been to a live show yet, what exactly could somebody like me expect from the Mandatory Attendance Tour?

First thing, shame on you for being a fan and not having seen the live show. It’s great! [Laughs] But if you’re a fan, you’re basically coming to get two new hours of our kind of humor and our kind of comedy. You’ll certainly recognize some characters or some references, but we’ve basically spent all last year slowly building this new show that’s full of really stupid and gross stuff. It’s really immersive and interactive with the audience. It’s very musical.

What does your writing process look like for a live show versus something for television?

Every time we do it, I think, “Oh, this would be interesting to document.” It starts with a very broad discussion between Eric and I about what kind of show we want to put on. You almost start with things you don’t think are funny at first — you think of them as blobs of time. Details will develop along the way, and you just start to dig. If you saw the Google Doc we had about two months ago, it’s this indecipherable mess of ideas and throwing stuff at the wall. Then we start rehearsing, and it’s very embarrassing and clunky at first. Eric and I are very unprofessional dancers. Not that the whole show is dancing, but there’s moments where you’re like “What are we doing?” [Laughs]

This is all without an audience, so the next stage will be suddenly we’re doing this thing — that we’ve been doing just for ourselves — in front of a couple thousand people in Sydney, Australia.  A lot of things have to go right during those two hours, but we’ve got a great crew and we’re prepared as best as we can. I think something like 20 percent of the show will be a little dangerously unpredictable for us. It’s exciting if the audience can feel it, that energy where Eric and I might go off script or start making each other laugh or miss a cue and go off the rails. You don’t want to watch a total train wreck, but I always like the feeling — “This is really happening right now, and I’m watching them react.”

Your work with Eric is very medium-specific. The comedy is not coming just from your performances — it’s in the visual style and the editing. How do you translate that to a live experience?

David Byrne says, “Music is often written for the room that’s it played in.” A band like U2 started writing music that’s better for stadiums as they started playing stadiums, so we’re doing the kind of comedy and humor that we think will work in a room full of people. A lot of times we’re playing in really nice theaters, so there’s this sort of subversion, almost like an upside-down Broadway play. As we play with the medium of television or the medium of commercials in the video work, we’re playing with the medium of live performance. 

Are there any performances you’ve seen that have influenced how you and Eric conceive your live shows, or maybe how you don’t conceive your live shows?

It’s funny, Eric got back from seeing David Copperfield in Las Vegas recently. He was beaming, he was like, “I gotta tell you about this David Copperfield show, there’s so many things from that that we’ve gotta try to do.” Not magic obviously [laughs], but the way things are presented, the showmanship of it. One of the original ideas we had for this tour, was like, “Let’s put on a play” — like a bad theatrical one-man-show kind of play. We’ve seen a lifetime of that stuff, bad performances of Jesus Christ Superstar at dinner theaters. 

To sound a bit arrogant, I was saying to Eric — not that it’s a good thing or a bad thing — but nobody is doing what we’re doing specifically. That’s what makes this unique, by definition. The stuff we’re doing in the live show is very stupid and gross and juvenile, but there isn’t a bunch of that going on right now. Comedy is a little different right now. It’s maybe not as funny as it used to be. [Laughs] There’s a great quote from Steve Martin, about realizing the kind of comedy he wanted to do was capturing that experience when you’re with your friends and you’re laughing and you forget why you’re laughing and you can’t breathe, and you’re in this delusionary state. So we’re trying to make those moments happen in the show for people. They happen for us as we’re putting the show together.

So much of the Tim and Eric sensibility is about extending the gag until the most uncomfortable point and then not shying away from it, but lingering in that discomfort. Do you find it harder to stay in those uncomfortable spaces when the audience is right there as opposed to behind a screen?

Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think we’re ever intentionally confrontational in a way that we want to alienate. I hate the term “anti-comedy.” A core goal is to make you laugh, but our understanding of that or way of doing that is different than a lot of other people. Some things, it’s all timing. You do it five times, it’s not funny, you do it eight times, it starts to get funny, you do it 15 times, you’re an asshole. One thing I love is that it’s different for every person in the audience. 

I was reading a review of a show from the last tour that you guys did, and the reviewer mentioned there were some moments you made the audience swear to secrecy about. Do you feel like there’s an extra resonance now to live performance, in that it can cause that immediacy or intimacy that doesn’t happen when you release something online?

For sure. One of the main motivators of going out is to get that real-time reaction that you don’t get while editing something in an editing room and then putting it out two months later. Getting somebody tweeting you saying they loved it isn’t the same as getting a big laugh from a thousand people. It’s actually a very dangerously addicting thing, people applauding you. [Laughs] Now that we’ve been doing this for 15 years or something, you’re getting people who are like, “I started watching you when I was 9 years old.” These kids literally grew up with us. It makes us feel a little old, but their understanding and appreciation of what we’re doing is a little deeper than when we were just coming up, and people were confused or off-put. Now people are ready for it, and they’re excited to be challenged or to be confused. “I started watching you in sixth grade.” Aw man, I was well into my 20s at that point.

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