Adult Swim Stars Tim and Eric Fight “Relatable Safe Comedy” with Absurdity and Silliness

After 25 years, Tim and Eric are still following the beat of their own drummer.
After 25 years, Tim and Eric are still following the beat of their own drummer. Photo by Caroline Bader

It’s hard to be a true original, especially in comedy.

As has been said by many of the greats, the art form hasn’t changed a ton over the centuries: you can either tell jokes to get the laugh, or be the joke itself. It’s much, much harder to play with the mere idea of humor and question why we laugh at all — and still get the laugh.

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are no strangers to get laughs on the more circuitous route. Their many Adult Swim shows (including Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories) amassed fans flipping through cable at odd hours with plenty of cinematically complex sketch comedy full of extended silences and actors that don’t quite seems like actors.

How could the bizarre nature of such a surrealistic series ever exist on stage? Heidecker says that it was an easier transition than one would assume.

“Almost right away, we realized we could do a live show that promotes our TV shows and complemented and helped spread the word,” Heidecker says ahead of the duo’s one night only show at the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater on Saturday, February 1.

In the old days, we didn’t know what we were doing: we’d go out and do characters from the show, danced around and made fools of ourselves. Over the years, we’ve realized we have this audience and this stage, we have all the components to just put on a really absurd, really silly, very stupid theatrical performance. So we end up writing a two-hour experience, sketches and songs, and all very interactive. It’s meant to be for anyone interested in seeing something a little weird. It really works for our fans who are excited to see us, but it's not the kind of thing where you need to know a bunch of in-jokes or anything.”

Categorizing the silliness is hard, for the 43-year-old funny man. “It’s just kind of a two hour insane stupid experience. It's not stand up, it’s not traditional sketch. But we just came from doing time with this particular show in Australia. It’s a weird thing where we started, the first show was in Sydney – and we had not done the show for anybody else. We hadn’t tested it or worked it with our friends, we just went out there and did what we had been doing in our rehearsal space. And it all kind of worked! It was like, yeah, this is what we’ll be doing for the next couple of months.”

It’s fascinating to unpack who inspired those few who really break the mold – but it turns out, Heidecker and Wareheim were breathing the same air and watching the same TV as the rest of us. For influence, Heidecker says: “I go back to SCTV, Monty Python, The Kids in the Hall. I loved all that stuff. Andy Kaufman, Albert Brooks, they are who I grew up on. And still love to this day. Mr Show. I think that was the real thing. Comedy in the '90s was weird, I hate to say — it wasn’t cool. It was a little sterile; it was very focused on stand-up comedy and felt very far away from us. But when we saw Mr. Show [with Bob and David], we recognized those guys, we identified with them and there was a youthfulness to that or even a dangerous quality to it. We felt that those guys were not that different from us. Maybe we could do that. It was very inspirational for us.”

After kicking off the Tim and Eric 2020 Mandatory Attendance World Tour in January at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney, the insane stew of sketches and audience interaction promises much more than mere laughs – perhaps it could change your LIFE. After all, most people first encountered the stylings of the alt-comedy duo independently of most typical channels.

“You usually experience our humor isolated by yourself, with your friend, with headphones on,” the performer acknowledges. “It is totally different to hear it with essentially a laugh track. Your friends might not like it, or your parents might not like it. But when you get into a room a few thousand people who share that sense of humor, it’s a great community. Our stuff is very weird, it could offensive or disrespectful – but the audiences are always so nice. They’re a little artsier, open minded people and I think it's neat that these people can get together and just say hello to each other. Maybe meet people!

"I always say, if you don’t have someone to go with, just go because you’ll probably make a friend. Or meet a girl or a guy, we’ve had people meet their wife through it. It is a weird like family friendly sort of; don’t have young kids come to the show. One show in Australia, there was a father and daughter there and that was just awesome, that they had that connection through our work.”

The show itself, Heidecker offers, will likely subvert expectations as well.  “It kind of turns upside-down the idea or the expectations of what people may want from us. It plays on the meta-level of what comedy is supposed to be, and the state of comedy writing now or shooting for a “mass audience” or being, we joke on this word, “relatable” and approachable and safe comedy. It sort of looks at Tim and Eric as guys in their 40s who are still doing this juvenile stuff.

"And then there’s a lot of immersive, audience participation – we don’t want to just make your laugh, we want you to feel a little vulnerable, a little scared, a little emotional. We don’t want you to just sit back,” he says, adding: “It’s not quite a Gallagher show with a splash zone, but it’s certainly in that spirit at times.”

click to enlarge Adult Swim has just announced a sitcom starring the duo: Beef House. - PHOTO BY RICKETT AND SONES
Adult Swim has just announced a sitcom starring the duo: Beef House.
Photo by Rickett and Sones

Turns out, this certain vein of comedy meta-commentary will not remain exclusive to the stage – as Adult Swim has just announced a forthcoming collaboration with the boys entitled Beef House, that comes packaged in a slightly different medium.

“I can finally talk about it! It’s all ready to go, we shot it in the fall. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time: a sitcom. It’s obviously a goof on a sitcom, a parody of a sitcom, but it’s also a sitcom. It works both ways. It's structured like a sitcom – and it has enough a little story in it where you’re kind of invested in how they’re gonna get out of this mess. It makes fun of sitcom, but we also love Seinfeld and good sitcoms.

"I haven’t seen a funny sitcom in a long time.  I don’t know if they know how to make that. But in a way it refreshes what a sitcom can be – and there are actual jokes in it. And we’ve actually played it for people and this was the first time have laughed with a laugh track! There’s a laugh track, but I’m also laughing too. We’re psyched. The way we shot it wouldn’t have worked with a real audience, but you’d never know. We actually got the guy who does the laugh track for Fuller House, and all these real sitcoms. It's neat, there’s a guy with a box who dials it in. It’s an art!”

For a partnership that started in earnest at Philadelphia’s Temple University, their creative union is about to hit a major milestone: a quarter of a century. “I get lost on the dates,” Heidecker admits. “It’s ’95 so – yeah, it’s 25 years! In the fall it will be 25 years. That’s the Jubilee, no? The semi-Jubilee.

"We were on the same dorm floor freshman year of college. And we were both in the same film classes, we both went to film school. We started basically goofing around in class, enjoyed each other’s company – we were roommates for a little while. For a long time there, [we] just made stuff for fun. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We pictured ourselves as serious filmmakers in college. Then we realized that the stuff we were doing that was sort of fun and after hours was the stuff that was really working and we enjoyed doing. Then we sort of took our shot in the comedy world.”

Longer than many marriages, Tim and Eric continue to keep it fresh for audiences and seem to keep finding new weird things to do. What’s the secret to the enduring partnership? “I think we’re different enough that we complement each other. I think we definitely generally find the same stuff funny. That’s sort of our common ground: our sense of humor. We both have different strengths and different weaknesses, and they’re complimentary to each other. We get along and have made a career.”

A performance of the Tim and Eric 2020 Mandatory Attendance World Tour is scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday, February 1 at the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater, 500 Texas. For information, call 832-487-7041 or visit $45.
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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee