The polarizing brilliance of Tim and Eric
Updated: Aug 27, 2018
Originally published on Medium.
People who have seen Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim's work either love it or hate it. There isn't much in between. The pair's cult following ranges from Adult Swim fanboys to high-profile actors like Jeff Goldblum and Bob Odenkirk, but vocal detractors say it's just stoner humor with gross-out imagery that doesn't make sense.
The people who hate Tim and Eric don't seem content to just avoid it; they actively trash it. There are forum posts all over the web saying things like "They are talentless hacks that aren't worth the air they breathe" and that "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" "has to be the most childish stupid show in existence." It's like Tim and Eric is a members-only club that denied them entrance in a spectacularly rude and personal way, and now they want revenge.
To be fair, I'm in the other camp. I once won Tim and Eric's costume contest on their tour by crossdressing as Casey's brother. I have quotes and songs memorized. I own and have watched every season of Awesome Show dozens of times, and I refresh YouTube mentions of Tim and Eric a few times a week for anything new that they've released or that mentions them.
John C. Reilly is a fan, too. The Oscar-nominated actor collaborates with Tim and Eric on the Adult Swim show "Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule" and says that working with them is "outrageously liberating" because they have total creative freedom. In an interview on the Bullseye podcast with Jesse Thorn earlier this year, Reilly compared Tim and Eric to Monty Python:
Most of the people who were thinking in a more conventional way at the time thought it was just like a waste of time to watch Monty Python because it doesn't make any 'sense.' The less they got the joke, the angrier they were. And if you look at comments online about Tim and Eric stuff, the angriest people are the ones that don't get the joke. And there's nothing you can do to explain to them why it's funny. I think in 10 or 20 years, people will look back on Awesome Show and specifically Tim and Eric and realize that those guys were ten years ahead of everyone else. The world's going to catch up in the same way they did with Monty Python.
It's hard to picture Monty Python's humor as controversial given how loved they are today, but prevailing reactions are based on the context of the time. The BBC almost shut down The Flying Circus, saying the show was "disgusting" and "in appalling taste." Sound familiar?
Sure, Tim and Eric make me laugh, and I love how they skewer the cheesiness of norms in television, etiquette, and marketing. They're more valuable than that, though. Tim and Eric are a cultural litmus test for common ground extending beyond sense of humor. If two people get Tim and Eric, they probably get each other.
If I send one of their videos to a friend for the first time, I'm risking that person thinking I'm an idiot. I spend half the time glancing at their face to gauge whether it's a hit or a miss. It's a painful few minutes if you're not a fan (and that's usually clear right away). You might think I'm weird; I might lose a few respect points for you; we won't talk about it again. But if you're dying with laughter, it signifies that we'll have an easier time relating to each other. I don't expect everyone to think they're funny, but if someone hates it, I won't be as invested in them.
Tim and Eric's humor stems from subverting the norm, which is only funny if you understand the norm well enough first. We're constantly bombarded by hyper-produced infomercials, reality shows nothing like real life, cheeseball TV hosts, formulaic movies, and corporate propaganda. There's a calculated--and exhausting--"right" way to do everything public-facing.
Tim and Eric take the "right" way of doing things and ruin it. They'll deliver lines with unrehearsed stutters or wooden cheesiness. They'll hawk terrible CINCO-brand products (many of which involve removing one's teeth) with the same enthusiasm of a real infomercial. They'll transfer corporate training videos back and forth on VHS tapes to get a warped 1990's distortion. They'll put their chubby bodies on uncompromising, uncensored display.
When you understand how a norm is supposed to be, you can appreciate when it's skewered. I'm in communications, so I see a lot of overly rehearsed corporate statements. I think that's why I have a soft spot for whenever Tim and Eric stumble through public statements, like this one announcing their candidacy for president. It's refreshing and authentic to see someone destroy the smarmy norm I see every day.
Most of the norms we experience aren't authentic. They're forced and uncomfortable, like making small talk in the elevator or wearing a suit to work. In contrast, Tim and Eric's work stems from authenticity. Subverting norms creates something genuine. You might not like it, but it's real. As John C. Reilly noted, they have an "exacting, almost cruel sense of honesty...they'd rather have some weird person from C-level extras casting and react honestly on camera than they would have some smartass comedian come in and fashion a character." Hence James Quall, David Liebe Hart, and the parade of paunchy middle-aged mustachioed men who populate "Awesome Show's" cast.
I admit my bias, but I believe that Tim and Eric have a higher level of humor than typical comedy. Sitcoms have the lowest. Look at a show like "The Big Bang Theory." The jokes are straightforward: someone wears a stupid outfit. Someone makes a face. The laugh track booms every three seconds, literally instructing viewers when something vetted and approved as funny has happened. Viewers don't think; they react to what they're told.
Even a hardcore fan like me doesn't find everything that Tim and Eric do funny. About thirty percent of their content doesn't do it for me, but I still appreciate the authenticity. I feel like it gives viewers respect by trusting them with a risk, not placating them with a laugh track.
When viewers don't understand the satire or the norm being violated, Tim and Eric still have the aesthetics to get laughs. There's an entire subreddit, r/NotTimAndEric, dedicated to their visual style. They look funny. There are bizarre, trippy visuals and unflattering outfits. It's absurd. And they also benefit from what I'll call the Family Guy Effect, when you laugh at a reference you don't understand because it's random. Sometimes that's even better than "getting it."
Yes, I'm a Tim and Eric convert. The moment it happened was when I saw "Hamburgers and Hotdogs Too," exactly when Eric came out dancing in a hamburger costume displaying his junk in a bright yellow man-thong. I laughed like a person possessed. Today, my favorite sketch is The Universe.
Sources say that Tim and Eric have been working on several shows and a book expected later this year. You might not get whatever they create. It might piss you off. That's okay. But ten years from now, I think we'll agree that it was brilliant. Great job!