In the decade since Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! first hit an unsuspecting public with its blend of quick-paced, scatology-laced cable-access parodies and non sequiturs, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have managed to create a comedic community distinctly in its own universe. The duo’s production company, Abso Lutely, produces many shows inspired by their aesthetic, including The Eric Andre Show, Nathan for You, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, an Awesome Show spinoff starring John C. Reilly’s charmingly infantile, deranged doctor. Meanwhile, the Tim and Eric style has permeated everything from commercials for pizza rolls to Saturday Night Live, proving their status as tastemakers of the absurdly funny and uncomfortably surreal.
Following their Awesome Show tenth anniversary tour and all-new Awesome Show special, Vulture called up Heidecker and Wareheim to discuss what’s changed for them in the last decade, what it’s like to watch a generation of fans reach adulthood, and their plans for the second season of Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, which premieres on Adult Swim this Sunday.
How’s the comedown from the anniversary tour?
Tim Heidecker: Well, I’m here in London, doing shows every night for two weeks. On top of that, I’m with my family, so we’re basically doing eight hours of tourism with kids, and then I go onstage to do stand-up. I lie down on the floor and sleep for ten minutes when I can.
Eric Wareheim: When you come back from tour, you kind of go through withdrawal. You expect that adrenaline rush every night, and it’s kind of a bummer. You’re also just tired, so you sit at home. But we’re still those geeky film nerds from high school, so when we get to talk to people like you about what we do, we get excited.
You both have a great relationship with your fans. Any particularly resonant moments that stand out?
EW: We sold out three tours in New York, three tours in Chicago, but our homecoming in L.A, it was emotional. I got onstage at our last show in L.A., all our friends were there, all of our fans were there. A lot of these fans had been with us for ten years, and we talked to them after the show. A lot of them grew up with Awesome Show, and now they’re older, in their 30s and still have such a fever for our new stuff. It’s just an amazing thing.
TH: The thing that struck me is so many people that said, “Hey, I’ve been watching you since I was 12, and I’m 25 now.” It was a weird shift, because you start off fighting for an audience based on doing something so strange that only you find funny, and it’s weird when other people find it funny. Those people aren’t always ready to laugh yet, and there’s a sort of standoffish quality to it. But on this tour, there were people who were fully all-in. They’d been all-in for years, and were maybe too young to have even seen us.
Different bits also land at different points in our lives. The office bits, particularly “Business Hugs” and the PR company bits from Billion Dollar Movie, telegraphed a day-job lifestyle that’s become reality for many fans.
TH: They actually find out that stuff is funny before they experience it, so when they experience it they think, “Man, these guys weren’t kidding.”
EW: [Laughs.] It’s true. A lot of my friends became ad-agency writers. They shoot a couple of commercials every once in awhile and reference our stuff.
EW: Yeah, they try and make things our way, but usually … it’s fun to give it a try.
Your aesthetic has seeped into the Zeitgeist, so there’s bound to be quality-control issues. When is it time to call the lawyers?
EW: One of the biggest examples is this GIF of my mind exploding from the “Universe” sketch. Everyone uses that, we see it everywhere. Companies have used it in their marketing for websites and we have to take it down. We’re very picky about where our stuff goes. Friends are so loyal that they see that stuff and help pull it down online. But we never feel too ripped off. We always feel like bandits who have somehow snuck into popular culture and are perverting it from the inside, to where people don’t even know where it comes from. That’s what I find so fascinating.
Our media consumption has also sped up over the last ten years. We have more screens than ever, we’re used to short bursts of information, and our threshold for sensory overload is higher. How do you still stay open to things that shake you, shock you, or make you feel effectively unsettled?
EW: It’s interesting, because Awesome started pre-YouTube and certain people have never seen some of the characters. Now you can see everything. But it’s still our duty to curate all that noise. There’s a lot of people trying to be weird out there on the internet, or wherever, but we just stick to our guns. We made this new Awesome Show special, and I still feel like it’s on the next level of strange, shocking material. It even shocks us, that we made it. We just trust our voice, like we always have, to keep it sharp and bizarre.
TH: I like making people laugh, too. It’s nice to not have to stretch too far from what I think is funny to the place where people are laughing. When you can make that distance as small as possible, that’s the best. I’m just doing these stand-up shows now — my set is always just a disaster of a performance piece going horribly wrong, I’m fucking up my jokes — but when the audience is there with the little facial expressions and little moments, that’s what I want. It’s different than antagonistically trying to distance that audience.
The Awesome Show special examines relationships between sons and fathers, a theme that’s always been part of the show. It comes through the child clown sketch, Will Forte’s bit, the Richard Dunn homage. Was that intentional?
TH: It’s so in our subconscious and it’s always gonna be there. We lucked into that. Things go in a certain direction by osmosis. With the Richard Dunn moment at the end … we were all, “Is this okay? Is this over the line?” But our guys are pretty good, and we trust our guts. We felt that it was the right way to honor him and make him a part of the special.
EW: Yeah, that’s been in our work forever, and it stems from our relationships with our fathers and other people’s relationships with theirs. It’s just an odd thing when you grow up to realize your dad has always just been this guy and not some superhero, and it’s funny. My dad wears silk dragon shirts from J.C. Penney that my mom buys him, with sandals and black socks that he pulls up really high, and Indiana Jones hats. When he comes to my shows, he still wears that look.
Eric, you also told the New York Times last month that “we feel like we’re the dads of the outsiders.”
EW: Yeah, that’s an amazing thing. Our work has always been a reflection of our environment and our culture, and now our cultural landscape is turning into Awesome Show. [Laughs.] It’s pretty wild.
How do you step outside of that for other projects, like Master of None? How do you shift from letting your creative id run free?
EW: Any person who creates always wants to take on the next challenge, and with Master of None I wanted to get more into storytelling and character development. I wanted to act in a way that wasn’t completely bonkers, set in a reality that people could relate to. A lot of that show is based on my friendship with Aziz, which is a great departure for a little bit.
That focus on storytelling bled into Bedtime Stories too, right?
EW: Bedtime Stories is about trying something new, and focusing on one character [at a time] is incredibly satisfying. I feel like we went to the next level with Bedtime Stories in a realistic way.
TH: Yeah. When we started making Bedtime Stories, it was a reaction to not wanting to do something that felt anything like Awesome Show. We wanted to create something that has high production value, storytelling, real characters and stuff. It’s been frustrating to have something that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around, but people are coming around to it, figuring out what we’re doing.
From Bob Odenkirk to Zach Galifianakis, you get a lot of your old friends in this series. Even Ray Wise gets his own episode.
EW: We love Ray, not just from Awesome Show and Billion Dollar Movie. He nails the combination of terror and brilliant acting. It’s fun bringing back people from our library to try new things with them.
There’s also something to be said for the fact that he’s Leland Palmer. He’s Twin Peaks. Awesome Show was clearly inspired by David Lynch’s surreal edits, so it’s a distinctly film-nerd callback. Are you looking at Bedtime Stories as an opportunity to flex those muscles?
EW: Absolutely. We grew up going to see David Lynch in the movie theater. To bring a character like Leland Palmer into our world is incredible to us. The personal experience is what we wanna make, and that’s why Adult Swim has been amazing. They don’t give us a lot of notes, and the notes that they do give are very helpful in telling these stories in a pure voice.
How do you keep yourself from intellectualizing it?
EW: That’s just a natural thing that Tim and I have. We have a good sensor when it comes to going too far, and know exactly where we wanna be.
TH: Yeah, you can start sounding like a real prick, real quick. But we like you guys who put some thought into this stuff, because when you go on YouTube and see the “how is this considered comedy?” comments, it’s just face-level not getting it.
What are you focusing on now that Bedtime Stories has changed? The stories are more long format and things are unfolding in arcs, as opposed to set pieces or gags.
TH: When we made the first season of Bedtime Stories, we were really unsure of what it was. We were going to tell all types of stories — funny ones, crazy ones, sketches — any by making the first season we learned what we like to do more than other episodes. We drifted toward toes, babies, and darker ones. This season has more continuity to the style, a tone that runs throughout the whole thing, not just hopping around based on the idea. It feels a little more unified because we’ve kind of dialed in to what the show is. It was easier because we’re not messing with style. The style of the show is the show, beautifully composed and not jumping around so much. That made it easier for us to wrap our heads around it. Maybe that makes it more palatable, I don’t know. We’ll see.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.