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Navigating On Cinema’s Giant, Underground Universe

Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington in On Cinema. Photo: Youtube

Last year, I nabbed a ticket to the Brooklyn stop on Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema Live! national tour. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the performance, it being a live version of their Adult Swim web series and all. What I did anticipate, however, was that everyone in attendance would be super into it.

Sure enough, within a minute of getting in line, the guy in front of me turned around, eager to chat about all things On Cinema. He asked me if I was a “Timhead” or a “Gregghead,” then quickly assured me he was “100 percent germ-free,” having used the “Rio-Jenesis Germ Assassin” for the last few weeks, so I shouldn’t worry about getting sick. He was doing a bit, the same bit that the hundreds of other fans there also silently agreed they’d be doing that night. I can’t imagine what overhearing that crowd would have been like for an outsider.

You see, there are comedies, there are cult comedies, and then there’s On Cinema. Beginning as a parody film-review podcast in 2011, it has since grown into a sprawling multimedia universe, encompassing a dizzying array of content: a web series, a TV show, multiple music projects, annual Oscar specials, an official fan club, a mobile app, and even a few VR experiences tucked into the last season. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, as fun as all of this can be for those in the know, it can be overwhelming, even alienating, for newbies who are just curious to see what it’s like. (And that’s after you take into consideration that the audience for On Cinema’s exceptionally dry, dark sense of humor is already pretty self-selecting.)

Keeping up with the narrative can take real effort on the part of the viewer: Plot threads carry over from the web series to TV and then move onto Twitter where Tim and Gregg hash out arguments while in character, making it easy to miss a development if you aren’t keeping up with it all. Plus, at ten seasons and counting, On Cinema is the biggest project of Heidecker’s career, as well as Turkington’s most major work outside of Neil Hamburger.

But On Cinema isn’t as impenetrable as all this makes it seem. Getting into it isn’t hard; there are just a few basic points worth going over before diving in. Given a franchise of this size, there’s way too much to break down in a single article, but here’s a rundown of some of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Naturally, that means there are spoilers ahead, though this really isn’t a show where spoilers matter too much. Trust me.

(By the way, for clarity’s sake, when I mention Tim and Gregg from now on, I’m speaking about the fictionalized versions of themselves they play on the show, unless I say otherwise.)

On Cinema at the Cinema

On Cinema. Photo: Adult Swim

The podcast turned web series that started it all, On Cinema at the Cinema, at first, has a simple premise: Host Tim Heidecker and “frequent guest” and film expert Gregg Turkington review and bicker about the latest movies, even though it’s clear that neither one of them has seen the movie in question. Tim stumbles over every actor’s name when describing the film, while Gregg offers useless, if cheerful, “expertise.” They rate each movie on a scale of one to five bags of popcorn; the vast majority of the time they both give every film five bags, no matter what it is. (These movies are then deemed “five baggers.”)

Tim is a self-absorbed, right-wing blowhard who doesn’t care much for movies but loves the notoriety that comes with having a show. Meanwhile, Gregg is a sort of sad sack whose entire identity is wrapped up in being a movie fan but can barely manage to answer a simple trivia question correctly. (Occasionally Gregg will play “Stump the Buff,” where he answers film trivia to win money for a charity, only to get just about every single one wrong.)

Of course, things quickly spin out from there. Beginning in season two of the web series, Tim spends an increasing amount of time filling the show with inappropriate updates on his personal life: the blood clots in his head on which he refuses to get surgery; his relationship with Ayaka, a foreign-exchange student living with him; dangerous medical and drug treatments supplied to him by Dr. San, a self-styled New Agey healer; the lame music he makes with his bands Dekkar and DKR.

For his part, the long-suffering Gregg just wants to talk about movies, which is, after all, what he’s explicitly on the show to do. He dutifully prepares segments like “Popcorn Classics,” where he promotes a random selection from his VHS collection (usually some half-forgotten comedy like Multiplicity or Blue Streak), and “On Cinema on Location,” where he visits the real-life shooting location of some arbitrary scene in a movie few care about, only to fight a losing battle for airtime against Tim.

Tim and Gregg’s bickering provides the main comedic thrust of the show. With them everything is a long, protracted pissing contest: Gregg lands a real-life cameo in Ant-Man, so a jealous Tim eventually lands a cameo in its sequel; Tim corrects Gregg when he claims that Star Trek II takes place in San Francisco, so Gregg travels to San Francisco in a futile effort to prove him wrong; Gregg boasts about his giant VHS collection (something he dubs the Victorville Film Archive), so Tim sets it on fire — twice.

Perhaps Tim’s — the comedian — greatest talent as an actor is an authentic-seeming volcanic anger, which he unleashes at Gregg in regular intervals on the show, lending On Cinema surprising moments of tension. And while Tim’s performance is necessarily bigger and flashier, Gregg matches it in his affable, low-key arrogance. Every mention of his film expertise is met with a desperate little smirk. Every one of Tim’s violent outbursts leads to Gregg shuffling off as if he’s just learned to walk that day. When watching him, it’s hard not to think that he must be the loneliest man in the world, convinced that he’s living a full life.

But it’s not just the two men locked in a battle of one-upmanship. Much of the appeal of watching On Cinema comes from seeing how the show tops itself every year. The twists in Tim’s life turn increasingly dark from season to season. Sure, season three will offhandedly mention Tim’s divorce, but season seven sees the death of Tim’s son, Tom Cruise Heidecker, after he refuses to vaccinate him.

This can be heavy stuff, and it’s treated as such in a way, but it always finds comedy in how callous Tim remains in the face of all of this. (It also helps that Tim and Gregg bring on friends and special guests to lighten the mood or at least give other takes on what’s going on.)

The running joke underlying the entire On Cinema franchise is that Tim and Gregg somehow still keep returning to work together after coming to blows week after week. Part of that, of course, is that there’s no show without the both of them, but you also get the sense that On Cinema is the only place in the world that will accept them for who they are, no matter the personal cost.

Decker

Decker. Photo: Adult Swim

As a “film critic” always looking for a new soapbox for his conservative polemics, it was inevitable that Tim would try his own hand at filmmaking. And toward the end of season four of On Cinema, he finally does just that, introducing a scene from a movie he’s been working on in secret. Eventually, that movie would find life as a TV series called Decker, which has since run on Adult Swim for six seasons and counting.

Decker stars Tim as Special Agent Jack Decker, an ultrapatriotic superspy who protects the U.S. from the threat of various post-9/11 bogeymen — mostly the Taliban — with the assistance of Jonathan Kington, a “master codebreaker” and film expert played by Gregg. Legendary B-movie actor (and Martin Sheen’s brother) Joe Estevez rounds out the cast as President Davidson, the wussy, liberal commander-in-chief who counts on a straight shooter like Decker to fix his messes for him.

True to its origins as a watered-down Tom Clancy thriller made by two people with no skill, taste, or budget, Decker is absurdly, gloriously incoherent. Virtually every rule of filmmaking, big and small, is flouted: Actors stumble over every line, special effects are cheap and unfinished, the writing feels ad-libbed, and the editing renders all of it barely comprehensible.

Later seasons are set in the future and have strange sci-fi flourishes, adding to its overambitious, home-brew surrealism. (And that’s not to mention the Gregg-helmed season three, which pits Decker against Dracula. A furious Tim cancels it after three episodes.)

Naturally, Tim and Gregg’s contentious dynamic from On Cinema carries over onto their other program, with Decker and Kington constantly taking little potshots at each other. Kington, in particular, is barely a character at all: Like Gregg, he also claims to have the largest VHS collection in the world and shoves as many film references as he can into anything he says. Nevertheless, Decker seems to be the only thing that Tim and Gregg genuinely enjoy doing together — Gregg, because it finally allows him to work in an industry he’s spent his whole life admiring from the outside, and Tim, because it indulges his every masculine desire.

And to be sure, the show is all a dumb macho fantasy. Jack Decker is who a man-child imagines might set the world to rights after watching hours of Infowars. He’s a megalomaniacal, hypercompetent, pseudo-badass who shoots first and asks questions later — that is, if he ever had any questions to ask. He’s always right, after all; his worldview is never questioned. As such, for a series that began during the Obama administration, Decker winds up as a perfect satire of the Trump era; a story like Decker’s is the lullaby the MAGA crowd sings itself to fall asleep at night.

Of all the branches of the On Cinema family tree, Decker is perhaps the most accessible. Not only does it have the obvious appeal of an absurdly bad movie, but its political satire allows it to work outside the context of On Cinema, even if much of it plays better if you understand the people supposedly behind the camera.

Dekkar and DKR

Dekkar. Photo: Axiom International/Youtube

During “lucky” season seven of On Cinema at the Cinema, Tim meets a tatted-up Dave Navarro type named Axiom at Guitar Center and starts up a band called Dekkar, sensing that rock superstardom won’t be far away. Regrettably for him, beginning a band that combines some of the worst tendencies of ’80s and ’90s hard rock with the fashion sense to match isn’t the way to get there.

Among all the things Tim wastes time with on the show, Dekkar seems to be the thing that aggravates Gregg the most. Axiom and fellow bandmate Manuel become close friends with Tim and often join as guests, becoming a near-constant source of eye-rolling and grumbling for Gregg, especially when Tim bumps a “Popcorn Classics” segment to share a new song.

So, unsurprisingly, Tim begins yet another music project soon after, DKR, whose catalogue essentially consists of a single EDM remix of, you guessed it, Dekkar’s “Empty Bottle,” here called “MT BTL 2.0.”

Out of all of Tim Heidecker’s — the comedian, I mean — music gigs, Dekkar and DKR feel the most like obvious parody, with little affection for the genres he’s playing around in. (Even his piss-obsessed Yellow River Boys takes a lot of care couching its pee-drinking jokes in loving homage to blues and classic rock.) But regardless, it’s effective parody. Just try getting the “Fill me up … again!” hook of “Empty Bottle” out of your head once it’s in there.

The Oscar Specials

On Cinema’s Oscar special. Photo: Adult Swim

On one hand, the annual live Oscar specials, which stream at the same time as the Academy Awards, function as extended episodes of On Cinema, since like the show, Tim and Gregg mostly forgo talking about films in favor of whatever weird distractions they’ve cooked up. At the same time, especially because they stream for hours on end, the specials tend to feel like season finales, full of big moments that pull together a bunch of threads from the previous year.

Tim mostly passes the time getting more and more drunk and verbally abusive as the night goes on. But sometimes, given what seems like a bigger budget than usual, he’ll pull out all the stops, organizing a Dekkar concert to start things off or bringing in comedian Mark Proksch to do impressions and bits for special segments. One time, he even summons his ex-wife, Ayaka, to show her a crude computer simulation of what their son might have been like had he not died. (Don’t worry: If that weren’t bad enough, Tim manages to get his CGI would-be kid to spout out some anti-vax rhetoric to finish things off.)

Meanwhile, Gregg often spends these specials offering ludicrous award predictions, always expecting that Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy will finally win Oscar gold, even when it’s not nominated. Other years, he hypes up a showstopping finale he’s been dreaming up for months, only for it to wind up hysterically underwhelming.

Of these finales, my favorite finds Gregg knocking over VHS tapes set up like dominoes, spelling out the word “OSCER.” (Tim: “It’s O-S-C-A-R.” Gregg: “It’s spelled both ways.”) Another year, he brings out an old man and claims he’s actually legendary actor James Dean. Apparently, according to Gregg, he faked his death in 1955 and is finally ready to return to Hollywood.

More often than not, these specials also end in disaster. In the 2018 special, Mark Proksch passes out after getting trapped in an old-timey diving suit while paying tribute to Jaws. So this year, Gregg paints a still-comatose Mark gold and props him up as a “living Oscar,” proving, for what it’s worth, that Gregg is also capable of thoughtless (and frankly strange) acts of cruelty in pursuit of his passions, just like Tim.

As you might imagine from something that runs so long, it’s not really necessary to watch the whole thing to get the gist. While plenty of die-hard fans sit out the Academy Awards entirely in favor of watching On Cinema — Alamo Drafthouse theaters in Austin and Brooklyn even did simulcasts of the stream this year — the specials are also made with the expectation that people will be checking in during commercial breaks, making them ideal for casual fans who just want to pop in from time to time.

The Trial

The Electric Sun trial. Photo: Adult Swim

Throughout season nine of On Cinema, Tim periodically hypes his upcoming gig at the Electric Sun Music Festival, where he plans to perform a set as DKR. A few episodes later, Gregg finds himself alone in the studio, delivering some somber news: Tim can’t host the show today. He’s in jail.

Turns out that the vape pens Tim was passing out to the concertgoers (given to him by Dr. San) were toxic. Tim will be tried on 20 counts of manslaughter, one for each of the victims. And, sure enough, in November 2017, Adult Swim’s website streamed the entirety of Tim’s trial as a mini-series of C-SPAN-esque local-access broadcasts.

On Cinema always runs the risk of — and occasionally succumbs to — a certain level of repetitiveness. Nearly every season, Tim throws himself into some toxic relationship or dangerous health regimen, inevitably leading to a self-inflicted tragedy of some sort, only to get a fresh start the following season. “The Trial” helps to eliminate some of that inertia by both playing with another format entirely and doubling down on the consequences of Tim’s crimes rather than brushing it off between seasons.

That C-SPAN vibe is more than cosmetic, tough: “The Trial” plays everything completely straight. Each of the five streams runs about an hour or more, and much of that time is devoted to a ton of dead air and bone-dry testimony, each moment of the trial crawling at a deliberate pace. All of this, of course, is peppered with juicier moments that shake things to life, some funny (“Empty Bottle” is played in full as “evidence” in front of a stone-faced jury as Axion and Tim rock out in their seats) and some surprisingly heavy (Ayaka reappears to admonish Tim as a “confused and angry man,” setting the record straight about their damaged relationship).

Naturally, like any broadcast of court or government proceedings, “The Trial” was likely intended as background viewing, with much of the quiet stuff humming along in the background until something livelier grabs your attention. Fortunately, for those understandably unwilling to wade through the hours of trial footage, Adult Swim has posted the highlights on YouTube.

Ultimately, Tim is cleared of one count of manslaughter and a mistrial is called on the other 19, since the jury can’t settle on a verdict, letting Tim off the hook — at least for the time being. In season ten, Tim faces a civil suit from the Delgados, one of the victims’ families, which allows them to seize his assets, including Dekkar, Decker, and On Cinema, and to leave Gregg in charge of the show’s uncertain future. So, naturally, Tim vows revenge and crashes Gregg’s big-budget Oscar special just as it gets going.

Social Media and Fan Interaction

More than anything else, the way Tim and Gregg interact with fans is what distinguishes On Cinema from its peers. Fans of any show, of course, are free to tweet at cast members, and the cast and crew might even reply. But On Cinema takes things a step further. Tim and Gregg use their social media in character, continuing their arguments online, playing out entire bits and plotlines, while egging their audience on.

For instance, season ten ended with Tim declaring that he’s going to run for district attorney of San Bernardino County against “Rosetti the Rat,” the prosecutor that nearly got him sent to prison. It’s a story line that played out entirely online through Election Day last year. “Timheads” sent him messages of support, vowing to spread the word about his campaign, while “Greggheads” called him out, even creating convincing attack ads from a fictional Rosetti super-PAC.

And while you won’t be lost if you happened not to follow all that on Twitter, chances are, whenever Decker or On Cinema returns, that storyline will be mentioned as if it happened in the main series. But that’s the thing — On Cinema challenges you to follow along with its twists across platforms and to actively engage with it in a way few other shows do. (In one glorious instance, that kind of active participation paid off: Tim discovered comedian and video editor Vic Berger through his On Cinema fan music videos.)

Fan outreach goes beyond the internet, though. By contributing to the Patreon, fans could even become members of the “On Cinema Family,” a sort of official fan club. (My fiancée is a member and has her laminated ID card, along with a letter from Tim and Gregg, posted on the fridge to prove it.) And for a while, Tim and Gregg hosted “Decker-Con,” offering fans a chance to meet up to watch early screenings of new Decker episodes. The On Cinema Live! tour I mentioned up top serves as a sort of quasi-convention, bringing all the strands of the universe — Dekkar listening stations, Victorville Film Archive merch, a live game of “Stump the Buff” — in one place.

It’s unclear how much longer On Cinema at the Cinema will run. Surely, nearly a decade in, it has already aired longer than anyone, least of all its creators, expected it would when starting out. But part of the fun of this series is following it in real time and taking part as the narrative develops in long-nested threads of quote-retweets. At times, it feels like a show that mostly exists to give its fans something to argue and joke about.

As shows become easier and easier to put off and binge a year after they air, it can be refreshing to watch something that feels like an event, something that should be watched while it’s still on. (And On Cinema, it should be said, isn’t necessarily a show that benefits from bingeing; its repetitive structure and abrasive humor are arguably more palatable in smaller doses. Personally, I tend to check back in every few weeks and catch up on what I’ve missed.)

And with everything there is to see in the On Cinema franchise, there’s already plenty to sink your teeth into, leaving aside anything else Tim and Gregg might add in the future. (This year’s Oscar special already teased Oscores.net, a new website going live in the coming weeks.) How much larger will the universe expand? Like with everything On Cinema, it’s really hard to say.

All episodes of On Cinema are streaming here, and all episodes of Decker are streaming here.

Navigating On Cinema’s Giant, Underground Universe