With a world tour with Eric Wareheim on the way and the 11th (!) season of his web series, On Cinema at the Cinema, currently streaming on AdultSwim.com, you’d be forgiven for thinking Tim Heidecker is gearing up for a long vacation. Instead, this week sees the release of Mister America, a feature film that forms yet another constellation in the sprawling On Cinema universe that he’s created with Gregg Turkington and director Eric Notarnicola over the last decade.
A mockumentary supposedly made by a student filmmaker, Mister America finds Heidecker’s character campaigning to be the district attorney of San Bernardino county, following a trial where he was dubiously cleared of over a dozen counts of murder after a hung jury resulted in a mistrial. (The trial itself streamed over multiple hours on Adult Swim’s website.)
Heidecker recently hopped on the phone with Vulture to chat about why the movie isn’t just for On Cinema fanatics, how Nathan Fielder helped shape the film, and why he can’t stand when publications label him an “anti-humorist.”
With On Cinema, you have the podcast, the TV show, the web series, the music, the specials — at what point did you, Gregg, and Eric decide to toss a movie into the mix?
The trial was the first thing that felt like a different way to approach the universe and a way that On Cinema could exist outside of our control a little bit, as far as the way the viewer watched it. We thought it would be fun to follow up the trial with another kind of media that followed my character seeking revenge against the district attorney and exploring who that hung juror was going to be. So, the idea to treat it as a documentary that someone else might make came into being.
We proceeded with the idea that it would exist on the Adult Swim app or site as another thing that was like the trial, which was kind of hard to classify. Then as we started making it, in the edit room we realized that we had way more, and that it really all worked, and that it felt just like a movie. Honestly, after showing it to people as a rough, rough, rough cut, one person in particular, Nathan Fielder, who we all know …
He had already come out of the experience of doing [the feature-length Nathan for You series finale] “Finding Frances,” where they had actually ended up making a movie, but it ended up on Comedy Central as this sort of nebulous thing that was hard to classify, but truly was a film. He was very passionate about it to us, saying, “You guys, stop what you’re doing and think about how this could actually come out as a movie in a theatrical way, because it would be a shame if this just stopped here and just went on the web, you know?”
How do you expect people who aren’t familiar with On Cinema to react to the movie? Have you shown it to anyone who wasn’t familiar with On Cinema yet?
We didn’t do, like, blind stranger focus groups and that kind of thing. But we did show it to people that haven’t kept up with all of our shenanigans. And everyone just took it at face value and seemed to really like it and laughed and were intrigued.
Our thing in the edit room was like, well, if I’m watching a documentary — say, Making a Murderer or something like that — I don’t know anything about any of these people, so you could go into this not knowing who I am or who Gregg is. But for the On Cinema fan, you’re gonna be rewarded in knowing about the backstory of these people, and that’ll be exciting, you know? Hopefully, it’ll be satisfying.
It’s still going to be a niche comedy because of the kind of comedy it is anyway. It’s not a feel-good movie. It’s not a movie where, you know, there’s sympathetic characters.
And there are a lot of George Burns references.
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. So, it’s still going to be kind of a marginalized thing, and that’s been the problem with my career for a long time.
In the movie, when you are meeting people on the street while in character, no matter how dickish, rude, and ignorant you are, everybody treats you pretty passively. Were you expecting that?
No, we didn’t know what to expect. I think one thing that helped us was that the stakes are fairly low for this character, in the sense that it’s a guy going around saying that he’s running for district attorney. I think most people, if somebody comes up, they’re kind of already disinterested a little bit. You’re already distracted and not really super-invested in whether I am [running] or not. We were pretty surprised that we went in with these signs that said, “We have a rat problem,” and a remarkable number of places were like, “Sure, put up whatever you want.”
I think partly that’s to do with going into San Bernardino. If you did it in a bigger city, people are a little more cynical, or a little more standoffish. People were pretty open and interested to talk to me and were generally pretty nice about it, or just sort of not interested. Of course, we didn’t use everything we shot. There were things that didn’t work out, and there were people that weren’t cooperative or interested in talking.
Has playing this character for years taught you anything about Trump supporters and the MAGA Twitter guy mind-set that you didn’t know before, especially now that you’re interacting with other people in character?
I think that you can bloviate and say a lot of terrible things, and generally [because of] people’s innate sense of politeness or attempts to avoid conflict, you can get away with a lot of shitty things. People don’t really challenge you in the moment. Trump and his supporters just get away with saying awful, terrible things, and a lot of times it’s coded or it’s dog-whistle-y and stuff, and you know the innate nature of people is to not challenge that in real time. And I certainly noticed that a lot.
I had this experience with a neighbor who was moving out, and he was, I would imagine, a Trump supporter. This kind of Staten Island–type guy that was always cracking jokes. I said, “Do you know who’s moving in?” We’re just standing on the street, and he says, “Oh, I think about ten black guys are moving in,” as, like, a joke, you know? And I just froze and just kind of turned and walked away, being like, Fuck this guy, but what am I gonna do? I’m not gonna start, like, screaming in his face, you know? So I think there’s a lot of that stuff that people get away with, and my character can certainly say a lot of outrageous things, and it doesn’t turn into a screaming match, and it doesn’t turn into a physical confrontation.
You’ve mentioned on Twitter and in past interviews that you always try to engage with your right-leaning fans in an attempt to sway them away from the alt-right. Do you think about those fans as you’re writing for your character? Do you see your character as a sort of cautionary tale for them?
Well, not actively, not consciously. I don’t think about them in that way. On Office Hours, the podcast and call-in show I do, and in person, I would be open to debate or discussion. Or let them know that there’s a way to be that doesn’t necessarily involve so much racism and homophobia and xenophobia and stuff. But I think our goal with my character, in terms of the political perspective, is not to be too sympathetic to those people and treat them as damaged, tragic characters.
While Trump is an obvious touchstone for your character and for the campaign in the movie, are there any other people that served as influences?
God, there’s so many. I can’t remember a specific one that we referenced closely, but even things like — going back a few years — the Herman Cain campaign, which I, of course, made a record about. The commercial his campaign manager did where he was smoking. That was something we always passed around. We love that kind of poorly made [ad].
Also, that very stark, tough-guy messaging that isn’t reflective of how complicated the world actually is. You know, when people talk in such black-and-white, stark terms about how to fix problems. In the movie, when I say, “If you commit a crime, you go to jail for life,” there are people out there that buy into that, where … if we did this, this, and this, we’d have this utopian society. That’s so pervasive everywhere, I think.
Recently, the New York Times referred to you as an “anti-humorist” in a synopsis of Mister America, which is something you bristled at on Twitter. Can you go a little more into your frustrations with being saddled with the anti-comedy label?
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a petty thing to worry about, and I think it’s generally used as a compliment. I don’t think it’s meant as a derogatory term. I just think it’s a little frustrating, because we always perceive what we’re doing as comedy, or as a way to make an audience entertained and laugh. We use a different set of tools, you know?
But ultimately, I feel a connection from Mister America to Spinal Tap in a very real way. It’s playing things a little drier and also sort of focusing on the comedy of failure. I keep thinking of the scene in Spinal Tap where they’re playing at the puppet show at the amusement park, and there’s like ten people in the audience, and the guy’s giving the thumbs down, and they’re playing their “jazz odyssey.” And I see a total direct line between that and my town hall appearance in the movie. It’s the same shit, you know? And I don’t think you’d ever call Christopher Guest or any of those guys “anti-humor” or “anti-comedy.” It’s just a different way of doing it.
Of course, I understand there’s a kind of comedy that involves presenting things that are intentionally unfunny, and that becomes the irony or the joke. I don’t think that’s what this is at all. So, whatever. The New York Times is gonna use shortcuts to describe things for their audience that they might not understand. But our director Eric said, “Could have been worse. They could have called you a ‘humorist,’ which is worse than being an anti-humorist.” [Laughs.]