Tim Heidecker: The Poet Laureate of Delusional Assholes

Tim Heidecker in An Evening With Tim Heidecker. Photo: Netflix

An Evening With Tim Heidecker lives up to its title: a full hour in the company of a character who is absolutely not up to the task. In his first stand-up special, which debuts on YouTube tonight, Heidecker, as is often the case, plays a warped man who happens to share his name — a leather-jacket-clad, “truth-telling” comic with none of the talent, but all of the narcissism and aggression. Ever since his earliest tight fives in 2007, he’s honed a routine of non-jokes about Coke and Pepsi, but the paper-thin act usually devolves into tantrums toward the unsuspecting venue crew or audience.

As Heidecker fumbles with the microphone or yells for silence while trying to nail inept wordplay, the special seems like a document of a meltdown: His personal life is in shambles, and it’s hard to see what’s left for him beyond a dream that’s already dead. But because the real Heidecker knows how pathetic this is, the special is hilarious — and, from On Cinema to Tim’s Kitchen Tips and beyond, Heidecker’s become something like the poet laureate of delusional assholes.

Vulture chatted with Heidecker over Zoom about the cringey stand-up sets that inspired the character, developing the act on the road with Neil Hamburger and on YouTube with Brett Gelman, and his earliest mindfuck open mics.

You filmed this special in 2017. I was wondering if you could start by talking about the journey it’s taken since then?
I had been doing that act for about ten years. Obviously, the stand-up world is not my primary focus; it’s one of the many weird things I do. So we said, “Let’s just shoot a special,” because I had built up a nice set that I thought was fun and funny. In shopping it around, a lot of the normal places, ironically, did not have a great sense of humor about stand-up comedy. In fact, one place was like, “We feel like he’s making fun of stand-up comedy.” What, is that the sacred cow that you’re not allowed to make fun of? How insecure. We’ve had similar experiences with Moonbase [8, Heidecker’s new series], where so many changes have been happening in the past few years with how content is bought, and who’s making decisions.

Another comedian said this: “Everything I do, nobody is asking for.” Everything we do — whether it’s with Eric [Wareheim], or my music — often finds a nice audience, but it’s always self-generated.

Since you’ve been riffing on this guy since 2007, do you find your interests in the character changing, or reflecting the world in new ways — stand-up or otherwise?
It’s funny — I feel like that character has been in comedy for a long time, but only in the past few years has it come under a little more scrutiny, and it’s easier to see what’s funny about it. I tend to do that in all of my work: I feel like I’m always a little ahead of the curve about what’s horrible about certain things or certain kinds of people. There’s obviously something very fun and liberating about hiding behind a character and just being awful, but having no responsibility. When I started doing it, it was definitely a much more hostile situation, and people weren’t all the way in there with me — as they should be. If I was in that audience, I don’t know if I’d have the patience for it if I didn’t know what was going on.

Originally, it was all about me not cracking myself up and staying in character. Getting really heated about how something is going, and letting the audience see me lose it, is really funny to me. But as I kept doing it, people had seen the YouTube videos and were expecting me to do these things. That made it really easy and really fun. You could fully commit to it, but also in the back of your head know that, despite what I was pretending to do, the audience is legitimately enjoying themselves just by my flailing up there.

Throughout the special, you tease the audience that you’re going to do this totally dangerous comedy that’s going to blow their minds, but the actual danger is when these terrifying aspects of your personal life start coming out. That’s pretty consistent across your work. What appeals to you about playing these self-destructive people?
It’s a fundamentally funny thing for me. On the surface, [he’s] an entirely narcissistic bully, and then you can play off some really sad, pathetic qualities in that person. I’m glad you picked up on that. It’s woven throughout. If you read between the lines of this character, he’s in a really bad place, he’s an alcoholic, he’s got a bad relationship with his wife … or ex-wife.

But the attitude of coming across as a truth-teller, and a didactic kind of, This is how the world is … In my personal life, I find that very obnoxious. I’m very quick to admit that, like, I don’t fucking know! I like pretending to be the guy that thinks the opposite.

Were there any stand-up-special notes that you definitely wanted to hit or subvert? Or did it develop more organically out of the character?
It was pretty organic. My director, Ben Berman, and I talked about trying to present it as faithfully as you would any stand-up special, and not be too cute about it. The trailer has an energy to it that’s very masculine, with that Black Keys–style soundalike music. We thought that the straighter we played it, the more reflective it would be of that scene. And the material has been developed over years of taking it on the road, mostly with Neil Hamburger, whom I studied like a student-master situation. There are things that he does in his act that I just adore and I try to do my own spin on.

I think the cadence of stand-up is key without there actually being the content to back it up. The strutting, the mic work. I originally started doing this because I would go see stand-up here in L.A., and I was like, That guy certainly has seen stand-up comedy before, and he’s mimicking it, but there isn’t much underneath worth saying. It’s fun for me to find that rhythm to simulate one of those leather-jacket comedians.

Had you ever done traditional stand-up before this character?
I did attempt stand-up comedy in, like, 2000. I had not pursued comedy in college, really. I mean, [Eric and I] made some funny videos, but I didn’t really think about it as a career. But then I moved to New York with ambitions to write and act and be in New York, as everybody does. I went to a couple of those Tuesday-night shows — at a club on the Upper East Side, I think — with 40 comics doing five-minute sets, and you’ve got to bring five people. I tried doing weird stuff because I was really into Andy Kaufman; I would do this routine where I would put on headphones and sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan a cappella … really stupid, confrontationally bad comedy.

People, I guess, laughed and thought it was weird, but I couldn’t keep asking my friends to go uptown and spend $40 on drinks and watch two hours of comedy. I didn’t know how anybody did it, and I gave up after five or six attempts. I also had a totally wrong idea about comedy and thought I had to do something different every time I went up. I didn’t realize that you could actually do your act and get better by doing it!

It’s been odd to go back to the lunch-date videos you made as this character with Brett Gelman in the age of, like, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. You’ve also mentioned eerie similarities to The Trip, which came out after you filmed the first one. Did you have a sense that these would be weirdly prescient?
Like you said, The Trip had come out, and I thought, Oh, man, those guys are so great. And they did it better, in a way. Certainly, Comedians in Cars and the podcast explosion of the past ten years has made talking about comedy really prevalent and often obnoxious and self-serious. The worst version of those guys is funny to us, as long as they’re people that are really not in the game. These guys are not even close — just like adjacent, deep Valley, Hollywood guys that are not going to make it. That was always where my guy was coming from. We had even written a movie based on those guys that never went anywhere but still exists as a very detailed outline that I can’t reveal the subject of. One day, maybe. The nice thing about those guys is that they might get funnier the older we get. So it’s always out there for us to play with.

How do you feel about the Netflix stand-up special scene in general?
I don’t really watch them. I respect the craft, to some degree, and there are people who are really good at it. The last one I watched was Tom Papa, who I think is really great and somebody that I enjoy hearing tell stories. But I can’t keep up with it, I guess, and I don’t really enjoy the experience of watching it. Especially at home. There’s something different about being in a club and having that close interaction. There’s something a little antiquated about it for me, that I’ve heard everybody’s point of view. I like characters and I like stories, and I don’t necessarily need to have the world explained to me by somebody.

There is this strange, trope-y side of the persona sometimes. It’s like the backstage scenes in your special: I’m this guy onstage, but I’m this guy offstage, and you look at the cracks in that.
Yeah, and I like the kind of stand-up that’s coming from an absurd place, or a character-driven, joke-driven place. Norm Macdonald is the greatest at it because he really only seems to care about the jokes, and surprising you with them. There’s not really a point of view. And it’s not really, like, [Here’s] how hard my life was, and here’s the story of my personal experience. In the 2000s, there were a lot of people like Jon Glaser or Todd Barry who were using their time onstage to do weird stuff. Todd Barry, again, is another guy who’s like, I love jokes, and I love surprising you with where I’m going to go with this, and the tone of the delivery and everything. It’s less about his personal experience.

I was curious if there were specific specials on your mind as you were making this. I came across an old Tim Allen special called Tim Allen Rewires America, and his first line is, like, “We’re here to discuss men’s stuff …”
Oh, that’s perfect. Between me and Ben, this stuff is so ingrained in our brains from growing up. Stand-up was going through a boom: There was that show Comic Strip Live, and all Comedy Central did was run comedy specials in the late ’90s. The special that I grew up on and probably watched 100 times is Bill Cosby: Himself. Obviously, he’s a wretched person, but the one thing I always take from him that I do genuinely love is the mic work and the way he uses the microphone for dynamics. I tend to do that a lot in my stand-up, and really have control over that, and using it as a prop. I mean, I spend the first five minutes here dealing with the microphone stand. But in general, we knew it so well that it wasn’t like we needed to go and reference anything specifically.

Lastly, you perform an unreleased song by the Yellow River Boys, your imaginary southern rock band of piss fetishists, in your encore. Will there be more?
I think I wrote that song thinking there would be more, and then it felt like … maybe there isn’t that much more to do in that subject matter! [Laughs.] I did a whole album of songs about drinking piss from the perspective of these sort of good ol’ boys. Gregg [Turkington] co-writes the lyrics with me, and he was like, “We need to do a double album, and a Christmas album,” because one version of that joke is that there’s a lot of Yellow River Boys records. But there are only so many hours in my day, so who knows. It’s become a nice, somewhat beloved little curio in my career. I like that song. Maybe there are more, who knows?

Tim Heidecker: The Poet Laureate of Delusional Assholes