Tim Heidecker Is in the Comedy Business

Along with his partner Eric Wareheim, TV’s least likely star is making new shows, money, and uncompromisingly weird jokes.

As the creators of cult-hit series like Tom Goes to the Mayor, Tim and Eric Nite Live, and, most notably, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have spent their careers making fun of the people making fun of America. They have lampooned the comedy establishment by creating—and becoming—its hilarious antithesis.

“I think our comedy resonates with people who feel a bit ostracized from pop culture,” says Heidecker, 37. “They feel like they’re going crazy because everything is so shitty and dumbed down and cynical and patronizing.”

But in the decade since Tom Goes to the Mayor debuted on Adult Swim, the line between pop culture and Tim and Eric has begun to blur—due as much to the duo’s offscreen success as their onscreen shenanigans. With hit shows like Nathan for You and Comedy Bang! Bang!, their production company AbsoLutely Productions has made up-and-coming absurdists into headliners. And their outlandish brand of humor has proved viable in other spheres of media as well. “People who work for ad agencies have told us at that ‘Tim and Eric’ is a term they use in meetings,” says Heidecker. “They say, ‘We should make this look more Tim-and-Eric-y.’”

Does the duo’s increasingly cozy relationship with popular culture mean that they’re destined to become less ‘Tim-and-Eric-y’ themselves? If Bedtime Stories with Tim and Eric,their upcoming comic-horror series debuting September 18th on Adult Swim, is any indicator: no. Though a definite departure from the work fans know them for, Bedtime Stories is still unadulterated weirdness. Tim Heidecker talked to Maxim about his new show’s future, the big business of comedy, and the first time he ever laid eyes on his partner in crime.

How exactly did you and Eric meet?

We lived on the same floor of the dorm building and we had the same classes because he was studying film [at Temple University] as well. Obviously, he was a noticeable character right away: about eight-and-a-half feet tall and into the straightedge scene. So it was like four guys who were sort of straightedge, hardcore punk, and they immediately stuck out. I was like, “Whoa, those are some interesting characters.”

I was little intimidated by them because they seemed like a gang of some kind. But in class we both thought, “Hey, this class seems a bit ridiculous”—it was some theory class, like the history of broadcasting or something—and we started goofing off and we kind of connected through a couple of other guys—just making jokes and passing dumb notes back and forth—and I immediately realized that these guys were really funny and cool. So we started hanging out.

When did it become apparent that the two of you could make a career out of comedy?

I think it took a while. We lived together in Philly for a couple of years, so there were countless drunken nights of clowning around and making little videos and prank phone calls.

I think all of the comedy stuff in our life was considered recreation as opposed to a career move. We were going to film school to become directors of movies, not comedy guys. I think it was only after college when we were making stuff and having fun that it started becoming its own little brand.

And then you guys decided to send your stuff to Bob Odenkirk.

We were really so outside of the business. We had no connections, no plan. There was no YouTube or Funny or Die for us to upload stuff to at the time. We really just didn’t know what to do. So I was sitting at a desk, in an office, nothing glamorous, and I was on the Internet looking up people we admired, just trying to figure out how to send stuff to them. There weren’t really that many people we liked. Bob Odenkirk had done Mr. Show, and we were such fans of that, so we thought, “Maybe he’ll be into this.” And he was. He called us and said, “This is cool. Who are you guys? Who do you know? Where are you at?” And it started this great relationship.

What other comedy acts or comedians could you not get enough of growing up?

From a very early age, I was really taken with comedy in all of its forms: Monty Python, The Young Ones, Three Stooges, etc. I was also a big Woody Allen fan, especially his books, his short stories, and his early movies. Big fan. Andy Kaufman was huge. Robin Williams, when I was young, of course. Saturday Night Live when I was young. They all seem pretty stock, but I was just a kid living in the suburbs, so I didn’t have access to very much. It was all just popular stuff.

You guys have worked with a lot of big talentJeff Goldblum and John C. Reilly, for example. Did they approach you or did it happen the other way around?

Those guys we approached. Almost everybody we approached, and in a traditional way. One of the first things Bob did was say, “You guys need to make another Tom Goes to the Mayor“—because we had 10 of the very first version we did. He said, “Make another one of these, but I’m going to have David Cross do it. Because you need someone who everybody else knows to get them into your stuff.” And then he did that again for us with Jack Black in the very first episode of Tom Goes to the Mayor.

Once we had that, literally the next person we went to was Jeff Golblum, and we said, “Hey, listen, we’re doing this show. Jack Black has done it. David Cross has done it. Would you like to do it?” So immediately, they go, “OK, this isn’t just illegitimate nonsense. It seems like a real thing.” It was a nice Hollywood con-job [laughs].

These days are you guys getting contacted by a bunch of actors and comedians looking to collaborate?

You know, not so much. You’d think so. Every once in a while we’ll get somebody who’s like, ‘Oh my God, if you ever need me, let me know.’ But usually they’re people who are too normal. They might be people who we like and respect personally, but they might not fit the vibe of the show. I met Jason Schwartzman at a wedding and he said that he was a big fan and I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to do something with you, and I’m a big fan, but there’s nothing that weird about you.”

With this new show, Bedtime Stories, we decided to cast more grounded kind of people, and we had an episode for him and he did it and he was amazing. It’s all about who is going to work for whatever it is you’re doing.

Were you surprised by your success? When you guys were first getting started, did you ever think, “Nobody is going to get this stuff”?

I think the only time I’ve ever been excited about anything in our career was that first initial call from the network when they said, “We want to develop the show.” Because that was the first time anybody had said, “We want to give you money for what you’ve created.” From there, it seemed like the possibility existed for all kinds of things. That was a big tidal shift in my life.

Your career has been very much definedand driven forwardby taking risks. From what we’ve seen of Bedtime Stories so far, it seems like your riskiest maneuver yet. How did you pitch that to Adult Swim, and did you think they were going to bite?

We went to them with a couple of different ideas, but this is the one that we really wanted to do. We had a couple of backups. We explained to them that we really just wanted a place where we could make stories and not make them as quick. We wanted to slow the pace down and do them a little differently. Luckily, we had done HBO Funny or Die shorts—”The Terrys” and “Father and Son“—and so we were able to point to those and say, “We want to do something like this.” And they were just very open to it.

Do you hope Bedtime Stories will challenge your fans? Now that everyone is pretty fluent in Tim and Eric, you’ve come out with this show that’s very, very different.

There are a whole segment of people who are fans of us on a very shallow level, who just like certain things about us. I don’t know what they’re going to think. At the end of the day, we don’t really think about that stuff too much—about how things are going to be perceived. We just kind of go with our guts, and go with the stuff that we’re excited about, and see it through. We do have those conversations, like, “Boy, what are people going to think of this?”—we’ve definitely had those moments—but we try not to let that affect the choices we make.

Why do you think your style of comedy deeply resonates with so many people?

I think because it’s personal. I think whenever comedy comes from a singular source it’s polarizing, and a lot of people can’t relate to it. But the people who can relate to it feel connected to it. I had that experience with, you know, something like Mystery Science Theater, which made you feel so grateful to share the same mindset with somebody. Eric and I, from the beginning, put ourselves out there, like, “This is us. We’re not hiding under characters.” So people think they kind of know us in a way, like they have a personal relationship with us.

Your style of comedy, it seems, is being gradually absorbed into the mainstream. It’s evident that a lot of TV shows, commercials, and press campaigns are borrowing from the Tim and Eric playbook. How do you feel about that?

The first thing you should do is an IMDB search on the editor and directors from those shows, and you’ll see that a lot of those guys—the editors on Portlandia, and the Kroll Show, and a lot of the shows our company produces—a lot of them started with us, on the Awesome Show, or Tom Goes to the Mayor. So that doesn’t bother me as much, because a lot of it is their own creativity.

With the advertising, I get that too because most of the guys and girls at the agencies are 20- and 30-somethings who are watching our shit on YouTube like everyone else. It seems like an easy-to-transfer style. It’s funny and ironic because we’re sort of making fun of what they’re doing, and they’re using it as just a style without any kind of message or point of view. It’s whatever.

With a show like Nathan for You, which is a part of Abso Lutely Productions, how much control do you have over the creative content? Or when it comes to working with a guy like Nathan Fielder, are you just like, “Hey, do your thing.”

I guess we could have some control if we wanted to use it, but we designed our production company so that Eric and I don’t have to bother with anything. We try to bring in people who we like and trust to make the shows that they want to make. The last thing I think Nathan would want, or that any of these people would want, or that I would want if I was him, is some other funny, creative person coming in and going, “Oh, well, here’s what I would do.”

We are so proud of that show and take absolutely no responsibility for it, except for that we kind of had him in our little family from the Jon Benjamin show and got to develop the show at an early stage with him.

I recently interviewed another pretty popular comic and he referred to you and Eric as geniuses. Are there any working comedians out there who you would apply that term to?

I think Neil Hamburger (aka Gregg Turkington), whom I work with a lot, is a genius. He’s just always an inspiration to me as a guy who has a million ideas, a great perspective, a great voice, and who is very confident in what he does. Nathan Fielder, I think, is a genius. There’s not too much else out there that I watch or pay attention to. I just don’t really watch a lot of comedy. I don’t like it.

What does your typical work week look like?

It generally depends on what we’re up to at the time. I have a baby and a wife. I have a 1-year-old daughter now. I’m like a morning guy. I get up early, like 6:30-7, and I do some writing, and some Internet-ing, and some emailing. If we’re shooting, it’s 12 or 14 hour days of shooting. If not, I try to keep busy doing stuff that needs to be done. It’s pretty consistent and like a regular job. I generally work until dinnertime and then go home and have a quiet night. Pretty boring. We’re kind of normal guys, which a lot of people are weirded out by. They’re like, “I thought you’d be this lunatic.” And we’re like, “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do if we behaved the way we behaved in our shows.” [laughs]    

Do you have any grand project or movie ideas that you feel you need to make before you die?

No, I don’t. I don’t think about things that way, I guess. I don’t have this list of projects. I’m taking much smaller bites than that. I think I’m kind of doing exactly what I want to do, which is cool in a way. Maybe it’s not exactly how I imagined it, but it’s pretty fucking fun. 

Photos by Tribeca Film / Everett Collection