"We're not like 'SNL,' trying to create comedy with mass appeal": "Tim and Eric's" Tim Heidecker

Heidecker on his new show "Bedtime Stories," diversity, and why there's no one in comedy he wants to work with

Published September 18, 2014 2:40PM (EDT)

Tim Heidecker of "Tim and Eric's Bedtime Stories"  (Justina Mintz)
Tim Heidecker of "Tim and Eric's Bedtime Stories" (Justina Mintz)

Over the past decade, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have risen from obscurity to become stars within the indie comedy world with a totally singular style of absurdist comedy. With the debut of "Tim and Eric's Bedtime Stories" on Adult Swim's Thursday night lineup, they're at a career high point, recently celebrating 20 years of friendship on "The Tonight Show" and kicking off a national tour with collaborator John C. Reilly, the star of "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" spinoff "Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule."

"Awesome Show" fans will recognize the same brand of humor in "Bedtime Stories," with the usual cast of collaborators, including Zach Galifianakis and Bob Odenkirk. But Heidecker and Wareheim have ditched the low-res, earnest cable TV format for something that looks more polished. And much, much darker. Each episode stands alone, connected thematically with its emphasis on the macabre. In the first episode, which premiered just after midnight on Thursday, Wareheim meets his untimely death when he moves next to Heidecker in the mind-numbingly dull suburbia of Anytown, USA. And in the upcoming "Toes," Odenkirk guest stars as a plastic surgeon who cuts off, well, toes, and for some inexplicable reason, eats them. It also ends in someone's death.

The show is brilliantly weird and funny, but it's hard to pinpoint why, exactly. If, as some research suggests, laughter is a response to the brain being surprised, then "Bedtime Stories" makes perfect sense -- just when "Bedtime Stories" establishes a parody or a trope we think we know, it's flipped on its head.

Salon talked to Heidecker about "Bedtime Stories," surprising comedy and why he's so disconnected from the comedy world.

Is there anything out there that still manages to surprise you?

Hmm. It’s a good question. I feel terrible because I just don’t watch a lot of comedy -- partly because you don’t want to be too influenced by anything, and it kind of turns into your job.

There’s this dude -- he’s out of Bethlehem [Pennsylvania, Tim's hometown] actually -- named Vic Berger, who is on Twitter, and he takes these really boring interviews with people. He usually does rock ’n' roll people like Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. He does always kind of boring rockers and he writes these interviews so they're always just slightly fucked up; he’ll loop a little moment when they lick their lips and he’ll zoom in on the licking lips, and do these really … it makes me laugh so hard and it’s so stupid and it’s so pointless. But yet it somehow taps into the stupidity of the original interview And he’s just a guy who’s in his home office, just trying stuff and putting it up on his YouTube and it’s so his own thing, it’s so clearly his own style and ambition and I’m psyched for him and I think it’s cool. That’s one of the only people I see out there who is young and weird and cool new stuff that I haven’t seen derivatives of.

“The Twilight Zone” has been listed as an influence of yours. When I watched you I was sort of reminded of George Saunders’ short stories.

Oh yeah? That’s cool. I think there’s probably some of that. I think Charles Portis would be somebody that’s influenced me and somebody like the “Short Cuts” writer, Raymond Carver. Those were all totally influential for their types of humor and their sad, normal people.

How did you and Eric decide to combine horror and comedy?

Well, we’ve always kind of mixed sort of the grotesque and the gory and the violent with the humor, sort of a release mechanism, I guess, or just as a shock mechanism. We don’t intellectualize it too much. We just kind of do it because it feels right.

I think it may be a little more deliberate with this show, and again, as we’ve stated or said about this show in the past is that every episode is going to be its own little world. So some episodes are going to be a little more dark than others. Some are going to be no violence or no kind of grotesque quality to it. But the ones that you guys have seen certainly lean more toward horror.

There is something funny to us about, for example, in “Toes,” the way we think about our bodies and the way we treat our bodies and what women or men might do. So that was just an extension of that kind of idea.

One of the funniest lines in that episode was just the deadpan, “I’m your dad now.”

(Laughs) Yeah. It’s horrible. That’s the hilarious thing of the whole episode, you know? Or it’s just funniest. It’s a good question that maybe a psychologist should answer, instead of, like, “why that’s funny to me -- or to you.” It’s like, “What does that say?” But it is to us, so therefore it shall be.

How do you balance scripted versus live comedy in the show?

This show is the first thing we’ve done in which a lot more time was spent on the script and getting a script that was fairly close to the end product. But with that said, I would say there is still 20-30 percent that happens on set. And we’re so confident that that’s going to happen on set that we don’t worry too much. We get the script to a place where we have a pretty good sense of what this is. But a dialogue is almost always better when it’s sort of tweaked on set and it’s experimented with. That’s the way we’ve always worked.

I love, just love, when I’m not on camera, being behind the monitors just throwing things out as it’s coming to my head, just kind of reacting to the real-time moments that’s going on. So it’s a mix of both and we’ve been doing this long enough where we feel very confident and comfortable coming into a scene and knowing that “OK, the page is pretty good. There’s a joke here. You know. It makes sense. But feel free to explore this further and try to make it funnier.”

What do you think about the proliferation of awkward humor as a mainstream genre of comedy now?

I suppose it is. I mean, if you’re talking about shows like “Parks and Recreation” or “The Office” or things, it feels like there are comedy tools now, where you’ll look in the camera and it’s just like a device more than anything. I mean, some of it’s good. Some of it’s not. Some of it’s fine ... I don’t know.

You pitched work to Bob Odenkirk a long time ago. What are some of the other projects or people that you’d like to work with but haven’t gotten to yet?

Um, that’s so tricky because I don’t think I could even imagine anybody that I haven’t worked with that I want to, because you go past a certain level of person and it becomes scary and intimidating. So I might not want to work with Woody Allen -- not for any of the other reasons that are in the news -- but I would be so intimidated. It seems like it wouldn’t be a good experience, based on what I’ve heard from other people. But those are people who are so influential …

Like Christopher Guest, I don’t know. He’s doing his thing, I’m doing my thing. Maybe it’s best we don’t work together. I don’t know. You’d probably prefer a more succinct answer. I just don’t think about it like that.

I think I’ve never felt more disconnected from the comedy world than I have in these last three years. I just don’t connect to most of it. And some of the people, I’m friends with, I guess. But I don’t feel very much a part of it.

Why is that? Because you said “just the past few years.” So is that something that’s changed?

Well, I think there might have been a period where we were kind of more involved in it. I don’t know what that means, but that we were participating more with other comings and doing stuff with Funny or Die. We did our movie through them.

But now it feels like we are just on our own, which is great. We’re making our own stuff. Our company is making great shows. But there isn’t a ton of camaraderie and community in the comedy world that I feel a part of at the moment. Just, frankly, I don’t like a lot of it and I don’t want to be around those people so much.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a comedian say that before. So what don’t you like about that world? Because it seems to me, as an outsider, that it’s somewhat different from the bullshit of Hollywood. But maybe I’m wrong.

Well, there’s a lot of really nice people and everybody’s nice. I don’t have any personal issues with anybody. But there just seems to be a lot of mediocrity in work and there’s a lot of, “I just want to be on TV” or “I just want to get paid” or “I just want to get a job” and the end product isn’t as important. There aren’t that many people that are just trying to do really outrageous things. Somebody like Brett Gelman, who I love, seems to be a guy who’s always trying to do just crazy, crazy shit. So there’s a camaraderie there with him or the people we do our shows with like Nathan Fielder. I can talk and hang out with those guys because I feel they are trying to do something cool. They’re trying to do their own thing.

And also, we didn’t come out of the UCB or Second City and those kind of formal places create sort of little communities of people who were all on the same track together or something. So we’ve always just been on our own little island doing our own little thing. And sometimes we cross, intersect, with that. But it’s nothing personal or anything like that. I feel that we’re kind of off on our own little planet. Not even an island, anymore, apparently. (Laughs)

Specifically thinking about diversity now, something I have covered a lot -- about how we need more women and people of color in comedy: As Tim & Eric has moved from indie to mainstream, is that a concern or a focus of yours at all?

Well, I don’t think we’ve moved anywhere near the mainstream. I mean, we’re still on our little cable channel at 12 o’clock in the morning. But my position on that has always been two different angles. One is our production company Abso Lutely produces shows for people and it’s our ambition and goal to get one or two women-based shows going — woman creator shows — if there is a more elegant way of saying that I can’t say at this point.

We’re working with some people, trying to help develop because I do think it’s important in the broader context to have more women voices and minority voices in comedy.

With our own work, we have no other agenda other than to express our own ideas, and they're personal ideas and they’re generally ideas that are from our hearts, our experience and our life. So we don’t really think too much about inclusion of other people at all in terms of having their expression or views put out.

You know, when we’re casting on the show there was a little more sensitivity or a little more consideration. For example, there’s an episode with Jason Schwartzman where he has a meeting with his agent and we wrote it as this cigar-chomping, old-school agent, just because that’s sort of your first instinct, you know. Or that’s what we imagined as like a stereotype in your head. And then it was like, “How can we make this a little a little more real, a little more grounded, a little more interesting?” and it was, “What if it was a woman?” There was an African-American woman that auditioned and she was great, and like cool, that’s sort of a natural way of diversifying the way our shows look without trying to cram some kind of agenda in there by anybody or ourselves.

But you know, we’re not like “Saturday Night Live,” where we have this broad team of writers and performers that we’re trying to create this mass appeal type of comedy. It’s us. And it’s just us. So unless Eric or I get a sex change, I don’t think that’s going to change.

You talked about how a lot of comedy is derivative. What advice do you have for people who are trying to aspire to creating something totally new?

My advice is to see it through. If you feel it’s something, or if it’s great or worth watching, try to see it through as close to the vision that you have in your head as possible and then, this is kind of boring thing, but treat it seriously and professionally and have confidence in yourself.

There are so many people we run into that hand us a really poorly made DVD, it’s like, “Sorry this sucks, but maybe you’d like it,” and it usually does because they’re trying to copy us or something. But when we struck out in the beginning, we’re trying to get on TV in the beginning, we took it really seriously. It was a job, like we had nice-looking covers for our things and followed up. You’re your best advocate and you know how your stuff should be seen and you should just treat it very seriously and market it, do whatever you can to get it seen by as many people. Get people talking about it. Because that’s the only way it’s going to happen.

 My last question is sort of a weird one: If you could create a word for anything, a feeling or concept that to your knowledge doesn’t exist already, what would it be?

Here’s one: I don’t know what the word would be yet, but maybe there is a word for this, and especially because I’m on tour right now and it’s a constant feeling of “am I getting sick? Is that the beginnings of a stomach virus? Is that a cold I have? Or is that just because I was screaming last night and my throat hurts?” I guess it’s the fear of getting sick. Because getting sick on the road is like the worst thing. It sucks. It’s really hard not to get sick on the road because you're constantly touching things. So that constant fear of wondering if this is the first stage of sickness would be a word I’d love for there to be.

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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Adult Swim Comedy Eric Wareheim Tim And Eric Tim And Eric's Bedtime Stories Tim Heidecker