There was a shocking amount of overlap in the Venn diagram intersection of terms both fans and detractors of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! used to describe the series (which may or may not have ended in 2010). “Weird” would be top of the list for both. “Deliberately offputting” might be a close second. After that, any combination of “gross,” “bizarre,” “batshit insane,” and “I may be having a stroke” would probably make an appearance. The difference is in what’s left over on each side of the chart. Fans use those terms in admiration, bordering on awe—to them Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are comic visionaries, upending complacent, conventional ideas about modern comedy and reassembling the shards into a dazzling, jagged kaleidoscope of media, Dadaism, and madness. For everyone else, they’re a pair of ungainly, juvenile weirdos who get off on poop jokes and making people throw up in their mouths a little.
And while I fall into the former camp, I generally appreciate Tim and Eric more than find them hilarious. (And occasionally question the need to see, say, Wareheim thrashing around in a bathtub of little boy crap.) In some ways, the pair’s new venture, Tim And Eric’s Bedtime Stories, seems like a perfect, more palatable introduction to the duo’s style than their previous show. At least on the evidence of this first episode, it's a more playful enterprise. It’s still plenty odd, but its comedy, at least partially restrained by its relatively-straightforward narrative, can’t veer into that “batshit insane” territory as easily. Which is not to say that Tim and Eric fans won’t be happy, and Tim and Eric detractors annoyed and confused.
As the pilot for a proposed anthology series, “The Reading Of The Will” begins with a near-overload of clichéd entertainment tropes. Hearing that they (and pal/frequent accomplice) Zach Galifianakis have each inherited the princely sum of $1000 with the stipulation that they live forever in a haunted house, Tim and Eric immediately snap into their overenthusiastic, self-centered personae, gloating over the money and inappropriately sprawling over lawyer John Heard’s desk. Unfortunately, Zach wants no part of the life of a ghost-bedeviled shut in, grand or no grand, quite sensibly underplaying the line, “I like where I live. It’s perfect for me.” Inevitably worn down by the pair’s signature tactic of maddening tandem annoyance, Zach finally caves. Waving off their offer of a standard pen and, after a long, long series of Three Stooges hand gestures (complete with sound effects), he produces an absurdly elaborate feather duster of a quill pen. This entire sequence plays out in a manner seemingly designed to annoy those predisposed to hate Tim and Eric’s brand of humor and keep fans a little nervous. Apart from some familiarly grotesque gestures, the whole thing is reminiscent of a deliberately hacky, self-consciously winking parody of already tired jokes (like, well, The Three Stooges). It is as if the next step in Tim and Eric’s comedy evolution was to star in a remake of Brain Donors, especially as Tim, Eric, and Zach are costumed in loud, too-big suits and wearing huge wigs reminiscent of (respectively) Harpo Marx (or William Katt), Rick James, and Reggie Watts.
One they get to the spooky old house, things proceed in the same fashion, with Zach leaping into Tim’s arms Scooby Doo-style when scared (Tim drops him immediately), Zach finding his Murphy bed hidden behind a secret bookcase, and even a Scooby-esque hallway chase, with the three fleeing some spooks by running in and out of the somehow-interconnected doors. Along with the Scooby stuff, there’s some Benny Hill fast motion and some ungainly roughhousing on the stairs and a pair of bunk beds, none of which would have been out of place on The Monkees.
What elevates the material, of course, is that Tim and Eric, for all their grotesquerie and anti-comic winking, are very smart comedians. Immediately upon reaching their haunted new digs, they start puncturing the easy satire and lame gags with deadpan asides and unexpected intrusions of reality. Zach leaps into Tim’s arms when Eric pretends to be a ghost—and Eric immediately apologizes upon seeing how genuinely upset Zach is. The expected cartoonish vibe gives way to Zach’s hilariously angry, “No goofs! No more goofs!” and Eric’s sincere regret. The hallway chase is in full, hackneyed Benny Hill mode when it, and the soundtrack, cut off immediately when Galifianakis knocks himself expertly unconscious on a closed door. And the fact that Zach is the unwilling butt of most of the jokes is leavened by his exasperated sensible-ness when trying to get the oblivious Tim and Eric to turn their heads a mere 45 degrees to see the genuinely frightening ghost child standing menacingly behind them. (“That's not a traditional turnaround, and you know that. You’ve been turning your head your whole life!”)
In short, this 14-minute narrative is packed with enough recognizable Tim and Eric weirdness to keep their fans happy at the thought of Tim And Eric’s Bedtime Stories continuing. Especially when the tale twists and then twists again as Zach first breaks the fourth wall pretending to have injured himself falling down the stairs (an obviously padded stuntman took the real fall), and then, after the title “50 years later” he discovers that the entire thing has been a goof. The contract a fake, the whole thing has been set up by Tim and Eric because, as Tim says sincerely, “We love you Zach. We wanted to spend as much time as possible with you.” In one moment, the whole episode is a Twilight Zone parody, an absurd deconstruction of haunted house movies, and—as Zach finally leaves the house singing a ballad about what he could have been doing with the last 50 years of his life—a musical. It’s inventive, it’s cleverly constructed, it’s oddly touching, and, yes, it’s batshit insane. Good to have Tim and Eric back.
- Tim and Eric’s penchant for unsettling physicality mainly manifests itself in an extended spanking fight about who gets the top bunk. It is unsettlingly drawn-out.
- I’ve always been a sucker for the guys’ sly transformation of actual words into something just different enough to be creepy. Witness their references to their “bork beds,” and how they repeatedly change “Zach” to “Zork,” “Zaj,” and “Zono.”
- Zach gets in on the act too, screaming, “Somebody call nine-eleven!”
- The guys’ rapid-fire suggestions for names of Zach’s proposed home gym include: “Hard Zork,” “Zear’s wrestling room,” “Zork’s glute room,” and “Zono's big boy muscle room.”
- Eric patronizingly responds to Zach’s desire to leave with, “You know what Zach, two out of three of us are having a great time.”
- After 50 years, Zach responds to one of the house ghosts with the deadpan, “I told you a thousand times that does not frighten me that much. Any more.”
- They had actually inherited a million dollars, but Tim and Eric spent it all on the goof. Including hiring the actual John Heard to play the lawyer. Zach: “I thought that was you. I didn’t want to say anything…”
- The final song actually has some lovely harmonies, which makes it that much weirder. Well done.