Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have built a cottage industry around comedies that stretch the definition of comedy. They’ve been creators, stars, and producers (through their staggeringly on-point Abso Lutely brand) of some of the most potent, line-jumping funny stuff of the last decade, from Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule to Nathan For You. The duo’s new Adult Swim series, Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories—which starts its seven-episode run tonight—is simultaneously the strangest and most straight-forward thing they’ve done as creators. Each episode offers a standalone story with different stars—including Heidecker and Wareheim—and explores tones and rhythms that they haven’t touched on before, particularly (but not exactly) horror. Whereas the duo’s previous shows have been funny but flirting with scary, there are lengthy pieces of Bedtime Stories that are just creepy: Bob Odenkirk stars as a plastic surgeon whose job is to graphically snip off patients’ toes, for example. It’s a marked change from what was billed as the show’s pilot, “Haunted House,” which aired last year and starred Zach Galifianakis (along with Heidecker and Wareheim) in a Three Stooges-inspired goof. The first two episodes are much darker, with the duo starring as tormented/tormenter in “Hole” and Odenkirk getting creepy in “Toes.” The A.V. Club spoke with Heidecker and Wareheim in the midst of their stage tour with John C. Reilly.
The A.V. Club: The first two episodes were great, but very different than the episode with Zach Galifianakis that ran a year ago. Was there a concept change?
Tim Heidecker: From the beginning, we pitched the idea that it was going to be a different story every week, and the tone and the look and feel was going to be driven by the idea. So the first one that came together was the Zach one, and that one needed to feel sort of consistent with other things we’d done with Zach, and kind of bridge the gap between something like the Absolut thing and this new show. But we made that, and then we took almost a year off to get ready to do the series, and in that period of time, it started leaning more toward this darker, more cinematic vibe. But there are still episodes that are lighter, that aren’t quite as serious or horror-driven. The plan was always to elicit exactly what you experienced, which is to get something that you’re not expecting each week.
Eric Wareheim: We actually wrote “Hole” as the pilot a year ago, but we switched it to “Haunted House” because Zach was available.
AVC: When you were conceiving this series, did you have an idea, tonally, of what you were looking for? Do you speak in those terms, like, “We don’t want to be wacky…”?
EW: We’re definitely both in a place where we feel like we’ve done the Awesome Show, and we did everything we wanted to on that show. We made a couple short films that were more cinematic and had a different vibe, and that’s what we wanted to get across in this new series—playing with the idea of setting you up for this environment that feels normal for a few minutes, and then things start to twist and turn into this nightmare world. Each week it’s a different nightmare. We wanted it to feel very different. Not for the sake of throwing people for a loop, but because that’s where our heads are at now. We want to tell these stories, we want them to look a certain way. We’ve had musicians score them. Everything about them feels a little different. It’s more like the feeling you get when you’re in a movie theater and everything’s more all-encompassing—that’s what we wanted to get across.
AVC: Do you feel like you’re going out on a limb with this show? Have you ever felt that way?
TH: Maybe a little bit. Making season three of Awesome Show didn’t feel as much like going out on a limb, because we knew there was an audience for it. Or when we do more Check It Out! it doesn’t feel as dangerous. This felt like—is this even going to fit on Adult Swim? We had a few of those moments, like, “Is this going to be funny?” That sort of self-consciousness about it. But now I feel like it’s exactly what we wanted to do. You’ve have to just accept that, and hopefully people will be up for it.
EW: Luckily, the spirit of Adult Swim has always been just, “Throw it up there on TV, and see what people think!” That’s how Mike Lazzo operates, and that’s awesome for us. We screened a lot of these episodes, and you’re not laughing all the way through. You’re kind of absorbing it, and you’re getting freaked out, and you’re holding your face—you don’t want to look at what you’re seeing. It’s a whole different experience that Tim and I are really jazzed about.
EW: I think a lot has to do with our age, and personally feeling the weight of living in this world. Things are very scary, and heavy, and I think that has translated directly into our work. Some of the themes that we’re touching on are these real, exaggerated versions of real nightmares that are happening. “Toes” is not too far away from real plastic surgery. Women are putting concrete in their asses. Maybe we’re not that far away from something as crazy as chopping off your toes for beauty.
AVC: Can you tease some of the other episodes? How many are there?
TH: There are seven for some reason. We like to mix the numerals up.
AVC: You’ve always got to do things your own way.
EW: Jason Schwartzman stars in one called “The Endorsement.” John C. Reilly stars in an episode with Laurie Metcalf called “Baby,” where he plays a very dramatic character. We have Zach Galifianakis and Lauren Cohan in an episode called “Bathroom Boys.” Bob Odenkirk obviously in “Toes.” We have one episode called “Roommates,” which is the most Tim & Eric-heavy, classic episode. Tim and I play struggling actors in Hollywood; I’m a barista and Tim’s a mixologist. That’s actually a 22-minute episode. It’s kind of the special episode.
AVC: In the press release and in a couple of interviews, you’ve mentioned The Twilight Zone. Is that really an influence or is that an easy touchpoint for people?
TH: It’s definitely more of a touchpoint. It’s an influence in that we all grew up watching it, and it’s a great show. But it became easier to use that frame of reference. There really aren’t these kind of shows on the air right now, but they used to be—a different story every week, different cast. And then the horror and the darkness kind of crept in as we were making it. I don’t think it was intentional to get as dark as some of the episodes get. But some of that doesn’t even show until the ending—until the scoring and some of those kind of choices you make. It’s like everything we’ve ever done. We sort of have rough ideas, but only in putting it together do you really see what it is you’ve done.
AVC: Is it tough to tweak that tone? Tonally, this show is unlike anything else. It’s not really horror-comedy, or anything else I’ve ever seen.
EW: We’re pioneers, Josh. [Laughs.] You know that. I think it was really a personal thing for Tim and I to do this and not really worry about the gags as much. It was really refreshing. I think we had more fun making this series than anything we’ve done in the last few years. Working with amazing actors. It’s never been about, “Let’s make something new and groundbreaking.” It’s more, “Let’s make something that turns Tim and I on.”
AVC: So being pioneers comes naturally is what you’re saying. You don’t even have to try.
TH: [Laughs.] We can’t help it! It does feel like—and again, this isn’t intentional—there is more of a linear, straightforwardness to it that opens it up to a bigger audience. The New York Times just wrote a little thing about it, and even the way they talk about it—they wouldn’t have been able to do that with Awesome Show. It would’ve been too easy to turn against it. This has a sort of palatability to it. There’s a level of humor that’s a little more accessible. People could watch some of these and say, “I just got told a story.”
AVC: Do you think horror fans will like it? Are you guys horror fans at all?
EW: I’m into things like Under The Skin or The Shining, the creepy, psychological stuff. I’m not into the campy stuff.
TH: I’m more of a Kevin Smith guy, like the new Kevin Smith stuff. [Laughs.] His horror stuff? That’s what I’m into. No, we’re not comic-book, Fangoria types.
EW: You know what I am a fan of? Stuff like Lars Von Trier. Like at the end of Melancholia, I was in tears and felt something I’d never felt before. It’s not a horror movie, but it’s just so intense. And I felt like at the end of “Hole,” or the end of this episode called “Baby”—with John C. Reilly—you’re not laughing. You’re just left with this really intense feeling, and that’s what I’m most proud of with this series—that we’re trying to get across different emotions than just giggles.