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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim on accessing the “insanity” of bad sitcoms for Beef House

Illustration for article titled Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim on accessing the “insanity” of bad sitcoms for iBeef House/i
Photo: Adult Swim

We’ve seen plenty of sitcom spoofs over the years—That’s My Bush!, Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett’s “unaired” SNL skits—but no series has sought to satirize the TGIF shows of yore quite like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Beef House. The Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! creators also star in the new Adult Swim series as best friends who share a suburban home with the Beef Boys—Awesome Show alums Ron Austar, Tennessee Luke, and Ben Hur—and Eric’s wife, Megan (Jamie-Lynn Sigler).

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What is a beef house? What are beef boys? Why do they live together? How do they know each other? None of it matters. In true sitcom fashion, it’s all about that week’s adventure, the likes of which will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen an episode of Full House or Family Matters. In last week’s episode, an old army buddy of Tim’s threatens both his friendships and his marriage. This Sunday’s episode finds the Beef Boys joining forces to help Tim when his diarrhea encroaches on a big date. Each episode ends with a hug, but not before we’ve endured the duo’s twisted, hysterical brand of darkness. Its blend of idealized domesticity and off-kilter lunacy is a perfect fit for these odd times, in which we’re all spiraling into darkness from the comfort of our sofas.

Heidecker and Wareheim, each calling from their home quarantines, spoke to The A.V. Club about the Lynchian qualities of the modern sitcom and what it’s like to play the straight men for once.

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The A.V. Club: What sitcoms did you consume growing up?  

Eric Wareheim: We both grew up watching all kinds of sitcoms: Family Ties, Who’s The Boss. And what’s interesting is when we started writing this we didn’t have one sitcom in mind. Because we watched a thousand hours of that growing up, we knew how the sitcom format worked. When we started diving into the writing of it, it was just like, oh, this is how it goes because we already have so much information in our heads.

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Tim Heidecker: We grew up in the ’80s and early ’90s and there was not a lot of choice about what you watch on TV. I think we probably just turned on the TV and watched whatever was on. There were certain sitcoms that were a little more for kids versus something like Designing Women or Murphy Brown that felt a little too serious, but then you go and watch the TGIF/ABC slate of Perfect Strangers and Growing Pains. I don’t know if I’d say I’m a huge fan of Growing Pains. That was just what you watched. It wasn’t really an option, it’s just what you did.

AVC: Did you revisit any of them before writing Beef House?

EW: We watched some, but we also watched some new sitcoms just to see where things have progressed to. And also to get the look of it. We used the same cameras that Fuller House used. We wanted to mimic that kind of look so if you saw Beef House and you didn’t know Tim and Eric, for a couple moments you’d be like, “Oh, it’s a new sitcom.” And then the perversion sinks in that you’re actually watching the Beef Boys and not Uncle Joey.

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TH: I watched a few minutes of this Tim Allen show that’s on, Last Man Standing. And I think this goes for all these relatively new sitcoms, but it feels almost like a David Lynch experience or something, because they’re like relics from a different time period. They’re all cleaned up and on HD video and you can see every little detail on your giant TVs now. There’s nothing legitimately funny about any of it; it’s all just tropes and stereotypes of what jokes sound like. It’s very strange. But I think people watching them now are not rushing to their TV to binge through them. They’re just kind of on, filling air.

EW: Yeah, no one is laughing at these shows. Like Tim is saying, I watched The Conners and I couldn’t even smile. I tried to enjoy it, but it’s so far from funny. That’s why we made Beef House—our tagline is, “A sitcom, but funny.” We tried to use the same rhythm that every sitcom is using, the same ideas of a group of people trying to figure out a problem and different kinds of friendships.

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TH: There was this thing also on The Conners that I showed Eric—somebody told me to watch the first episode of the show after they fired Roseanne because the tone shifts that happen between setup-joke-setup-joke to, suddenly, a discussion about Roseanne having overdosed on painkillers. It’s so crazy. It was like, what is this weird play that we’re watching now? With this audience that’s sort of there but also we’re not hearing what they really sound like? So I think that’s directly influenced in our show; there’s these weird serious scenes between Eric and his wife and there’s this growing sense that my character is addicted to pills and all this darkness that we can’t help but weave through our show.

AVC: Eric, you told The New York Times that with Beef House “there was a challenge for us to see if we could get that close to the insanity that is a sitcom.” What is the “insanity” you’re speaking of?

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EW: The insanity meaning the way that people interact with each other and the timing of it all. It’s obviously not anything close to a single-camera comedy or a drama where there’s moments to breathe. Sitcoms are really like joke-laugh, joke-laugh, joke-laugh, and that kind of pacing is insane. It’s just so not normal. And there’s also what Tim was describing: How new sitcoms are so gross-looking and so not funny and you’re just swept up in this cycle of “What is going on here?”

AVC: In the second episode, “Prunes,” you have one of the Beef Boys saying “LOL” and other hyper-modern jargon in a way that feels so hilariously unnatural. Was this a comment on the clash between the antiquated nature of the sitcom and the need to make it feel modern?

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TH: Yeah, that’s us pretending we’re these grizzled veteran TV sitcom writers that are completely out of touch with everything. They’re very wealthy and live in Brentwood and are like, “What do the kids say now?” These 50-year old sitcom writers writing for a millennial character and getting that mixed up together.

I also just wanna say: Listen, we all know family sitcoms are a pretty big target. It’s not the hardest thing to do. So from the beginning we said [Beef House] can’t just be a joke about how sitcoms are bad; that can’t be the only reason to do this show. You look at some sitcoms—you can call them sitcoms—like Curb Your Enthusiasm or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Seinfeld, and those are examples where they were able to tell a situational story based on the same group of people in a way that was original and inventive and funny. So we’re like, can we do both of those things? Parody the family sitcom, put it in that style, but also do it so we’re not just telling bad jokes. We’re telling jokes that make us laugh, that make our audience laugh. I didn’t want it to feel like we’re just sitting here shitting on family sitcoms.

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AVC: What does the writers’ room look like when you’re navigating that kind of tightrope?

EW: You take “Army Buddy Brad,” that has a very common theme in sitcoms: New person from out of town is visiting and causing problems, friendships are brought up; we wanted to see how far we could take that. In the Tim and Eric world, we’re going to cause this poor guy so much PTSD that he has to leave the situation. There’s obviously an easier way to do that, but we remember sitcoms where they would do all kinds of crazy things, like build haunted houses, to tell these dumb stories. We took a couple of those themes and put that through the Tim and Eric machine.

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AVC: You’ve worked with Ron Austar, Ben Hur, and Tennessee Luke on Awesome Show. What made you decide to bring them onto this project?  

TH: The original thought was that it would be a halfway house for [Tim and Eric] all-stars, with people coming and going. But the more we took it seriously as a family sitcom, we decided it had to be consistent people in that house. And we picked those guys because they all bring a very different kind of weirdness to the room. They’re all really funny in their own ways and they’re different so it created a nice balance. Eric and I realized as we were shooting [that] we’re kind of the straight men of the show. Eric, for sure, he’s gotta do that thankless task of being the dad in the show while Ron and Ben and Tenny get all the funny lines. They get to destroy, which is fun. We love that.

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I only wish we had recorded the first table read with everybody. It was insanity. It was like, what monster have we created? And this goes for Eric and I, too, but nobody in that cast—except Jamie—are professional sitcom actor-type people, so the process was not like we went out there and performed the play of the episode. It was improvising and throwing lines at each other and block shooting some people, that kind of thing. It was not like your average sitcom process, I can imagine.

AVC: How did Jamie get involved?

EW: We just really wanted to get an amazing actor we like and respect like we’d do in Awesome Show and Bedtime Stories. Tim and I grew up watching The Sopranos, obsessed with it, and she was available and said she was a fan of Tim and Eric so we’re like, let’s give it a shot. We knew we wanted another straight man other than me, somebody that’s actually working for a living, you know. Everyone else is unemployed.

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TH: Just like the world right now.

EW: We also wanted to keep this mystery: Why is she married to me? Why would she live in this house? Why would she allow all the Beef Boys there? She’s kind of this mom figure; we’re always getting in trouble, and she’s such a good actor.

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AVC: What can people expect from the upcoming episodes?

EW: We have six this season and we would love to make more. In season two we’d love to bring in a new Beef Boy, whether it be a man or a woman, but a new roommate that’s just there. Once we found the rhythm of this, we knew we wanted to make tons of these. The more you make, the funnier it is.

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Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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