Drawing on the worst and weirdest of American TV to surreal and sometimes nightmarish effect, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! established Tim Heidecker and his comedy partner Eric Wareheim as the two defining cult comedians of the last decade, while producing such spin-offs as the darkly poignant local news parody Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, the demented horror anthology Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, and the feature-length Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. But though Heidecker remains as prolific and absurdist as ever, his best work from the last few years has come from the more character-centric comedy of his Adult Swim web series On Cinema and its ingenious (and reliably hilarious) metafictional companion show, Decker.
Originally an audio-only parody of insipid film podcasts, On Cinema stars Heidecker and co-creator Gregg Turkington (better known by his alter ego, the hack comedian Neil Hamburger) as a couple of pathologically shallow movie reviewers named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington—the latter a pedantic self-declared movie buff, the former an overbearing jerk less interested in talking about movies than in going off about his personal life, his rock-star ambitions, and his Donald Trump-esque right-wing political beliefs. Decker, a parody of amateurish low-budget vanity projects that “stars” the On Cinema version of Heidecker as a Steven Seagal-esque action hero named Jack Decker, offers unfiltered access into the character’s psyche.
Heidecker spoke to The A.V. Club by phone about the meta-series’ latest season, Decker: Unsealed, which begins airing on Adult Swim on June 4.
The A.V. Club: It makes sense to mock the present political administration through a fake vanity project.
Tim Heidecker: That’s undeniable. When we’re writing it, the news is on. There are elements of the world that influenced certain plots and characteristics of the Decker character. I think it’s always been there, but the more we see of this guy Trump, the more real it becomes.
AVC: The quote-unquote “Tim Heidecker” character’s performance as Decker has become more Trump-ian this season. The squint. The cue-card line readings.
TH: That’s all very conscious. I recall trying to get that sway that he has—that never-comfortable-on-his-feet, moving-from-one-foot-to-the-other thing. Little details, but without trying to do an impression. His physicality and body language have been… influential.
AVC: Is there somewhere you look at for ideas?
TH: Nothing specific. Just the usual places, like cable news. I’ll watch just a little bit of Fox to get the sunniest version of this whole situation. Last night, they were literally saying that the country has been through worse things, and they had an etching from the Civil War on the screen. That’s looking on the bright side, I guess. But just to hear the talking points, the messages, the buzzwords that the Trump administration and the right wing use—I try to incorporate that into the philosophy of Decker. Small business, small government, all the usual stuff that they cart out.
AVC: What about aesthetics? The style of Decker continues to evolve. Decker’s CGI “stunt double,” for example.
TH: Gregg [Turkington] and our director and co-writer, Eric Notarnicola—we’re always trying to advance the kind of jokes we’re using and the way the show is made. There is this sense that you can give us all the money in the world, and we’re still gonna make the wrong choices. We’re still gonna make bad aesthetic choices. We don’t get a lot of money for the show, but we get more money than we did when we were doing the web version. It’s fun to go deep into the web and find these vanity projects that people have made where they do have a lot of money—because it’s some millionaire who wants to make movies or something—and to see the choices they make, because they’re think that with technology, you don’t need a set and you can just make it all in post. That never works. When we were coming up with this season, Eric Notarnicola was like, “Oh, I saw this thing where they were using these 3-D body doubles.” And I thought, “Awesome. Let’s a) definitely do that find and b) find places where [my character] would be too lazy to do the actual stunts myself.” The character is like, “I’m here to stand and say my lines.” You will very rarely see me moving very much.
AVC: Have you been keeping up with Steven Seagal movies?
TH: Not really. I think I got the gist when I was 9.
AVC: There’s one that actually got a theatrical release last year. It has this car chase scene where Seagal is never shown driving. The car will stop, and they’ll cut to Seagal sitting with his hands on the wheel and talking. But when the car moves, they’re filming an obvious stunt double through a tinted window.
TH: [Laughs.] Gregg and I saw this Johnny Cash movie from the 1970s or ’80s, and as we’re watching it, we kept noticing that he was always in these situations where he was sitting, lying down, eating a sandwich, in a pool, in a hot tub, in a sauna—every scene was just him relaxing. [The film in question may be the 1984 TV movie The Baron And The Kid. —ed.]
AVC: You think that’s how they got him on board?
TH: I think that’s what it was. “This scene, you’ll be getting a massage.” “Okay, sounds good to me!”
AVC: There’s part of what makes these kinds of outsider vanity projects so interesting—the transparency of the intentions.
TH: That’s a big part of the show and a lot of the stuff we do—and in the Tim & Eric world, too—is the intention of the creator, the character that’s creating it. That’s half the show right there. And if you don’t understand that, it’s gonna be very confusing.
Of course The Room was just so important as a touchstone on how to make bad choices, because they’re very specific. I grew up watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 and all that stuff. I remember watching the Dolemite movies. Remember Dolemite? We used to just cry laughing seeing the boom in the shot. It’s something we try to do carefully. Sometimes, when we’re editing, we do decide that something is too much. Like, they wouldn’t be that inept. You don’t want to make it unwatchable.
AVC: Do you have a litmus test for what’s “too much” with Decker?
TH: When we’re in the editing room and we’re watching a first cut, you can just feel it. Either we’re all laughing really hard, or we think, “Eh, that’s kind of a groaner.” It’s just a feel thing. It’s organic. And everyone usually agrees when something is just too stupid.
AVC: Do you shoot a lot of footage?
TH: No, we keep it pretty lean. Believe it or not, we just shoot the script. We write a script and we act it out. It’s a pretty efficient way of making something, because it’s not like you’re rolling hours and hours of improv and trying to find the best stuff.
AVC: I think that’s… just how they used to make comedies.
AVC: When you’re writing Decker, you have to write it the way an incompetent, self-centered person would write it.
TH: It’s not that difficult, because we’ve spent years figuring out these characters, “Gregg” and “Tim.” They’re such broad, archetypal characters that it makes it fun and kind of easy to figure out what they’re gonna do in a given situation. Bad writing is one of my favorite things to do. If you ever see any of the statements I put out from the On Cinema world about what’s going on there—they’re very Trumpian. I was into that before he came on the political scene. The way he communicates, the way he writes, the tone of his tweets. It’s so poor, so childish, so amateurish. It’s a fun exercise: How do you communicate this simple idea in the most confusing and poorly considered way?
AVC: But isn’t it dispiriting to see your parodies of rinky-dink egoism become the political status quo?
TH: I ran into a friend of mine. It was right in the middle of Gregg and me doing some kind of back and forth battle on Twitter. And he said, “It’s kind of nice and comforting to see your stupid battle online—your stupid petty squabbles about whether you saw Citizen Kane or Sully or something—as a break from the real shit.” It’s a parallel that’s less stressful than the real world. It’s hard to keep up with the craziness. I’m glad that the show is not super current-event-specific. It’s broadly referential to the perennial issues that come up, like guns and the environment. I don’t think those things are going away.
But we were shooting the show on Election Day and the next morning, it was surreal, because we were shooting a scene where Decker had become president. Not to give too much away, but he becomes president. And I’m not kidding—because people will think I’m embellishing—but the day after the election, the first scene was me, in the Oval Office, behind the desk, dictating my plans to my secretary. Everybody working with us—a bunch of young, artsy liberal people—they were crying. Not because of the scene, but because of the reality of the situation that we had woken up into, stunned and shocked. And I had to say to everybody, “You know, one of the things about this show is that we’re making fun of this guy. Everyone knows it. Let’s do that today, and we’ll do it tomorrow, and maybe it’ll help people feel less like they’re going crazy.”
AVC: What do you think is more important in this present season? The fact that it is a joke, or the fact that it reflects that some kind of reality?
TH: Look, the most important thing is that you watch the show and you laugh. But in the best case scenario, this kind of stuff makes you feel like you’re not alone. You get to think, “I see this stuff in the world and it seems crazy to me, but here’s this show I can watch where it’s all being filtered back into comedy.” Maybe for some people, it makes them feel a little isolated. That’s one of the great things about the show being on cable and being sent out into the world is that there are people who can watch it and laugh who might not have a community around them where they can talk about it. But, look, the primary function is to make something that makes us laugh and is fun to watch. It’s all TV should be for comedy.
AVC: This season has a futuristic sci-fi setting. I do like the collarless shirts, by the way. Takes me back to every ’90s film about the future.
TH: It’s the only change we made. They wear Mandarin shirts. The original move to television for the show was very experimental. No one was sure if it would work. The first season we did for TV, Decker: Unclassified, we wanted to do something that wasn’t quite as serialized [as the web series], so we could tell different stories in each episode but have some kind of overarching plot. That’s not a revolutionary concept. It’s what TV shows do. [Laughs.] But to us, there’s something really funny in redundancy. In Decker, it makes sense, because these characters don’t have a lot of ideas, so they tend to recycle. They have a very limited storytelling capacity. Which works out great for us, because it means we don’t have to do so much work.
It is funny to go, “Here’s a brand new season, a whole new story,” and what it comes down to is it’s essentially somebody telling stories that become flashbacks. In the second episode of this season, we really just a tell a story we’ve already told before. It’s like really, [these] guys don’t have any more ideas than that. And that’s going back to, “Who are the creators of this show? Where are their heads at?”
AVC: There have been some dramatic events in the Tim Heidecker character’s off-screen life. Do you see him ever evolving?
TH: [Laughs.] I don’t know about evolving. The opposite of that might be true. I don’t want to give anything away, but we’ve talked a lot about where that could ever go, what the ultimate conclusion of that character’s trajectory would be. And it’s not good. We keep painting ourselves into a corner that like, “Well, it can’t get worse than this. This is the bottom.” I imagine it’s sort of like what soap opera writers have to deal with, when they have to keep the thing moving, but it’s gotten so crazy.