Tim Heidecker has almost exclusively played characters named “Tim Heidecker,” and each finds him embodying some ugly being or overwrought idea in service of merciless satire. He is a cult hero for his subversively weird work with Eric Wareheim as Tim and Eric, the duo behind Tom Goes To The Mayor, Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories. He had the lead role in the challenging 2012 drama The Comedy, but also popped up unexpectedly for a quiet post as the groom in Bridesmaids.
Heidecker also co-created (with fellow comedian Gregg Turkington, away from his usual Neil Hamburger character) the nuanced webseries world of On Cinema At The Cinema. Ostensibly a modest show about film, On Cinema is actually ripe with melodramatic tension. Heidecker plays a hypocritical, right-wing bully who uses his platform as On Cinema’s host to rail against perceived injustices, while Turkington portrays a sweet, earnest film buff who takes an uncomfortable amount of abuse from Heidecker. Their film reviews are basically pointless (most get the perfect “five bags of popcorn” score), and that’s pretty much the show’s point. In his first out-of-character interview about On Cinema, Heidecker explains the origins of the show, how it seeks to critique criticism, and what we can expect in the sequel to On Cinema’s action-show-within-a show, Decker, which debuts on Adult Swim on March 9.
The A.V. Club: Where did the idea for On Cinema At The Cinema come from?
Tim Heidecker: Gregg and I were living together for a couple of weeks in Brooklyn for the making of The Comedy, which we were both in. As you do on a film set of any size or scale, you end up having lots of free time. This was in 2011, this period when every comedian had their own podcast and Gregg and I were both feeling like there was a lot of hot air and lazy, empty podcasts. Some of them were really good, but there was a lot of self-indulgent, navel-gazing activity going on that we thought was a little annoying. We thought, “Let’s do this meaningless, nonsense, no-information podcast about movies.” We stocked up a bunch of them doing it that way. And then we realized we had a forum to build some characters, and it was a fun place for me to do a certain kind of character that I don’t always get to do—this right-wing asshole. That plays really well off of Gregg who has this expert, film nerd personality that is just obstinate.
AVC: You mention that you were spurred on by podcast culture and, on some level, you’re parodying it. But you focused on Hollywood. What’s the connection between empty-headed podcasts and Hollywood?
TH: I don’t know if there’s a strong connection between those two ideas. They’re just two ideas that both exist in this show. In terms of Hollywood and films, we were making a movie that, we were pretty sure at the time, was going to be a weird, challenging, small movie that was going to be misinterpreted. There are two big issues that On Cinema satirizes or gets involved in. One, there’s just a shitload of movies that come out; there’s just an unending river of movies that come every week, and a lot of times there’s not a lot of demand for them. There’s a film review show in L.A. every Friday morning on NPR that’s called Film Week or something. They have these three critics come in and they sit there and talk about the 11 movies that are out that week and it’s like, “How did you guys have time to see them? How did you form opinions about them?” When we were making The Comedy and Billion Dollar Movie, we got a real sense of what the film reviewing culture is. A lot of times, you’re writing an article very quickly so you can get it out. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of time for reflection or consideration. There are obviously a lot of great writers that do good work writing about film and television, but the constant quick judgment that occurs and the encouragement to be snarky and quick about what a film is and whether it’s good or bad is all a little ridiculous to me. The A.V. Club is a perfect example and there are a couple of things from the site that provide us with inspiration.
AVC: Uh huh…
TH: First of all, the idea of a rating system where you have A- versus B+. What’s the difference between a B- and a C+—it’s just very silly to me. When The Comedy came out, I was really struck by them because they gave it an A-. Okay well, thank you for that; that looks good. But then it’s couched in this apology or qualification to the reader saying, “99 percent of the public is not going to get this movie.” And it’s like, well fuck you! Who are you to say who’s going to get this and whether or not that’s important? You shouldn’t be assuming from the beginning that most people aren’t going to appreciate this or get this. I mean listen, these aren’t real big problems, y’know? I always try to calm myself down about it. When you work hard on something and a lot of people put a lot of energy and time into it, you become an advocate for it and fight for it as much as you can.
AVC: You don’t seem to have any reservations about going after an industry that you’re involved in.
TH: We have plenty of fans of the show that are heavily steeped in the business. In fact, it’s a pretty popular show in that world; if you’re making movies or in entertainment, you maybe get it on a deeper level. Someone like Peyton Reed, who was on the Oscars special we did, is a huge fan. He directed the Ant-Man movie coming out this summer. Edgar Wright knows everything about the On Cinema universe. We recently gave a “five bags of popcorn” review to Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and I wrote to Rob Corddry to say congratulations and he retweeted it. You gotta be a thin-skinned jerk to be really offended by what we’re doing. I would assume there are critics who think it’s disrespectful or obviously making fun of what they’re doing, but it comes from that fanboy culture where, if it’s a Hollywood movie, it’s great. Obviously it’s an extreme version of that; there really aren’t too many critics out there giving perfect grades to everything that comes out. I think that anybody can see that there’s a bit of an acknowledgement that certain movies get treated differently than other movies and that’s the culture of film journalism right now. I’m sure there are other people who believe that to be the case but don’t express it that way.
AVC: For anyone coming to the Tim and Gregg characters for the first time, their idiosyncrasies and the tension are pretty nuanced. It’s pointedly subtle.
TH: That’s the kind of humor we’re drawn to and the kind of humor that I love. Some people might say “What are you talking about? There’s nothing less subtle than some Tim and Eric stuff.” But, in a sense, a lot of it is very subtle and dry and quiet and uncomfortable and weird. Gregg and I are doing this show without any desire to compromise that, and we let jokes play quietly some times. There’s a lot of ridiculous things that happen on the show, but there’s fundamental classic comedy aspects to it that I think are pretty obvious. It kind of plays more like a radio show, but with the ability to have facial expressions and visuals. It’s really about these two guys talking and how they interact with each other—the co-dependency that exists between them and what has now become this abusive relationship—that I think is rewarding for someone who follows the show. We see it as this soap opera that spans several seasons. I wouldn’t say that’s the way we originally intended it, but like anything I end up doing, there’s a real fun mystery to what it is, where it’s going, and where it ends up.
AVC: You play yourselves, at least by name. There are dynamics that are reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy or even Siskel and Ebert, but are your characters modeled after specific people?
TH: I always wonder if we’d be more successful if we just created names for the characters in stuff we do. People get hung up on that and think that I’m this horrible guy. Most people get that that’s not me and these aren’t real situations. It does make it a little murky. There’s almost nothing I’ve done that hasn’t been done with my own name. My character is inspired a little bit by Donald Trump, the acting in Decker is sort of Donald Trump, but also his views, his politics, and his brashness. I really can’t put a finger on what Gregg is doing; it’s really unique and I think it’s subtle. We think of it as this guy who has nothing but these movies. The dynamic that we think is really funny is that if there was anybody else for us, we would break up. If somebody else came to Gregg and said, “Would you be an expert on my show?” he’d be gone in a second. If I could get anybody else to be on as the expert, I would take them and never speak to Gregg again. So there’s this bond holding us together because there’s nobody else. That’s a fun dynamic to play with. And people get emotionally involved because they look at Gregg and go, “Why the fuck do you stay with this guy?” The very sad version of that is that obviously there are people who are really in those situations with abusive people and they can’t get away. Obviously that’s where a lot of our comedy goes—to dark places with a dark undercurrent.
AVC: The Donald Trump thing had not occurred to me.
TH: Well, I pay attention to the news, and when I made that Herman Cain record, it was because I was looking at certain people and couldn’t believe that they have microphones in front of their face and are able to communicate their ideas to the world. They’re so flagrantly on the wrong side of certain things. If you look at Donald Trump’s Twitter, it’s famously, unbelievably off and misguided. Just taking horrible positions and not couching them. And he’s just so proud of himself and confident—he doesn’t seem like a guy you could have a reasonable conversation with about anything. So that’s a little piece of it, and I think I bring my own little quirks to it. I love mispronouncing names and the bumbling, bad broadcasting kind of stuff.
AVC: We’ve seen this kind of satire before where performers physically embody the thing they’re making fun of. The most famous recent example is likely Stephen Colbert, who based a whole character on a right-wing blowhard. But the other weird thing about your character is, beyond being a right-wing dummy, he also fancies himself a cult leader. Why did these two strains intersect for you?
TH: It’s this bloviating, self-important, thinking-you’re-doing-God’s-work thing. Obviously Stephen Colbert did it amazingly and it’s sort of an obviously simple concept. The things that I say that are dumb are things that I personally think are dumb. There was this thread where right-wing Tim was saying that Ayaka [his Japanese love interest and mother of his unwanted child] should’ve got an abortion but “I don’t believe that other people should.” That’s just a classic example of hypocrisy that really does exist. This season, all he’s been talking about is small government and all of the right-wing commandments about the Constitution and small government and then the first thing he does is get a small business loan from the federal government to make his TV show. That’s just going to be a constant place to go.
AVC: It’s just a bizarre, multi-layered universe.
TH: I think that gets missed by a lot of people. I do want to say that I don’t really like talking about the joke and explaining the joke. I mean, I like talking about it with you, but it’s just annoying that I have to take it to an interview when it should be written about in a way where it’s treated like other comedy or work. Some people look at it quickly and think, ”This is just a troll because it’s just two guys giving great reviews to every movie.” But we realized that that wasn’t a sustainable thing and we wouldn’t bother spending our time doing it and talking about it if that’s all it was. We have other things going on. I think Gregg is a serious comedian, he’s a serious artist with all of his work. I like to think that I’m trying to do something that’s going to last a career and have done stuff that’s pretty good. I guess the question I’m driving at is, “Why do you think we care about this show? Why do we keep doing it?” Because it’s more than just one joke about movies.
AVC: Why don’t you think people take On Cinema more seriously?
TH: It takes a little more of your energy and time to watch it, and it’s a slow burn. A lot of the comedy takes place in your own head, not so much on the screen. Again, it’s like a radio play. It’s a fun universe for us to create because you can talk about stuff without having to do it; you can create this universe that just exists in the ether. I’m happy to make comedy that isn’t for everybody. That’s all I ever do. I don’t know why it isn’t for everybody, but it just isn’t. Some people just don’t embrace this kind of stuff—you can look at the comments section of this very interview to find evidence of that. That’s fine; I actually think that’s kind of cool. The 16-year-old son of a very famous comedian said to me, “This is my favorite thing and my friends and I love it and if I meet someone who doesn’t like it, they’re not my friend anymore.” He’s obviously a big comedy fan and nerd of comedy. That stuff starts very small. When I was a kid, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was like I’d discovered heaven. It was this comedy that completely got inside of my head and was very special and unique but not very popular. I think that’s what we’re hitting right now; if you’re a fan of it, you’re invested it in it and you care about it.
Most comedy befuddles me and it befuddles people I know. I feel lost because it’s not making me laugh or think, and it’s not coming from a particular point of view either. It’s confusing, and maybe I’m actually getting older. The stuff I’ve created has been influenced by the stuff that made me laugh, and now we’re two generations separated by that stuff. I don’t know. The two classics in my mind are This Is Spinal Tap and the first couple of seasons of The Office, where I remember distinctly, for both of those, not getting it right away. I remember seeing The Office for the very first time without anybody telling me about it and just being lost and not laughing and not getting the rhythm of it, but wanting to watch it again because that bothered me. And with Spinal Tap, that moment when David St. Hubbins is stoned after Nigel has left the band and he says, “Well, we shan’t be playing together again.” That little moment is so much of what On Cinema is about—this dynamic, these personalities, this obstinance.
AVC: Spinal Tap isn’t exactly British, but The Office is; was any British comedy particularly significant to you?
TH: I just discovered the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore characters, Derek and Clive. They’re great, they’re really funny, and they remind me a little of what we’re doing. First of all, on On Cinema, I hope you can see in our eyes, every once in a while, that we’re having the best time. We’re like a hair away from breaking the whole time. That energy is in that Derek and Clive stuff and in all great comedy; it should feel dangerously close to falling apart. If we’re dancing around that territory, I feel like we’re doing something right.
AVC: You guys must break occasionally.
TH: Oh, all the time. The scariest thing we do is the Oscars Special because we are really live. The editor’s in the control room with all of these great pictures lined up, ready to cut to, because he knows we’re going to have to go there. I’ve gotten better at it, but I’m bad at holding some of that in. Because it’s improvised, you literally haven’t heard what you’re going to say next and you haven’t heard what your partner is going to say, so sometimes there’s no avoiding it. On the show, we crack all the time and if we laugh really hard, we know that’s something we want to do again because if it made us laugh, it’s bound to make somebody else laugh.
AVC: Decker is a curious offshoot for an angry guy hosting a film criticism show.
TH: Yeah. “I can make a movie better than these guys, and this is how.” It started kind of amusingly as a real misunderstanding of how movies work or are made. I would go and make various scenes from Decker and I’d show them, and Gregg is just so ashamed and embarrassed to witness this display of ignorance of how movies are made—this idea that you’d shoot a scene, show it, and then shoot another scene. But Adult Swim saw that and said, “We’re really happy that you’re exploring this intricate web of a soap opera on On Cinema, but that thing you’re making there, that’s actually a show we understand. A James Bond movie poorly made—please make more of those.” We were like, “Well, we will make more of those, but it doesn’t work for us unless we make more On Cinema.” You can’t have one without the other. It’s just not as fun.
AVC: Is the character based on anyone in particular?
TH: It’s like a ’90s era… what’s his name… Steven Seagal. We always think about who’s making this and what’s their point of view. With Decker, he’s God. He’s all-knowing, there are no flaws, and that’s how Tim Heidecker perceives himself. And the president represents how he sees Obama and the government. Every scene’s gotta have Decker ranting about some right-wing issue and cramming his politics into everything.
AVC: And he kind of speaks like Donald Trump, but also Clint Eastwood.
TH: Tim is such a bad actor, but what he’s trying to do is Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson—that kind of squinty-eyed tough guy with a nasal voice—and it ends up coming out like Donald Trump. I don’t think he’s aiming for Donald Trump, but he thinks he can do that kind of voice and it’s funny to me what a big miss that is and how you have to give credit to those guys because they’re really good. You buy it and believe their performances.
AVC: So, all of Decker 2 was filmed in Hawaii?
TH: Yeah, we’re doing something a little different this time. It could be a disaster, but we’re airing new episodes every day on YouTube, Monday to Friday. I won’t say how many there are, but that will go on for several weeks. There’s a lot of Decker; we’re flooding the Internet with Decker. They’re shorter, all between three and five minutes, and we’re experimenting with this idea of smaller bites to see what that does. I expect people to save them up and watch them at the end of the week. It’s fun to build these episodic stories in very small bites. Obviously part of the joke in season one was very little story but lots of dramatic tension and drawing things out. Again, he has a very limited number of ideas, a very limited concept of good storytelling and story structure, so it’s a lot of filler and dead air. That’s what’s funny to us; we’re not doing it to get away with something. Hopefully, as an audience member, you’re laughing at the guy behind all of this and these decisions. While you’re laughing at the music and the look of everything, you’re also hopefully laughing at the intention.