I'll admit, I came to the Tim & Eric party a little late, but I think I'm caught up. Granted, the long-time comedy partners Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim is an acquired taste, due in large part to an almost anti-comedic approach to garnering laughs. They aren't about the punchline; they're about the build-up and the slow, sometimes painful and reliably awkward exhale. When the hit, the laughs are powerful; and when they miss, you feel the sudden urge to avert your eyes, which then makes you laugh anyway.
On such comedy series as "Tom Goes to the Mayor," "Steve and Stephen," "Tim and Eric Nite Live," and their crowning achievement "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!", as well as a host of "Funny or Die" shorts, the boys have enjoyed bringing in guest to their show who are both famous (John C. Reilly as Dr. Steve Brule and Zach Galifianakis in an array of immediately come to mind) and unknown (the host of non-actors they have enlisted as semi-regulars on "Awesome Show" is legendary).
And now Tim & Eric have made their first feature film that will likely make their core fans exceedingly happy, and the uninitiated scratch their heads and possibly start fires in the movie theater. I laughed at lot of TIM AND ERIC'S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, with a cast including Reilly, Galifianakis, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Loggia, Ray Wise, Will Ferrell, and the immensely funny Will Forte.
My only other personal encounter with Tim & Eric was a couple years back at Comic-Con, when they were the surprise opening act for Patton Oswalt at the House of Blues. They did a bit where they pretended they had just signed a deal to bring back the Blue Brothers (sponsored by Terminex), both strapped with canisters of "bug repellent" on their back. I was in the front row and got totally soaked by Tim, who told me after the show that he singled me out because I was laughing so hard, he thought I'd be cool with it. Okay, I'll accept that. Anyway, the fellas were in Chicago recently, and I had a chance to sit down with them early one morning to have a mostly serious chat about their special brand of funny. Please enjoy Tim & Eric…
Capone: Hey. It’s great to meet you.
Tim Heidecker: It’s nice to meet you.
Eric Wareheim: Hi.
Capone: There’s no way you are going to remember this, but we actually met a couple of years ago at Comic Con after Patton Oswalt's show that you guys opened up for, and you had the whole Blues Brothers thing.
Eric: Oh my God…
Capone: You sprayed me down with water to fiercely, and I met you backstage and I was still sort of damp from the whole thing. I remember one of you said, “Were you in the front row? I only did that to you, because you were laughing so hard.”
Tim: I figured you’d forgive us. [laughs] Luckily it was summertime, right?
Eric: I remember that moment, because I remember a lot of people going, “Why?”
Tim: I was just looking at your website, since I hadn’t been there in a while, and I found that Chevy Chase record somebody wrote about. I had no idea he did that. [To Eric] In 1980, Chevy Chase put out an album, like a comedy album, and they put it on their website. It’s really bad. It’s like songs and stuff. Something like that must have gotten completely buried.
Capone: Yeah, he probably had the power back then to make that happen.
Tim: To have it stricken from the record.
Capone: That’s right. When you're putting together material for a TV show or for Funny or Die, compared to a movie, the stakes are relatively lower. You’re not premiering stuff like that at Sundance, for example. Did you actually feel any pressure to do something different or to do something more accessible than you usually do?
Eric: Well one part of it creatively is when you are doing a sketch TV show, there’s much less risk, because if the sketch doesn’t work, you still have 10 other sketches to work with. With the movie, every little component makes up this story. We felt like “Shit, we’ve got to nail each of these scenes to at least get to the finale here. It can’t just be this random group of silly moments.”
Eric: It was much different in the way that the structure of it was a little bit more intense, and we had to kind of go scene by scene rather than just go off the wall.
Tim: We also just consciously early on decided that we didn’t want to make a movie that was just going to be for hardcore fans of the show. It wouldn’t have gotten made, there’s just not enough people that would want to see that. You need to open the tent up a little bit for a movie, because of how much it costs and everything. We wanted to grow instead of trying to repeat ourselves.
Eric: We’re also fans of movies. We love movies and we love the structure of a movie and we love the idea of caring about characters. We made a couple of things for Funny or Die where we played a father and son where Tim is my stepdad, and we talked to people and they were like, “We actually liked you guys and cared what happened.” It’s the same with the movie like when [redacted] gets killed, people are like “Aww!”
Tim: For a second.
Eric: Yeah. You want to set up a little bit of that, so you can actually sit there for 93 minutes and not be like, “Well that was just a zane-brained thing,” which it is, but it still has some backbone of a story.
Capone: Was it tough thinking in that long-form mode when you are used to putting together these 5- or 10-minute pieces?
Tim: It was something we had never done before, so yeah. It was definitely a work-in-progress kind of thing where we just worked on it for a while and wrote drafts and had people read it. I think actually Patton looked at it early on or maybe he just talked to us about like, “What you guys should do…” We went to some people that we trust and respect and were like, “What do you think we should do? What do you think we should try to avoid, or what do you think we should try to do if we are going to make a movie? What would you want to see Tim and Eric do if they made a movie?” It was just to get our heads out of it a little bit.
Eric: And most of the notes from like Patton and Matt Selman [writer and co-creator] of "The Simpson" were “Keep it in your own world. Don’t try to make it bigger than what your aesthetic is. Just have every part of it be slightly fucked up like the Tim and Eric world instead of throwing it into too much of a Hollywood movie.”
Tim: Right. And also a good note I remember was “If you are going to do crazy stuff or veer away, make sure that they are all inform the story in some way. So if you’re going to do a commercial or you’re going to do a video or something like that, make sure that it’s moving the story along,” which I think we did for the most part. If it didn’t do that, then it was consciously going in the opposite direction of that to change pace or something. We felt like everything in the movie is intentional on some level.
Capone: There's a comment there, even with the title, that you’re looking at the big bloated Hollywood film from your point of view. What were some of the things you wanted to comment on there or fight against?
Eric: We’re both from Philly, which is a working man’s town. We moved to LA, and you're just bombarded with huge billboard marketing branding just like these massive amounts of money put into these projects that’s kind of gross to us. The idea that these two guys got a billion dollars to make this thing, and you know when the AVATAR thing came out, everyone talked about how much money was in the budget, and so we are kind of referencing all of that in a way. The beginning of the story is how these two idiots fucked that up. [Laughs] They just use it on all of these stupid Hollywood things that you hear about that people really do when they get that much money.
Tim: I think it works in the context of our careers in that if you look at the SHREK campaign that we did a few years ago and sort of the way we are dealing with THE LORAX. I think we are constantly kind of “sticking it to the man,” so to speak. [Laughs]--the giant bloated Hollywood machine that pumps these often times terrible movies out, but they end up having to spend so much to promote it to try to get their money back, and it seems like there’s this endless cycle that happens.
Capone: What are you doing to counter THE LORAX?
Tim: Because it’s opening the same day as our movie, we just sort of made our fans take a pledge that they wouldn’t see THE LORAX, that they would see our movie. [Laughs] It’s funny, because it’s like obviously this isn’t even in the ballpark. It’s like some kind of minor league baseball team going up against the Yankee’s.
Capone: You guys went to film school in Philadelphia and met there. What were some of the filmmakers, at the time, that you were passionate about and maybe even wanted to emulate in some way in your early years?
Eric: Stanley Kubrick. David Lynch. Christopher Guest. Jean Luc Godard.
Tim: The Coen Brothers, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, for me.
Eric: Temple is kind of an artsy, serious film school, so we learned and watched all of these kind of films. When we started making stuff together, it wasn’t like “We are going to make a Funny or Die clip!” It was way before that. A lot of our early work was experimental in a way that it was video art rather than just a comedy bit. That sort of transferred over into what we are making for TV.
Capone: You are obsessed with videotape-quality commercials, shorts, anything with that aesthetic. What is it about that you still love?
Tim: It creates a universe. It references a time and a state of mind. It’s like the mise en scene for the bit. It’s more than just the set, it’s like how the thing is produced. We just want to make it completely immersive, so that you are just in this sketch or in the video or whatever it is, and it feels real.
Eric: A lot of the times we use it so you feel like the guy who is talking made this thing at home. The "Dr. Steve Brule’s" show is like that. We want it to feel like he made it on this shitty equipment that he had. Also in film school, we worked with really bad video equipment. All of our first things were shot and cut these horrible pieces, where every cut was a jump cut. So we took that and were like, “That’s actually really funny,” and kept that in a lot of our work. There are a lot of mistakes, mistake editing, which is actually a very fine art to make that work. You see a lot of people trying to do it now.
Tim: It can’t just be a total mess.
Eric: It has to be a calculated mess to be interesting.
Capone: I love the very limited number of special effects you can do with video. But when you see that picture quality change, it’s like instantly carbon dating the material. You’re like, “Okay, I know it’s somewhere between this year and this year that that was made.”
Tim: Yeah, yeah. It’s strange. It’s like the frame rate or something about it. It’s similar with British television--there’s that PAL thing and it immediately makes it feel just strange.
Eric: When we first started, we made some decisions like we didn’t want it to look like a glossy show. Look at "Mr. Show," which is our favorite show and it looked good, the production value was high. We wanted to make something that didn’t feel like that, something that didn’t feel like a comedy show like if you are flipping around and you are like, “Wait, is that a commercial?”
Capone: You’ve always had a great eye for finding really unique faces in some of the people that you’ve used as regulars, a lot of them non-actors. Tell me about why is that important, and how do you find those people?
Tim: Well it’s important because of how great it is and how different it is. We never wanted to make a sketch show that had a troupe, and no offense to the Chicago scene, but we didn’t want that Second City kind of thing. We just wanted to differentiate ourselves. So we have just always found real characters. Back in college, we would do a documentary about the guy down the street. I think there’s a history of art and comedy using real faces and real people. We’ve just given those people more lines. We’ve actually given them a starring role, as opposed to just being in a cutaway shot.
Eric: I also think something we don’t talk about a lot is we love the element of surprise when you watch our show. I think David Lynch did this too with some of his actors, where you’re just like “Whoa! That guy is out in left field,” just wildly different performances. We like that when people watch the show, and it’s like “Is that an actor, or is that a real man on the street? Does he know what’s going on? Is he laughing at the joke?” All of those questions we like, and as a viewer I think it’s interesting to try to figure that out. “What is happening? Where is the line?” That’s just interesting to us.
Capone: You never see people like this on film on TV. Do you get a thrill out of saying “I’m going to show these people something they’ve never seen before.”
Eric: And we befriend a lot of these guys; they've become our friends and part of the family, and it becomes a much bigger thing. We bring them on tour, and people will often say, “I love seeing that. I don’t know what was going on and I don’t know what level their awareness is.” That kind of makes it fun.
Tim: And I would say like 99 percent of the people that we have ever worked with--and we will admit we’ve gotten people to do some crazy shit on camera--but I can’t think of anyone that has come back to us and have said, “Why did you use that take?” It’s always been like, “When can we do something again?” They're writing to us, sending us cards like “Don’t forget!” Like that guy Bob Ross who always does the taking his teeth out. He’s the Tan Man and is the Broach Guy--that guy has created a whole freaking little industry off of his appearances on our show where he does calls for fans where he calls and leaves messages. These people are given this weird little chance, this little opportunity.
Eric: We’ve literally made some of these regular guys stars in a way.
Capone: That reminds me of stuff Letterman used to do in the early days.
Tim: Larry "Bud" Melman is a classic example, with an amazing face, crazy kind of guy. “Let’s kind of laugh at him,” but you love him too.
Capone: I’m sure the film will continue the tradition of your work being divisive, where some people just aren’t going to get it. Do you have a favorite negative review or negative comment about your work that you're actually proud of to a certain degree?
Tim: There’s a general attitude from some people that are, “Why did anybody give these guys money?” Some people honestly think that we are fooling everybody somehow; we don’t have any talent, and all we are doing is “blah, blah” with not thinking it through, and that somebody is being irresponsible with money at the network or these film studios. It must piss them off so bad, because they probably have a pile of scripts that they’ve written that they're trying to get read.
Eric: That goes to our title as well. “We made the movie. Fuck you, we actually did this,” which is awesome.
Capone: Then there’s the flip side of that where there are people who actually dig deep into your stuff and look for social commentary and inner meaning. Do you think that’s going too far as well, or do you actually have some of that buried in there?
Tim: We don’t sit around in our tweed jackets, smoking pipes, and planning our grand mission for the next five years, but I think we have some kind of integrity in that we try to do things for a reason and I think we're trying to make a general, broader, larger statement about the world that we’ve surrounded ourselves in. But we don’t try to obsess over it or get down to the details.
Capone: I get the sense that you like the idea that there’s a group of people out there that don’t like or don’t get what you are doing. Would you feel less comfortable if everyone dug you? Or is that the goal?
Eric: We’ve never had that feeling. [laughs] Everything we’ve made has been really personal to us, and we’ve always known that that’s not for everyone and we’ve just accepted it.
Tim: But we’re not out to exclude anybody. That’s not part of our mission. We are not like, “Let’s make sure to do this, and people are going to hate it.” We don’t have that attitude; we just do what we do, and the controversy or the polarization happens out there in the world, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Capone: Talk about the art of the art of the awkward pause. What is the key there to what comes right before it, how long it goes for, and then what comes after it. You guys aren’t punchline writers.
Eric: I’ll demonstrate it for you, right now. “What are you talking about?”
[What follows is about 30 second of silence, with Eric and I looking at each other, then around the room, then back to each other."
Capone: [Laughs] I can’t do it. I’m terrible at it.
Eric: I mean you said it in your question: we love what happens before and after the punchline. The setup is more important, and the whole idea of the show or a movie is a joke to us too. Do you know what I mean? It’s the body of the awkwardness is kind of what we love, like Tim’s relationship with that boy and how seriously he takes that in the movie at times, where it’s just an awkward moment that makes us giggle. It’s as simple as that.
Tim: It’s like watching Christopher Guest. Watching SPINAL TAP and seeing… We did a record signing the other day, and I was remembering the record-signing scene in that movie. That could be played as a disaster, because if you’re just describing that scene where nobody shows up to their record signing, itt’s sad, it’s depressing. It should be, “What’s funny about that?” “I don’t know, but it makes me fucking die laughing thinking about it.”
Capone: What you guys are doing with Will Forte in this movie is just awesome.
Tim: He’s the best, and yeah we feel the same way and we've always worked with him. There’s something really odd about him that’s hard to put our fingers on, but he’s got a craziness in his eyes.
Capone: And he can adapt to any kind of comedy. He’s so good at that. He can do the SNL sketch stuff, but he can also fit right in with what you are doing, too.
Tim: There are not a lot of people that can do it.
Capone: No, absolutely not. Guys, thank you so much for talking.
Tim: Yeah, nice talking to you. Great seeing you again.