Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is one of those rare TV shows that can alienate some viewers with nothing more than the opening credits. Even for long-time viewers and hardcore fans, it’s kinda confusing. It begins with stars Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, dressed in matching red jumpsuits, dancing on their own tongues. Then there are flashing images of a fax machine, a hot dog and two kittens tongue-kissing. Tim and Eric’s respective heads explode, sending their viscera and dozens of tiny kitty heads spiraling towards the screen. If you don’t enjoy those 20 seconds of rapid-fire absurdity—which, for the record, tells you absolutely nothing about the show itself—then you need to keep on tappin’ that remote, brother, ’cause you ain’t gonna like what comes next.
During its four seasons on Adult Swim—season three will be released on DVD August 4th— Awesome Show has been one of the most polarizing shows on television. The people who love it really love it, with almost violent Star Trek ComiCon devotion. The people who hate it want it not only cancelled but chased out of town by an angry mob brandishing pitchforks and torches. And just try describing Awesome Show to somebody who’s never seen it before. It’s like… Eugene Ionesco doing a Sacha Baron Cohen prank, if Ionesco was a big Flight of the Conchords fan… and on crystal meth. Also, there’s lots of poop and gravy burglary and bad electronica and ventriloquism and scared children singing about poisoned food and John C. Reilly explaining the human body and…. oh, oh, oh, have you seen those Absolut vodka ads Tim and Eric did with Zach Galifianakis? That’s totally what Awesome Show is like, only completely different.
I called Tim and Eric at their Los Angeles office, where they were preparing for a mini-summer tour that took them from San Diego (for the third annual “AwesomeCon”) to Jersey City, for tomorrow night’s All Points West Festival.
Eric Spitznagel: You’ve just finished shooting the fifth season of Awesome Show. Is this going to be the big one, when Tim and Eric finally win over the hearts and minds of the mainstream?
Eric Wareheim: Season Cinco represents a very dark side of the Awesome Show series. I think people are going to be very scared and very disturbed by it.
That is the worst pitch for a TV show ever.
EW: Really? You think so.
Well, probably not for anybody who’s already an Awesome Show fan. A lot of your comedy is about freaking out the audience. That sketch with Peter Stormare selling mannequin boys to grieving parents is still one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen on television.
Tim Heidecker: We just think that scary things are funny. Actually, we don’t often see the difference. We’ll do something that we think is funny and people will tell us later, “Y’know, that’s kinda scary to the rest of us.”
EW: We try to capture that same feeling you get when you’re watching an episode of The Office or a David Lynch movie and there’s this really uncomfortable, awkward moment between characters. I guess The Office is supposed to be funny and David Lynch is supposed to be creepy, but for us it feels like the same thing. It inspires the same kind of tense, cautious feeling that we both just love.
Awesome Show has gotten a lot of comedy mileage out of child abuse.
TH: (Laughs.) Yeah, that could be.
You’ve had scenes about an obvious pedophile shining his flashlight into a kid’s room to teach him about the universe, and a commercial for child clowns that would make a sweatshop manager cringe. Why is torturing children so funny to you?
TH: I think it goes back to creating uncomfortable situations, and there’s nothing more uncomfortable than putting grown men and children together.
Are these kids coached, or are you getting honest reactions from them?
TH: We prefer letting them genuinely express themselves. We just did a bit with Will Forte where he’s teaching kids how to build forts in their living room with pillows and cushions. His character kinda loses his temper and freaks out and regresses into old arguments he used to have with his father. We really didn’t tell the kids what was gonna happen. And they were just genuinely shocked when Will started losing it.
That is so beautifully irresponsible and cruel. And there are stage mothers who trust you with their children?
TH: It’s not as bad as it sounds. When we’re shooting our show, it’s actually a fun, lighthearted experience. It’s nothing like the creepy vibe you see in the finished product. It goes through a lot of editing to get to that dark place. But when we’re filming it, everybody’s cool and happy.
Awesome Show is about a lot of things, but it’s mostly about earnest incompetence. Is that something a person can fake?
TH: Well, I suppose we do, because we’re not nearly as incompetent as we appear to be.
Isn’t part of the charm of your cast that they’re not intentionally trying to be funny? A true eccentric can’t be aware that he’s eccentric, right?
EW: I think what makes it funny is the context. It’d be different if you saw David Liebe Hart sing with his puppet in front of an audience that’s laughing at him. We try to present these people in their pure form, just doing what they do.
When I first saw David Liebe Hart, I honestly believed he was the real deal. But then I heard he used to open for Robin Williams and has been on sitcoms like Golden Girls and Wings. So now I wonder, was he ever really a shitty ventriloquist or is he just a guy pretending to be a shitty ventriloquist?
TH: I think it’s a little bit of both. He’s a very eccentric man off camera, for sure. He’s not putting on an act. We tend to elevate who he is for the show and create a more heightened absurd character out of it, but it’s based on his real personality.
What about Richard Dunn? He seems like a cross between Andy Kaufman and my grandpa. That’s gotta be an act, right?
TH: No, that’s all Dunn. He really is everything he appears to be.
Give me an example of something he does off-screen that would compete with the creepy old man character he plays on Awesome Show.
TH: Well, he’s been writing a lot of poems for us lately.
EW: I got two for my birthday. One of his poems was called “Wet Bush.” He’s actually been getting more erotic with his poetry lately. I told him that’s the kind of poetry I prefer. In a very weird old-man way, he talks about a woman’s vagina and the hair and how he likes it.
TH: Some of his poems are just pep talks for us. They’ll be something like, “Tim, you’re the best, you’re going to do great/ Don’t worry about it, even if it’s late/ You’ll show up, and it’ll be great.”
EW: Sometimes he’ll write his poems on the back of a pizza box.
You’ve had some amazing guest stars on Awesome Show, like Michael Cera, Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt and Jack Black. And then some that make no sense whatsoever, like Frank Stallone.
TH: We’re very proud of that.
Was that ironic casting?
EW: Stallone falls in that perfect zone for us, somewhere between being recognizable and also feeling completely out of place. You sorta remember him, he vaguely looks like Rocky, it’s all very confusing.
Awesome Show is getting its first spin-off, Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, which premieres on August 23rd. How the hell did that happen?
TH: It was all John C. Reilly’s idea. He called us one day and said, “We should give Steve Brule his own show.”
Reilly’s been on Broadway. He’s been nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes. Now he’s got a show with a 12:15 a.m. time slot on the Cartoon Network. How is that not a career misstep?
EW: He loves it. He’s told us that when he goes out, 90 percent of the people who approach him are saying “Steve Bruuuule!” It’s become a very popular character for him. He just wanted to try some more.
It’s been suggested that you can’t really enjoy Awesome Show unless you’re stoned. Isn’t it like saying you need to be drunk to enjoy hockey?
TH: Yeah, I guess so. We don’t care about those criticisms at all.
EW: We don’t write the show or perform it or even watch it stoned. But if you do, it can be a very special experience. It’s just different. It’s like listening to Pink Floyd. You can still get a lot out of it even if you’re sober.
If somebody was going to consume a controlled substance before viewing Awesome Show, do you have any recommendations?
EW: I like a nice yerba-maté tea. It’s got a nice amount of caffeine but without the jittery sensation. It keeps you aware.
TH: I’d suggest eating a loooot of pizza and Coke, so much that you feel a little sick and almost like you’re going to pass out, and then watch a bunch of our shows.
That reminds me of another Awesome Show staple, puke and poop.
TH: You’re welcome.
You’ve done a few too many scenes about diarrhea to claim that it’s just satiric commentary on a culture obsessed with shit jokes.
EW: A lot of what we find funny hasn’t changed since high school. When we were growing up, nothing was more hilarious to us than talking about your testicles or pooping your pants. Those things are always going to be funny.
Aren’t you running out of poop gags at this point?
EW: The poop thing has become an ongoing challenge for us.
TH: We’ve realized that since the second season, we’ve launched every new season with a diarrhea-based commercial. So we have to find a way to outdo ourselves.
EW: I think the season five brown commercial is definitely the grossest. Although admittedly it’s difficult to beat Poop Tube and Diarrhea Pants.
Can you give us a hint?
EW: I’ll just say this. It’s a poop disease.
TH: A diarrhea disease, specifically.
It’s been said that comedy gets less funny the more you try and analyze it. So whaddaya say we dissect a skit from Awesome Show and really rip the life out of it?
TH: If you say so.
Please explain to me why the “It’s Not Jackie Chan” board game is funny.
EW: I think that works on two levels. Wait, do you mean the concept of the game or the commercial itself?
How about all of the above? Let’s really dig deep and crack open the ribs on this premise.
TH: Well, it’s pretty much comedy 101. It’s the first thing they teach you at clown school. You create something that should be easily done and make it seem difficult.
EW: It’s just a dumb board game that has weird rules. Jackie Chan is just funny to us. Why would he have a board game? He seems like somebody who shouldn’t, under any circumstance, have his own board game. And the rules are so abstract and the answers so… infinite.
Could you elaborate?
TH: It’s a game that nobody should ever, ever lose. It should go on forever because everybody would have a right answer, as long as they don’t say the name Jackie Chan.
Okay, I think I’m following you now.
TH: Good for you.
And despite your best efforts, it still seems kinda funny.
EW: And whose fault is that?
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)