The comedy of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim is incredibly difficult to describe, but former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart probably says it best: "I know it when I see it." That singularity has served the duo well since the inception of their Adult Swim show, "Tim & Eric Show Awesome Good Job," and in the process has attracted some great talent for them to collaborate with, including Will Forte, John C. Reilly, and Zach Galifianakis among many others. They graduated to the big screen recently with the release of "Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie," an epic theatrical experience that satirizes pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps storytelling, deconstructs filmmaking technique, and generally speaking disregards anything resembling respect or conventional attitudes towards the moviegoing experience.
Days after "Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Boxoffice sat down with Heidecker and Wareheim for a lengthy chat about their creative process, indescribable as it may be.
How long did it take you guys to develop the visual style and even the comedic sensibility of your material, because it's very distinctive and yet extremely hard to explain to someone who hasn't seen it.
Heidecker: We should have "Tim & Eric" in quotes in the dictionary, and then we could refer to that as the way to describe it as "Tim & Eric" style.
Wareheim: A lot of the stuff we do is based off of things that we love, which is cable access, bad infomercials, bad TV. And another aspect of it is that we started making stuff with really s---ty equipment and we've just learned how to be editors on our own and that's why it's not the greatest and those kind of elements of kind of bad have stayed throughout the movie. We wanted to have a higher production value and look like a movie but still have sort of this sensibility that everything's a little off.
How formal is your approach to conceiving skits and your material? Do you guys operate pretty intuitively, or do you sit down and really construct something according to a plan or formula?
Heidecker: Well, you've got to do something. You've got to write something. You can't just throw it up in the air. So we've structured it out pretty seriously with knowing that a lot of stuff can change and get thrown out, but we got to start somewhere. So we write things pretty traditionally in that we write a script and try to visualize it as much as possible to give our production team as much awareness of what we want to do as possible.
Wareheim: Knowing full well that no matter what scenario we're in, sort of the magic is going to come from Tim and I being on set together or with other actors working it out in that environment. We sometimes overwrite the script for lots of different jokes and none of them really make it in. It's what happens kind of naturally on set is what makes it to the final cut.
How difficult is it to make something that is both good and bad?
Heidecker: You've got to ride that line, and also not try to start making a parody of "Tim & Eric" stuff. Like you can get to that point where it's like, oh, this is redundant - we've done this kind of joke before. And sometimes those choices really aren't the joke necessarily; they're just like the framing of the joke. They let the joke make sense, the way that the video works or the way the titles work. But it can't be just that stuff. It's got to have a little bit of something else; otherwise it's just aesthetics.
Wareheim: And it goes deep. I mean, with our show "Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule," he's taking acting to a level of being bad, like just not being prepared to be on TV, and along with our editing tricks, to make it purposely like he edited it in his basement. You know, it goes on a deep level of the awkward kind of moments when you don't know what you're doing.
Heidecker: It seems very fundamental to me as well, like it should be on a cave painting somewhere, that when things work out well it's not funny, and when things don't work out well, it's funny if it's done a certain way. So a guy f---ing slipping on a banana peel is a bad situation for him. So if we're making a commercial, we wouldn't just make a regular commercial - there should be something wrong with it. There should be something flawed in it that's kind of funny to us. But it might not be funny to a lot of other people.
How did you guys nail down the mechanics of knowing how things worked best, be it in your aesthetic or just in terms of your material connecting with an audience?
Wareheim: I think first and foremost, it was always does it make Tim and I laugh, and our small group of family that makes this. That's always been the first thing we do in our internal screenings. But the first scene of the movies, Jeff Goldblum is going, "hi, hi, hi," use three takes of that. We're like, one's not that funny, two's sort of funny, three and now you're getting somewhere. Same with the CPR - you know, there's a level you can take the joke that-
Heidecker: It's a rhythmic thing. It's very much an editorial thing, and often times you don't trust yourself. You don't know and you just have to keep moving forward, because all this stuff we do, we never know what the audience is going to like, even the fans. We don't know what bits are going to all of a sudden just become more successful than others, so it's always a crapshoot. I think all of the little things we do are coming from an equal place of hoping to be accessible to as many people as possible. So you just have to keep moving forward and working to finish what you need to do.
Wareheim: One interesting thing is we kind of operate in a low budget world. We don't focus test a lot of our material, specifically the movie, where a lot of times they'll screen a movie and like this part needs to be punched up, or this part doesn't. We've kind of worked in a vacuum of like, okay, we think its great, but even at the Sundance screening we're like, well, wow, people are laughing at this moment, people aren't. It's sort of like we're just throwing it out there, and I think it's great that it's coming from a place that's says, when we're happy with it, that's when it's done. It's kind of not really made for the fans or anybody but us.
Do you guys ultimately create a unifying theme or sew all these sort of disparate ideas together, other than obviously to tell a cohesive story?
Wareheim: I think one is skewering Hollywood, and that's in everything we do. And then the second thing I think is relationships, like relationships with two friends, relationships between a guy and another man's son. Those things are present in a lot of our work, and we like exploiting those.
Heidecker: Yeah, I think that happens more on a subconscious level and the instinctive level than some sort of a conscious decision to go, "let's hit these themes." It's just naturally going to be in all of our work, or the way that we see the world is through a prism of, "it's bad out there." The culture is corrupt, and there's just a feeling like everything is absurd, so everything we do is kind of tainted with that world view.
Are you thinking now consciously about creating new stories that are dramatically different, or is the concept of two ambitious doofuses so evergreen that it will always be a component of your storytelling?
Wareheim: We would like to make movies that don't have that element to it eventually, but right now it's just a natural way that things are working for us. You see a lot in "Awesome Show," and you see it in "Billion Dollar Movie," but I don't think we're going to hinge on that forever.
Heidecker: No. But I think it's true in television and I think it might be true in films as well is that if you look at the first season of "Awesome Show" compared to the fourth or fifth, the quality and the control and everything about it is so much better, I think. And in any show, your work can get better for a while because you're learning from the work, and you've created a world. Some people think, oh, your first record or your first CD, your first season must be the best because that's what the idea came from. But I think you have got to do that first thing to get it out, and then you can build on it.
Tim, you have another film at Sundance that you're just acting in. How do the two of you compare projects that are purely self-generated to ones in which you work with another group of collaborators?
Heidecker: Well, the nice thing about doing other people's work is it doesn't take that much of your time at this level, because when Eric and I do our stuff we are just there at every second of the process. So when other projects come along, it's not an incredible amount of time, and we can usually try to make it work.
Wareheim: I mean, I think its fun and it's a natural thing; we want to try lots of different stuff.
Heidecker: Yeah, if Eric and I don't have the flexibility to not only work with each other, we'd kill each other. We'd break up like a band, so I think we're smart enough to realize that by doing stuff with Eric's music videos, for example, or some of these other things I've done, it ends up sort of feeding back into what we're doing together.
Do dramatic projects appeal to you two, or are you comfortable just working in comedy?
Heidecker: Well if you haven't seen "The Comedy" yet, it's very dramatic. It's very dark and serious. And we love dark - I think probably we would both agree that one of our favorite movies is this year was "Tree of Life." We come from a film school background, not from a stand-up comedy background, so we love things like Stanley Kubrick and heavy stuff that interests us. But as long as there's something interesting to be said, it's like we've used comedy as a device to do what we want to do, but if we had an idea for a crime story, then we'll do that idea, and figure out a way to make it work.
Interestingly, your comedy does function on a level of abstraction that makes sense in the context of your appreciation for those filmmakers. Do you draw upon other pop cultural sources, as an homage or inspiration for your material?
Wareheim: Yeah, I mean, I think guys like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch leave you with this feeling at the end of it that is a very unique, special thing and that's something that I think inspired Tim and I. We'd like people to leave with this feeling of "wow, that was a special thing that I haven't seen before, and I felt awkward and I laughed." Especially with the comedy, you want to leave feeling like the director purposely did this to give you this kind of ride, which we really gravitate towards.