"I Don't Get It": A Guide to Tim & Eric for Mem-Mems and Pep-Peps

December 8, 2011

If you're reading this, you probably have a child who's expressed a firm affection for the comedic stylings of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. You've watched episodes of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, you've had "Father and Son" or "The Terrys" forced down your gullet, your child is moving threateningly toward you with a Tom Goes to the Mayor DVD, and frankly, you don't like it. You're an intelligent person. You have good taste in television. But this Tim and Eric nonsense is unbearable, loud, schizophrenic, soulless, ugly, and unfunny. You are beginning to think your son or daughter is psychologically troubled or possibly a serial killer.

Well, I am here to tell you that I understand. It's okay. You're safe here. And your child is statistically* not likely to be a serial killer. I'm going to do my best to explain to you in a reasoned, theoretically-grounded way why your child likes Tim and Eric, why it's not corrupting them psychologically or morally, and why you might even like it too.

*Claim not supported by actual statistics

Complaint 1: "I just don't get why it's funny."

At the heart of T&E's comedy style is a governing concept: the ontological distances between

  1. Modern professional television and film
  2. Local/public-access television, home video, online video or any non-professional thing that you can find on a screen
  3. Real life
The representational spectrum, or deformed triangle, or whatever it may be (the subject of a much longer essay) that connects these three things and the novelty of connecting points on it that are usually disparate--this is The Joke. Certainly there are times at which they veer away from this governing structure, but, for Awesome Show especially, this is where the humor originates.

Here's an example of how they construct a comedic concept using the spectrum. We'll use "Dunngeon," a sketch in which the venerable Richard Dunn (R.I.P.) plays the host of what's presumably a public-access show about rock music. His guest is David Navarro, real-life guitarist and bona-fide famous person.

The first layer of this is the ridiculousness of Richard Dunn, who clearly is not part of the music scene indicated by the set, costuming, and guest. The idea and the image of an old man hosting such a show (and having absolutely no idea what he's talking about) is funny in itself.

The second layer is the idea of a local show with absolutely no budget and completely unprofessional production values somehow getting Dave Navarro to come on.

The third layer is the fact that this show exists within Awesome Show, which, despite what is likely a very small budget, is a professionally-produced and and carefully constructed TV show on a national cable channel. The awkwardness of Dunngeon is 100% deliberate, going against the viewer's expectations of what a professional TV show should entail.

The fourth layer is the knowledge that Richard Dunn himself is, essentially, a non-professional actor. From having watched other episodes in which he appears, a dedicated viewer realizes that this is actually how Richard-Dunn-the-Person is. This is in direct conflict with much of what we see actors do on TV, which often has little connection to their real-world existence.

So here we have all three points of the spectrum/triangle, and awareness of them, converging. Humor is often described as being fundamentally about the subversion of expectations, or the sudden appearance of a surprisingly novel concept in a context that you think you know. That subversion of expectations happens on each level. When combined, it packs a firm comedic punch.

"That's all well and good," you may be saying, "But I'm still not laughing."


Complaint 2: "It's Gross/Sophomoric/Cruel/Satan's Work"

Well, you're not wrong. But you're also not right. Or rather, you're not quite seeing the whole picture.

Yes, there are Tim and Eric sketches that are pretty gross. Several things with "diarrhea" in the title spring to mind. But there is no instance in which the entire joke is "Ha ha, diarrhea is gross!" More often the humor concerns itself with the how ridiculous the products on infomercials usually are, and how standardized, contrived, and silly the infomercials' production techniques. The object of ridicule is the medium, not the message. (And via the transitive property and Marshall McLuhan the message = the medium = the joke! Please ignore me.)

More often than it's immature, though, T&E's humor is highly sophisticated, surreal, absurd, and mesmerizing. It's so intellectual that it spends a lot of time (see: "Robin," "Comedy," "Jim & Derrick," any intro with Tim and Eric standing next to each other in front of a drop-cloth) satirizing the performance of comedy itself.

The ultimate moral compass behind T&E is often hard to discern, and some might claim that it doesn't exist. I would disagree. I think that underlying every weird-looking semi-professional actor that makes an appearance on Awesome Show, there is a palpable affection for real people, and all the awkwardness, unattractiveness, and uncoolness that comes with them. Dads revel being dorky and mundane. Old women have vibrant affairs. Everyone wears pleated khakis. There's no sense of "we're cool, but look at all these losers"; loserdom is celebrated. At its heart, Awesome Show is a love letter to humanity in its most banal forms. And no matter which way I look at that, it doesn't seem like negativity to me.

Complaint 3: "The episodes are so fast-paced and fragmented that they give me a headache."

A cursory examination of the arc of any Awesome Show episode would reveal that it doesn't particularly resemble what one might term a "normal" television show. It doesn't even look all that much like a normal sketch comedy show. But you would be wrong, because it does.

A typical television show is built of a series of storylines (let's call them A, B, C, and D) that are generally woven together in this manner: ABCABDACDBACBA. Did you catch that? No? Well, basically the main storyline is A, so it gets the most screen time, and the lesser storylines are given diminishing screen time depending on their importance. So there's five instances of A, four of B, three of C, and two of D. You end up with a vaguely palindromic final product.

Fig. 1: That one episode of Law & Order:SVU

Now let's take the episode "Missing" from season 1 of Awesome Show as an example. Here's the structure:
A: Casey is missing, wandering the streets
B: "Nights with Tim Heidecker" intro
A: Casey's Brother's performs "Casey Call Pep-Pep"
C: Steve Brule addresses "lookin' cool"
D: B'ougar commercial
B: "Nights with Tim Heidecker"--Eric provides some important info on rascals
A: Casey's adventures on the streets/touching song/an appeal from Uncle Muscles
C: Steve gives Jan a makeover
D: The science behind B'ougar
B: "Nights with Tim Heidecker"--a rascal encounter
A: Casey is abducted by Steve Mahanahan

As you can see, it ends up looking pretty similar to the structure of any other show. Which is all well and good except that it's only ten minutes long. The reason why it feels so distinctly different and jarring is that everything is compressed down into very short bits, ranging from only a couple seconds to a minute or so. In a lot of ways, even beyond the extremely absurdist and sometimes disgusting humor, I think this is what turns people off about the show.

Think about it. If your main exposure to sketch comedy has been SNL, MADtv, or Kids in the Hall, or Mr. Show or The State, you're accustomed to sketches taking their time. They have a beginning, middle, and end and they usually follow a familiar arc. There's a familiar scenario (a couple eating at a restaurant), something unusual is introduced (the woman is on her period and transforms into a large Italian man when provoked), and then that unusual thing is taken to the extreme (she continues to turn into different men as her mood changes, culminating in destroying the restaurant--you might recognize this example from an episode of The State).

Tim and Eric sketches very often do not follow this arc. Often, they maintain the same level of absurdity/grossness/ominous surrealism throughout. It's like comparing a dimmer switch to a light switch; they both have the same range, but get there different ways. For Awesome Show, there isn't an in-between, neutral state, it's basically just ON, ON, ON. And this is something that can only really work in a very short show, because it would be too stressful in a longer context. I'll admit that my first time watching the series, I found it pretty jarring, too. But with practice and experience, that constant energy can become addictively entertaining and make other TV comedy seem bland and lifeless in comparison.

I'm going to briefly make a claim here that kind of makes me uncomfortable, because I always hate it when other people make generalizations about Gen Y. But here goes, anyway. I think that people under 30 might be uniquely suited to appreciating the T&E aesthetic because of the media landscape in which we were raised. I have heard some research that seems to support the claim that, as digital natives, we have always been exposed to more media at the same time than any previous generation, and as such have less patience for things that bore us and a greater capability for multitasking. Thus, a show like Awesome Show that basically says "Don't like this sketch? Well just wait ten seconds and there'll be something different," plays exactly into what we want our media to do.

"Okay, so I understand where the humor lies, but why the slavish devotion?"

We millennials were also raised on VHS and the horrific color-scape of the late '80s and early '90s, and T&E embrace those aesthetics fully. They evoke nostalgia for a seemingly more naive and honest time while also integrating the kind of DIY digital effects of the Internet. They look a little amateurish in the same way a zany Photoshop does. It's fun and bright and as affectionate as it is also at times disgusting or terrible.
While you can certainly track many of their influences (from Mr. Show to Twin Peaks), there is nothing really even in the same ballpark as Tim and Eric on TV. It's refreshing and unique.
Awesome Show episodes are not likely to go stale in five years, or even ten. There's no knowledge of pop culture required. It's miles away from Family Guy.
As mentioned under Complaint 2, Tim and Eric is all about embracing uncoolness. It frames fake tans and capped teeth as something hideous. Weirdos and outsiders are embraced for being unique and strange and interesting. For people who might not fit in to the world that most media portrays, that's an idea that's easy to get behind. And that leads me to...
The group of fans that sprang up around T&E is one of the most enthusiastic, friendly, funny, and wildly creative communities I've ever been a part of. In addition to that, Tim and Eric interact with them on a regular basis and used to hold a meet-up called Awesomecon in San Diego that happened in conjunction with Comic-Con during the Awesome Show's run. Participation and a sense of community are actively encouraged, which strengthens their following.
Their Origin Narrative
For fans who sometimes dream of being funny for money, the story of how they got to Hollywood (making videos in their spare time, then sending a collection of them to their favorite comedians, then getting a response from Bob Odenkirk, who helped them make Tom Goes to the Mayor) is enormously inspiring. It says that you don't have to know someone, you don't have to be formally trained, and you don't have to be part of a "scene." You can make it with determination, work, and confidence alone.

So I guess that's most of it. I could go on, but this already ended up much longer than I planned it to be. In closing, I'd say that if you're still not convinced, or if you still are unwilling to give Tim and Eric further consideration, just let your kid do their thing and rest safe in the belief that they're probably not smoking anything much worse than pot. But if anything I've said seems reasonable or appealing to you, I'd encourage you to give Tim and Eric another try. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Cathy Fisher received a BA in Screen Arts & Cultures from the University of Michigan in 2010 and was editor-in-chief of U-M's humor magazine, The Gargoyle, for two years, which makes her uniquely suited to spout pseudo-intellectual nonsense about TV comedy. She wrote this for her mother, who is worried about her.