How Adult Swim's Tim and Eric got so awesome

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are human beings. We can all agree on that. But does that disqualify them from being honorary cartoons?

True, they're not particularly exaggerated in appearance. Tim looks like the towheaded, pie-faced boy next door all grown up, while Eric's a bespectacled, sideburned galoot with plenty of height and a crooked smile. They were both born in Pennsylvania in 1976 and would draw little attention as white-collar employees alongside the water coolers of Middle America.

The late-night TV audience first glimpsed the duo's animated alter egos when they played the title characters in "Tom Goes to the Mayor" on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block. Since 2007, they've appeared in the flesh as the stars of Adult Swim's "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" a surreal but emphatically not-animated sketch comedy series. Using green-screen technology to plop themselves into seemingly any environment, Tim and Eric play a host of weirdos, including tone-deaf singers whose faces drip with eczema, half-deranged corporate pitchmen, and would-be swingers obsessed with shrimp and white wine.

It may seem bananas that one of the definitive shows of Cartoon Network's most famous and influential programming blocks is, in fact, live action. "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" epitomizes Adult Swim's signature humor, which embraces uncomfortable situations, ironic repetition and out-of-nowhere randomness, often trusting the audience to fill in the punchlines. Not surprisingly, Tim and Eric's two series may be the network's most polarizing programs, likely to elicit either helpless laughter or sputtering rage, but never indifference.

Atlantans will get to take the measure of the cable TV funnymen when they bring their "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" live act to the Variety Playhouse Thurs., Feb. 5. It's the kick-off of a de facto "Tim & Eric" week, which features the show's fourth season premiere Sun., Feb. 8, followed by the second season DVD release Tues., Feb. 10.

On their day off from touring, Tim and Eric contemplated Rachael Ray – "When did she get a chat show?" – from a Buffalo, N.Y. hotel room, and revealed some of their secrets to doing such a great job.

Old Hollywood lore used to hold that Schwab's Drug Store at Sunset Boulevard was the place where aspiring stars like, allegedly, Lana Turner, were discovered. If Schwab's has a 21st century equivalent, it may be in cyberspace, at YouTube and other video-sharing sights. Tim and Eric's personal legend has it that an early version of "Tom Goes to the Mayor" was discovered on www.timanderic.com, but the truth is a little more prosaic.

Tim and Eric met as restless film students at Temple University, where they started making bizarre, irreverent shorts – such as a celebration of lobsters' contributions to cinema – in contrast to the stuffiness of their course work. (That comedy-as-dissent attitude still turns up in their shows' mockery of cultural touchstones like the Shrek films.) Tim and Eric launched a website in 2002 for their work, but Eric denies they had any grand plans for it. "Initially, the website was just a way to show videos to our friends or make each other laugh with video Christmas presents. It took off around the time our first TV show happened."

At that time, Tim and Eric were college graduates separated by cities and day jobs. Eric was a photographer for Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia, while Tim worked for New York's Entertainment Software Ratings Board reviewing video games for content. Tim doesn't remember the job fondly. "I fucking hate video games. I didn't give a shit about the job and didn't spend one second of productive time on it." Instead, he looked up agencies and people in showbiz they admired, and sent out DVDs of some of their short films.

Then Tim received a completely unexpected call from Bob Odenkirk, co-creator/star of HBO's "Mr. Show" and one of the defining figures of sketch comedy in the late 1990s. "He was one of our biggest heroes," Eric recalls. "My first reaction was, 'No, that's got to be one of our friends.'"

Odenkirk enjoyed their stuff enough to offer himself as a mentor, and eventually executive producer. He helped Tim and Eric polish and pitch "Tom Goes to the Mayor" to Adult Swim, where it ran from 2004 to 2006. Even by Adult Swim's low-budget standards, "Tom Goes to the Mayor" relies on simplistic animation that resembles mimeographs of still photos. Tim starred as Tom, an average citizen who approaches the mayor (Eric) of small-town Jefferton with reasonable ideas that go horribly wrong, like a child safety campaign involving hundreds of hair-trigger bear traps.

To coincide with the creation of "Tom Goes to the Mayor," Tim and Eric moved to Los Angeles, where they took inspiration from the city's most un-Hollywood locations. Simi Valley's endless strip malls and buffet restaurants shaped Jefferton's appearance as a town defined by suburban sprawl, with no cosmopolitan center.

The showbiz newcomers also found themselves working with some of their comedy idols. Eric recalls, "One of the first guys who did 'Tom Goes to the Mayor' was Jack Black. We didn't even have a studio then, so we rigged my apartment as a little sound studio. We were about to start recording, but then heard a helicopter flying overhead. We found out that it was because Tom Cruise was running nearby with the Olympic torch. So we had to put Jack Black on hold for Tom Cruise. That's when we knew, 'We're in Hollywood now.'"

The celebrity guest lists of their two shows hint at the Adult Swim cachet in hip Hollywood: Jeff Goldblum, Rainn Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Paul Reubens and Fred Willard, among others. Oscar nominee John C. Reilly could even start a second career as a late-night cable cult performer as the dim-witted, pit-stained local news "expert," Dr. Steve Brule. Tim enthuses that all of their guests have been completely cool, with one exception. "Gary Busey was on 'Tom Goes to the Mayor,' and he was completely manic in a violent, psychotic, emotionally disturbing way. It was not fun. But I videotaped an amazing 10 minutes of that experience. We couldn't have written it better."

"Tom Goes to the Mayor" seemed to run its course after 30 episodes, so Tim and Eric started pitching a new sketch show as a kind of spin-off, using live-action characters from some of "Mayor's" interstitial segments, such as the Channel 5 Married News Team and the lousy products from the Cinco Corporation. To their surprise, Adult Swim picked up "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" Tim sees the value of a cartoon network rolling out a non-animated show. "That's something that everyone can talk about. It has an edge to it."

True to form for Adult Swim shows, the pair was essentially given free reign. Tim can still scarcely get over the creative freedom. "If we'd had to go to Comedy Central, we'd probably have had a fight about whether our show should have a laugh track. Because all other sketch comedy shows had a studio audience, even 'Mr. Show.' If you tried to put a laugh track on our show, it would be very confusing. Sometimes the places would be obvious, and some you'd have no idea. It's an amazing thing for us, working for this network, where there was not even the beginning of a question about it."

If "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was the Beatles of sketch comedy, "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" may be more like Beck or Gnarls Barkley. It keeps its eyes on the styles of earlier decades while being steeped in contemporary trends like remixing. Watching "Tim & Eric" is like browsing through a half-hour of terrible public access TV, corporate videos, and a smattering of conventional sketches, all spliced and compressed to 11 minutes with zooms and stuttering effects.

Tim and Eric date their satirical aesthetic to the 1980s and '90s, but Eric says, "I think a lot of stuff that inspires us is almost timeless... . Some commercials and infomercials have that same bad look, music and editing today that they had in the 1980s." Tim says, "It's the lack of creativity in the source material. If you're selling a girdle, you don't give a shit about what font the ad is in. They just use the base setting."

"We're also amused by people who shouldn't be creative or on camera, but are forced to be on camera," says Eric. Tim adds, "When I was a kid, my Dad and grandfather owned a local Ford dealership, and they were in commercials that they should never have been in. They're horrible."

Like David Letterman, television's defining ironist of the 1980s, had Larry "Bud" Melman and other unglamorous sidekicks, "Tim & Eric" features a stable of painfully awkward performers. It's hard to tell whether they're deliberately untalented, or unintentionally so. The current tour features two of the show's regulars: cheesy impressionist James Quall and upbeat puppeteer David Liebe Hart, who performs in real life for "The Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Show."

Tim and Eric's work with Hart reveals how they strive for anti-showbiz authenticity and blur the line between affection for and mockery of such entertainers. Tim says all the ideas come from Hart for the positive but inane songs he performs with his ventriloquist dummies. "We sit down at the keyboard, where all our songs are written. He Hart has a bunch of ideas, and maybe I'll play a little melody, a little arrangement, and he improvises the lyrics. An intern writes down this stream-of-consciousness stuff until we have a song. It happens within an hour and we sit right next to the green screen, so we record it immediately."

Tim and Eric come across as the kind of entertainers who are almost exactly like their stereotypically nerdy, net-savvy audiences, but they're more grown-up than you might guess. Eric has two children, including an 11-year-old son Chester, who has a close relationship to his "Uncle Tim." In fact, Tim likes to send Chester photos of his father in the show's ridiculous costumes over the boy's cell phone, which once caused a stir. "I sent him a photo of Eric wearing nothing but a bikini bottom, and that made a big problem at his school. A lot of child porn issues came up."

Eric adds, "Because there were two questions: "A) Why is this grown man texting this boy, and B-) Why is Daddy wearing this revealing theater outfit?"

Beyond the live tour, the pair are also writing a possible Tim & Eric feature film, preparing a Steve Brule spin-off, and contemplating the show's fifth and possibly final season.

Not surprisingly, they're still smart about the internet. They won the Webby Awards' Best Actor honors in 2008, and keep one eye online while working on the show. When writing scripts, they half-jokingly mark a "v" next to segments they think will go viral. Eric says, "We know it may happen if something has a really big poop joke. In the new season we have something like that called 'Diarrhea Pants' that's the really ultimate poop joke. Things like that usually take off."

Tim adds, "We're totally on the mark when we predict those."

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