In 2012, I interviewed surrealist comedy pioneers Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim for their feature film, Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. Halfway through the discussion, I asked them why they had opted to create entirely new characters instead of using the beloved and meme-hallowed personas from the movie’s foundation, the Adult Swim show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! The pair tends to give understated interviews, but this question drew more energy and passion. Paraphrasing, Wareheim said they had no intention to recycle previous concepts; they only wanted to barrel forward in a theater of medium-bending bizarre, just as likely to make its audience shoot milk from its tear ducts as incite anxiety and discomfort. And he was completely right. Rehashed, expected concepts simply couldn’t produce that degree tension, and fan service be damned to the canned-laughter purgatory of sitcoms and prime-time sketch comedy.
A lot can change in five years, though, as seen in the recent Awesome Show 10-Year Anniversary Tour, and its Portland stop that Paste visited last month. Save a Season Six special that aired last week, Awesome Show stopped producing new seasons in 2010. Heidecker and Wareheim filled that void furiously with a slew of projects just as rebellious and weird. Decker is a tone-deaf ‘90s spy blockbuster executed with community theater humility, Tim and Eric’s Go Pro Show embraced a faux reality-show template whose main plot device was the lack of a plot device and Tim and Eric’s Bed Time Stories recalibrate the comedians’ algorithm from fecal puns to gnawing dissonance anchored by in absurdity.
But Awesome Show’s DNA has become ubiquitous beyond its direct family tree. The series’ jilting visual vocabulary has become an adopted language in the overarching comedy landscape. From The Eric Andre Show to Portlandia and even Saturday Night Live, stuttering edits, public-access channel production values and punchlines that end with the performers staring blankly into the camera are now permanent, mass-media fixtures. It’s low-budget ineptitude made high art.
This Anniversary was as much a chance to revisit a comedy show as a comedy movement, and its founders are still the aesthetic’s best practitioners, even if (almost) every sketch and character were familiar. As in their show, Heidecker and Wareheim unleashed a stream of tactless business stock photos, pixelated WinAmp interfaces, karaoke b-roll and Not-Sold-in-Stores video advertisements. If any theme an be found, the core often resembles a sensory-overload assault on the advertising industry, fueled by their fake company Cinco and its line of hazardous, ridiculous products. For the show, the pair reintroduced Dobis PR—a creation from Billion Dollar Movie—as purveyors of a new misogynistic University program, inviting members of the audience to participate in a verbal multiple-choice exam. The pair fed answers into the participants’ ears via “Cinco Business Tubes,” concluding with the sole female applicant graduating despite being ignored for the majority of the bit.
The performance also reveled in the show’s musical legacy, which is pretty damn extensive. (Davin Wood, who composed the music for Awesome Show, also partnered with Heidecker for the ‘70s soft rock group, Heidecker and Wood.) Past tours saw Heidecker and Wareheim use classic rock parody group Pusswhip Banggang as its vehicle to play music, but the Anniversary Tour relied on the Zwei Dunkel Jungen personas—a pair of gothic, key-board-twiddling Germans who describe themselves as “two dark boys,” adorned in nipple chains and blonde wigs. The two walked through a number of songs curated from Awesome Show’s five full-length seasons including “Live With My Dad,” a song about a “middle-aged man” and his father sharing an apartment after their wives leave them—and “A Song For Deevee,” a ballad from the holiday Chrimbus Special that invited significant others to slow dance to lyrics about an anthropomorphic DVD monster child. (And it was amazing.)
The music continued with the show’s greatest surprise: Casey and His Brother. In the T&E mythology, the vomiting, hyperventilating grade-school singer Casey (played by Heidecker) and his dancing, near-silent brother (played by Wareheim) died in a van fire, only to be resurrected seasons later before finally crumbling into a pile of meat. But their Casio-keyboard beats and simplistic tunes about spiders, cookouts and cops received massive applause. And also the motivation for one of Awesome Show’s best cameos.
It wasn’t all nostalgia: Heidecker introduced a new character named Troi, a teased finale revealed as a humorless stand-up who asked the audience about traffic. Troi stumbled for a few minutes before Wareheim stormed the stage in mock rage, lamenting the generic delivery in the face of their disruptive, epic legacy. It was a clever contrast and, whether intentional or not, potent bragging point: In the face of conventional comedy, Tim and Eric’s oldest material is still abrasively and undeniably unique.
A new season of Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories debuts Sept. 10 on Adult Swim. They showed the first episode, “Baklava,” on the tour; it’s unrelentingly dark, clever and well worth staying up for its midnight air time.