Tim Heidecker Talks Film Criticism, The Beatles, and the Endless Purgatory of On Cinema

Comedy Features Tim Heidecker
Tim Heidecker Talks Film Criticism, The Beatles, and the Endless Purgatory of On Cinema

When the pandemic took away Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s ability to film a new season of their Adult Swim series, On Cinema, Heidecker wasn’t left completely in the lurch. In fact, 2020 was a particularly fruitful year for the influential alt comedian. He put out a folk rock album, a stand-up special, Moonbase Eight—a Showtime series co-starring Heidecker, John C. Reilly, and Fred Armisen—and continued chugging along with his popular Office Hours podcast that he hosts alongside collaborators Vic Berger and DJ Douggpound. In addition to all this, he had embarked on a live tour just prior to the pandemic with his longtime comedy partner Eric Wareheim, and together they released the first season of another Adult Swim show, Beef House, just a couple weeks after lockdowns ensued.

But in the meantime, the project of Heidecker’s which has accrued arguably his most passionate and ardent fan base was put on an indefinite hold. On Cinema, the dryly absurd, largely-improvised and fan-interactive movie review show that he hosts alongside Turkington, that has mutated from a simple satire of unqualified film criticism into an extended franchise not unlike the very franchises they lampoon, was left in limbo following the release of a two-hour long Oscars special in which all characters were seemingly gassed to death. But after two years, parting ways with On Cinema’s longtime home, Adult Swim, and jumpstarting an independent, fan-funded site to house all things On Cinema, season 12 has finally been delivered to scores of eager Timheads and Greggheads with a subscription to the Hei Network. Paste recently spoke to Heidecker over Zoom to discuss the show and the machinations behind its highly-anticipated new season, and the other projects the comedian and musician has brewing right now

Paste: As a fan, I’ve been very eager for the new season of On Cinema. Aside from the Oscars special that you guys did back in April, how was it creating more On Cinema in episodic form after nearly two years? Did you and Gregg feel at all creatively nervous? Or was it mostly just an eagerness to get back in the swing of things?

Tim Heidecker: It was a great relief to be able to get back to doing it. I think we had a couple of false starts between the last season. We had this period—I think right when the pandemic hit—where we were kind of due to do another season, and so we had a bunch of ideas and a bunch of thoughts about how we might do another season and how we would pull it off, and if we would do a season that was outside, or if we would do it over zoom. We had a lot of back and forth about how we would come back, and that was when Adult Swim was still in play. That took forever to find out that, no, we’re not going to do it with [Adult Swim].

Then we relaunched and built this whole—so everything just kind of took forever. And by the time we figured out that we could do another season where it was financially viable, we just had so many ideas. I think we had so many that we had to just start slashing a lot of stuff, and think “All, right, we’re not going to do all of this. Let’s figure out what we love the most and what are the big storylines that we definitely want to do, and then work from there.” So yeah, other than that it was just making sure the right people were going to be available. I always think it’s really magical that this comes together the way it does, because so many things have to line up for that weekend that we do the shoot. Everybody’s busy with various other things, so just getting there and starting to roll, I always feel like, alright, the hard part’s over. Now we just do what we love to do.

Paste: And has Adult Swim’s absence from the equation been felt at all?

TH: No. There was very little promotion that we ever got from them. I think maybe that when [On Cinema] was airing on the Adult Swim YouTube channel, just because of the sheer amount of subscribers that they have on their YouTube channel, that the numbers were always inflated, because, however YouTube works, it always favors bigger accounts. So, just the number of views were high probably because somebody just let the video play from the last one [laughs]. You know? They just watched a minute and said “What the? This isn’t Rick and Morty. Skip to the next one.” But I mean, there really wasn’t any creative difference, and we’re able to in-house the promotion department of On Cinema now, so we are paying somebody to help with the social media and that kind of stuff. It wasn’t like Adult Swim was putting up billboards or, you know, doing that kind of stuff. So, it was always coming from us anyways.

Paste: Did anything surprise you guys while making this new season? Did you end up doing something you hadn’t done before, something you feel like will really take fans off guard?

TH: I could tell you things, but they would be spoilers. But the big thing for us this season was—and it’s the thing we’ve asked for, for the past several years—was “Can we get an additional day to shoot this?” And I think this is kind of well-known amongst the fans, but we would basically shoot a season in a day, and that got to be almost impossible. It was just too hard, and we felt like we weren’t able to stretch out and try experimenting with things, and we were just constantly under the gun. And this season we were just able to do two days because we had more money because of the subscribers. I think that because now we have this Hei Network, there’s nonlinear ideas that can now exist, that can live outside of the show. We’re doing these pilots like Rock House, and then these other pilots that are coming that are from the world of the show that now have a home. And we want to keep doing that. There’s all these ideas we have that, in the past, we wouldn’t know what to do with them. Now we know that they can go on the site and can just keep growing.

Paste: So, the independent, fan-funded model has been going well for you so far? How has that been since you started it?

TH: I would say it’s going well. It’s a lot more work and a lot more stress. Because the money’s coming in and it’s helping us make the show, but it’s not this behemoth of an enterprise. It’s still early. I think we have just under 10,000 yearly subscribers, which is a lot. But I think people don’t understand or appreciate the costs that actually go in to make things. Especially, you know, we talk about what’s happening in this industry with IATSE and the strike. Our shows are generally union shows, for the most part. It’s DGA and SAG and IATSE. And there’s levels of that, but we pay people fairly fair rates, and we want things to look good. This gets boring, I know. But it becomes probably way more expensive than you might think by watching it. Which is fine and we’re able to pay for it.

But I think one criticism that we’ve seen a little bit is “Oh, there isn’t much stuff out.” And I’m like, well, just be patient, because this isn’t a game of, like, flooding you with junk. We’re putting out what we think is the best possible thing we could put out and that doesn’t always happen overnight. It’s not just content for the sake of content. So, hopefully, the plan is by next year, there’s more. There’s the Oscar special, and another season, and maybe another special of some kind, and there’s an app. But it just needs a little time to grow. And we need to see if in year two, we maintain all those subscribers. People could come in January and be like “Yeah, I don’t know, I can’t afford that anymore” or “I didn’t like that season” or whatever. And so, it’s like anything else, but we don’t just have a big corporate company that’s just gonna let us ride for a while and play around. It’s like, you know, deliver the goods.

Paste: I definitely did notice watching the first episode—which I thought was great—it was very apparent to me that the production values looked better. The camera quality looked better, I felt like the set design and production values, they’ve been getting better each season.

TH: I think part of that is driven by story, and it’s driven by the narrative. We just got sick of the kind of flat movie theater world. And it also just plays into my character’s vision for what this show is supposed to be, and certainly we were looking at references like Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire show. There’s a lot of those shows out there that we’re kind of parodying a little bit. But the other thing is, when you put the money into the actual set, you don’t have to do all that post stuff in the end. So, it makes the postproduction part of it a little easier. It flows quicker because you’re not comping stuff and adding stuff to the background. But it’s nice to hear. Our director, Vera [Drew], she did a great job.

Paste: The premise of On Cinema when it started out was this simple thing that anyone can be a film critic, even the least qualified guys. That was a decade ago, and now a decade later that’s basically 90% of real-life arts writing. Are you surprised at all by what has happened to film criticism?

TH: I don’t know how I could be surprised. I think it’s more and more less relevant. And I guess the sad thing is that you do have this opinion by consensus. Collating all the reviews into this number, into Rotten [Tomatoes]. That seems kind of like a negative trend and not helpful. I just think criticism in general—obviously there’s a place for it, and I don’t want to just throw it all out with the bathwater. But some of it in relation to what they’re talking about is just silly. And I’ve talked to critics about this, where it’s like “Yeah, what we’re doing is silly.” I don’t know, it would be interesting if there was a world where criticism was based on writing about what you are passionate about, or what you’re trying to put forward as important. Instead of just this checklist of everything that comes out from the content farm that needs to have an article written about it. You know, we don’t review every Johnsonville sausage that gets put in the Vons freezer section. But I don’t know, it’s part of the media machine that it feels impossible to break.

But I got into it a bit with the Sopranos movie, because I’m a fan of The Sopranos and I liked the movie. And I can understand that there’s certain things about it that don’t work or whatever, but who cares? There’s certain things where it’s like, all that matters is your personal experience with the thing and the context by which you see it. If somebody is going to talk about the objective quality of it, it’s just impossible to go anywhere with that. Somebody was like “Well, you love The Sopranos, so how can you be objective?” I was like, there’s no point in me being objective about it. This is my personal experience with it, you know? So, it doesn’t gain me anything to even hear what anybody else thinks about it. All it does is either validate that or annoy me. I’ve gotten plenty of bad reviews and I’ve gotten good reviews. But they become less and less important. And that thing that Pitchfork did where they reranked… felt just like, you know, is this a joke? Or is this just a way for you to get us to click on your site? And that’s kind of what it feels like.

Paste: Are there any film critics that you follow anymore? Do you read any film criticism or even listen to podcasts? Which I know On Cinema was initially making fun of.

TH: I follow a few people like Scott Tobias, and some people that used to—I think everyone’s kind of dispersed from that core, hipster film critic vibe. I follow this guy Jordan Hoffman who I like. But I don’t get too invested in what they have to say about anything.

Paste: I know that you went to college for film, and that’s where you met Eric. And I read that you were both disillusioned by your time working as production assistants. Looking back on your young aspirations for working in film, do you feel like it was kind of Kismet that your career went where it did, and that you now have a project like On Cinema?

TH: Kismet, sure. I think it just follows the trajectory of my career, which is, like, the best stuff you’re gonna do is the stuff that you generate on your own. I do think there’s a self-seriousness that the industry takes about itself, which is redundant to say. But that was always kind of funny to me. I think maybe the thing that most people maybe understand about me, but gets lost with the show, is I like movies. I’m not anti-movies, I’m not anti-comedy, I’m not anti-anything, you know, I have a place for those. But the reverence that certain things get and the fan culture of superhero movies and the sci-fi world and stuff, that feels very open for satire and that’s where a lot of our attention goes.

Paste: You’re from the Philly suburbs—I’m also from the Philly suburbs—and I’m curious to know if the film scene in the area influenced you at all before or during film school. Because from my own experience, and the experiences of people that I know from the area or who live there, the Philly film scene is kind of lacking.

TH: I didn’t have much experience one way or the other. I worked on one film after college that was this bad romantic comedy that I was the assistant prop master for. Then I got a job on another movie that was shooting there. I think we were all just trying to get on whatever M. Night Shyamalan was going to be shooting. Seemed like the only thing that was going on. It didn’t seem like a place that you should stay if you’re interested in being in the Film/TV industry. It’s a cool place to maybe have a band, or be an artist, or a lot of other things. But you had to get yourself to New York or Los Angeles if you wanted to make a real go at it.

Paste: Audience and fan entitlement—as we kind of talked about briefly—it’s very ramped-up now, and it’s very crucial to the characters of Tim and Gregg on the show. And it’s something that you’re familiar with, I think. Have your own experiences with fan entitlement or resentment informed the way you’ve ended up shaping your character on the show?

TH: Well, not so much that. The character is who he is, and I think we look at it more from like, what is the best storytelling. We lean into—in the long arc of the show—what’s good for the character, for the story, and for that being satisfying. And there’s nothing kind of trolling about it, I guess. We’re not intentionally trying to disappoint or confuse or anything like that. I mean, I guess we would be interested in surprising you and going places where you won’t expect us to go. That’s all kind of traditional, I think, good movie-making or TV-making, you know. And we do have our audience in mind when we’re writing it. Like, “Oh, this is gonna hit hard,” or “This is gonna drive people nuts.” So, there’s the audience always in mind, but we would never go into fan service territory. Just because something is working doesn’t—I mean, it depends. Sometimes if something’s working, it’s a good sign. And it means we should keep going in that direction. But I think Toni Newman as a character is definitely designed to annoy people, in a way. And some people genuinely don’t like that character, and some people like not liking that character. Definitely there’s a quality there that’s supposed to be aggravating to people. That’s just part of the show.

Paste: Do you ever find yourself engaging with art the way people like your On Cinema characters do?

TH: Sure. I mean, I guess the biggest thing that I’m a dork fan about is the Beatles. And I will have all kinds of nerdy conversations with a few friends about it and listen to these podcasts. There’s a really great podcast called One Sweet Dream and it’s a 17-hour or so, multi-part analysis of the breakup and it’s specifically about John and Paul’s relationship. I listen to every fucking second to that and there’s no reason to get down to the granular level of that issue. It is pure pointlessness, but I absolutely love it and I’m fascinated by it and will pour over all sorts of ephemera and interviews and waste my time on that kind of stuff. And Gregg, to speak for him, he collects records, and he collects obscure things and is an encyclopedia about certain, ultimately useless information [laughs]. We definitely are not above all that—to delve into the swamps of fan culture.

Paste: It feels like On Cinema has very fortuitously evolved/devolved alongside the film industry, but do you see a natural end point for the show?

TH: Some people thought it should have ended when we all got gassed by Gregg’s car and we were like, “Oh man, maybe they’re right.” It would be such a great ending. But I don’t know. I think we’re just starting this new phase so I feel like we’ve developed this way for it to be—as you can see—this cycle, this endless loop that there’s no escape, kind of like a purgatory for the characters. And this season kind of goes certainly in a direction that could set up a whole new several seasons, I guess.

I don’t know, it feels like up until this year, when we had to kind of do it all ourselves, the best thing about it was it was pure joy and recreation for us to do. Because a couple times a year you would gather with this group of people and bang out this season and it was just so organic and so natural. Now, the pressure’s on a little more and I would love to see it keep growing. And I think from early on I’ve said it would be just great to do an infinite—like, there’s no reason, there’s always going to be movies coming out, these guys are never seeming to grow or learn. I mean, at some point maybe it just won’t be funny anymore and won’t be fun. But, for now, we all get along and are always texting about different ways the show can go, and the culture and the news and everything keeps giving us material. So, for now, I think we just keep plotting out seasons and going in there and getting those blue cards out.

Paste: Can you see another On Cinema film happening? Not necessarily Mister America 2 but just another cinematic arm of the show?

TH: Sure. You know, that came about so organically and almost accidentally, because we shot it not as a movie. But I think if subscriptions keep growing and we find ourselves with the money to make more stuff, then the ideas are there to run with. So, it’s my pitch to say: people are upset or resistant to sign up for the subscription, I get it. Somebody sent me an article in Rolling Stone about Eric Clapton and about what a creep he is, and I clicked on the article and it was like “Join Now” and I’m like, I don’t want to join, I don’t wanna pay for Rolling Stone. And that’s the way the world’s going though, and I’m for it, generally, and there’s plenty of Patreons I pay for. And once you get over that and realize the internet isn’t free and you are getting something out of paying for it, it’s worth it. Money doesn’t exist anyways, it’s all conceptual. Just turn it into Hei Points.

Paste: Pivoting to some of your other projects, you have that film, Spin Me Round that went into production in Italy earlier this year. Is that something you can talk about yet?

TH: I can only say it was an absolute joy and blast to work on. I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen the movie. I know it’s being submitted to festivals and stuff. The group that’s in that movie, Aubrey [Plaza] and Zach Woods, Debbie Ryan, Alison Brie. We all keep texting each other, and it was a really beautiful little adult summer camp in Italy that I can’t believe I got to do.

Paste: I also remember, at one point a while back, you tweeted that you hoped to eventually tour Fear of Death (Heidecker’s 2020 album) with Weyes Blood (one of the album’s principal collaborators). Do you feel like that’s still on the table, or is that kind of too far gone at this point?

TH: We’re doing Desert Days, which is a festival out here, so that’s coming up in November. And it’s one of these big desert festivals—The War on Drugs, and Ty Segall and us. And we’re putting a band together and we’ll play. And I think that depending on how that goes, if it’s fun and people enjoy it, maybe there’s a world. But I don’t know, it seems with Natalie [Mering], she’s got her stuff going on, and it’ll probably be too hard to get a full blown tour going.

Paste: Is there anything else you have going on that you want to shout out before we wrap things up?

TH: Office Hours has been pumping out a bunch of stuff this year and continues to be a very fun place, and we keep taking it a little more—I don’t know about seriously, but we’re putting more energy into it. And we’ve got fun people coming up for the rest of the year and I’d like to turn that into real competition for the real late night shows. Or any shows, because all the democratization of all this stuff is becoming, like, well, what is the difference between what I’m doing and these other shows, you know? Not that we want to emulate those things, but I think there’s something really fun and loose and entertaining about what we do, and everybody can put it up on their TV and watch it just along with everything else. So, the bings and bongs and technical problems are a thing of the past. And it’s another place where, like On Cinema, we keep on coming up with sideshows and little short films and series that all can live under that banner, and another thing that you pay for on the Patreon. So, I’m having a lot of fun with that too.

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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