The Art of Stand-Up: 10 Tips from Tim Heidecker
The Awesome Show! co-creator's new special is an anti-comedy masterclassPhotos by Ben Berman Comedy Features Tim Heidecker
About halfway through An Evening With Tim Heidecker, an audience member proposes to his girlfriend onstage. This genuinely moving moment is the centerpiece of a set that begins with a mic stand-related tantrum and consists almost entirely of flubbed jokes, aimless anecdotes and a Mike Huckabee pun whose badness keeps unfolding well after the credits roll. To the uninitiated, this might resemble a painful attempt at entertainment. But to fans, it’s another helping of the brilliantly disorienting anti-comedy that has driven Tim Heidecker’s career since he and Eric Wareheim broke through with their Adult Swim series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
Watching interviews with Heidecker, even a fan might struggle to discern when he’s slipping into a character—usually a testy minor celebrity who trips over his words a lot—and when he’s being himself, whoever that may be. Actually interviewing him, as we did over Zoom earlier this week, comes with the same dilemma. The list you’ll find below was given mostly in Heidecker’s stand-up mode: “All that stuff I said is very shitty,” he said at the end of our call. But we also talked in earnest about his method. After all, it’s one thing to make an audience squirm for a few minutes (and we’ve attended open mics where 90-second sets seemed to stretch into eternity) and another to sustain a full-length special with bad comedy.
Here, then, are his 10 tips for stand-up mastery, in which you’ll find lots of stand-up Tim and some traces of real Tim. As he told us in what seemed to be the latter mode, “I think stand-up comedy should have a bit of a sense of humor about itself.”
1. Pay your dues
Develop a chunk and never let it go. In my special there’s a chunk about Coke, Pepsi and Sierra Mist that I’ve been using for over 13 years. Whatever yours is, make it the keystone of your entire act, because after a while the audience wants it; that’s why they’re there. If you’re Aerosmith, you can’t go out there and not play “Walk This Way” or “Dream On” or “Livin’ on the Edge” or “Rag Doll” or “Love in an Elevator” or “Janie’s Got a Gun.” That’s what you do when you’re Aerosmith.
2. Connect with the crew
I find that 90 percent of the people that work in the comedy clubs or in live theatrical events are, you know, there for a reason. They’re not up on stage, because they don’t have what it takes. They’re not talented or intelligent people. I’ve gotten physical with some of them; I’ve laid hands on PAs who’ve come back with the wrong Starbucks order. So I honestly don’t have a lot of respect for the people that work at these theaters or these clubs. It’s the same kind of respect that I’d have for somebody that works at a Wendy’s or McDonald’s: very little.
3. Make a strong entrance
I normally like to come out to a little “You Can Call Me Al” from Paul Simon, or “Old Time Rock and Roll.” That energizes the crowd, and if you can get four or five minutes of just getting the audience to clap, that’s four or five minutes of material you don’t need to burn. For the special we used a sound-alike of the song “Satisfaction” that we got from one of those free music libraries. We just put that on a loop and I got five or six minutes of quality time-killing out of it.
4. Work the crowd
Everyone in the audience has a name, and every name is something that you can jump off from. In the special a guy tells me his name is Colin and I go, “Colin all cars!” The goal is to get to that hour, whatever it takes. I’m not going to get there with ideas.
5. Live the brand
As a comedian in the modern age, it’s important to make smart strategic brand relationships. I’ve been able to do that by artfully weaving in products that I feel comfortable with—like E*Trade (us.etrade.com), which I talk about extensively in my act. It’s a great opportunity to let people know about something cool, and there’s a financial upside for me as well. Anyway, Patton Oswalt did a whole schtick on Denny’s in his last special. You should ask him how much he’s getting from them.
6. Paint a picture
I don’t have the luxury of the prop department and SFX that I’d have if the special were a TV show or movie. I’ve got to paint this picture in the audience’s mind, and I do that through sound effects. I have a bit about taking a piss after a long day of drinking ice-cold Coronas and checking E*Trade on my back porch. People say, “Oh, you must use a tape or samples offstage.” No: That sound of urine coming out of my penis is entirely made from my mouth.
7. Get political
People say SJW. I’m an APCW: Against-Political-Correctness Warrior. A lot of people are finally acknowledging me as one of the leaders of that movement. We unfortunately had to tape the special in Los Angeles, and that draws a certain radical, left-leaning crowd. Actually, a lot of the people in the audience were paid to be there, and a lot of them were aspiring actors. So the guy with the SAG card sitting there for 150 bucks or whatever, he’s going to laugh up to a point. But there’s some things I say that are just too controversial and too edgy, where he is not a good enough actor to deliver a hearty laugh.
8. Handle the hecklers
You have to manage them, and the way I manage them is zero tolerance. If you open your mouth, you get attacked, fully attacked, and it’s dangerous. Sometimes it feels like I can go out there and beat somebody up.
9. Become someone else
When it comes to impressions, go for people everyone knows. I do Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks and, of course, Jack Nicholson. I don’t know if Jack’s seen it; he must be a fan. It’s all about dumbing it down, low-hanging fruit, making sure that the audience isn’t going to miss anything because they haven’t seen the latest Stanley Kubrick or Lars van Trier (sic) movie. I’m looking for top-tier impersonations, not obscure artsy fartsy indie films.
10. Dream big
I’m not very passionate about stand-up as an artistic pursuit; I see it as a stepping stone to a TV show. The next logical step will be a pilot deal with one of the three major networks for a show we’re developing right now. It’s called Heidecker, and it’s really just slice-of-life stuff based on my act. It would be me and my wife, who would be played by whoever’s the flavor of the week at that time or Kate Winslet. In any case, a much better-looking person than my wife would play that part. John Ratzenberger and George Wendt from Cheers would be my two best friends and Timothy Taylor Thomas would be my son. Maybe my parents would live across the street or something. King of the Kingdom is the name of the sitcom. Not Heidecker.
An Evening With Tim Heidecker premieres tonight on YouTube at 9 p.m. ET.
James Rickman has served as an editor at Playboy and PAPER. As a writer, he’s covered Christian rock festivals, GWAR and much in between. A native of Santa Cruz, California, he’s been playing in bands since age 12. Here’s his Twitter.