Tim Heidecker Turns Political With Decker: UnsealedPhoto courtesy of Adult Swim Comedy Features Tim Heidecker
Tim Heidecker practically invented an entire genre of comedy. His cult-favorite Adult Swim show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! pioneered a surreal style of absurdist humor that spawned countless imitators and paved the way for comedians like Eric Andre, Nathan Fielder and Reggie Watts. Heidecker and partner Eric Wareheim’s comedy is not for everyone, and Heidecker even admits that “the majority of people don’t care for our work.” His comedic style challenges viewers with its bizarre sensibilities and inside jokes. But for those who are in on the joke, Heidecker’s work is some of the most rewarding and hilarious comedy on TV.
Tim and Eric’s comedy was never political. Their TV shows and movies existed in a Tim and Eric-style alternate universe that felt detached from the real world. There was nothing topical in Awesome Show, and Heidecker says, “(his) philosophy with Eric Wareheim was to not be political or current events-based at all.” But as Heidecker has branched out from his partnership with Wareheim in recent years, his work has undergone a political awakening. He’s released music that criticizes Donald Trump and the alt-right, he made videos for Super Deluxe at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and he created Decker: Unsealed, which stars himself and comedian Gregg Turkington. Decker, which started as a web series before graduating to Adult Swim’s TV schedule, and which begins its second season on TV on June 4, is centered around Heidecker’s Decker character, a conservative CIA agent who “defends the Constitution” and “protects America from its enemies.”
To viewers who aren’t familiar with Heidecker’s work Decker: Unsealed might seem like a disaster, like a high school student’s unwatchable film project about a “badass” renegade CIA agent who fights back against his “liberal pussy” president. But to Heidecker’s fans, Decker is a hilarious, chaotic and expertly crafted trainwreck that showcases the brilliance of Heidecker’s singular comedic style. Heidecker doesn’t fully memorize his lines for Decker scenes. “There’s no need to prep,” Heidecker tells Paste. “I don’t bother memorizing the lines. It helps to create that feeling of watching somebody struggling to recall stuff. We’ll also go off-script and rant a bit to get everyone confused.” Decker feels as though it could fall apart at any second, which is, of course, by design. “Luckily, we have our director who will tell us if something is just unusable. You don’t want it to be such a disaster that you don’t know what the hell is going on.”
With Decker, Heidecker touches on politics and current events in a way that he deliberately avoided with Awesome Show. “It is certainly influenced by the times we live in. A lot of the political stuff we do with Decker just came up organically,” Heidecker says. “It came about when my character on my online show On Cinema had all these right-wing ideas. That character said he was making his own show called Decker, and that pushed us towards actually making that show for real. It happened naturally. I’m not going to let some rules or perceptions of what I should be doing influence what I actually do.”
Heidecker commonly plays self-titled characters in his work. One version of “Tim Heidecker” is his stand-up persona, a cringe-worthy sendup of hack comics who deliberately bombs every time he performs. In 2011, “Tim Heidecker” the stand-up comedian persona endorsed Donald Trump for president long before Trump announced his candidacy. Before Trump won any primary states in 2016, there was virtually no one who thought he had a shot at winning even the Republican primary. Although his endorsement was a joke, Heidecker was one of the only people on earth who floated the idea of a Trump presidency before 2015. Flint, Michigan-born filmmaker Michael Moore was one of the very few people who made the bold prediction early on that Trump would have a legitimate chance at taking the White House. Like Moore, Heidecker, who grew up in Allentown, PA, was from a region of the country that Trump surprisingly won in the 2016 election. Did Heidecker’s roots key him into something that many people missed about Donald Trump’s potential when he made his prescient, if joking, endorsement of Trump years before Trump even ran? “Perhaps,” Heidecker says. “I recall that growing up, my grandfather didn’t have many books, but the couple of books he did have were Lee Iacocca’s book and Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. These guys were considered the authorities on business. These were serious men. I had a sense that Trump had been around for a long time, and that he was a stupid person’s idea of what a smart, successful rich person should be. I don’t agree with it, but I can certainly identify with the kind of guy who admires a person like Trump and who sees him as a standard for success.”
Heidecker’s work with Awesome Show partner Eric Wareheim was decidedly apolitical, but Tim Heidecker is not an apolitical person. Since the start of the 2016 presidential election, Heidecker has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump. He makes “coded, satirical” political statements with Decker, he releases his version of protest songs, and he tweets his political opinions for his half a million followers. With this outspokenness, Heidecker has incurred the wrath of Trump-world. Much of Heidecker’s work is created for the internet, like On Cinema and his work with Jash on YouTube, so he is an easy target for online antagonizers, which are abundant among Trump supporters. Heidecker endures a constant bombardment of “coordinated” online attacks.
“It’s a small but vocal group of people who feel it’s their duty to attack and intimidate me because of the work I put out,” Heidecker says. “It seems coordinated in terms of the kind of language they use and the imagery they associate with. They’re just loud. But I’m a fighter. I like getting into it, maybe partly cause its funny to me to not just spew back diarrhea to them, but to do it in a way that might make somebody laugh. And I want to let people know that you don’t have to take this shit.”
Heidecker has some theories about why, of all the comedians who attack Trump, he specifically has been targeted so viciously by online hate. “There’s a portion of that dark world, that dark corner of the internet, that feels as though to make fun of Donald Trump is to be part of the establishment. They think I’m someone who should be on their side, who should be alternative to the mainstream. They think I’ve become changed or something. I can only analyze them to a certain degree, but it’s fascinating to me.”
Heidecker seems to surmise that, in part, his style of comedy may have indirectly attracted some people from the “dark corner of the internet” who may, on some level, identify with Heidecker’s anti-mainstream comedic style, if not his political views. “I think it’s based on the general nihilism and rejection of the mainstream in much of our work. These are people who, I guess, were fans who have some perception of our work that correlated with their view of the world. But that doesn’t connect to the way I personally feel about how the world’s supposed to work. Everybody I work with generally perceives Donald Trump pretty similarly. But (the Trump Administration) does feel like a character-like a dark version of something we would create.”
Heidecker admits that it is somewhat of a burden to have the wrath of the internet alt-right trained on you. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me and make me do things like make sure my family is safe, or worry that it will manifest itself in some nut coming up to me with a gun. That certainly is something you consider. But you can’t control what people are going to do. I’ve been through some crazy shit. I don’t want to not do something because I was worried about some 15-year-old in Ohio who’s up at 4 AM with directions from some 4chan board.”
In 2006, Heidecker was stabbed twice in the back by a neighbor’s son who was supposedly under the influence of PCP. Heidecker had gone next door in the middle of the night after his frantic neighbor banged on his door screaming for help. He was ambushed by the kid who stabbed him with an eight-inch butcher’s knife and chased him down the block before being subdued in a bar that Heidecker ran into. “It was a 4chan commenter who stabbed me-I’m just kidding,” Heidecker says. But despite his past traumatic experience, Heidecker doesn’t let online threats of violence intimidate him. “It feels like if you’ve been struck by lightning you feel like you won’t get struck by lightning again,” he says. “It was certainly traumatic, but I think it’s good to go through that kind of stuff to have the perspective of it. Other than that, I don’t think about it too much. So, [online attacks] are not going to stop me from doing stuff. If that’s the intention, it’s just not going to work.”
Heidecker has always felt free to mock anything he considers absurd. Much of his work with Eric Wareheim has made fun of things that he finds amusing, such as awful public-access TV or low-quality infomercials. But with Decker, Heidecker seems to be mocking things that truly upset him. “Decker is certainly a reaction to current events and the idiocy of it all. That’s frustrating, and the state of things certainly does make me angry because it’s really happening. Every morning you wake up and you can’t believe it, you can’t believe it’s another day of this shit. That feeling will probably inspire more writing and more ideas.”
There is no shortage of idiocy to spark Heidecker’s inspiration. The feelings of dysfunction he evokes in works like Decker parallel, in a sense, the dysfunctional atmosphere of American politics. “It does connect to me. The world is shit. It’s full of shitty things. It’s full of liars and cheats and people trying to con you and scam you. That’s every Cinco product. That’s every character in a lot of the stories we tell. The stories are often about people living through some kind of nightmare. But I think this is now manifesting in our politics and in the way our country’s being run. The White House is a Cinco brand at the moment. I don’t see it any other way, and it’s hard for me to relate to people who don’t see it that way. And that’s the problem.”
Jake Lauer is a New York-based writer and copywriter with bylines in Complex, Maxim, Uproxx and Splitsider. You can check out more of his writing here.