Imagine an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus guest directed by David Lynch and guest starring Andy Kaufman. Now imagine that immediately after watching that episode you fall asleep and have nightmares about it, and in your nightmares there are two Andy Kaufmans, one short, babyfaced and blond, the other tall, lumbering, bespectacled and brunette—a sort of modern day George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men if George and Lennie were hipsters and George was also retarded.
Congratulations! You’ve just imagined Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, a sketch comedy series produced by, created by, directed by and starring college buddies Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim that aired for five seasons on Cartoon Network’s after-hours network-within-a-network Adult Swim before its cancellation in May of last year.
Very probably it's an exercise in futility to attempt to analyze the comedic stylings of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, or as they’re simply referred to among their fan base, Tim and Eric (pronounced as one word, “Timmuhneric”, almost as if they were one entity). At first glance it all seems so obvious, so uninhibitedly stream-of-consciousness, that to do so would be to miss the point: to apply too much thought to a brand of humor of which the chief appeal is that it requires no thought. But I will attempt to do just that, because I believe that over the course of its five seasons the recognition it received was criminally less than the recognition it deserved, and I intend to remedy that in whatever inconsequential way I can by wielding my considerable non-influence as one of the literally millions of anonymous bloggers currently dumping their teaspoons of opinionated water into the journalistic ocean of the internet.
My friend Larry likes to tell the story of how the first time he saw TaEAS,GJ! he was too busy marveling at the fact that he had never seen his own esoteric sense of humor captured so perfectly on screen to laugh.
|He even sort of looks like Tim!|
My first experience watching TaEAS,GJ! was similar, except that in my case it didn’t prevent me from partaking in more than my fair share of lolz (alright, that will officially be the last time you see me resorting to LOL speak on this blog, and if you ever catch me using it again you have my permission to find out where I live, drive to my apartment and personally bust an anticonformist cap in my pandering ass). The sense of humor that so impressed my friend Larry and me I would describe as this: the amplification of everything that is awkward, pompous, banal and dehumanizing about television culture, particularly sitcoms, public access channels and infomercials, augmented by the juxtaposition with that culture of subject matter that is usually considered too taboo, sensitive or shocking, enhanced by a preoccupation with gross-out humor, slapstick and bad puns. Others have used terms like absurdism, Dadaism, satire, camp and anti-humor, but I would substitute the term meta-humor, a term I rather optimistically hoped I might have invented but a quick Googling just now informed me not only already exists but even has its very own Wikipedia page (although to my credit, none of the styles of joke described on that that page is the type to which I am referring).
When I say “meta-humor” what I mean is that the central joke of the series seemed at times to be that it wasn't funny. It was as if you the audience and Tim and Eric the performers were laughing together at a hypothetical third party who did find it funny, although at other times it felt uncomfortably like Tim and Eric were laughing at you for thinking you were in on the joke when really you were as much the butt of it as that hypothetical third party, which of course only resulted in more laughter, albeit of a decidedly different sort.
What made the show truly genius, though, is that Tim and Eric managed to accomplish all this without ever acting smug, or breaking character, or winking at the camera, or exchanging knowing glances, or resorting to any of the other tactics most satirists or “camp” comedians use to indicate to their audiences that they consider themselves above their material, so much so that I often find myself chuckling aloud at a comment one of them makes in a magazine or on a TV talk show that someone less familiar with their comedy would have read as perfectly straight, and for all I know was perfectly straight, except that I’ve been conditioned never to trust anything that comes out of their mouths as genuine.
Even the death of one of their frequent cast mates, Richard Dunn, wasn’t enough to convince me of their sincerity. I remember laughing despite myself upon reading a comment that Tim had posted to his Twitter—or was to their website?—addressing it, something along the lines of “Eric and I are deeply saddened to learn of the death of Richard Dunn . . . He was a very special friend and a very special spirit xoxo”.
|Richard Dunn, 1936-2010|
A very special friend and
a very special spirit
It was the “xoxo” that did it. And frankly, I don’t blame him if the comment wasn’t sincere, because it seems only right that he should memorialize his friend according to the sensibilities of the show on which they collaborated, one of those sensibilities being that any display of pomp is necessarily self-parodying, and another being that there is nothing funnier under the sun than a thing which other people take seriously. In fact, I am fond of saying that if the Joker watched TV then his favorite show would be TaEAS,GJ!, which is pretty damn high praise indeed coming from me, as twisted as that sounds.
Can’t you just imagine him laughing his abnormally long head off at sketches like this:
I compared the pair to David Lynch earlier, and in their commitment to unsettling, hallucinatory surrealism it is that director to whom they are indeed most comparable, but there is something Coenesque about them as well, in their nihilism, their indiscriminate misanthropy, although the Coen brothers themselves have balked at the use of those terms to describe their work, insisting that their scathing mockery of their characters is ultimately affectionate. One gets the feeling that Tim and Eric would make similar assurances, and considering that their demeanors are so unflaggingly jovial one would be inclined to believe them. But use those terms I will, for when a comedian aims such merciless ridicule so liberally at so many targets then there must be something of the misanthrope about him, even if he is good enough to have a sense of humor about it.
I can imagine the pair getting on well with Jeff Bridges’s “The Dude” from what is probably the Coen brother’s most beloved movie, though not necessarily their most accomplished, The Big Lebowski, who similarly saw through the affectations and plagiaristic passions of those around him, but rather than getting angry instead chose to sit back, light up a “jay” or mix himself a White Russian, and shake his head amusedly. Don’t think for a moment, though, that perpetually laid-back stoner types escaped the eagle eye of their derision, either:
There is another aspect to their comedy that I have failed to mention, which, in truth, is probably the aspect my friend Larry responded to even more than the misanthropy, the Lynchian surrealism or the meta-humor. Rather than immediately launch into trying to define it, however, I will instead share with you a personal anecdote:
Back in high school, I accepted a ride home from a party one night with an attractive female friend of mine. After we had pulled up to the curb in front of my house we continued to sit in the car and talk as two friends will, and over the course of the conversation I brought up my cousin Jacob--only, for whatever reason, my mouth turned traitor and formed the wrong vowel subsequently to pronouncing the letter "J". As a result, instead of beginning my cousin's name with the syllable "Jay" as would have been in accordance with tradition, I began it with the syllable "Jah". Realizing my mistake, I attempted to correct my mispronunciation midway through the first syllable, so that my cousin's name came out sounding like this: "Jahaaaycob." Given the choice between ignoring what had just occurred and acknowledging the fact that for a moment there I had sounded like one of the cast of The Beverly Hillbillies, both my friend and I chose to ignore it, which resulted in there being a palpable awkwardness between us for the remainder of the conversation from which my night never recovered.
Tim and Eric would have found this hilarious. In fact, had their cameras been rolling, they would have slapped a subtitle on the screen at the precise moment I said my cousin's name just to draw further attention to my mispronunciation of it, as they did whenever someone on their show got tongue-tied, stuttered, or simply pronounced a word in a way that they thought was weird.
This celebration, this pointing out, of those small moments of absurdity that most people either ignore or just plain fail to notice, and the two friends' obvious delight in them, is one of the pair's most endearing qualities. It also made for some of the shows funniest gags, as when guest star Zach Galifianakis, who is supposed to be playing a character named "Terry Green", when introducing himself sounds more like he's saying "Tairy", and this is pointed out to the audience by means of, you guessed it, a subtitle. Or when in another collaboration with Galfianakis, a short film they made for Absolut Vodka called A Vodka Movie, Galifianakis serves them cartoonishly large martini glasses filled with Absolut on ice and the following exchange takes place:
TIM: What is this, ice?
ZACH: Um, Absolut on ice.
Now that may not be very funny in print, but trust me, on film it's hilarious. It is also the kind of joke (if you can even call it a "joke") that no one would ever think to write into a script. Luckily, A Vodka Movie is entirely improvised, and out of all the many minutes and possibly even hours of footage that wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor, the filmmakers chose to include that brief and utterly mundane exchange.
Why did they? Well, my friend Larry and I have spent hours trying to answer that question--to figure out just what makes it so gosh darn funny--and this is what we've come up with:
In the film, when Tim asks the question "What is this, ice?" it seems apparent that he is asking not what the drink is that Zach has served them but referring to the ice itself, asking if that is, indeed, what it is. Zach, by responding, "Um, Absolut on ice," would then be betraying himself as having misunderstood Tim's question. But then Tim, instead of explaining to Zach that what he was actually referring to was the ice, simply lets Zach continue to think that he was referring to the drink, and the misunderstanding goes unacknowledged.
This is funny for several reasons:
1) "What is this, ice?" is a stupid thing to ask, as the ice is obviously ice.
2) If Tim had indeed been asking "What is this drink you have served us, ice?" then that would have been an even stupider thing to ask, since A) ice is not a drink, B) it is obvious that there is more than just ice in the glass, and C) Zach has already told him what it is by the time this exchange takes place.
3) If "What is this drink you have served us, ice?" is indeed a stupid question to ask for all the reasons expounded upon in #2, then it was as stupid of Zach to assume that that was what Tim was asking as it would have been of Tim to ask it.
4) If that is indeed what Zach thought Tim was asking, then surely he too must have thought it was a stupid thing to ask, and yet he pretends not to.
5) Upon realizing that Zach thought he was asking if the drink was ice, Tim himself must have felt embarrassed that Zach thought he was asking such a stupid question, and yet he pretends not to, perhaps because he is so embarrassed that he simply wants to move on to another subject, perhaps because he doesn't want to hurt Zach's feelings by correcting him.
6) It is stupid to be embarrassed over such a small thing.
7) It is stupid to try to assuage your embarrassment by changing the subject when simply explaining that you were not asking what the other person thinks you were asking would do a better job of it, as that would eliminate your reason for being embarrassed in the first place.
8) It is stupid to think that someone's feelings would be hurt by your merely explaining to them that they had misunderstood your question.
9) After all that misunderstanding, and all that embarrassment, and all that pretense, the amount of information communicated is so minuscule, so utterly inconsequential, that the exchange might as well not have taken place at all.
Now, am I suggesting that all or even some of this went through the heads of the performers, either when they spoke those lines or when they decided to leave them in the film? Of course not. Nor am I suggesting that it goes through the heads of the people who watch it and laugh at it (at least not consciously). I'm sure that if you asked any of them, performer or audience member, why it was funny, they would respond the same way: "It just is!" And who knows, maybe that's the better answer. Hell, they might even respond that it wasn't funny, because, after all, humor is irreconcilably subjective, and there's no better way to ensure that someone will continue to think something isn't funny than by trying to explain to them why it is.
And so, in that spirit, rather than continue trying to explain to you why Tim and Eric's comedy is funny, I will simply invite you to see for yourself by going out and buying one of their DVDs. Or better yet, thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can watch any one of their sketches here. Or check out their wubsite.
Er, I mean website.