It wouldn’t be a stretch to describe Tim Heidecker as one of comedy’s greatest working surrealists. As part of comedy duo Tim and Eric, along with Eric Wareheim, Heidecker has spent much of the past 15 years producing a dizzying array of bizarrely funny, often grotesque non-sequiturs.
Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! ran from 2007 to 2010 and mined the dark underbelly of Middle America for nightmarish comic sketches. The experience was often like watching public access television produced in Hell, with the luridness of its characters exaggerated by intentionally inept production values and no shortage of scatological humor. The show became a cult success and featured recurring appearances by actors such as Will Ferrell (playing Donald Mahanahan, the patriarch of a family that rents out child clowns), Zach Galifianakis (playing Tairy Greene, a pretentious actor known for his role in the television series The Snuggler) and John C. Reilly (playing Dr. Steve Brule, a moronic television host who later received his own Tim and Eric-produced spin-off series, Check It Out!).
The success of Awesome Show led to one film (the polarizing Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) and dozens of web shorts, while companies like Totino’s Pizza Rolls, Old Spice and GE hired them to direct a bevy of characteristically strange commercials. The bleeding edge of television’s current comedy landscape has been fundamentally shaped by Tim and Eric, with shows like Nathan for You, The Eric André Show and Review claiming the duo as influences, if not producers.
When Heidecker comes to Saturn Birmingham on June 20, though, it won’t be with Wareheim; he’ll be doing stand-up comedy alongside Gregg Turkington, another frequent collaborator who usually performs as the misanthropic character Neil Hamburger. Heidecker will be playing a character, too, though he was “too lazy to give him a name,” he says.
“It’s a really fun character for me to live in for a little bit on stage,” he says. “It’s this guy I’ve been doing for many years… He’s essentially an angry white conservative, so somebody that fits in pretty well in Birmingham at large, but perhaps not necessarily with people who are going to come out and see our show.”
Heidecker, 40, isn’t worried about alienating his audience. Most of his humor relies on pushing jokes to their breaking point, twisting and exaggerating the artifice of his usually unlikeable characters until the pathos that drives them becomes painfully visible and renders them almost aggressively vulnerable.
That vulnerability is on display with Heidecker’s newest series, Decker: Unclassified (premiering June 17 on Adult Swim), a parody of 24 that is defined by the out-of-control insecurities of its lead actor, another fictionalized version of Heidecker whose creative decisions usually spawn from an ongoing petty feud with creative partner Turkington (also playing a fictionalized version of himself).
It’s also explored with much greater nuance on Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, a Twilight Zone-style anthology series that explores its characters’ primal fears with a macabre, subtly wry tone. (One episode, for instance, stars Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk as Dr. Stork, a “toe-removal specialist” who is compelled to eat his patients’ toes.)
“At first, we didn’t know what the show was going to be when we started making it,” Heidecker says. “There was some stuff with Zach [Galifianakis] that was kind of sillier, but when we really started writing, we realized, ‘These are nightmares. These are all nightmares.’ That gave us a direction… I don’t think you see a lot of stuff [like Bedtime Stories] on TV right now. There’s horror, and that horror tends to be a little more stylized and sort of fun. We wanted to get into the place where we were [exploring] what it feels like to have a nightmare, or be in a nightmare situation. We wanted to dig deeper and create something a little more surreal. We didn’t really want to just go and make another sketch show. We wanted to do something a bit different and challenge ourselves and our audience.”
Recent episodes of the series — such as the excellent “Tornado,” which aired in December — have seen the show’s running time expand from its typical 10-minute running time to a full half-hour, which gave the duo more time to “establish some mood and play around with some B-stories,” Heidecker says.
“It always felt like we were making sacrifices at 11 minutes, although we were happy with it,” he says. “[But] these days, it seems almost irrelevant to have these weird time constraints anyway, because [the internet] doesn’t really care about that stuff… It ended up being a little easier [to write a 30-minute episode] because you’re writing the same stories, [but] you just don’t have to smash them together so much… It’s certainly a much more subtle, slow-burn way of being funny or telling a story.”
Next year will see a new, full season of Bedtime Stories, Heidecker says, which will consist entirely of such half-hour episodes. “We were very lucky and happy to get to make more Bedtime Stories. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to. It’s pretty ambitious and big-budget for Adult Swim, at least, and it’s still fringe. It doesn’t have a huge audience or anything.”
Beyond that and the premiere of Decker: Unclassified, though, Heidecker says that what Tim and Eric do next is very much up in the air.
“[We’re] pretty much taking it as it goes,” he says. “As you can tell from my work and Eric’s work, we put out a lot of stuff. The older we get, the harder that is to do. You don’t want to just put out crap. Especially with Eric and I, we have a high quality-control standard, so that when we do come together to make stuff, we want it to be great. And that stuff takes time. I think, for the next couple of years, we’ll get to make a big batch of Bedtime Stories, and then that will run its course and we’ll sit down and say, ‘What next?’”
Tim Heidecker and Neil Hamburger will perform at Saturn on Monday, June 20. Jenn Snyder will open. Doors will open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22 in advance and $25 the day of the show. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.