Although Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim occasionally employ an editing effect that turns any moment into a stuttering glitch, they don’t tend to repeat themselves. Their forthcoming show Tim & Eric’s Bedroom Stories is, unsurprisingly, like nothing they’ve ever done before. The difference is not just what’s onscreen; the two have also changed their creative process. Actually, though, it’s all part of an ongoing creative metamorphosis they’ve been on since meeting in college in the ’90s.
Between making their initial videos together, and starting their first Adult Swim series, Tom Goes to the Mayor, Heidecker and Wareheim spent a few transformative years in the creative wilderness. They interned in the movie business right after college–and they absolutely hated it. As production assistants, they were fetching coffee and performing other menial errands, and the idea of climbing the ladder seemed impossible. Soon, they moved back East and got real jobs. Wareheim became a photographer’s assistant for weddings and bar mitzvahs, while Heidecker supplemented his acting efforts with odd jobs. On the weekends, they would make videos for their fledgling website timanderic.com. As it turned out, however, it was the synthesis of the plastic nature of Hollywood and the crappy look of your average wedding video that formed the template for Tim and Eric’s work before they began making groundbreaking, absurdist TV series on Adult Swim. Since then, however, the two have gone on to oversee several shows, not to mention their own production company. Recently, they spoke to Co.Create about how they’ve refined their creative process along the way.
Tim & Eric strove to duplicate the look of crappy ’80s TV programming they grew up on, but their initial aesthetic came partly out of necessity.
Eric: We never got a dime to do anything before we went back to L.A. to make Tom Goes to the Mayor. I actually got a lot of the software to make Tim & Eric stuff from making bar-mitzvah videos–that’s why the editing in the early stuff is so rudimentary and shitty, because I would use the same filters and effects and some of the cameras I had from doing that work.
Tim: Since then, the look has become more idea-based. When we’re coming up with the idea, we think, what is the style of this–what world does this live in, public access or otherwise?–and the look is dependent on that. If we’re going to use a lo-fi look now, there’s got to be a justification.
Everything started with Heidecker and Wareheim writing together in a room, and it’s still like that to this day. Only now, sometimes they’ll eventually be joined by John C. Reilly, the Academy Award-nominated actor who works with the duo on Check It Out with Dr. Steve Brule, or other writers and editors.
Eric: [Tim and I] will go somewhere, most likely a coffee shop or one of our houses, and just bang out some rough ideas. Or we’ll both come to the table with notes, like ‘Here’s my idea,’ and whatever makes us laugh we just write that down then, distill it, distill it, and distill it, and once we have a good core outline of whatever it’s for, then we’ll individually go off and start the script. Often, Tim will start the script and I’ll punch it up and add things, but it’s a very 50-50 kind of collaborative thing, and very organic too.
Our rule is, as long as we don’t hate the idea, like if Tim has an idea that I’m like ‘Okay, I don’t love it, but I trust you,’ we’ll still do that. But if it’s something that one of us feels very passionately about, then it’s off the table. I’ve got to say, even to this day, 90% of the ideas, we both just love, and laugh at. It really, truly is a bizarrely special relationship we have.
Tim: I’m very bad alone, with ideas. Eric and I have been working on the tour and for the past few days there had been some holes in the show, like, ‘this doesn’t feel right’ and ‘I don’t know what to do here.’ I know I’m not going to figure that out by myself. I’m going to figure it out with Eric, sitting in a room and talking it out and then it’ll fucking come out and it’ll be great. It has to come through a dialogue, through a kind of a back and forth.
Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is the pair’s best-known show. It ran on Adult Swim for five seasons between 2007 and 2010. The show attracted a lot of guests, like Zach Galifianakis, Paul Rudd, and Maria Bamford, who appeared in partly improvised bits.
Eric: Awesome Show was a little different than our new stuff. With Awesome Show it was just like, we had an outline of stuff and we ask the actor we’re work with if they mind if we throw them stuff, and they’re usually like ‘Yeah!’ So it’s this really interactive thing where we try this, try that, or ‘oh that’s the joke! Let’s go down that path.’ It’s very open. A lot of the times we’ll have a group of people and it isn’t working and someone says one funny fucking thing and we latch onto it together and make the sketch about whatever that guy just said. So it’s really about sticking to the real core funny part of it.
Tim: It’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s show up to a park and see what we get.’ It’s all about what has the highest potential for working. There’s always an outline that we have good confidence in, but then there’s also real-time writing on the fly. Comedy should be very quick and not something you argue about too much or analyze, fret over. You go out there in the field and improvise and and cut it down to something really small.
The big name guest stars weren’t the only ones who got to bring something of their own into the process. Everybody involved in making Awesome Show was given a chance to contribute.
Eric: We encourage everyone who works with us to try stuff. At every level, each department is part of the creative process. The art department is kind of on their own to wow us with their ideas, and the editors are given all of this footage, and we’re like, ‘We don’t wanna come in until you guys think it’s hilarious.’ People aren’t just pressing a button, they’re thinking about it.
Tim: We don’t get in there and micromanage, but we have conversations and notes and sessions and details. Once the style is established, it becomes a lot easier. Everybody can go off and work.
Eric: We didn’t put the JASH thing together, but we liked it because we got to make sketches. People are always asking us to make Awesome Show over and over and over again, so it was a fun way to make one-offs and little series. We rented a massive sound stage across the street and we can just go dick around and shoot things whenever. Now, when we’re coming up with ideas for the show, we have the ability to be like, if it’s something I know Tim won’t like, I’ll go and make a music video of it, or Tim will make a short video of it. Now that we have a little clout, we can get money from other sources to do these fun little side projects. When the money’s there, we grab it and create something with it.
As much as a core sensibility is present throughout every Tim & Eric project, though, the two continue evolving, thanks to a guiding principle.
Tim: We’re not interested in doing what people want us to do, which is make more Awesome Show or more gross stuff. It isn’t stuff we dislike or anything, but you don’t want to rerecord your best record.
Eric: Whenever we see a character getting popular, like Beaver Boys, we kill them off. We do the opposite of what SNL would do, like just run them to death. It’s a weird self-destructive thing, like whenever something’s threatening to get too popular we’re like ‘You gotta go, we need to find something new.’
Tim: There’s always the discussion of not wanting to repeat ourselves; not wanting to get stuck in a loop of style or jokes when we can instead try and push things ahead slightly and add new characters.
A lot of writers and editors on other sketch comedy shows are often scolded for certain ideas being “too Tim & Eric-y.” Pretty soon, though, there might be a big shift in what that description even means.
Tim: Our new show, Bedtime Stories, is the most formal approach we’ve taken. We’ve written a script we’re taking our time with, and we edit to the script. Now, it always just gets better and better, and some things don’t work and you finesse them. It’s not like Awesome Show, which was much more theoretical in its script stage–let’s try, let’s improvise, let’s fuck around and give to editors. This is different, and it’s fun to do it this way. It’s fun to hire actually good actors to perform a script that you wrote, and then they deliver it and you get something that feels kind of normal. It feels just a different tempo, which is fun for us, because we’re not just all about putting on a straightjacket and slamming our heads against the wall.