When I arrive at the Abso Lutely headquarters in Glendale, California, a Miley-aged assistant leads me to a desk near Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s offices, discloses the Wi-Fi password, and leaves me alone. Staring right at me is a child mannequin wearing a ginger, Amish-length beard. Considering all the grotesque costumes they have worn on TV–the Lollipop Guild–meets–Las Vegas look of their “Chrimbus” special comes to mind–it’s almost jarring when the duo emerge in button-down shirts and jeans. It’s as if they’ve exorcised the demented parts of themselves in small, televised doses.
Heidecker and Wareheim, comedians and TV producers who rose to fame with their 2007–2010 series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, lead me into an editing bay upstairs where they’re putting the finishing touches on their new show, Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories. Wareheim, 38, is tall, neatly hirsute, and radiating excitement. Heidecker, also 38, is shorter, but equally imposing. He’s laconic in describing what I’m about to watch, but I can feel him looking to see how I’ll react. On screen, Bob Odenkirk (best known for playing crooked lawyer Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad) is a podiatrist, snipping off a woman’s toes with shiny metal shears. The scene plays like a horror movie about malpractice, but the disconnect between Odenkirk’s loud, effortful surgery and his patient’s almost Zen-like calm cracks me up. Heidecker and Wareheim crack up too.
The pair have been praised by critics and tastemakers for their brand of discomfiting comedy–Tim and Eric don’t tell jokes so much as provoke a full array of emotional responses, only one of which is laughter– but for the past few years, their real revolution has been happening behind the scenes. Their production company, Abso Lutely, is a full-service workshop for unique, uncompromising voices, designing next-level TV for the post-sitcom comedy world. Through the other entertainers they’re supporting, on multiple networks, in multiple comedic genres, Heidecker and Wareheim are beginning to remodel our sense of humor after their own. Recognizing one of their shows has gotten to be as easy as spotting the bearded child on a school bus.
Wandering around later near the building’s lobby, I see a shelf full of thick binders, each labeled with the name of a different Abso Lutely series. There’s The Eric Andre Show, an anarchic deconstruction of talk shows. An even bigger binder belongs to Nathan for You, the marketing spoof that’s become a legitimate publicity magnet. Abso Lutely currently produces seven series and two comedy specials, which air on three different networks, where they are watched by more than a million people each week (many more stream them, often illegally). Their shows have been known to feature genuine celebrities (Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, and Sarah Silverman are all part of the family) and one even stars an Academy Award–nominated actor (Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, starring John C. Reilly). It’s an impressive reach–especially for a comedy machine that’s so fundamentally weird.
Out of a back office emerges lead producer Dave Kneebone, 40, who explains that the thick binders are filled with release forms. Many of these shows use real people–which keeps Abso Lutely’s lawyer busy. The newest member of the triumvirate, Kneebone is affable and smiley, and looks like he could be Tobey Maguire’s older brother.
“We are very careful about how we produce these shows,” Kneebone says. “The worst tragedy in the world would be that you get the greatest scene ever and you can’t use it.”
Heidecker and Wareheim met through Temple University’s film program in the mid-’90s. Bound by a shared love of public-access TV and a contempt for overly formal student films, the two started creating bizarre videos just to make each other laugh. When their short, deadpan video of two bozos yakking about restaurants made it into the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, Heidecker and Wareheim felt confident enough to send DVDs of it to their heroes, including Odenkirk, a much-loved and respected comedy godfather for his work on the now-classic HBO sketch series Mr. Show. They included glossy head shots of themselves and an itemized invoice in the package; Odenkirk was amused, and sufficiently impressed with their work to take them on as protégés. In 2004, he helped them ink a deal with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim for their debut show, Tom Goes to the Mayor, and served as a creative consultant on the series.
Emboldened by an order for a second season of the cult hit, Heidecker and Wareheim decided that they wanted to produce it themselves, forming Abso Lutely to manage the process. In 2006, they hired Kneebone away from alt literary imprint McSweeney’s.
“Frequently, throughout my career, I’ve Googled ‘What does producer mean?’ ” Kneebone says, shrugging mildly. He still doesn’t know–but he’s good at it.
“Dave represented how we always thought a company should be, which is not your traditional situation,” Wareheim says. “Our producer before him ran it like an office and didn’t put the creative first. But that’s our most important thing. All that matters is getting the best thing on TV–and doing that without being a dick.”
After the second season of Tom Goes to the Mayor, Heidecker and Wareheim began work on their masterpiece, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! It was a twisted torrent of commercial parodies, mood pieces, and character sketches, held aloft by a singular visual flair that drew on bad ’80s TV. (“You have to do a lot of work to make a show today look that shitty,” Heidecker says.) In addition to left-field casting choices and aggressive awkwardness, Awesome Show was driven by an editing philosophy that would inspire Abso Lutely’s unofficial house style. If a joke was dry, the team would add captions, graphics, and drawn-out takes to turn the lack of a punch line into a punch line itself.
The series ran for five seasons before Heidecker, Wareheim, and Kneebone decided to broaden out. Their mission would be to expand Abso Lutely’s base of operations beyond Tim and Eric projects, further developing their relationships with the collaborators they’d groomed over the years. “It was like, What about these people who’ve become this family for us?” Heidecker says. “We don’t want to lose these people.”
The familial vibe is evidential at the Abso Lutely offices. Everybody eats lunch together at one huge table (on the company dime). A terrier-Chihuahua-mix puppy named Bacon runs around freely. Many of the directors, editors, and writers here started out as interns.
Heidecker and Wareheim make it a point to keep their fingerprints off the shows their family members make. They let offbeat comedy voices sing out in their own ways. The common note: Each series traffics in odd human interactions that betray how unnatural everyday moments can be. “Just as I was very much influenced by Monty Python or SNL, I think Tim and Eric’s shows are going to be that influential,” says Mike Lazzo, executive vice president and creative director at Adult Swim. “They have changed, to some degree, the sense of humor coming in the doors now in submissions.”
The most distinguished player on Abso’s current roster is Nathan for You. Creator Nathan Fielder presents himself to small businesses as a marketing expert with highly questionable ideas, both for the on-air business and for the television show itself.
When Fielder came up with the idea last spring to create a fully functional Starbucks café doppelganger with the word Dumb preceding every menu item, Kneebone vetoed it immediately. About an hour later, though, he called the company’s lawyer to discuss the limits of parody law. When news stations caught wind of Dumb Starbucks, the story went viral; days later, Fielder was on Letterman, while Kneebone was on the phone with Starbucks’s mega-lawyers. It became a much bigger deal than anyone expected, and, though it was eventually shut down by the L.A. Health Department, it was a watershed moment for the show. (The episode aired July 29.) Nathan is up 49% in key demo viewers between season 1 and season 2.
Producing a Nathan segment can take months–the reality element ensures a wildly unpredictable timetable and sweeping shifts in focus as the events play out–and it’s a testament to Abso Lutely’s flexibility that they are able to execute it. Other shows, such as Check It Out!, rely on real-time writing and spontaneous changes to everything from costumes to set design.
Tim and Eric’s sense of humor has gotten flexible as well. Bedtime Stories, for example, ditches the lo-fi sketch-comedy approach for more of a cinematic-looking anthology format. It even, in some cases, ditches jokes.
“We’re noticing a trend that laughing is no longer in,” Wareheim says. “If you look at the new Louie, it’s more about the whole story rather than jokes, jokes, jokes.”
“We, the comics that we like, we’re all, like, post-humor,” says Heidecker. “We love gags, and we still do that kind of stuff,” Wareheim adds, “but what turns us on is, ‘What’s the next level of comedy?’ ”
If they don’t find it, another Abso Lutely show probably will.
A guide to Abso Lutely’s off-kilter comedies, with commentary from the founders themselves.
A deconstructed talk show–literally. Andre destroys the set at the be-ginning of every episode.
Adult Swim 2012–present.
A loving, absurd, mostly animated look at the bizarre happenings in the fictional town of Jefferton.
Adult Swim 2004–2006
What happens when Tim and Eric (the characters) are given a billion dollars to make a movie? Weird stuff.
In theaters and on VOD 2012
A pseudo-1980s-era public-access variety show, complete with advertisements for child clowns.
Adult Swim 2007–2010
The Birthday Boys have a satirical sketch show. Hollywood clichés cower in fear.
A faux talk show created by Scott Aukerman featuring top-notch comedy guests and Reggie Watts as bandleader.
John C. Reilly’s Awesome Show character, Dr. Steve Brule, got an information news show of his own. It is not very informative.
Adult Swim 2010–present
Andy Daly reviews everyday experiences (“best friend,” “getting rich,” “orgy”) the way others do music or movies.
Comedy Central 2014–present
Jon Benjamin led a fake news team. Holding the boom mic: Nathan Fielder (see: Nathan for You).
Comedy Central 2011
Derrick Beckles hosts an “entertainment news program” that delivers “news” about “entertainment.” (Yes, that’s Pat O’Brien.)
Adult Swim 2013–present
Nathan Fielder is a marketing consultant full of dumb ideas. Real-life business-people do what he says.
Comedy Central 2013–present