Illustration by Vincent Tao
TIM HEIDECKER AND ERIC WAREHEIM are not for the uptight or squeamish. Like some sort of anti-Midas, everything they touch turns to golden shit. What’s typically considered “low,” like bodily malfunctions or kitsch or excrement, they turn into clever jokes, and what’s typically considered “high,” like the glamor of stardom or the shine of new commodities, they turn into shit, both figurative and literal (very often literal). What’s low is high and what’s high is low: Tim and Eric induce a nightmarish vertigo. That’s one response to their work. Another is laughter.
At least, Tim and Eric’s oeuvre — though probably it’s more accurate, if a little deflating, to label it a “brand” — is funny to a certain loyal demographic: university-educated, ironic, possibly political, possibly depressed. And it is equally alienating to others. Those who like the Tim and Eric brand love it; fans form something of a cult. And those who dislike the brand hate it; Tim and Eric have received online death threats. One reason their brand is so polarizing is that it’s unique. So unique, really, that it feels like one big hermeneutically sealed inside joke. In this way, Tim and Eric resemble the auteur David Lynch, whose unique touch ensures that anything even vaguely reminiscent gets labeled “Lynchian.” While Tim and Eric don’t have their own eponymous adjective (Erician? TimErician? Terician?), their idiom is just as unmistakable.
Tim and Eric have been polarizing since 2007, when Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, a sketch comedy that features “live action, sketch, animation, emotions, phone calls, love, etc.,” premiered on Cartoon Network. With this the duo, who met as film students at Philadelphia’s Temple University, honed their distinctive low-budget, bad-in-a-good-way style: a smartly playful and evidently self-aware combination of ugly green-screen graphics, poorly synced dialogue, mistimed cuts, shoddy audio effects, and amateur performances. You could call Tim and Eric’s television “anti-television.” And if this era really is, as TV fans and creators would like us to believe, the “golden age of television,” then Tim and Eric prove that it’s the golden age of anti-television, too. (See also The Eric Andre Show, the Kroll Show, and Jenny Slate’s Catherine).
Strip malls, suburban grocery stores, horse farms, overweight and undernourished white men, fortune tellers, aged hippies, elderly quasi-rapper-pimps, giant stepfathers: these are the places and people that populate the world of Tim and Eric. Instead of presenting TV as the commercial dream that it’s typically presented as, Tim and Eric depict it as nightmarish, B-level, poor. They are their own sort of depressive realists. By bringing onto the screen and casting in unflattering light the crowds of hopeless and otherwise out-of-work actors most television ignores — the actors-in-distress who still believe, as television teaches them to believe, that stardom will save them — Tim and Eric not only expose the material conditions and bodies of those whom television locks out of its fancy fortress, they also break apart this fortress, brick by brick, into something far less daunting. While watching Tim and Eric, viewers can, to quote Frank Guan’s review in n+1, “cease being a petrified spectator and mature, perhaps, into an agile and resilient one.”
Tim and Eric use a medium that consistently glamorizes itself to expose its real and ugly inner workings. Like a Trojan horse, their shows take TV apart from its inside.
One of Tim and Eric’s most distinct and memorable anti-television shows is Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, a mock late-night, low-budget, public access educational news show, hosted by a comically incompetent, disturbingly immature, and brain-damaged wannabe doctor: Dr. Steve Brule (John C. Reilly). Each episode progresses in the same way, with some variations. We meet Brule on a makeshift studio set. It looks as though Brule might have snuck into the studio during the early hours of the morning and filmed the show himself; actually, at the end of one episode, a security guard kicks Brule out. Brule introduces a topic, via a poem or song by a friend or relative whose name he mispronounces, and spends his remaining 11 minutes on air checking this topic out. Along the way, he never fails to injure or traumatize himself. Gags range from slapstick to sadistic, tepid to tragic. In one especially unhinged scene, Brule’s gigantic and mean stepfather, Mobin, hangs himself (“Mobin couldn’t hack it”), and Brule then helps his elderly mother give birth to what turns out to be a clump of hair while his cousin, Sunshine Brule, dances maniacally around the room, singing made-up spiritual chants, vaguely satanic. The purpose of Check It Out! is to offer recommendations “for your health” — Brule is, after all, a “doctor.” But Brule always loses control over his show (and his body), and at the end of each episode he returns to the set, sometimes burnt, often bedazzled, typically bummed out, to summarize “what we learned.” From the episode “Money,” we learn:
- Mint is Closed on Tuesdays
- Chips are Good for Your Health
- One of Paper = Four of Coin
- Casino Hunks Break Your Bones
When I first started watching Check It Out!, I could not help but imitate Dr. Brule: how he walks, how he talks — all of it. Perfect. And soon I went beyond mere imitation. I felt as though I had become part-Brule, or better yet, as though Brule had possessed me. This sounds extreme, I know, but I am not alone. Brule has possessed others. Remember how in 1997, when Austin Powers first graced this world, and 10-year-olds were everywhere parroting Mike Myers, perhaps inadvertently in unison, perhaps in unconscious harmony? Myers as Powers powerfully possessed an entire generation of movie watchers, and a similar comedian-inspired cultural shift, dare I call it a zeitgeist, is taking place right now. Can you hear it? Can you hear the disturbingly unintelligent, pathetically boyish Brulisms? Reilly as Brule, like Myers as Powers (or Baron Cohen as Borat, Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite, Ben Stiller as Zoolander, et al.), is so distinct, so wholly his own, that one feels compelled to internalize him, perhaps as a way to make sense of him, to soften him into something less other.
Yet unlike Myers as Powers, there’s something abject about Reilly as Brule. The big dumb doctor appears to be a victim of early trauma. In one episode, “Family,” his mother divulges about his upbringing and deceased father:
I put poison in your sandwiches when you weren’t good, so it would slow you guys down a little bit. I was going to mount your heads on the wall, you and your dad’s. That way I could see you once in a while, whenever you wanted to … I was going to bury you underneath the house so you’d always be here.
In a special segment that Tim and Eric used to advertise Season 3 of Check It Out!, Brule sits with his back to the camera, muttering to himself in different, competing voices as though schizophrenic:
Don’t freak out. Don’t be nervous. You know you can do it. No you can’t. I’m a bad boy. Yes, no you’re not. You’re good. You could make a show. Who the fuck do you think you are? You can’t do a show. Yes I can. I can do good. I’m a good boy.
Occasionally, when Brule becomes aware of his own miserable existence, he tends toward self-harm. In “Skateboards,” Brule falls off a skateboard and hits his head and enters a coma. When he wakes up and finally remembers who he is, he hits himself in the head with a baseball bat, hoping to enter a coma again. Then again, in my favorite scene of all, Dr. Brule invites Dr. Davis, a “psycholagomalist,” onto his makeshift set for a special segment of “Doctor to Doctor”:
Davis: Do you consider yourself a sad person?
Davis: And maybe you lost interest in things you used to enjoy doing?
Brule: [shrugging] I don’t care.
Davis: And what about libido? Is your libido diminished at all?
Brule: [whispering] What’s a libido?
Davis: Not as sexually active as you —
Brule: — Beggars can’t be choosers.
Davis: [perplexed] If a patient was telling me that, I’d say they were showing some signs of depression, lack of energy.
Brule then stands up, walks off the stage, and exits the studio. “Who even cares about this stupid show?” he asks, breaking the fourth wall and also, admittedly, my heart.
Jokes about depression, comic ugliness, the nihilistic sense that nothing matters so we might as well laugh at it: Tim and Eric’s humor is pretty dudish. I don’t mean that depression, ugliness, and nihilism are themselves male topics; comedians like Jenny Slate, Allie Brosh (Hyperbole and a Half), and Maria Bamford (who occasionally appears on the show) also explore them. I just mean that, typically, viewers allow men to be depressing, ugly, and nihilistic so long as they’re funny about it (“the self-deprecating dude routine,” to borrow a phrase from Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. that perfectly describes the likes of Louis C.K.), yet, typically, they don’t grant women the same pass. Of course, this is not so much the specific fault of Tim and Eric as it is the general fault of patriarchy.But still — and Frank Guan has already noted this — there are too few women on Check it Out! They challenge viewers on other fronts, so why not this one?
And yet — and I say this hesitantly, shrugging, voice wavering, because at the end of the day I am still a cis dude — Tim and Eric at least do not glorify dudishness. The men they cast are each in their own uncanny way a parody of a male figure, father or otherwise. They, unlike, say, Chris Kyle from American Sniper, or the handful of Proud Dads from the Super Bowl commercials (the true highlights of the Super Bowl), never fit the patriarchal mold of manliness. Take as an example Doug Prishpreed. Overweight, bald, and sickly, he’s a warped and therefore defunct version of the sports-obsessed man-child, the type of guy who lives vicariously through his son’s amateur football achievements, who bemoans, over his second pitcher of beer, “I could have gone pro until I blew out my knee.”
And it’s plausible to read Brule himself as a parody of masculine epistemological authority. In their introduction to Issue 14: Awkward Age, the editors of n+1 put forth a taxonomy of “The Big Baby,” a caricature of a rich, white, straight, male conservative. “The Big Baby” is whiny, entitled, “strangely moving in both his euphoria and his mawkishness,” and “easier to picture sitting than standing.” Some examples: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly — and I would like to add Toronto’s own Rob Ford. The “elder variant of Big Baby,” write the n+1 editors, is “Old Baby”:
Old Baby throws his weight around on television […]. Suit sleeves flopping, he seems a high-pitched Autocrat of the Senior Center, well into his “second childhood.” The sine qua non is the illusion of power in powerlessness, knowledge in ignorance, the entitlement to stir up dinner table tempests that others must endure. Old Baby feels he is at once an invited lecturer, a club president, and a CEO. He is unaware of how little he actually knows, how little he does, how much of the 21st century he fails to understand […].”
Much, if not most, of this applies to puerile Brule.
The most recent episode of Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule is a “Steve Brule special,” called “Bagboy.” The premise of this special is that it “was made several years ago by Steven Brule but was shelved by Channel Five due to its substandard quality and low entertainment value.” In reality, Tim and Eric teamed up with John C. Reilly to write “Bagboy” for Adult Swim, the network of which Channel Five is a parody. “Bagboy” is something of an anti-TV experiment — and one that calls to mind the anti-plays of Richard Maxwell. With it, Tim, Eric, and John play a game like limbo: they try to see just how low they can get without falling. They try to make a sitcom that seems to have been made by an idiot. Nowhere can it seem too smart, too self-aware, or too “in” on anything. Instead it must be boring, moralizing, heteronormative, and not that funny — in short, a typical sitcom.
“Bagboy” is set entirely in a discount grocery store called Myer’s Super Foods, which specializes in selling canned horsemeat and puddle fish, among other anti-delicacies. It begins with an announcement from Myers himself. He is posing with his family in a dark room with a Christmas tree; “On the First Day of Christmas” is the soundtrack. “Good evening,” says Myers, “and happy holidays from my family to yours.” He then introduces his “personal project”: “a brand new situational comedy,” written by Steven Brule, who “promised me that it’s going to be a hit.”
Well, too bad for Myers, but what did he expect? Since Baby Brule is granted authorship over the project, it’s nearly guaranteed to be detritus, and sure enough, it is. The plot is embarrassingly elementary: Brule works as a bag boy at Myer’s Super Foods. He is in love with a cashier, Daisy, but Daisy is more taken by Chip, a “hunk” who always pretends to forget Brule’s name. Someone has been shoplifting from Myers’s store, so Myers promises 10 free cans to the employee who catches the culprit. Brule hopes that by catching the culprit and earning the cans, he’ll impress Daisy. He does end up catching the culprit, a little boy, but it turns out that the little boy is Daisy’s younger brother, Charlie. So Brule is faced with an ethical dilemma: tell on Charlie, get the cans, and blow his chances with Daisy, or keep his mouth closed, forget the cans, and preserve his chances with Daisy. I won’t spoil what happens, though I will say that since Brule has ostensibly written and directed the special, he of course chooses to make himself the hero, and everything, in the end, works out magically. Also, it concludes with a moral: “Respect your elders. Don’t be a turkey.”
“Bagboy” reveals how emotionally stunted yet oddly normative Brule’s most cherished fantasies are: to become a hero, to get the girl, and to reconcile his problems with his mother. These are the fantasies of Baby Brule, and they are babyish. Yet so too are they the fantasies of most straight TV protagonists. All of these Baby male protagonists want what Brule wants; they’re just more sophisticated about wanting it. And shows about these Baby male protagonists sell, consistently and constantly. Here, anti-TV looks an awful lot like TV.
Vincent Tao is an artist and activist based in Montreal.