Introducing Cult US Telly: Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!

Our man in LA David Bax explains Tim and Eric's pioneering, cringe-inducing humour as the first series of their Adult Swim sketch show _Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!_ invades our shores on DVD

Even among other people who are fans of Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, saying the full name of the show is likely to make you feel a twinge of awkwardness, even embarrassment. But then again, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim most likely intended this to be the case when pondering what to call all their show.

For everything about this programme is meticulously out of place. It joined the roster of the Adult Swim channel (the home of ‘not-suitable-for-kids’ cartoons like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Metalocalypse, Robot Chicken and Space Ghost Coast to Coast) as a live-action sketch show that always manages to kick off with a overpowering atmosphere of hilarious discomfort. This would then be held for 11 minutes of sketch, song, guest stars and the manipulation of video through methods that now seem ancient.

Tim and Eric met at Temple University in Philadelphia and formed a comedic partnership that eventually resulted in a website and a number of short films, among them a semi-animated project called Tom Goes to the Mayor.

With Tom… (TGTTM to fans), Heidecker and Wareheim were able to attract the attention of Mr. Show co-creator-cum-comedy impresario Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk agreed to sign on as a producer for a TGTTM series and they sold it to Adult Swim.

While TGTTM had a fairly digestible narrative structure, it wasn’t always a very accessible show, at least not to those of all tastes. In each episode, Tom the put-upon do-gooder (Heidecker) would go to the mayor of the small town of Jefferton (Wareheim) with a progressive, civic-minded idea. The mayor would usually agree, with the enthusiasm of a child with an advanced case of ADD, then proceed to twist the idea into something not only untenable but often horribly destructive. One episode had Tom suggesting a health camp for boys which the mayor organized and had sponsored by a tobacco company, who used the camp to persuade young boys to smoke pipes.

To say that Adult Swim’s audience was polarized by TGTTM would be an understatement of simply irresponsible proportions. Some held it up as an work of genius while others condemned it as the death knell of the once-innovative programming block. It was certainly the most divisive programme Adult Swim had ever aired – until Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! came along, that is.

Imagine the sugar rush hallucinations of a preternaturally intelligent but socially underdeveloped 12-year-old boy filtered through the cynical mind of a maliciously sardonic hipster . . . or maybe it works the other way around.

These episodes are jarringly, but intentionally, uneven streams of consciousness that veer wildly between scatological playground humour and astoundingly astute social satire, occasionally occupying both arenas at once. The episode ‘Anniversary’, for instance, is built around the premise of Heidecker and Wareheim celebrating their fiftieth anniversary as a world-renowned comedy team, a set up that gives them myriad opportunities to skewer the self-congratulatory nature of showbiz and the unbelievable egos of the somewhat famous.

It’s hard to decide whether the love it or hate aspect of Tim And Eric… is due to this rattling inconsistency in subject matter, or the show’s aesthetic. From an objective standpoint, it’s hard to characterize this as anything but ugly. The framing and blocking are amateurish, the sets and lighting are flat and far from compelling, and the visual effects, of which there are scores per episode, are antiquated and pathetically unconvincing. But of course, all this is not only intentional but obsessively planned and executed, part of Heidecker and Wareheim’s tribute to their greatest and most informing inspiration: American public access television.

In 1972, The Federal Communications Commission began requiring cable television companies in all major markets to provide three channels in addition to their basic roster. One channel for educational use, one for governmental and one just for the large, motley and ill-defined mob, that is ‘the public’. Any group or individual is legally entitled to at least five minutes of airtime. All they need is the willpower and a sense of (usually unfounded) self-worth.

Often, people have used these channels for fair, reasonable and just purposes. But more frequently, public access television has been the stomping ground of the harmlessly but brilliantly eccentric. People with an excess of flamboyance and determination but a dearth of actual, applicable talent or charisma have been living out their minor celebrity dreams in these back alleys of telecommunication for decades now – Wayne’s World was a spoof of precisely this phenomenon. Like someone cracking the bones and sucking the marrow out of a cheap, unsatisfying plate of chicken, these people compensate for the limited budget and resources available to them by filling their allotted time to the brim with every bit of tacky video manipulation and effects they can fit in edgewise. The clip below makes for an apposite example:

Tim and Eric aim to elevate this hobby of the common man, this lowest form of outsider art, to something transcendent and hilarious, and they more often than not succeed. They do this, in part, by utilizing actual public access "stars" like David Liebe Hart, a man whose Los Angeles-based public access appearances feature puppets singing bizarre and atonal songs about a half-understood version of Christian beliefs.

From the moment of Tim And Eric…‘s premiere two years ago, there has been an ongoing debate about whether it is a new plateau in the progression of comedy forms or an extended wank by two hacks with a smug sense of entitlement. As ever with cultural ephemera this divisive, the lovers will always say the haters just don’t ‘get’ it. This is, of course, nonsense: it’s perfectly possible to entirely comprehend the show’s intentions while still disliking it. But for those who enjoy the Marmite, in Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job Heidecker and Wareheim gently poke fun at the weird and wonderful world of American public access TV in order to pay a warm and considered tribute.

The first season of Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is out now via Adult Swim.

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