Fans of comedic renaissance man Tim Heidecker are likely to find his dramatic turn in Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy” profoundly disturbing, in no small part because his approach to drama is eerily similar to his approach to comedy.
Heidecker and perpetual collaborator Eric Wareheim (who also features in “The Comedy”) have built a unique comedy brand in the past decade. Their TV shows (“Tom Goes to the Mayor,” “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” “Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule”) are made with equal parts gross-out humor and devastatingly grim cultural satire. “The Comedy” may lack poop jokes, but Heidecker plays its lead—a wealthy, lazy, nihilistic Brooklynite obsessed with crossing social boundaries—with the kind of meticulously observed cynicism his admirers have come to love.
This week, I chatted with Heidecker about “The Comedy,” Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, dark impulses, and urine.
With the election season coming to a close, I can’t help but remember “Cainthology,” your self-released EP of songs about Herman Cain. Do you have any other concept albums in the works?
Well, I have this idea that I’ve started writing with my friend, Gregg Turkington, who’s in the movie, who also is Neil Hamburger. We’ve written a series of songs in the style of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and it’s all about how they’re obsessed with drinking their own piss.
Sure, of course.
It’s really something that entertains us. We have the songs, but we just have to do it. So I think we’re gonna try to do that sometime soon.
Speaking of Turkington: you’ve worked with him a bunch in the past few years—largely for your “On Cinema” podcast—though not as much as you’ve worked with Eric Wareheim. How do you know which one of them will be the best collaborator for a given comedic idea?
It’s a tricky question. With Gregg, I really just do this podcast, and that’s the focus of what we do. But then, some physical things come up here and there. They’re really kinda like, more recreational ideas. Just sort of, like, things that are never gonna be popular. Y’know? Like, the Skynyrd piss album is gonna be just a labor of love. That’s not gonna—I like doing those things on the outskirts, and I try to save the better ideas for the stuff that Eric and I are gonna actually do and see the light of day.
I’m sure Gregg would love to hear you phrase it like that.
Yeah, right! Well, I think the same goes for him. His career is a little more focused on Neil Hamburger than on the stuff we do together.
How did Rick Alverson first approach you about doing “The Comedy”?
I got a text from a mutual friend of ours—who I’m sort of so honored to call a friend—Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Will Oldham. He had just made a movie with Rick ["New Jerusalem"] and they knew each other. He said, “Would you ever act in a movie?” And I said, “Sure, what’s this about?”
So he put me in touch with Rick, and Rick and I had a long phone call where he laid out his ideas for the movie and what he wanted to talk about and do, et cetera. I just liked him and I liked what he had to say. I liked his view of the world. I just kinda kept it alive and didn’t have a—I wasn’t very confident that it would ever come into being.
While watching the movie, I kept thinking of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” where he took the stock Adam Sandler character of the 90s and plopped it into the real world. Did Alverson say he was doing a similar thing with you and your past comedic character traits?
Yeah, I think he certainly was familiar with [my past work] and liked it. He was drawn to working with us because — from what he’s said — he kind of identified that we also are interested in exploring a darker, more uncomfortable, absurd world, and are interested in creating uncomfortable situations.
He thought—I think it was his idea—that it would be interesting to re-contextualize that in the form of a drama. To take it out of the absurd and kinda ground it into the real world. That was one of the things that made it really interesting to him.
Did you and Eric have to change the way you prepare to go on screen?
Not so much. It was a little easier for this—we weren’t also directing and writing. It wasn’t all on our shoulders. It was a little more relaxing and laid-back. I was on for a few weeks before Eric came in, so he was very—like, I remember him being very curious. Being like, “How’s it going? What’s the vibe? What do I need to know?” And my reaction was, “It’s really easy. It’s really fun. The energy—all the people around are cool, and you just go in and just relax and act out the dark side of your mind. Just goof around and be natural about it.”
How did you get into that “dark side of your mind”?
I’m a writer and comedy writer, so I can pretty easily act out the wrong things to say at any given time. It’s always right there. And I don’t mean to brag—I think anybody can pretty much figure out what you shouldn’t say—but it’s just a question of whether you do or not. So when you get that license to kill with your mouth, from the director, and you also know there are no consequences, you behave this way and nobody punches you in the mouth. It does become– it’s fun and a fun game to play.
Along those lines, did you ever find yourself getting disgusted with your character?
No, but it is kind of…I’ve gotten this reaction from a lot of people, as well, but it’s a kind of nice reality check into the detached sense, the snarky, ironic sense that we all get into. About a year ago, some friends and I were watching all these bad movies and goofing on them and being obsessed with bad movies. That’s sort of a classic thing to do. But at some point while we were making this movie, Gregg and I were sitting and sort of saying, “We should watch some good movies!” “Let’s get that AFI list out and get a little movie night together! Have you seen goddamn ‘Gone with the Wind’?” “No, I haven’t seen ‘Gone with the Wind’! We can watch that!”
We checked into that whole idea of, “We’re so cynical and everything is shit.” And a lot of things are shit, and it’s fun to goof on that and do that, as well. But there’s a lot of great things out there, a lot of great people. So, we were checking in with our hippie inner selves.
Do you ever go back and watch old “Tom Goes to the Mayor” episodes?
No, I haven’t watched it in a while. But Eric and I were just talking about doing our five favorite episodes, or “Ten Toms” or something like that, and doing a screening. But I did catch one a few years ago on TV. And I was really into it! I think it’s a good show!
We get people that write us and are like, “When are you making more?” And it’s like, well, we’re never making more. We did what we could with that show and we like it. For us, it was a great way to learn how to make a TV show sorta on the job. It was our first time making anything on a professional level, and I think we got into some pretty dark, weird places in that show. It’s very prototypical. Clearly, it’s our first show, and everybody has to have a first. But I’m proud of it.
That show and “Awesome Show” both had a lot of help from Bob Odenkirk. Are you working on anything with him right now?
No. I mean, we’re working on meeting up for lunch every once in a while, but that’s about it. (Laughs) We always have lunch with Bob or get together with him and just check in on what we’re doing, what he’s doing, and it’s always great for both of us to bounce where we are in our lives off of each other. He’s a great role model for us, a mentor for us. He always will be someone we kinda check in with whenever we’re debating what we’re doing.
He’s so good in “Breaking Bad.” Do you watch it?
Of course. Who doesn’t?
One last thing. Your work with Eric is so relentlessly sarcastic that I have to wonder: when you two have conversations, do you ever have trouble determining if the other person is being serious?
I’m sure there’s been times when we’re like, “Wait, uh, what are you talking about, here? Is this a joke?” But yeah, we’re pretty good at communicating ideas to each other efficiently. I don’t think we need to spend a lot of time defending our ideas, either. We just kinda are like, “Okay, let’s do it.”