Those who know Tim Heidecker are probably most familiar with his comedy via Tim & Eric, the prolific comedy duo responsible for a distinct aesthetic of absurd and masterfully edited sketch comedy. His latest work, An Evening With Tim Heidecker, is devoid of these flourishes. Instead, the 44-year-old comedian does his impression of a hacky, forgetful comic shot in a style that is very true to the format: no rapid cuts, camera pans, or audible gulps a Tim & Eric fan might hope to see or hear.
From miscommunications with the AV crew, to flubbed and forgotten lines throughout, and exasperatedly re-trying bits, the material can come off as a spontaneous swipe at the prototypical macho hack comic. But Heidecker’s character is almost fifteen years in the making; he first performed it at a friend’s open mic night in Glendale, California. The character has evolved with the times, complete with a call out of “PC police” early on. And while he says standup comedy is oversaturated, he doesn’t mean any harm against the genre.
“I’m not campaigning against it, I’m just making fun of it a little bit,” he told VICE.
It’s sometimes jarring to watch a highly produced comedy special with the main character often failing to deliver his lines, regardless of intent. And the failure is what’s funny to Heidecker.
“You don’t see any mistakes if you watch a traditional standup special.” Heidecker told VICE. “It’s like this magical, perfect night. That’s not the entire point of what I do.”
This failure-centric comedy is something he’s always been drawn to.
“That kind of comedy has been in my blood,” he said. “I remember seeing my sister perform at a recital when we were like, 13. She couldn’t remember the second verse of this song. It’s just the funniest thing.” Even back then, he said, he found such mortifying experiences “molecularly funny.”
VICE spoke to Tim Heidecker over Zoom to talk about An Evening With Tim Heidecker, his recent folk-rock album, and his thoughts on standup comedy as an artform.
VICE: How does it feel dropping a project like this, when your last work—a folk-rock album titled Fear of Death—was surprisingly earnest?
Tim Heidecker: [laughs] It’s a bit—what’s the word for it, when you twist your head too far—it’s disorienting.
Whiplash! Thank you. That’s what I was looking for. It’s a weird fall for me. It appears I’m extremely prolific and busy with all these different things, but they all were done at different periods of time. Hopefully it [creates] the perception that I have a diverse output.
To connect the two, your music album was about the fear of death, and this standup character is the kind of guy who thinks it’s funnier to make fun of a new gender pronoun than confront that we’re all going to die and nothing matters.
[laughs] It’s funny because my record is Fear of Death and this is “Fear of Dying Onstage,” which he does pretty consistently throughout the hour.
What inspired this guy?
My friend Doug [DJ Douggpound] who does Office Hours with me, and is one of my closest friends and great collaborator and editor. He’s also just a lover of jokes, he has a funny standup routine. He used to do a friends open mic-y show in Glendale, and I used to go and try different things. It was so low-stakes. But I would notice people would come up, and they had the cadence of comedy, the rhythms of it from observing other comedians, but they just never had any material. Or it was very weak material. And this was a space for learning and growing, but I was like, Oh, I should try to parody that, and go up there and do your classic brick wall comedian with confidence those people seem to have, but without anything enlightening to say.
Comics say once you reach a level of success, it can be difficult to work out material, because people are just happy to see them. Playing this type of comic, did it get harder over time?
A shift happened because I would do it for a while and it got zero laughs in an uncomfortable way: coughing, and a little heckling, which is totally understandable. But after those videos spread around the internet, my audience was in on the joke. As you hear in the special, people are laughing, that’s not canned laughter. It’s weird how it full-circles, where the bad material becomes something people call out for. [laughs] They want to hear Coke versus Pepsi. The genesis of that is that it’s a shitty joke, and it’s bad. There’s a long tradition of that, early Steve Martin, that was kind of his shtick. Obviously, Andy Kaufman and Albert Brooks used to play around in that same territory. Of course Neil Hamburger. I feel like I’m playing in that arena. Arena’s a terrible word.
Was there a moment where you realized this theme of calling out the “PC police” in standup comedy? If you watch comedy specials now, it’s almost like Terms of Service, where every comic references it in some way.
I honestly stay away from watching those, because they just bum me out. I don’t watch a lot of comedy in general that’s out there right now. I hate calling people out, it’s not very nice. But it does feel in the past few years, certainly the Comedy Store and a lot of the defensiveness from that Comedy Store scene and the friends of Joe Rogan clique. It’s very testosterone-y and prideful of what they do, and the sacredness of what they do, and that they’ve tapped into something very special. The seriousness about it is antithetical to the silliness of what comedy is about, to me.
It feels like the meta-conversation has drowned out the jokes themselves.
There’s also this compulsiveness about it. I’ve just watched clips of this stuff, but the language of it and the compulsiveness of, ‘I gotta work on my chunk,’ and the process of it, it feels like guys talking about cars or sports. They’re talking about something that’s so free and artistic and meant to be fun, treating it like a code you can crack.
What made you decide to shoot this pretty straightforwardly, as opposed to having things like audible gulps, and quick cuts-
Everything that I do, the form that it exists in is very important to be accurate. It’s not just random that we present things the way we present them. This one, it wasn’t a big debate about it. It was like, ‘This should look and feel and smell like every standup special you’ve ever seen,’ because you don’t want to distract away from that. If you were to ‘Tim and Eric’ the thing, it would be a mess. [laughs]
Are the sunglasses you use in the special, were those planted in the audience?
No. You can choose to believe me, I have no way to prove to you, but the one thing I love about doing that character and that act, I love the live element of it and the risk that something might work, and something might not.
I believe you, I ask because that style of sunglasses is so inherently funny.
Why would somebody have them—in LA—in their pocket, is very convenient for me. I got lucky.
You’ve been doing some of these bits for almost 15 years, but this parody of a comic is now timely, this guy who’s so pissed you can’t say anything anymore, “are your triggered,” “beef is good” kind of thing. How did that character change since you first started doing?
If you look at the original, there’s way more hesitation, and a little more failing. A little less confidence. The more I did it, I naturally got more confident doing it, and then I played into the overconfidence and the brashness, the strut, the pacing on stage. That became part of the character, I’m sure I picked that up from all the guys out there that do that. I definitely figured out it’s more relaxing for the audience. You don’t want to feel bad for that character. You can dislike him or think he’s a jerk. But if you see him up there shaking with notes and getting lost, you feel like you’re laughing at someone who’s in trouble. But if I come out there with a big fuckin’ attitude and I’m not very pleasant, and I fail, then you can laugh at that person.
You’ve performed music as an earnest musician, but you’ve also got a song in this special—well, a couple songs—about drinking piss. What is it like when you’re performing music, and people might be waiting for a joke?
It’s been a rough road, a little bit. Why should anybody just accept what I’m doing? The first ten years of my career was all about subverting your expectations about what I’m putting in front of you. Nobody wants to feel like the last person to laugh. So you see me coming out doing earnest music that’s not funny, there’s a propensity to say, well, this is a joke, I don’t want to be made a fool of. I can only do what I do and explain myself to the best of my abilities. Certainly my audience can discern the difference and I hope over time it just becomes clear that I’m just a guy that works in a lot of different pods. I’m not great at anything, but I’m pretty good at a lot of different things, and I just try to do whatever I feel is creatively stimulating and don’t worry about what box that puts me in, or what genre I’m supposed to be.
Can you imagine ever doing a standup special as yourself?
I’ve tried it. I understand what’s hard about it. You do end up putting yourself in front of people. I do that with my music, maybe closest. I’ve played my music live. I think there’s a world where I can play my music and tell some stories. Now that I’ve built up a body of work and lived a little bit of a life, I probably have more to say about my life than I did 15 years ago when I really felt like, ‘Well I don’t have anything really to say, so I’m going to pretend like I’m a guy that has something to say.’ Who knows. I’m never performing live again anyways with the way the world is going, so I’m not worried about it.
How does it feel talking about this kind of stuff? Obviously this special stands on its own, does talking about it feel like frog dissection?
A little bit. But I do like talking to smart people, assuming you’re smart, I haven’t seen any indication that you’re not, it’s interesting to reflect on it. It beats doing the actual work I have in front of me. I used to think, ‘Don’t ever talk about it because that ruins everything,’ but it’s not the worst thing in the world to give people a little context about what you’re trying to do. I think [Bob] Odenkirk said, ‘People are busy. They don’t have time to fuckin’ solve the puzzle of what you’re trying to do.’ Why not? Let them know where you’re coming from and it’ll make it easier to enjoy it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
‘An Evening With Tim Heidecker’ premieres on YouTube tonight at 9 p.m. EST.
Ashwin Rodrigues is a staff writer at VICE.
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