From the primitivist pederasty of Henry Darger’s ‘Realms of the Unreal‘, to Mark Hogancamp’s theraputic Marwencol dioramas, recent years have seen an ironic mainstreaming of ‘outsider art’. In a culture obsessed with commodifying novelty, a secretive graffiti tagger, self taught architect or precocious infant painter can be instantly thrown into the limelight. All that’s needed is novelty, and of course the imprimatur of cash.
Nowhere is this more evident than in comedy. Dedicated fans ensure the celebration of the most original and obtuse comedic nuggets. Over time a paradoxical popularity can grow – and the most underground comedic talents gain mainstream acclaim. British satirists have spent two decades remixing and restaging news footage and subverting advertising with wilfully crude CG. The Situationists called this detournement, turning the expressions of capitalist media culture against itself. Brits like Chris Morris, Adam Buxton & Joe Cornish, and of course the Pythons, laid the groundwork for this often bleak, but always surreal Frankenstein reconstruction of television.
In America, experimental comedy has always been less avowedly political, more nihilistic and well, silly. A generation of media production graduates have applied skills honed making adverts to the creation of nightmarish cartoons, youtube skits and ironically terrible television. The centre of the visual comedy renaissance is cable network called Adult Swim. In the tradition of all things American, the channel is ultimately owned by global media colossus Time Warner. That hasn’t stopped Adult Swim from broadcasting some of the most subversive programs of recent years, from the gratuitously grotesque Super Jail, to Dan Harmon’s critically acclaimed Rick and Morty.
Which brings us to the darlings of Adult Swim: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. The pair got their break a decade ago with animated sitcom Tom Goes To the Mayor, but it was their second show Tim & Eric: Totally Awesome Show Great Job, that saw the pair becoming, well if not household, then certainly dorm room names.
Tim & Eric’s world can seem initially impenetrable. Sketches fly by at a break neck pace, mixing absurdism and grotesquery in equal measure. Characters are often played by unconventionally attractive performers, seemingly recruited from some disused rolodex of fame thirsty freaks. It can feel exploitative, and it certainly isn’t always clear whether we’re laughing with or at these unselfconscious oddballs, numbly reciting the tag lines to faux late night infomercials. Watching Awesome Show is (quite intentionally) like stumbling across a medley of awful late night television, populated by preening madmen and unnecessary graphics. As though the VHS camcorder effects of the 1990’s had kept evolving, their capabilities becoming ever more garish, crude and hallucinogenic.
Awesome Show has drawn guest appearances from the illuminati of American comedy – everyone from Will Ferrell to Ben Stiller queuing up to gain kudos satirising exactly the kind of staid fodder that made them millionaires. Their work remains divisive. A 2012 movie version Awesome Show led to a mass walk out at Sundance – pleasing the two no end. The films dismal box office might have had a slightly less amusing irony. Despite this, the duos influence continues to grow. You may have simultaneously enjoyed or been horrified by the recent Tim & Eric influenced viral ‘Too Many Cooks‘, in which an endless sitcom opening sequence becomes a grizzly bloodbath.
Solo projects have been more successful. Heidecker’s dark film ‘‘The Comedy’ was perhaps the best of the recent spate of autobiographical pictures about wealthy, psychologically distressed, middle aged white men. The film serves as a critique both of the little princes of American hipsterdom, and ironic distance as a value. His comic songs have expertly skewered fringe presidential candidates: Culminating in 2011’s most niche record, the Herman Cain themed ‘Cainthology‘. Meanwhile Wareheim has directed visually inventive music videos for artists as diverse as MGMT, Major Laser and Depeche Mode. Notably the pair have shown little reluctance to lend their ironic hyperawareness to advertising campaigns for everything from video games to pizza rolls.
Their work is a product of the age of narrowcasting, beautifully intricate, wilfully awkward and designed to annoy anyone over thirty. By focusing on the techniques, rather than the content of bad commercials and TV, they can seem culpable and cruelly patronising, violating the golden comic rule – always aim up. Yet their fixation on weirdoes and tragic misfits speaks to an affection and camaraderie with outsiders, all too often missing from conventional comedy. Underlying their cruelty, condescension and cynicism may be a kind of disappointed love. A love for the noble ignominy of bad television, kitsch advertisements and above all failures. An acknowledgment of emptiness. The kind of laughter Beckett called ‘the laugh laughing at the laugh’. But it really doesn’t matter what you think. Smug cynics or wickedly original geniuses, Tim and Eric continue to redefine television comedy.
Download: Tim & Eric