Great Job?: Tim and Eric’s Comedy of Failure
Evan Elkins / FLOW Staff
Since its debut last year, my obsession with the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! has grown accordingly with my dwindling interest in the rest of Adult Swim’s comedy lineup. I can at least partially attribute this to the sheer absurdity of the show, which makes other Adult Swim series–bizarre as they are–look tame by comparison. Indeed, Awesome Show pushes the linchpins of Adult Swim’s comedy–surrealism, gross-out humor, a low-budget look–to their respective extremes, all while eschewing the Cartoon Network’s nominal format: animation. While the cheap aesthetics of many of Adult Swim’s cartoons betray a self-conscious and extreme form of their creators’ and audience’s oft-perceived status as late-teens and early twenties slacker/stoner males, Tim and Eric’s hyper-condensed version of the Adult Swim M.O. elicits a different and more complex response from me than Adult Swim’s other fare.
Created by comedians and college friends Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, can loosely–precariously, really–be considered a sketch comedy show. Many of the skits on Awesome Show, whose third season premiered just a couple of weeks ago, represent warped broadcasts from Channel 5, a fake local or public access television network. As the New York Times puts it, these pieces feel like “outtakes from a public-access channel that’s broadcast only in hell.”1 Concomitant with this theme, the series imitates public access’ cheap feel, complete with obvious green screens, flubbed lines, video aesthetics, and even talent gleaned from actual public access stations. Of course, recombination of formats and genres is nothing new. However, what I find particularly interesting about Awesome Show are the ways in which it imitates not only the visual style and format of public access television, but also the multiple “failures” associated with cheap television and video production.
In particular, there are two types of failures that form the bulk of Awesome Show‘s comedy: (1) amateurish performance and (2) technological blunders and screw-ups. Rather than attempting to create an unspoiled diegetic world, the series draws much of its comedy from the cracks in the system and those moments in which the apparatus exposes itself. In its portrayals and simulations of “bad” performance in front of and behind the camera, the series attempts to elicit the sort of abject horror/charmed fascination that is often associated with spectatorship of some of the more bizarre and inept material found on public access. What keeps the series difficult to pin down, however, is its position on the fence between intentional, simulated ineptitude and portrayal of authentically and accidentally incompetent performance.
The series’ recurring cast includes public access personalities such as impressionist James Quall and church puppeteer David Liebe Hart, as well as an elderly man named Richard Dunn, who Heidecker and Wareheim claim to have found in the Adult Swim parking lot when they decided to include him in the show.2 The use of amateur performers who may not be “in on the joke” opens the show up to criticisms of exploitation, but I submit that the use of folks like Quall and Hart is more complicated.
I do not want to ignore the possibility that these performers are used for their sheer awfulness; in fact, that is the very point. However, the show regularly features more “prestigious” actors and comedians such as Jeff Goldblum, John C. Reilly, and Mr. Show’s Bob Odenkirk (who also produced Heidecker and Wareheim’s earlier Adult Swim animated series Tom Goes to the Mayor) as well as musicians such as The Shins and Aimee Mann. This wide range of performers all participating in Tim and Eric’s absurdity creates something of a democratizing televisual oddity in which public access performers and Oscar-nominees all perform at the same sublimely bizarre level.
As I have noted, performance is not the only way that Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! plays with the notion of “bad” TV. The series is filled with manufactured bloopers, choppy editing, and analog equipment failures. At its most extreme, the show uses media malfunction to create an inscrutable choppiness in which performative markers of comedy–dialogue, physical humor, etc.–become obscured by formal breakdown. The second-season skit “Steve Brule’s Last Resort Fighting” simulates an apparent instructional video taught by the title character, a local news “expert” played by Reilly who lacks not only expertise, but basic intelligence and social skills as well. Compounding the awkwardness of Reilly’s performance, the skit mimics the bad tracking, grainy image, and abrupt skips of a bootlegged videotape. The relentless barrage of skips and flubs achieves its own off-kilter comedic cadence, and the rupture becomes integral to the joke rather than simply aiding it. The piece moves beyond the metatextual and, in a sense, becomes anti-textual through its violence against a coherent and unadorned comedy sketch.
The overwhelming irony of the series, of course, is that the titular “Great Job” is nowhere to be found–at least not if one looks for any traditional marker of quality. However, this is also what makes the series one of the most interesting on television, and one of the more unconventional comedy shows in recent memory. Like the films of Ed Wood and the music of The Shaggs, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! finds art by plumbing the depths of ineptitude. But while we can legitimately enjoy the former two works while understanding that their putative failures are likely unintentional, with Tim and Eric we cannot be so sure.
Even more than Wood and The Shaggs, however, Awesome Show reminds me of transgressive filmmaker Nick Zedd and actor/writer Reverend Jen Miller’s consciously amateurish and chroma-key-reliant public access television series The Adventures of Electra Elf and Fluffer. With this comparison, I don’t mean to suggest that Tim and Eric’s comedy is quite as shocking or political as some of the more aberrant material found in the transgressive/No Wave cinema(s). However, Heidecker has noted that the duo’s bizarre experiments started as a “fuck-you” to their rigid and joyless film school.3 This line of practice betrays a similar–albeit less rhetorically acerbic–impulse as Zedd’s proclamation in the “Cinema of Transgression Manifesto” that “all film schools be blown up and all boring films never be made again.”4
In a missive on the series, Jeffrey Sconce deftly notes that much of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!‘s material constitutes a series of fractured quotations of comedy tropes, in which “no joke is simply a joke anymore, but is instead a position-statement on comedy itself.”5 Indeed, Heidecker and Wareheim’s brand of humor represents a vital deconstruction of current comedic forms that seeks to effect a response of deep unease and reflection on exactly what constitutes comedy, and their most direct satires of mass media feel like cracked-lens simulacra of polished and joyless mainstream comedic and televisual conventions.
This is perhaps most apparent online, where Heidecker and Wareheim have expanded their warped vision into a talk show, Tim and Eric Nite Live, and ironic viral “oddvertisements” for/against Shrek 3 and Absolut Vodka.6 Consistent with Tim and Eric’s unsettling comedy, the ads deflate the pleasures that corporations tie to these products (conspicuous consumption and a high-society lifestyle, respectively). Through these online ventures, two planned spin-off series–one staring Reilly as Dr. Steve Brule and the other starring anti-comedian Neil Hamburger7–and, of course, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Heidecker and Wareheim continue to explore the paradox that comedy can be at its funniest when it is less conventionally enjoyable.
1. Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker
2. David Liebe Hart
3. Front Page “Awesome Show” Logo
Please feel free to comment.
- Itzkoff, Dave. “The Bizarre Brains of Nightmare TV.” New York Times 27 July 2008. [↩]
- Heidecker, Tim, and Eric Wareheim. “Tim & Eric.” Interview with Josh Modell. A.V. Club 13 Nov. 2007 [↩]
- ibid. [↩]
- Zedd, Nick. “Cinema of Transgression Manifesto.” nickzedd.com [↩]
- Sconce, Jeffrey. “Be-Be-Beaver Boys!” In Media Res: A MediaCommons Project. 22 Jan. 2008 [↩]
- Interestingly, while the Shrek ads were meant to be satirical and were not commissioned by Dreamworks, Tim and Eric’s vodka ads with Zack Galifianakis were commissioned by Absolut. [↩]
- Itzkoff, op. cit. [↩]
“Great job,” Evan! I’ve never seen this program (though I was a fan of “Tom Goes to the Mayor” and didn’t realize the same people were working on it), but I’ll definitely make sure to check it out.
One thing that I found particularly interesting about this piece was the show’s deliberate misuse of technology, and how that’s built into the show. A bit far afield, but certainly related to the topic and perhaps of interest in further research, is Tony Grajeda’s “The ‘Feminization’ of Rock,” which considers lo-fi music (i.e., indie rock groups like Guided by Voices, Pavement, and Sebadoh, along with newer acts like the Mountaingoats and, I’d argue, Devendra Banhart and Ariel Pink). Grajeda’s basic argument is that, for many people, especially rock critics, this music was unlistenable. He goes further to suggest that the reason for the distaste in lo-fi was it’s technical incompetency (i.e., failed use of recording technology, a reliance on analog equipment, too much treble in the mix, etc.), and that ineptitude is related to a soft, feminized gender performance. These acts — many of them exclusively comprised of men — record in intimate spaces like bedrooms and rely on faulty, antiquated recording technology, and thus betray the technically-proficient, digitized, “masculine” rock production practices.
Thinking about lo-fi in tandem with “Tim and Eric” (perhaps very easy to do — I’d imagine many fans of the show are also aware of and listen to acts affiliated with this subgenre), I become very interested in the “deliberate” misuse of technology. As self-reflexive as we’ve become in our media consumption, I’d imagine that this show is literally difficult for people to watch (just as with lo-fi, which, with its retention of tape hiss and pops, makes one very aware of its constructiveness). Thus, I wonder if there’s any room to consider how Tim and Eric might be questioning, even subverting, the construction of televisual masculinity.
God I love this show. Thanks for the insightful piece, Evan. You make provocative points about two key aspects “bad” tv comedy–from Ernie Kovacs to Andy Kaufman to SCTV to the alternately insufferable/hilarious Andy Samberg digital shorts, a close-knit relationship between performance and technological missteps is always present. One of the “rules” of these programs seems to be that there are no rules, a larger issue in attempting to define a tv comedy sketch or sketch comedy program. Sure, there are hard and fast performance rules to improv/sketch comedy in a live setting, but when the televisual apparatus is added to the mix, everything is fair game.
I raise the amorphous definition of “sketch” because of the great point you make about TAEASGJ being “anti-textual” and violent against the “coherent and unadorned comedy sketch.” What exactly is the “text” of a sketch? To what extent do comedy sketches act as self-contained narrative units within their larger program? What defines the sketch/program as coherent? Scholars have grappled with the relationship between gag and film narrative, but we don’t have much of a foundation in addressing these questions as they relate to television, especially after the demise of traditional variety programs in the mid-late 70s and rise of SNL, Monty Python, and its ilk. Maybe a couple more years of watching Tim and Eric describe their acne-picking techniques to one another will help us sort out these issues.
For your health!
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First off, thank you for this article. I’m happy to see that scholars are starting to pay attention to the most intriguing show on television right now.
I think it is interesting how this show fits into a larger history of sketch television shows that are about TV at some level. Though neither Flying Circus nor SCTV were entirely based on this anti-aesthetic, I think you can definitely see similar strategies at times. But all three are at some level reflective of a particular time, place, and industry. The fact that Flying Circus took aim at 60s BBC and SCTV at independent local stations accounts defined their style. Awesome Show exists in the era of cable’s multiplicity of choices (in addition to the public access material) as well and the remote control. Unlike Flying Circus or SCTV, where the overall text is situated in the idea of watching a single network, Tim and Eric’s pastiche only demands that you buy into the fictional “Channel 5” idea some of the time. At other times, Tim and Eric address the viewers as Adult Swim viewers, while other sketches seem to exist on different channels (though I’m not completely willing to rule out that when they parody Jackass by scaring Tim with a spiderweb, it isn’t MTV you are supposed to be watching, but Channel 5’s or Adult Swim’s poor imitation of MTV).
This was a superb article. I felt the same way about the show, largely, but you illuminated upon some new things to me. I didn’t know about those spin-off shows in gestation.
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Great article on the (what I believe to be) genius of Tim and Eric. The depth the creative departments blend sound design, editing, and set decoration with the outrageous (but spot on) performances creates a perfect marriage of formal technique and creative innovation. Their attention to detail, which ironically is to be viewed as poorly constructed (anti-aesthetic), should place Tim and Eric in a separate comedic category, far from 3 camera sitcoms and even single camera narratives. However, because their 90s public access style fits so well with Tim and Eric’s humor, their cross-media careers have struggled. Their 2012 film, TIm and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, was a box office disappointment. Rather, they thrive on the small screen.
As, the third season of Dr. Steve Brule’s “Check it Out” is set to air this year, I think the use of mainstream comedians like John C. Reilly as Dr. Steve Brule, should be a marker of Tim and Eric’s success. Will Forte, Will Farrell, Zach Galifianakis, and David Cross have all appeared on the show, bringing validation to the off-beat nature of the program. I hope the Tim and Eric faithful will continue to support a television program that merges a well thought out aesthetics and hilarity.
“Moon man one. Moon man one. This is Red Headquarters. You ready to go? Yes. I’m ready to go. One small mankind and I’m gonna leap the heck out of this moon rocket.” -Dr. Steve Brule quotes Neil Armstrang.