What did you do this past weekend? Chances are it didn’t equal the drama spawned by a few men over two chaotic hours of sketch comedy Friday at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
Dr. Steve Brule, the crooked-spectacled, mush-mouthed character concocted by actor John C. Reilly, got engaged to two women and was left at the altar by one of them; oversaw a flawed game of musical chairs (too many chairs — everyone kept winning); offered a broad, unfocused overview of the city (suitable for use in any locale), which he pronounced as “Lang Angles-ez”; and headed a parade whose participants landed onstage as the result of a “human treasure hunt.”
In the process, the 1,600 fans at the sold-out theater were offered answers to a key question the dimwitted host of the Adult Swim series “Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule” posed on a video screen above: “Who is me?”
For their part, the characters played by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the comedy team whose cockeyed sketch series “Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” birthed the cult of Brule, were just as busy and equally disconcerting. As unprepared but confident “improvisers,” the pair set the tone early by utterly failing at improv — with Heidecker shushing and berating the crowd for ruining his focus.
The three converged downtown as part of a tour to celebrate the new Adult Swim series “Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories,” which premieres Thursday. A riff on old creep-out shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” the show offers new settings and scenarios weekly. At Ace, they screened a full episode involving an alternate-reality doctor, played by longtime Tim & Eric benefactor Bob Odenkirk (best known as Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad”), who has a disturbing addiction and specializes in a vanity toe-snipping surgery.
The various sketches, backed by the in-your-face DJ Douggpound, combined to create a tightly produced, intentionally ramshackle affair that starred characters drawn from their repertoire. It also further confirmed Heidecker and Wareheim’s rise as a comedic force.
Under the banner Abso Lutely, they have produced shows for Adult Swim, IFC and Comedy Central, including “The Eric Andre Show,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and the fake business how-to program “Nathan for You.” In 2012, the team released its first feature film, “Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.” Though it was mostly panned, Tim & Eric’s response was as always to up the ante: They’ve floated the possibility of a sequel, “Tim & Eric’s Trillion Dollar Movie.”
Viewed on television, their aesthetic is jarring, self-referential and vividly imagined, one that celebrates its medium of choice through the filter of 1980s public-access cable. “Check It Out,” which recently concluded its third season, has an editing style that’s deliberately clumsy and is characterized by the jumpy, wrinkled-tape wobble of an overused videocassette.
Reilly as Brule revels in this awkwardness. When he speaks directly to the camera, his eyes dart and race; he abruptly shifts from cameras A to B in a bid for news-anchor-esque authority, but the edit is way off. On the stage, he adapted the character to be an overly confident bumbling ringleader.
Tim & Eric had other agendas. As devoted salesmen shilling to the crowd, they hawked a “beef rehydrator” that transformed beef jerky into steak, a “bro-oche” decorative male “brooch system,” and a “children’s spicy energy drink” called Grum Soda with “nicotine, tar and spicy cheese.” As hosts of a low-budget religious show, they preached the gospel of a pot-bellied guy named Rang Dipkin. As Jan and Wayne Skylar, they inflamed a long-simmering love triangle with Dr. Brule.
What defined each character was utter confidence, a blowhard belief that blinded their cluelessness. Which is to say, when Reilly as Brule scolded an attendee documenting the show on a smartphone, he did so with righteous indignation: “Put down your calculator, idiot — it’s not a math test.”
That the night languished at points and failed to fully tap the quick-edit, public-access energy of their series says more about the strength of that small-screen aesthetic than it does about their skills on stage. Though Tim & Eric excelled at compelling the crowd to participate in ridiculous religious rituals — “turn to the person to your left, kiss them on the lips and say, ‘Praise Hosanna!’” — it’s easier to change the subject with a jump cut than on a stage.
Reilly was utterly convincing as the addled Brule, even if the character comes more fully to life in filmed close-ups, where his face seems to sit asymmetrically on the side of his head and his stupidity is more nuanced.
Most important, though, Brule candidly answered that question “Who is me?” On stage and on television, him was the son of Dorris Pringle-Brule-Salahari. Him was the spurned lover of Jan Skylar. Him was the eater of poison raisins. Him was Dr. Steve Brule, that’s who him was.