Say what you will about Tim Heidecker’s career—and many do—but predictable he isn’t. For nearly a decade, the 36-year-old has been practicing his brand of anti-comedy on the Web, on Adult Swim (“Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job,” with cohort Eric Wareham) and, lately, on the movie screen.
For some, Heidecker’s work is a brilliant deconstruction of comedy itself, every squirmy moment a wake-up call to a lazy late-night establishment. For others, the term anti-comedy is a little too true to its name.
Because he’s always looking for new ways to define himself—and because he generally likes messing with us—Heidecker stars in a dramatic movie that opened this past weekend in Los Angeles. Despite plenty of moments that won’t leave you smiling, it’s called—what else?--“The Comedy.”
Directed by Rick Alverson, the movie has Heidecker harnessing his left-field persona to different effect—as a spoiled thirtysomething man-child prone to obnoxiousness. Though it contains some of Heidecker’s meta-humor, it’s a story mainly of a rich slacker who pals around with his Brooklyn friends indulging his own free-speaking impulses. It’s a surprisingly serious look at what happens when wealth and a culture of irony mix.
We caught up with the writer-performer--sounding articulate and unexpectedly serious himself--earlier this week.
Movies Now: Just when it seemed like your work couldn’t get more polarizing, you made a drama that has been even more divisive. Was getting under people’s skin a conscious goal with this film?
Tim Heidecker: I didn’t think about it too much, to be honest. My insulated experience of seeing the movie and being a part of it was that I thought it was well done. It was incredible how it all worked together. I thought it was very powerful. What happens at Sundance [where the movie premiered and divided audiences] is that there are a lot of relatively conservative older people trying to see movies at the same time, and a small percentage of people were offended by it. And that’s fine. We don’t make stuff for everybody. It’s a solid movie. It’s not a popcorn fantasy that people are used to all the time. But it’s something we’re proud of, if that’s not for you, well, there are a … load of movies that aren’t for me.
MN: But you can’t be too surprised by the response. This is a movie where your character tries to pick up a woman by declaring the virtues of Hitler, and impersonates a Southern plantation owner with X-rated thoughts about his slaves.
TH: I’m fascinated by the intensity of the reaction. I have to be chained down from talking about it. I’m a guy who’s online all the time, and it’s really hard not to engage with people who make these ridiculous statements. It’s hard to judge anyone for using the Internet to express an opinion but sometimes it just drives me nuts that people don’t think about what they’re writing, or they’re not interpreting the film the right way, or they’re just being mean about it. The idea that everyone’s opinion is valuable is sometimes up for question.
MN: The movie is very much about the dangers of entitlement seen through a few people living off Daddy’s credit card. What compelled that story line?
TH: The idea of trust-fund guys who live in Brooklyn in their 30s is really interesting to me. There’s a time and a place where that kind of bohemian lifestyle is appropriate, soon after college, in your 20s. But there are people still living that many years later; they haven’t evolved to the next phase. I know people like that. There are elements of me in that. And there’s something very interesting sociologically. That behavior has been validated or seen as a positive thing or a cute thing or a quirky thing. The movie tries to be critical of that lifestyle in a fairly subtle way. The biggest mistake people could make is watch the movie and think there’s any condoning of anyone in it. This character is clearly meant to be grotesque.
MN: Does that grotesqueness take a larger toll, in your view? Is this an anomaly or a generational thing?
TH: There’s a generation of people I think without a strong connection to family, to religion, to civic duty. They have a real disassociation from the problems of the world. People we’re talking about live in a “Matrix” alternate reality. I’m not an expert. I hope that there are people interested in a variety of things, in making our cities and world a more livable place, with engineering and science degrees. But film-criticism majors are only going to be so useful in our warming globe.
MN: It also seems like there’s a critique in how people of a certain generation talk and interact.
TH: I think it’s about how we all use sarcasm and irony and false voices and comedy in general to communicate, or to avoid communicating.
MN: That’s odd to hear from someone whose comedy is layered with all sorts of irony.
TH: [Laughs.] Like I said, there are elements of me in that.
MN: Your next project is back with Adult Swim. Do you want to keep staying on the razor’s edge in your work?
TH: What Eric and I are writing for Adult Swim is a little closer to some of the Funny or Die stuff, a little more grounded, a little darker. The idea is going to be like a horror comedy, kind of a “Twilight Zone” if Tim and Eric were in charge. So maybe a little disturbing.
MN: You seem to have forged a career where you’re making stuff that appeals to you but still with corporate support. What balance are you trying to strike?
TH: I have been skeptical and not trusting of traditional models of the entertainment industry. I never got a manager. I never felt like we needed to be a part of a sketch group. That’s kept us on our own path. But I can’t just make art for myself. It’s a simple idea that it’s what you want to say but also “how do I pay rent." So yeah, there is some consideration about what the best career move is. But it’s not like Steve Spielberg’s calling me into his office.
MN: It seems like there’s a kind of hybrid approach now, where comedians shape material their way but with an important line of corporate support. Louis C.K. completely manages his own destiny but at the end of the day he still works for Rupert Murdoch.
TH: Definitely. It gets me a little angry when people say, “Oh, Louis C.K. It’s a new model where you pay him five dollars [for his special online] and he’s doing it all himself.” A lot of money was spent by big companies to get him to a place where he can do that. Time Warner and Adult Swim paid a lot of money for Eric and I to make stuff, and then they spent a lot of money promoting. People aren’t coming out of nowhere and getting careers just by putting their stuff online.
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