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Being Unlikeable Comes Naturally to Tim Heidecker

We chat with the Adult Swim star about the new season of 'Decker: Unsealed' and his unique approach to filmmaking.
Decker: Unsealed / Adult Swim

Tim Heidecker is a master at creating over-complicated comedy. His tenure at Adult Swim has resulted in some of the network's most celebrated shows, from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Tom Goes to the Mayor to Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule—an unparalleled amount of quality output over the comedian's 15-year career. Whether he's playing an unlikable protagonist or intentionally leaning on sloppy filming and editing techniques, Heidecker's cultivated an audience who give themselves to the subtle, immature, and often thought-provoking humor he and his collaborators have created.


Last year, Adult Swim asked Heidecker and frequent creative partner Gregg Turkington to turn their webseries Decker—which follows an overly patriotic James Bond–like action hero protecting freedom from terrorists, Mexico, and Dracula—into a TV series, Decker: Unclassified. On June 4, the show returns for a second season with a new name (Decker: Unsealed), and it returns in an era in the US where the episodes and characters seem more like parody than mere absurdity. I met with Heidecker to talk about Trump, Twitter, and how Decker might just be a commercial for his other show On Cinema.

VICE: For each season of Decker, you've picked a different trope to dictate the style of the show. How would you describe the one you chose for the new season?
Tim Heidecker: What's funny to us this time around is that it's basically the same show as it was last season—stories of Decker's valor and bravery told over and over again in different ways. There's a redundancy to it that we think is funny. It demonstrates a lack of ideas by the creators, as if there are only six things that could possibly ever happen in the world. I find that happens in regular television a lot. It's not as obvious, but we shine a light on it.

The title's now Decker: Unsealed, which is just confusing and annoying. Calling it "Unclassified" last season was so annoying, because people were like "It's declassified, not unclassified. If something is unclassified, it's just yet to be classified!" I hope those kinds of things make people laugh. As a comedy fan, that's what always tickles me—the details, the hidden jokes, and the winks.


A lot of the show has been playing off this conservative American archetype that's recently risen to the surface. The way you've incorporated it has changed since the first season.
It's been ratcheted up with Trump, of course. It's out of control right now—it's all just fucking spewing out like a volcano, but it's been around and it's been simmering. The Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, masculine right-wing person who looks at the world in very stark black-and-white terms has been around for as long as I can remember. There were archetypes before Trump was really running for president that I was drawing on, but he provided lots of materials and directions in the past few years.

Was the current political climate on your mind going into this season?
Oh, of course! We were writing it during the election. There's an episode where we rig the election because Davidson thinks there's going to be an invasion from the Mexican government and that they're going to take over the United States. There's voter fraud stuff. There's definite inspiration from the news that we incorporated into the stories. I also incorporated Trump into my character in the way I read stuff and talk, without just trying to do an impression. His mannerisms and behavior were certainly influential.

You've played a lot of despicable characters. Why do you think you gravitate toward them?
Unfortunately, it comes very easily to me. I don't know why. My favorite characters in comedy have not always been the best people. Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers, David Brent from the Office, Alan Partridge—flawed people that have big visions of who they are, or narcissistic tendencies. It seems like I can tap into that, and it's a funny playground with lots of potential for comedic situations.


A lot of comedy is making bad situations and seeing the humor in those situations. The mistake I made years ago was having every character have my name. If On Cinema was me playing Ted Billings or something, it would be a lot clearer about what's going on. That's the choice we made, and we're here to live with it many years later.

What's the relationship between Decker and your movie review webseries on Adult Swim, On Cinema?
I often think that Decker is primarily a commercial for On Cinema. If you want to know what's going on in this show, you have to go to the source. Many more people will watch Decker than On Cinema, but those people will wonder, Why is he wearing a black glove through this season? Is this just weird? No! There's a reason, and there's another show that you should watch to find out why.

I think people have a misconception of what On Cinema is. On the surface, it appears to be two guys doing bad movie reviews, and I think some people go, "I know what that is. I don't need to go through that one joke." But once you get into knowing the characters and the world, it's a fun and satisfying pursuit.

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! really changed so much of the way that comedy has been edited for the past 10 years. With Decker, you seem to shy away from that style.
Everything we've done has been driven by what the show is supposed to be. It's not just "random," as people like to say about us. There are certain editing styles that work really well for some of the stuff we've done, but you're not going to see them used in something like Tim and Eric's Bedtime Stories. It's really dependent on the intention of the "creator." In Decker, the creators of the show are me and Gregg Turkington, who in the world of the show don't know what they're doing, so the editing style of that show is supposed to be "guys who are just trying to get home for dinner." They don't really pay attention to things, and they're just plopping it out, so there are all sorts of mistakes. The mistakes are consistent—they're not just random, they're considered. You've got to be judicious about how you use those tricks and tools.


I think your work has been really empowering to young filmmakers, in the way that you often celebrate the constraints of DIY video editing. How do you decide what constraints you're going to use when starting a new project?
The ideas themselves are pretty specific, and we usually acknowledge they will most likely be not super popular in terms of a big, broad audience. We don't want to go to Adult Swim and say, "We need a million dollars to do this." It's more like, "We want to do this weird, specific thing. We don't need a lot of money to do it. Can we do it?" That dictates the scope of it. With Bedtime Stories, Eric and I are putting our names on it, and it's a bigger show, so we want the scope of the show to be bigger, to look great, and to pay our crew well to give them the ability to work hard. The vision for that show is more cinematic, so that stuff takes time and money.

What's fun about On Cinema for us is that we've been able to create this world that people have in their heads, and we don't necessarily have to shoot any of that stuff. So much of it is just talked about, and the audience can fill in what's happening off-camera. When we realized that that's what we were doing, we thought, We can go anywhere with this. You don't have to see me go to Jackson Hole—I'll just tell you I went there.

You recently self-released some protest songs online. How do your values filter into the work you do?
I made music with Davin Wood and Eric for all the Tim and Eric shows, and I've made my own solo records with Davin as well. For years, I never felt confident enough to write anything from a subsistent point of view. I don't know what kicked it off, but I started writing more songs about what's going on because it's just so infuriating and visceral. People really reacted to "Trump's Pilot"—I'd play that live and we'd all tear up by the end of it, because it really feels like a "raising your fist in the air" song. When you do something once and it clicks with somebody, it makes you want to go back downstairs and try it again.


I just record the songs as quick as I can and put them out without a lot of fanfare—just a tweet or something. A few of these music blogs that follow me will put it out, and then it spreads around. I'll put it up on Bandcamp and give the proceeds to charity. Some people don't like my music. Some people find it cathartic. I like making music, and it's fun to have a focus. I'm not just singing about rainbows and butterflies.

Why is it important for you to have an immediate method of communicating with your audience, whether it's through Twitter or self-releasing your music?
I think it's exciting that there's this device that lets me see somebody write me, "From now on, I'm sending a daily 'Fuck You' to Tim Heidecker for alienating his minuscule fan base even further." I just write back to him, "OK. Have a good one." He's now been acknowledged as a person from me. It didn't take me any energy to do that. There's so much idle time in my life when I could be playing Candy Crush or something. But instead, this is another game. Most of the time, it's very nice, and people send nice things. But I don't reply to those people.

What can people expect to see in the new season of Decker?
There's 10 percent more production value, which is weird because people are like, "I love it because of how bad it is." But the challenge we made for ourselves was, "Let's improve the quality of this without learning anything about how to make stuff." There's this episode that rips off The Bodyguard, where my character falls in love with this pop star. There are moments where it's like, "This is legitimately working," but then I come in and blow it with this terrible performance that's impossible to use. There's this feeling of, "Oh boy, people must have worked hard on this, and then he comes in and just farts all over it." It's fun to look at, it's very silly, but pay attention cause there's lots of jokes going on that aren't apparent right away.

Are there things that you still find challenging with comedy?
It gets a little harder and a little easier in different ways. The more you make stuff, the less stuff there is to do, because you've done it. You burn through ideas. Usually there's another idea waiting there, but sometimes it takes a little longer. There isn't quite the same amount of fire and drive that there was when you were 26 and dreaming of doing it. You don't want to start trying to emulate stuff you did ten years ago. You want to play to who you are now and not what made you famous.

I think there's another change coming, but probably not for a few years. I certainly can't just keep clowning around in the same way. We'll do this for a little while, and then see what's next. Probably something involving a dad and his kids, because that's been my life experience for the past few years—something that doesn't feel like an ABC sitcom from the 90s.

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