Tim Heidecker Is the Satirist America Deserves
The comedic visionary talks Trump, building his own universe, and the audacity of hopelessness.
Tim Heidecker was the greatest political satirist of 2017—a fact that’s easily overlooked when the airwaves are flooded with a Daily Show clone army, with every late-night host doing ten minutes on tax reform. Amongst the din, Heidecker has crafted a reflection of the American character that goes far deeper than any of John Oliver’s rants, or Seth Meyers’s earnest pleas for resistance.
From Tom Peters of Tom Goes To The Mayor to his performance in 2012’s The Comedy, Heidecker’s charted the path of the collapsing American manhood,as well as the trappings of toxic masculinity, white identity politics, and the lame aesthetics and chronic mediocrity at its core. Heidecker’s universe of outlet-mall Willy Loman archetypes has bled into our present hellscape so seamlessly that you’d have been forgiven for mistaking most of 2016 for a sketch ripped from Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! Deep within the nightmares offered by Heidecker and Abso-lutely productions lie the truest depiction of the current American dream.
His long-running webseries with Gregg Turkington, On Cinema, began as a simple satire of the self proclaimed expert, but soon transformed into a multi-media, multi-platform, fan-interactive parodic collage. With his warped onscreen persona now standing trial for mass-death by toxic vapes at his DIY EDM festival, Heidecker and Turkington have added new shades to the hilariously bleak On Cinema metaverse. The trial’s real-time depiction of Tim’s character being confronted with his own bullshit was one of the surest riffs on the characters and ideas that brought us Trump. We talked to Heidecker about creating his universe and his hopes (or lack thereof) for the future.
VICE: On Cinema began as a podcast, but since then it’s become much more. Was that planned?
Tim Heidecker: No way—it started as you heard it. At the time, there was a preponderance of comedians doing podcasts—a lot of people more interested in hearing the sound of their own voice than anything else [ Laughs]. Anything you get to do on your own and without any kind of pressure or big budget, you develop in the lab a little bit. We enjoyed naturally developing these two characters, and on the podcast I was already starting to develop my politics and bully-ish behavior.
The trial encapsulated six years of jokes and story arcs. How’d you arrive at the initial idea?
We thought this was a good opportunity to let the audience literally put this guy on trial and litigate all these decisions he’s made over the years, in a different context other than the show—where he has all the authority and the dissent is just Greg. We thought it’d be interesting to see how his actions would be perceived by “normal” people—lawyers, judges. We were optimistic that it would work, but it worked better than we could have ever imagined [ Laughs].
Taking a deluded figure and making him accountable for his words and actions is very Trump-esque. Was the trial a response to what’s happening with the administration?
We absorb so much of the world and we talk about it all the time that it subconsciously affects our work. There’s certainly a lot of tics and phraseology that I take from Trump—it dovetails with the way the character behaves, and we use it as inspiration. With the trial, where this character’s giving speeches, that’s where Trump comes in most. You’re stuck in this room with this guy, and there’s this sense that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. He hasn’t really thought through what he’s going to say, and that’s something I think we see him do all the time.
A lot of people have said that the trial was, in a weird way, like therapy for this year—this alternate universe we can laugh at. It’s not real, but it feels connected to the world we live in. When Greg and I are going at it on Twitter, we’re getting into these really inane and pointless arguments, and people say it’s such a relief to see that when the real world is full of such dark, real terror.
Your character is a villain. Who’s worse—him or Trump?
Trump by a thousand years, because he has the capacity to do real damage and is doing it to real people. This character of mine has done a lot of damage too, but he’s ultimately a failure. The back-and-forth we go through is who’s worse: Tim or Gregg. Tim is obviously the bad guy, but it’s hard to argue that Gregg is the good guy, because every time you want to get behind him he also does something that makes him kind of unlikable. He’s hard to root for.
The idea of failure is a recurring theme in your work, from Tom Peters to Tim from On Cinema . It feels as if men like these have hijacked the American discourse. What’s next for them?
I don’t know what’s next, but I’m very attuned to it and maybe have a sympathetic ear for it. Take your average middle-aged white guy—he doesn’t have to be white—and the concepts of career and family are very different from 30 years ago. A lot of the myths about being a man have been eroded or adapted, and I see comedy in that.
I had a neighbor a few years ago who was telling me about this opportunity he was interested in: selling automated sign holders—mannequins that hold signs in front of car dealerships. You got this whiff of failure from the whole thing: a guy who should be five or ten years away from retiring is hustling around the car dealerships selling this garbage product [ Laughs]. There’s sadness there, but there’s also a lot of comedy too.
It’s fertile comedic ground to have a character who’s constantly trying to find success through business—a sucker, like Willy Loman I grew up in a family of car salespeople, and that’s the grim reality of those spaces. It’s about getting older and seeing the consequences from the choices you made in the past—realizing that you can’t control your future and your destiny.
Your On Cinema reflects the toxic masculinity seen from the alt-right. Is the real world becoming harder to outpace?
We’re at a place in the show’s universe where we’re talking about which direction we’re going in, and my gut tells me the Richard Spencer and Pepe stuff is so topical that we won’t go in that direction. There’s plenty of people exploring that, and we were a little ahead of that, so we don’t need to directly go down that path.
Is it weird seeing the real world catch up to this character you created?
I’ve been telling a standup joke since 2011 about how great it would be if Donald Trump became president [ Laughs]. But I’m not this troll online who’s into anime—that’s a younger person I don’t know how to approach. But I do know the guy who’s 40, a white straight male, has been the king of the hill forever, and thinks that every little stupid thought he has is gospel. I can tap into what’s funny about that guy.
In season eight of On Cinema I decided I would endorse Trump and reflect the way we felt about your average Trump supporter: a dim-witted person who can’t put sentences together. When I wrote the endorsement letter, it was a poorly-written mess that was reflective of not only his supporters but himself. Much of the way he communicates is like he’s having mini-strokes in his brain. We’re not interested in being polite or kind about the way we depict these people.
Its seems every network comedy and late-night show is political now. Do you feel like they are destined to fall short when it comes to dealing with Trump?
No one’s ever going to land anything on anybody that’ll take them down—to, as clickbait would say, “eviscerate.” That stuff is providing a little comfort in knowing that they’re not crazy, and a lot of those guys do a good job of it. I’m not a big fan of “the guy in the suit sitting behind the desk kind of tearing the news apart every night”—that feels very stale to me.
We do stuff like that gets branded as “anti-comedy,” but we view comedy as just another thing to make fun of—the way comedy is presented, homogenized, and used. A lot of On Cinema and certainly Decker is overtly political in how they take in current events and spit them back out. We’re trying to do a more subtle, clever version of what, say, John Oliver is doing.
Decker feels like the only political satire that links the Bush era to Trump. Why aren’t more comics doing that?
I don’t pay attention to too much of what’s going on out there. There’s nothing else like what we do [ Laughs]—that’s probably a good thing, but I don’t know. Anthony Atamanuik’s The President’s Show is great—he does a really great, smart version of Trump. Television moves so slow. Getting anything made takes a long time. That’s why those Daily Show formats work, because you can just pump them out on a daily basis. I think people in the corporate side are very scared and nervous about what’s coming.
Do you feel like guys like Vic Berger fill that vacuum?
There’s great shit happening on the internet. It’s not presented as TV, although we’re always trying to change that. Some of the best satire—some of the best comedy period—has been the videos Vic’s put out. I put that next to all the other stuff I can watch on TV. Am I gonna sit and watch some network sitcom for 20 minutes, or am I gonna watch 20 minutes of Vic’s videos? It’s obvious what I’m gonna watch.
My friends and I were watching the election last year and thinking, “This looks like a Tim and Eric sketch.” Do you feel as though he’s stolen your shtick?
I think what’s funny is he’s surrounded by less talented people than should be [ Laughs]. I love Dan Scavino, his media guy. He puts out these videos and they’re edited on his iPhone—terrible graphics, sound’s all fucked up. They’re hilarious to us!
How important is that look to your work?
For Eric and I, it’s always ideas-based. With On Cinema, too, style comes secondary to what the idea is. What’s the best format for the idea and how can we can convey the humor? The trial has to look exactly like a trial—any flaws in the representation will sink it. A lot of our earlier work that had this crazy lo-fi stuff, but since then we always try to say that’s not necessarily what we’re about. We’re about communicating ideas and the best way to do that.
It seems like everybody has now gotten a news desk with the TV streaming behind them or something [ Laughs]. That seems like a funny way to go about leading the show in this direction that’s further away from what Greg wants it to be [ Laughs].
Last year, you released Too Dumb For Suicide , which seemed to offer some safe space from the news.
This has been a gripe I’ve had for a little while now: we’re at a place where the term “safe space” has become pejorative. It’s really telling. I know the problem that they have with that concept is that it disrupts free speech, but a safe space is ultimately a good thing [ Laughs]. This thing of, “You’re just a pussy, you’re a cuck, you need your safe space”—no! I fucking love a safe space! I want a safe space as much as possible! [ Laughs] It’s crazy that that’s become a negative concept.
What do you think the future holds? Do you have any hope?
No hope. No hope. [ Laughs]. There’s no guarantees that this is gonna all work out. We could be entering a very dark period, where a lot of basic functions that we’re used to aren’t there anymore. Or, things just continue to dribble on. I think my hopefulness is probably lower right now than it would normally be. It doesn’t seem like it’s going in the right direction [ Laughs]. It’ll be interesting. We’re living in historic times, as my friend said. At least you’ll have something to tell your grandkids: “I was around in 2017 and believe me, I can tell you”. Sorry, I wish I had better news for you! [Laughs]
Follow Patrick Marlborough on Twitter.