Tim Heidecker: ‘I’m trying to be an antidote to the toxic side of comedy’

Best known for his inventive work with Tim and Eric, the absurdist comic talks about playing it straight as a ‘legit’ singer-songwriter, and his newest creation: a ‘belligerent and terrible’ standup comedian

Growing up, Tim Heidecker didn’t know who he was supposed to be. “I was a mess,” he says, recalling his school years. “Caught in the middle of different social groups – I was in the theatre scene, I had a band, I went through hippy manifestations with long hair and a goatee. To this day, I still have trouble identifying my identity.”

This split identity has carried through into 2023, as Heidecker gears up to tour the UK as both comic and musician. His band, the Very Good Band, will be supported by Heidecker playing a bitter and flailing standup comedian. The character that goofs on “hacky and pandering” comics, and tours under his catchphrase banner No More Bullshit.

For the last 20 years, Heidecker has created and performed a vast and disparate array of comic characters, many of which are simply called Tim Heidecker. He has also made multiple shows with his comedic partner Eric Wareheim, most notably Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Essentially one long riff on the low-budget public-access cable TV they grew up on, the show sees Heidecker playing everything from a Vaseline-drenched singer with chronic stagefright to one-half of the Beaver Boys, a couple of wannabe party bros with a hospital-inducing appetite for shrimp and white wine.

Perhaps Tim and Eric’s closest UK comparison would be Vic and Bob. Not necessarily in style, tone or presence – even though both lean heavily into absurdity and extreme daftness – but in that they have crafted their own distinct comedic language and interplay that is intrinsically unique.

Then there are the numerous identities Heidecker has moulded and lived in outside the partnership. Such as the long-running webseries-cum-fictional universe On Cinema, which is ostensibly a spoof movie review show with storylines so elaborate, wild and nonsensical that it has spawned multiple offshoots – one, the miniseries The Trial, sees Heidecker in court after his character creates a vanity-project festival for his band that leaves 20 kids dead and 158 hospitalised from toxic vape pens that were distributed. Plus, he hosts a weekly call-in chatshow, Office Hours Live, one episode of which was simply a 12-hour long spoof of Joe Rogan’s podcast. It’s an intricate and entangled network that has resulted in a vast, sprawling comedic world.

But comedy was not plan A or even plan B. “It was a last resort,” Heidecker laughs. “Music was my ambition originally.” He was a Beatles-obsessed teenager who played in “cringey” and “pretentious” bands, with names like such as the Pulsating Libidos and Shaggy’s Belt Buckle, before he went to film school and met Wareheim.

“We were making art films,” recalls Heidecker. “We never really thought about comedy as something we would do. We just were funny with each other.” However Bob Odenkirk, better known as a comedian before his breakout roles in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, saw the potential in the pair and became something of a mentor and helping hand, getting them broadcast on the US comedy channel Adult Swim after they mailed him a DVD out of the blue. Odenkirk thought it was especially funny that the pair had invoiced him for the package.

Heidecker with Eric Wareheim in Billion Dollar Movie
Dumb and dumber … Heidecker with Eric Wareheim in Billion Dollar Movie. Photograph: Magnolia Pictures/Allstar

Music never left Heidecker but it took a backseat as things blew up in the world of Tim and Eric, which resulted in Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, a 2012 feature film featuring Zach Galifianakis, Will Ferrell, John C Reilly and Jeff Goldblum. The music Heidecker did dabble in was heavy on the comedy: there were spoof Bob Dylan tracks and a band called the Yellow River Boys, whose album Urinal St Station featured tracks such as Slurp it Up and Hot Piss Drinker, along with a blurb that read: “THE album for those of us who believe that the human mouth smiles the most when it is being used as a makeshift urinal. Underground leaders of the pee-freak scene, your shame no longer has to be private!”

Ten years down the line Heidecker finds himself making a very different kind of music. In 2020 he released Fear of Death, an album of sun-baked indie folk-rock that featured Weyes Blood and members of Foxygen, the Lemon Twigs and Warpaint. In 2022 he released his most personal, intimate and accomplished album to date, High School. It’s a record about looking back, sometimes painfully, at his adolescence. “I started thinking about one guy who had overdosed years ago that I was very close with,” he says. “I hadn’t thought about it for a while because when the Tim and Eric thing happened everything was focused so laser-hot on that side of my brain. But by tapping into these memories of my friend who passed away, it opened up a huge lane for me to think about that time.”

But has the wearing of so many hats at once, primarily in the comedy world, often playing with the boundaries of reality and sincerity, not resulted in confusion and misconceptions about who Heidecker actually is? “Oh, it’s been a huge problem,” he says with a half laugh but also with a hint of seriousness. “It’s been a nightmare.”

Heidecker recognises the journey from doing weirdo outsider comedy, with the occasional taste for the gross and ridiculous, can result in some pretty hefty baggage to carry when moving on to sincere music. “This wasn’t meant to be a joke and I knew it would be a battle to make sure people understood that I wasn’t pranking anybody,” he says. “I knew it would be, like, three records before people were like, OK, this is not a joke.”

People are now getting it, though. “They are accepting I’m legit and I’m not doing some weird comedy art project,” says Heidecker. “There’s a stigma surrounding actor-musicians that’s well established, of ‘this is a vanity project’. Which I get, and can understand, but it doesn’t make me want to put the guitar down.”

In stark contrast to his “legit” music, Heidecker’s standup routine features a fumbling, angry, dejected and blustering comic who is trying to write relatable material that fails so badly it almost forces the room to laugh out of desperation just to fill the void with something. “Doing that character with an unsuspecting audience can be very uncomfortable,” he says. “If you don’t know what you’re getting then you feel this person is belligerent and terrible and that’s not a recipe for entertainment. I think of it more as a one-man play about a pathetic comedian.”

Even though he hates his own comic creation as a personality, it does offer catharsis “to be a total dick and get rewarded for it by an audience in on the joke”. It is not, however, an opportunity to go on a tirade of punching-down insults. “I could go out there and be a pig but that’s not fun for anyone,” he says. “I’m not looking to provoke in that way. I have a line I don’t want to cross. I’m trying to be an antidote to the toxic shit on the other side of comedy.”

He recently mocked comedians’ claims of being silenced due to cancel culture, telling the Ringer it’s “not a real problem” and in regards to outspoken comics Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais, “it’s just like: fuck off, guys”. Today he adds: “I try to be an ally to marginalised communities the best I can be.”

At 47, and with an indie rock career gathering pace, Heidecker finally seems to be finding an identity that suits him. “I’m a little older and my fans sometimes call me Dad, jokingly,” he says. “I like that. I like the identity of being this arty dad. But, ultimately, I’m still a weirdo who does dumb shit and sings songs about drinking piss. I just like to rock out every once in a while.”

Tim Heidecker tours the UK, 16 to 28 March; tour starts Leeds.


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

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