Channel Zero

Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule. Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and John C. Reilly. Adult Swim, May 2010–present.

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Adult Swim, February 2007–May 2010.

Tom Goes to the Mayor. Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and Bob Odenkirk. Adult Swim, November 2004–
September 2006.

Raised in different portions of suburban eastern Pennsylvania, Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker met studying film at Temple University in Philadelphia. They quickly formed a bond based on their disenchantment with film school: their classmates seemed to lack imagination and initiative, while the professors, steeped in European classics and aesthetics, seemed as irrelevant as they were excessively serious.

Wareheim and Heidecker liked to laugh and they laughed at the same things: the potential band name TGIF, the films of David Lynch, bootleg VHS tapes of the strangest, most unwitting public access television. Banal and fascinating condensations of Americana amused them. They graduated and proceeded to go separate ways, staying in touch from time to time through instant messages transmitted over warbling phone lines.

Wareheim managed to survive in Philadelphia. Jewish boys and girls turned into Jewish men and women; he recorded the events with photographs and videos, the latter rife with awkward captions and screen wipes. Heidecker moved to New York, where he served as a prop master for two small films and labored in the offices of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board), which assigns ratings to video games based on age-appropriateness. When he wasn’t working, he sang and played music in a band.

Heidecker returned to Philadelphia occasionally to see his friend. Using Wareheim’s bar mitzvah equipment, they shot and animated short, humorous films: a fake promotion for a cat film festival; a brief banal interlude between two men, one of whom wants to open a franchise of a buffet chain named Gulliver’s. Their other friends enjoyed the films, sent them around; some were screened at festivals. But Heidecker and Wareheim’s break came when they paid to make a DVD of their material and mailed it, unsolicited and bill included, to Bob Odenkirk.

Odenkirk, then in his early forties, was already an elder statesman of the comic world. He had trained with Chicago’s Second City improv troupe, written for Saturday Night Live (the scripts of several of the great Chris Farley sketches are his doing), and cocreated and costarred in HBO’s fluent, strange, superb sketch comedy Mr. Show. By the time Wareheim and Heidecker’s package reached him in 2001, he was looking to direct and to perform more somber roles—younger viewers may know him mostly as the antihero’s snaky lawyer on Breaking Bad. Still his comic interest and connections remained, and after watching the DVD Odenkirk called Heidecker. He didn’t pay the bill, but he put the pair, who had been working in a social vacuum, in contact: at first with like-minded animators and comedians, and eventually with network executives. Three years after Wareheim and Heidecker sent Odenkirk their demo disc, they had a show broadcast on cable television. It was like a miracle—the sort of thing that television teaches you can happen.

Tom Goes to the Mayor premiered in November 2004 on the Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block Adult Swim. The show was poorly animated by necessity (Adult Swim shows are notorious for their tiny budgets) but also by design. Its drained and cut-rate forms—the backdrops (strip malls, mostly) cobbled, static, and discordant, the characters rendered through Photoshop in white and spirit-duplicator blue, moving roughly one frame every two seconds—were ideally suited to its content: the torpid and depleted civic sphere of an American small town.

Each episode depicts a failure of the titular Tom Peters (Heidecker), a naive and hopeful inventor/small businessman (his license plate reads ENTRPNR) to improve the town of Jefferton in some way. Despite his being “full of ideas,” which range from petty (selling the Calcucorn, an inaccurate unicorn-shaped children’s calculator, via infomercial) to grand and global (generating electricity from sewage, gathering petitions to rescue a bird sanctuary), his plans and good intentions always come to nothing, and often less than nothing: several episodes end with Tom burdened by enormous debt, and one ends with Tom in Hell.

His plans collapse for two reasons, one blatant and one subtle. The mayor of Jefferton (Wareheim), a reckless and relentless force of nature, invariably sabotages Tom’s various dreams of betterment. Because of the mayor’s intervention, the Calcucorn creates a public works disaster, Tom is forced to delete the blueprints for the waste-based power plant, and the avian refuge gets engulfed by a bronzing factory. Yet the deeper source of Tom’s failures lies in Tom himself. His hopelessly polite, credulous, and obliging nature preclude the possibility of saying no to the mayor: much like Jefferton’s sublimely useless City Council, the most that Tom can do is make a few mild objections before being steamrolled and subsumed.

The script is basically a tissue of banalities and nonsense, enlivened mostly by Tom’s faulty speech: he spells important as impotent, refers to a dam as a darn, and is prone to bending idioms. When he runs into the Mayor, he often blurts out speak of my devil; once, when he’s asked to make an extra effort, he replies he’ll give it the old junior-college try. There’s no exposition, an unchanging setting, skeletal plots: if one is literary minded, it grows clear after watching several episodes that the show is best understood as an unreal mode of narrative. While most television shows (and all advertisements) are morality plays disguised by the motion and commerce of beautiful voices and bodies, Tom is about as blatant about its allegorical nature—Tom is married to a grotesquely obese woman named Joy—as it gets. Its figures, less characters than concretions of specific (mostly profit-seeking) human impulses, look and sound ugly, and they never learn from past mistakes. Viewers tuning in for the first time could be forgiven for finding the show as sadistic and dull as the petty capitalist mind-set it satirized, assuming that they recognized the satire to begin with. Adored by Adult Swim executives, the show was not well received by mostly adolescent viewers: Tom’s ratings were abysmal, and Cartoon Network stopped production after thirty episodes.

Still, the duo was far from out of favor with the network. Adult Swim kingpin Mike Lazzo immediately invited them to develop a new, more visually exciting show, and they cheerfully obliged. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! maintained its predecessor’s emphasis on parody, but with a difference: instead of holding up a mirror to the smoldering ruins of public life in America, the new program reflected on the power partly responsible for setting it on fire—American television. The human face, frozen and absurd in Tom’s crude animation, developed an absurd range of motion in Tim and Eric. The show was mostly live action warped by countless garish, amateurish postproduction effects. Largely plotless, brightly colored, swiftly paced, the new show deployed the full range of the medium’s formats (among them commercials, award shows, commemorations, science documentaries, dance parties, films, music videos, workplace dramas, sports broadcasts, sketch comedy)—but the typical attractive cast was nowhere to be found. Wareheim and Heidecker were the only regular cast members, and neither could be called the world’s most handsome man. The same was true of regular guests: most of them were over fifty, male, spectacled, and “out of shape.”

James Quall, a celebrity impersonator who played himself, wore too much makeup. David Liebe Hart, the puppeteer/religious songwriter, was uncomfortably short and chubby. In keeping with public access television, these performers played people who were likely to pay to be seen by audiences, not people beautiful enough to be paid to sell to them. When appealing members of the youth demographic appeared, they were only there as points of intense and blatant contrast with some specimen of physical decrepitude: two tanned women sunbathing on the beach are accosted by the dancing Beaver Boys, two flabby, borderline aphasic men in crotch-hugging swimwear. Wareheim and Heidecker understood how an attractive body able to behave “naturally” in front of cameras ceases to come across as human. Sealed behind the screen, robbed of flaws, the popular actor, reduced to loveliness, becomes an emissary of desire, an ideal convergence of material and aesthetic wealth. (Perhaps the biggest knock against Wareheim and Heidecker is that they were less apt to prominently feature women who share their own sympathetic ugliness.)

Yet the screen’s inhuman beauty fades. One takes more in yet feels it less. And, most damningly to Wareheim and Heidecker, it isn’t funny: as Wareheim explained in a brief New York Times profile, “There’s nothing less funny than someone who looks cool.” The bodiless intoxication of a glacial excellence held no appeal for them, whereas the human form, with its subconscious incontinence and bland incompetence, was an unending source of sympathetic laughter. The people on Awesome Show are never far from losing their composure, melting down, reverting to liquidity. A red-faced, brown-haired, mustached man dressed in khakis and a dull yellow polo shirt sits on a sofa in a living-room set with four children (“none of them are my own”), two to either side. His name is Will Grello, and the purpose of his show is to teach them how to build couch forts. Yet he swiftly digresses.

“You know, as a child, things are not always, always rosy, I think we can agree on that. (Brief pause.) ’Cause you might have somebody just like my father.”

His voice, previously mild, if slightly strained, grows suddenly enraged: he is possessed by his father’s voice. He roars his father’s odd, illogical, impossible imperatives and then, voice frail and pleading, repeats his own feeble, sensible attempts to excuse himself. How could he have known to buy his father ice cream when his father was on a business trip?


Grello notices a dark stain spreading down a khaki leg. Returning to himself, he apologizes. He requests a pair of fresh pants from the camera crew offscreen. The faces of the children, all the while, look more distracted than scared. They haven’t spoken. The music for the show, smooth cheery jazz, begins to play.

Sketches like “Fortin’ with Will” seem like logical successors to Chris Farley’s “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” skits, yet the contrast between them is instructive: Heidecker and Wareheim’s comedy depends far more on mediation. Even if Saturday Night Live sketches have title cards and theme music, they rarely play off those elements for comic effect. When Farley, playing Foley, rants and lurches through a set, he does so unaccompanied by extradiegetic graphics, sounds, and subtitles, all of which would be invisible to the studio audience before him, whose laughter serves as a mild cue to viewers at home. The premise of sketch shows like SNL remains live performance for a laughing audience, and as a result their humor must be linear and immediate. On such shows, all speech either builds up to a punch line or is one. So the “quiet” format of Awesome Show sketches, although common on public access, was a novelty to broadcast television. The laughter they elicited evoked no spirit of belonging; the essential unit of their humor was not the punch line but the silent incongruous juxtaposition: the loud man seated beside the quiet children, the stained pants and the peppy saxophone, the foreboding drained yellow of the polo shirt, the demonic, incoherent father.

The silent, zoned-out children on “Fortin’ with Will” look as if they’d rather be watching something better than living, screaming proof of the persistence of childhood unhappiness, but the point of the sketch, and of the show at large, is that there’s no escape: the ideal mirage and the splenetic facts of life are one. From countless angles, the Awesome Show contrived to engineer unholy fusions between televised spectacles and the damage, poverty, and grief from which television promises deliverance, inflating the medium’s normal, smooth, appealing, market-based aesthetics into a curious, pathetic humanism. To borrow the imagery from one of Tom Peters’s better projects, you could say that it transformed commercial sewage into comic energy.

Television once created history. The medium’s ideology of individual satisfaction, beamed straight into the eyes of children from the ’50s on, bore explosive fruit when those children came of age. It shifted the national culture from a system of reticent, industrialized state capitalism centered on the faceless word to postindustrial profiteering, image-based and hedonistic, that stressed performance, pleasure, and display above all else. Since the Sixties it’s been understood that life, if it is to be worth living, must be irresistibly delightful. And television—no other suspect comes to mind—was what made us understand.

This was no minor achievement. Neither the monomaniacal moralizing at the foundation of American culture nor the grisly abstract system it developed had any talent for appreciating the spectrum of sensual delights—music, images, emotion—as such. Whereas the appeal of the new medium was entirely aesthetic: its simultaneous flow of sound, sight, and expression informed its youngest viewers that from now on the norm was to be “colorful,” outstanding. Running from the ’70s to the early ’90s, second-wave television broadcast black Americans (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson) and single white women (Mary Tyler Moore, Laverne and Shirley) as worthy of emulation and affection. It made no revolutions, but by casting such figures in a favorable light it reinforced the tendency toward increased racial and sexual equality that was the great and lasting achievement of the Sixties.

If the first wave undermined joyless cultural hierarchies and the second confirmed their ruin by building over them, third-wave television, running from the early ’90s to the present, was notable not for how it changed the world but for how it didn’t. Its advances—bigger screens, higher resolution, more channels, better camerawork, computer graphics, longer narratives—were entirely technical; from a social standpoint television was moribund, even regressive. The dominant theme of the so-called serious television dramas has been the degradation of dominance, and it can be tempting, in an age of flailing empires and economies, to interpret them as politically charged, socially informed. Aside from David Simon’s Treme and The Wire, this reading would be false. Like most of the liberal class that finances it, creates it, loads it with prestige, and watches it, most “serious” television willfully mistakes self-serving, stylish gestures for social engagement.

In fact the primary interest of shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Homeland is not the complex politics and economics of the drug trade, racketeering, and the war on terror, but rather the endless psychic complication of central characters whose illegal whims they indulge beyond all reason. Too heavily invested in the charismatic violations of their heroes to convincingly reject them, these shows end up conflating moral incoherence with strength of character, self-absorption with interiority. No amount of acting or directing excellence can resolve this narrative imbalance: the extreme focus on protagonists’ motives or behavior, no matter how repellent, evil, or illogical, legitimizes them by implicitly dismissing and diminishing all competing perspectives. Within the confines of the artwork, the lead character becomes too big to fail, and the moral difficulties his words and deeds evoke are not resolved by conscience but dissolved by presence.

Of course, the pageantry of inequality and the complicity-inducing spectacle of criminal willpower so prevalent in serious television ought to be considered reflective of the culture. But these programs merely reflect it. The camera normalizes everything it shoots, and serious television normalizes nothing new—unless one happens to consider the prerogative of white males to indulge in fraud, adultery, extortion, murder, torture, drug trafficking, armed robbery, money laundering, and bottomless self-pity something undervalued and uncelebrated in American pop culture until recent years. The pettiness, deceit, and spite of an outrageously rich, balding, spectacled white male makes more moral and aesthetic sense as an explicit, open-ended farce (Curb Your Enthusiasm) than as a tragedy that frequently collapses into farce, intentional or otherwise (Breaking Bad).

What’s most striking about the Awesome Show is not the comprehensiveness of its critique but its gentleness. The illusions of commerce are not stabbed to death so much as silently stripped bare: the poor picture quality, shoddy green-screen graphics, misspelled and mistimed captions, de-synched audio and video, and crazy lyrics set to suspiciously pleasant music all contribute to a sense of the medium’s fallibility that can prove, after a few episodes, immensely cathartic. The inaccurate equations with regard to beauty, body, self, and world absorbed in childhood through the television screen (a purveyor of youthful falsehoods much like the Calcucorn) untangle and disperse: one can finally cease being a petrified spectator and mature, perhaps, into an agile and resilient one.

The frustration and anger of the original Adult Swim audience, who came looking for the usual array of sleek Japanese cartoons and found a show with zero surface entertainment value, has recurred to some extent with all of Wareheim and Heidecker’s projects. The five seasons of the Awesome Show proved extremely polarizing. Less interesting than the virulence of the hatred—sincere hopes for Wareheim and Heidecker’s death abound online—is the lack of definition in the love, which ranges from mindless repetition of the show’s catchphrases on YouTube to the squeamish summaries that masquerade as reviews in major media outlets. If one desires evidence that middle-class squeamishness, a prime target of and obstacle to Tim and Eric’s humor, looks likely to outlive the middle class itself, these articles—brief interviews with hideous show—will hardly disappoint.

The most profound appreciation, not surprisingly, has come from other comics, for whom the duo’s work suggests a new form of the art, far less constrained by live performance and its kill-or-be-killed ethos. Many, maybe most, Awesome Show sketches are baffling/terrifying/inert on first viewing and reveal themselves to be hilarious only in retrospect. Three years after the final episode was broadcast, aspects of its slow-burning style have surfaced elsewhere on the program guide. IFC’s fish-in-a-barrel hipster lampoon Portlandia (directed by Tom and Awesome Show’s Jonathan Krisel) and Comedy Central’s Kroll Show (executive produced by same) are clearly offspring, though it’s Adult Swim’s Eric André Show, a spastic, somber, cheerful late-night talk show parody coproduced by Heidecker and Wareheim, that accesses the uncanny depth of the originals most effectively. Like them, it deploys abysmal production values (Adult Swim shows are still notorious for their tiny budgets) in order to maximize a sense of spiritual permeability: the dark, spare, shabby stage set, filtered through a camera of doubtful resolution, could easily double for an alcove buried underneath Twin Peaks.

No less strange than these intentional congruencies are the inadvertent ones: the internet, by providing opportunities for almost any human being to appear onscreen, poorly lit, unvarnished, and (for the most part) inept, has become the most enormous of all public access channels. Still more intriguing is how politicians unwittingly have reproduced Wareheim and Heidecker’s humor: when the awkward, lingering, poorly scored campaign ads run by Herman Cain in his front-running days appeared, they were immediately pegged as potential Awesome Show outtakes, while in New York it’s somehow easy to envision an overbearing mayor nearly indistinguishable from his endless business partnerships as both allegorical and real. In a country where people are actually named Reince Priebus and an endless fire alarm enlivened and destroyed a session of NBC Nightly News, the duo’s comedy, often dubbed absurd, seems no less representative for being ridiculous. The shows are over, but the characters—the inept, religious-themed ventriloquist, the inept, self-satisfied celebrity imitator of celebrity, the incurably incongruous old man, the TV news team fawning over itself to no end, and countless more—continue to exist, charged with the banal intangible reality of archetypes.

The creators, meanwhile, have been busy. They made Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012), which, though imperfect, was one of the rare films that successfully transformed the financial collapse and recession into aesthetic material. For money, they wrote and directed a series of hyperactive Old Spice commercials starring Terry Crews. They worked apart at times: Wareheim has directed bright, bizarre, repulsive, wondrous music videos for bands, and Heidecker, together with Tom and Awesome Show composer Davin Wood, has released an album of classic soft rock–sounding music. In keeping with the genre, the melodies were as vigorous and charming as the lyrics were cheerful and vacuous. They played roles in The Comedy (2012), an independent film that savaged trust-fund hipsterism. They made a new YouTube channel.

Heidecker and Wareheim’s current show is, once again, something (completely) different. On Check It Out!, Awesome Show’s dubious troubleshooter Dr. Steve Brule (John C. Reilly) produces his own public access show in which he painstakingly informs himself about the world. Each episode of Check It Out! explores a specific aspect of reality: they have titles like Family, Life, Relationships, Health, and Friendship. Like any journalist, Dr. Brule conducts interviews and visits new locations. Unlike some journalists, his intelligence roughly equals that of a child of 6. He never fails to misinterpret social situations, he mangles the pronunciation of simple names, and when, as often happens, he feels his expert authority to be challenged, his only response is a hapless, smug, completely unconvincing “I know.” He learns, repeatedly, that there’s neither use nor place for him in the world, yet he continues his investigations: his ineptitude is only surpassed, barely, by his persistence. To put it mildly, Reilly can act. He’s worked with Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorcese and been nominated for an Oscar and a Tony. Yet many people recognize him offscreen from his role as the sublimely ignorant doctor. For them, and me, there’s something about the character that’s necessary, resonant, and unforgettable—he’s the purest, sweetest public intellectual we’ve ever seen.

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