Tim Heidecker And Taking Weird Comedy To The People
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Tim Heidecker creates weird stuff. Like the kind of stuff that might even puzzle Andy Kaufman.
To the public at large, he’s probably best known for Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!, a surreal spasm of lo-fi sketches full of fleshy body parts and surprisingly smart stupidity. (Burps.) Is it also the show that introduced Dr. Steve Brule to the world? Abso-lutely.
But Tim Heidecker’s greatest role may be Tim Heidecker, the right-wing, entrepreneurial a-hole who hosts On Cinema at the Cinema, which until recently was produced under the Adult Swim circus tent. For the past ten years, Heidecker, along with comedy partner-in-crime Gregg Turkington, has created an amazingly complex comedy universe in which fictional versions of our heroes wreak havoc, resulting in emotional anguish, serious injury, and semi-occasionally, death.
But for how long? The evolving economics of cable television comedy have found Heidecker and friends with increasingly small budgets to produce their surreal gems. With scarce resources, many creators would simply close the theater curtains on niche projects like On Cinema.
But true to his comic character, Heidecker has decided to get weird.
Heidecker: Into the Decker-Verse
But before we chart Heidecker’s new direction, let’s do a quick flyover of the On Cinema landscape, a complex network of comedy rabbit holes that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe look intuitive.
On Cinema at the Cinema - The little podcast that started it all. On Cinema began as a vehicle for Heidecker and his weekly special guest, movie expert Gregg Turkington (the genius behind anticomedy hero Neil Hamburger). Together, they spew dopey commentary about new movies premiering that week. The podcast quickly became a web series, first on Adult Swim’s short-lived Thing X and then for the past several years, on Adult Swim’s digital channels.
To Turkington’s dismay, the 10-minute episodes never spend much time discussing the movies, most of which reflexively receive the top Five Bags of Popcorn rating. Instead, Heidecker uses On Cinema to promote shaky schemes, from a nutritional vape system to upscale theater/eatery Six Bags Cinema to protein shakes that provide “germ shields.”
In between movie reviews, Heidecker and Turkington somehow manage to endure building fires, abortions, the birth and death of Heidecker’s son Tom Cruise Jr., brain hemorrhages, white supremacists, on-camera assaults, skin transplants, five Heidecker marriages, and the tragic deaths of 20 young people who attend Heidecker’s music festival. You know, the usual stuff that happens on a movie review show.
The Trial of Tim Heidecker - When 20 people suck on tainted vapes and die at Heideckers’ Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, Tim is brought to trial on several counts of murder and manslaughter. The stand-alone web series plays out in real-time as Heidecker, acting as his own attorney, tries to beat the charges. It’s nearly five hours of surprisingly riveting courtroom action, funny as hell with real stakes. There hasn’t been a trial or sweaters this entertaining since the Menendez brothers.
Mister America - A full-length movie, released in theaters! Fresh off his murder trial, Heidecker tries to exact revenge by running for San Bernadino district attorney against the man who prosecuted him for murder.
Decker - Tim and Gregg show Hollywood what’s what by creating Decker, a right-wing superspy hell-bent on destroying open borders, the Taliban, and Obamacare. The stars’ fictional counterparts, Decker and Agent Kington, Master of Codes, take on America’s greatest villains like Islamic terrorists and Dracula. The Decker movies feature all-star casts made up of family members of celebrities, including Martin Sheen’s brother Joe Estevez and Kristy McNichol’s brother Jimmy.
Dekkar - After bonding with fellow musician Axiom at a local Guitar Center, Heidecker forms the rock group Dekkar, a side project that increasingly takes away air time from On Cinema’s movie reviews. The group eventually morphs into electronic music act DKR -- but that was before Axiom cuckolded Tim by sleeping with his wife Toni.
Oscar specials - Finally, there are the annual Oscar specials, multi-hour celebrations of Tinsel Town that usually end with a drunken Heidecker wreaking violence on anyone within swinging distance. Who doesn’t enjoy a good Hollywood-themed slap-fest?
So yeah -- the Decker-verse is massive, including Twitter accounts where Tim and Gregg’s petty squabbles can continue at any time of day.
Superfan Justin Gaynor created a comprehensive website to keep track of it all, an online corkboard with virtual string connecting the various subplots. It’s difficult to think of a comedy project in any era with so many nooks and crannies to explore, giving the entire On Cinema enterprise a reality that grounds all the swirling, surreal goofiness.
Changing the channel
But expanding the Decker-verse has been challenging.
“As our ambitions grew for (On Cinema), the budgets did not,” Heidecker told Vulture, “and it became harder to do the show we wanted to do.”
To fund the ambitious Oscar specials, the crew launched Patreon campaigns to supplement Adult Swim budgets that Heidecker compares to what Saturday Night Live might spend on catering.
“That worked okay,” says Heidecker, “but it was a confusing thing for the audience because they’re like, ‘I thought this was an Adult Swim thing — why am I paying for it?’”
The budgets continued to shrink. Online promotion dwindled. And then the cable comedy cosmos imploded.
Despite streaming and digital comedy thriving during COVID, a series of layoffs at evil corporate overlord AT&T forced Adult Swim to shutter its digital and livestream wings. Suddenly, On Cinema didn’t have a home.
Adult Swim isn’t the only outlet cutting back on comedy. Comedy Central has slashed its original content in the past year, canceling stalwart hits like Tosh.0, Drunk History, and The Other Two (which shuffled its digital feet over to HBO Max).
For most of these shows, that meant the end of the road. But Heidecker and Turkington had an ace up their many sleeves. While the pair had licensed On Cinema at the Cinema to Adult Swim for airing, they retained ownership of the content. And since the show and its offshoots have always had an overwhelmingly online audience, they decided to launch their own network.
Specifically, the Hei Network.
The fake enterprise, “the all access one of a kind, top leader in streaming technology, news, entertainment and beyond,” is just one more extension of the Decker-verse -- an online portal for Tim’s right-wing rants, money-making schemes, and the occasional review of The French Dispatch. His latest get-rich scheme is Hei Points, a cryptocurrency that, according to the website, has “already begun to take the financial community by story have attracted much interest for all sides of the financial coin (sic).”
But the Hei Network is more than just the latest Decker-verse comedy vehicle. It’s a subscription-based site that will allow comedy fans to directly fund the next generation of On Cinema content.
Heidecker and Turkington (with website help from fan Gaynor) believe they’ve built enough of a fan base to keep the ride going. Fans “feel ownership and are protective of making sure that it continues,” says Heidecker. “You can build a Netflix if you have an audience that wants to watch your sh**.”
The direct-to-fans model has worked in comedy before.
Before Louis C.K.’s transgressions soured a good portion of his audience, he had tremendous success going straight to followers with comedy content. In 2012, he filmed his own special, posted it on his website, and charged subscribers on his email list $5 a pop to watch it. In 12 days, he had taken in more than a million bucks. A second concert in 2015, again marketed only by email to fans, brought in the cash even faster. No Netflix or HBO Max in the middle -- just money flowing directly from audience to comedian.
In the 2020s, it’s a model more content creators are trying. With online mainstays scaling back their budgets, writers from sites like Rolling Stone, The New Republic, New York Magazine, BuzzFeed and Vox are starting Substack newsletters that cut out the middle man. “All I have to do,” says tech journalist Casey Newton, “is find a few thousand people who will pay me $10 a month or $100 a year and I'll have one of the best jobs in journalism."
Heidecker is after the same thing. “What we’re talking about is not a charity,” he says. “It’s not a Kickstarter thing. It’s access to our content and our world, just like The New York Times or anything else.”
With cable dollars drying up and streaming focusing on stand-up, creators of out-there comedy may not have a choice. After all, what’s left? ”I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson is the only thing I can think of,” says Heidecker. He thinks that show is pretty great for its general weirdness, but it stands alone in 2021. He’s betting fans of bizarre comedy are willing to pay for more.
It may not be an easy sell. Heidecker notes that services like Netflix cost $10 - $15 a month, but offer hundreds of shows for the price. While a subscription to the Hei Network is only $5 a month (or $55 a year), it can’t compete on a price-per-show basis. That’s why Heidecker compares Netflix to McDonald’s and his own content to “a really nice artisan cheeseburger.” And you don't have to eat it next to some foodie waxing on about whatever confit is.
Paying fans will get more Heidecker and Turkington than ever before -- article rants, e-books, podcasts, music videos. Now, says Heidecker, “we’ll have the resources to do it.”
“I didn’t come up with this idea,” he says. “People are doing it, and it sounds like a great way to support things that you love, and we hope it satisfies everyone.”
With a guy selling germ shield milk shakes at the 'helm', how can it fail?
Top Image: Adult Swim