Post-modern sketch comedy is, by nature, repellent. This is by no means a new phenomenon: Monty Python had cops projectile-vomiting into their caps over crunchy frog when most of today’s comedians were in diapers (if that). Still, there was always the feeling that Python posed a challenge that was decidedly comedic: if you can laugh at this, you can laugh at just about anything. Social iconoclasm and biological gross-outs aside, they did always seem to have our best interests (our funny bone, as it were) in mind.
And now for something completely different.
I was a rabid fan of the David Cross/Bob Odenkirk collaboration Mr. Show — a stream-of-consciousness sketch program with a penchant for pithy, uber-cultural satire — so when I discovered that Odenkirk was taking a new duo under his wing for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming, I was intrigued. The two resulting shows, helmed by the belligerently puerile Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (or simply Tim and Eric) have been among the most maddening, most puzzling, most intellectually discouraging, and most fascinating comedy shows I’ve even seen. Their first project, Tom Goes to the Mayor, was marred by a desire to organize the duo’s lust for chaos in orderly narratives, but the follow-up, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job — an 11 minute send-up of public access programs and behind-the-scenes exploits of modern day career comedians — might be the most creative thing on television right now.
Less inspired by the MO of patron saint Odenkirk and more from the surrealist leanings of Adult Swim fodder such as Sealab 2021, Awesome Show‘s structure and motifs have few antecedents. Guest stars have included Odenkirk as the occasional shoddy ad man, John C Reilly as a clueless doctor with unintelligible health tips, the haplessly amateur elderly friends of Tim and Eric who deliver lines without any hint of drama, or the incurably Scientologist David Liebe Hart — a ventriloquist with less skill than Albert Brooks’ faux-attempt at the parlor trick, if that’s possible, who sings about the pure love he possesses for femanoid aliens and/or why you should stay in school. Endlessly spoofing the video technology of the 80s and 90s, the show features age-old super-imposed title techniques and (gasp) scenes shot on VHS with faulty tracking. Music is often stolen from Garageband loops or hammered out on antiquarian keyboards with buzzy, dated patches. Fairly ordinary skits about nonsensical products such as the B’owl (a stuffed animal hybrid of a bird and an owl) are likely to end with inexplicably slow zoom ins and creepy, casio synth composed music — no hard cuts, fades, or dissolves for this crew. Even attempts at reoccurring characters, such as the hilariously shrimp, white wine, and lady-obsessed Beaver Boys, fall prey to oddly placed tape looping and jittery editing; rather than emphasizing performance, these guys know that real comedy magic happens in post-production, and they’re perhaps the first (American) comedy duo to embrace this with a deconstructionist smirk.
A perfect example of why I both love and can’t stand these guys is included in the video below. Ostensibly a spoof on juvenile, filial cliche, it features the duo repetitively screaming “Oh Mama” and destroying a basement while a loving mother looks on with a “boys will be boys” gleam in her eye. But it doesn’t halt there. The skit starts to implode: Tim and Eric punch in footage of themselves doing something else (playing table tennis and laughing, it seems? does it matter?), juxtaposed to appear as though they’re peering down at their infantile counterparts (the Kuleshov effect at work in reverse quite beautifully to confuse, rather than facilitate, psychological recognition). This has so many layers of potential commentary it’s a challenge to navigate — Hiroshima, Mon Amour eat your ash-speckled heart out. The skit ends with a characteristically bizarre capper courtesy not of some performance flourish, but of Photoshop. This is post-DIY, head-up-your-macbook-ass funny stuff, and as instantly unlikable as it is I have to admit I admire it, and guffaw uncontrollably whenever I see it.
If Python challenged us to laugh at the most disgusting, these guys challenge us not to laugh at the most perplexing. I lose every time.