Three seconds into my first episode, I was already confused.
“The following advertisement,” a voice-over says, “is intended for Jim Boonie only.”
Who is Jim Boonie? Other than a photo of a nondescript individual, we’re given no additional information on who this guy is — or why Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the driving forces behind “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” are so determined to give him a free house.
“It’s free!” they shout, against graphics familiar to anyone who has watched low-budget commercials during basic cable programming. “Real estate! We’re giving you land! It’s free! We’re giving you a house! It’s real estate, free!”
As this faux-advertisement continues, some caveats are added: no rugs, no furniture, but hey, there’s a pool in the back. One of them notes that they’re not going to carry the keys to the house around all day, so Jim better come get his land. Soon Heidecker and Wareheim are screaming and cursing, haranguing poor Jim (whoever he is). Finally, things quiet down, the camera zooms in, and Heidecker whispers, as smug as you please, “It’s free real estate.”
If you’re familiar with that bit, it may be because it became the stuff of memes years after its original 2009 airing. Or it may be because, like me, you are a die-hard fan of “Awesome Show.” Across five seasons and two specials, aired on Adult Swim (home of their recent sitcom parody, “Beef House,” which debuted this spring), it was sketch comedy at its most abrasive, bizarre and, for some reason, endearing. Watching an episode is like watching a broadcast from a world even weirder than our own, and it’s a fix I’ve never grown tired of.
Here are three reasons this eminently uncomfortable show is my comfort viewing.
“Awesome Show” looked like nothing that had ever been seen on television before. (Not in the purposeful, ironic way Heidecker and Wareheim intended, anyway; the Tim and Eric aesthetic drew more from old public access TV and vintage corporate training videos than it did from, say, “Saturday Night Live.”) Heidecker and Wareheim’s fondness for eye-meltingly bright, clashing colors; their incorporation of digital glitches and VHS-style low-fidelity image warping; their use of deliberately crude graphics and computer animation — the show’s visual style was as much a part of the comedy as anything that happened in their sketches.
At times, the “Awesome Show” aesthetic blossomed into full-blown neo-psychedelia: Look no further than the Floydian conclusion of Tim and Eric’s journey to the edible landscape of Brownie Mountain. Sometimes their goals are less lofty, though: This perfect parody of karaoke videos is an example of how good Heidecker and Wareheim were at mimicking the style of visual artifacts that others simply overlooked.
Few TV comedies have placed this much emphasis on a distinctive visual signature; for apt comparisons, you have to reach back to Terry Gilliam’s animated sequences in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Heidecker and Wareheim had an eye for absurdity wherever it lurked and a gift for translating what they found into their own anarchic visual language; many of the shows produced by their company, Abso Lutely Productions, bear their stamp — as seen, for example, in the controlled chaos of “The Eric Andre Show.”
Many of the guest stars on “Awesome Show” weren’t stars at all, in the traditional sense. Heidecker and Wareheim developed a sort of repertory company of nonactors and marginal “pros,” a strange and sweet-natured crew that included the dubiously talented ventriloquist David Liebe Hart, the awkwardly made-up stand-up comedian James Quall and the sweater-clad Richard Dunn, an elderly man who seemed to flub every other word of dialogue. When Dunn died in 2010, I donated to his funeral fund — that’s how much of a grandfather figure he became to me.
But the professional actors who appeared on “Awesome Show” are a veritable who’s who of 21st-century comedy. Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd (“Computer, load up Celery Man, please”), Bob Odenkirk (an early booster of Heidecker and Wareheim’s work), Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford and Will Forte are just a handful of the big names who showed up for the “Awesome Show” treatment.
From the drama sphere, the “Twin Peaks” star Ray Wise was a notable guest, while frequent cameos by the Oscar nominee John C. Reilly proved so popular that his character, the bizarre and deeply stupid health expert (?) Dr. Steve Brule, earned an excellent spinoff series of his own. Just as with the nonactors, these cameos add a “What will these guys do next, and who will they do it to?” element of excitement to each viewing. “For your health!”
I can’t think of another television show as contemptuous of commercial culture as “Awesome Show.” Using the fictional Cinco brand of products as a touchstone, Heidecker and Wareheim mercilessly attacked the snake-oil salesmen, disposable junk and corporate double-talk of a culture that treats people first and foremost as consumers — a frequent target of sketch comedy, to be sure, but rarely one assaulted with this level of crass vitriol.
A recurring series of ads promoted products that, almost as an aside, required all of the consumer’s teeth to be pulled out. Another line of products, called “Cinco Brown,” was designed to either stimulate, contain, or impede the bowels. One ad urged viewers to save money on eggs by hatching their own.
The most vicious satire of all: an ad for Cinco Boy, a child mannequin marketed to bereaved parents. “Isn’t he pretty?” coos the guest star Peter Stomare with sinister callousness. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cinco’s founders are murderers.) In moments of loss, when I’m as mad at the world for exploiting my grief as I am at the source of the grief itself, the garish gallows humor of “Awesome Show” makes it one of the few works of art up to the task of helping me express and exorcise my feelings. It may not be free real estate, but it’s worth a lot to me.