The endearingly irresponsible male protagonist is an essential element of many television sitcoms. Usually accompanied by an exaggeratedly critical and/or enabling female counterpart, these men are too sardonic (Jerry Seinfeld’s “Jerry” in Seinfeld), lazy (Kevin James’ “Doug” in The King of Queens), or dumb (Robb Wells’ “Ricky” in Trailer Park Boys) for their own good. These shows are popular in part because they allow the audience to laugh comfortably at its own flaws and habitual mistakes.
By returning week after week, sometimes going through very well worn territory, these series suggest that such negative qualities are ultimately okay. In the serial world, there is always a do-over, and most behavioral violations are never so great that the audience tunes out.
Modern cable programming has allowed the stakes to increase and the psychologies to darken. Shows like Lucky Louie and Eastbound & Down push the inappropriate conduct of their central characters to more indecent levels. Nevertheless, even these shows are captive to the narrative expectations of situation comedy.
Sketch comedy has traditionally been more fragmented as a result of its form. One benefit of that is the ability to introduce irredeemable characters that would not sustain longer story arcs. Pronounced levels of abrasiveness and annoyance are acceptable in these characters, because the audience knows its own breaking point will correspond roughly to the narrative breaking point of the sketch. Thus, sketch comedies allow characters like Matt Lucas’s “Andrew ‘Andy’ Pipkin”, Ken Marino’s “Louie”, and Will Ferrell’s “Gene Frenkle” (to name only a few examples) to verbally and/or physically exhaust annoying gags in a way that would never be permitted in everyday behavior.
The more excessive examples of antisocial behavior in sketch comedy, such as that in Mr. Show or Stella Shorts, create a unique sense of unease because the audience cannot easily determine how far will be too far. Characters’ repellent attitudes do not sweeten over time and no one learns a lesson. There is frequently no discernable breaking point and little to no recognition of the audience’s comfort zone. The provocations of these shows aren’t totally nihilistic, but the deep, take-no-prisoners satire that runs through them has the potential to alienate an ordinary audience. Even some members of that audience who do “get it” might understand the mechanics of the satire but still resist the savage mocking of their lives and culture.
Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which arrived in early 2007 with the approval of Mr. Show with Bob and David‘s Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, is remarkable for its colossal rejection of the mechanisms of our media and social landscapes. Little about the show supports popular entertainment’s dominant conceptions of beauty, youthful energy, and practical commerce. The Cartoon Network would seem like an odd home for such a series, but its Adult Swim block of programming is a repository of the strange and unclassifiable.
Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!: Season 3
(Cartoon Network; US DVD: 4 Aug 2009)
Promoted as a “sketch variety show”, each episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is a hyper, 11-minute array of low-tech green screen psychedelia, awkward interpersonal interactions, and the elevation/celebration of warts and all amateurism. Season three, recently released on DVD, is in many ways more dark and hostile than the other seasons. Through absurd humor, these episodes relentlessly disparage the wholesale futility of masculine posturing, useless products and sleek modern entertainment.
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the show’s stars, continue the Bob & David tradition, often in their recognition of supporting players’ crucial function. However, while Bob and David worked with young comic talents like Paul F. Tompkins, Jill Talley and Jay Johnston, Tim and Eric cast a disproportionate number of relatively unknown middle-aged and elderly men in their sketches. Appearances by alien-obsessed puppeteer David Liebe Hart, best-worst comedian James Quall, and confused talk show host Richard Dunn lead to manifold effects.
First, the mere inclusion of these men assumes a certain level of extended vitality that most youth-obsessed cable programming ignores. Second, the seeming lack of intervention into these artists’ expressions honors their vision, for better or worse. There are ethical questions that arise when someone’s “badness” is being exploited for humour, and the laughing at/laughing with dividing line is intensely indeterminate throughout the show.
However, the moral quandaries are largely resolved by a third major impact of casting these men: the degree to which their performances subvert normal evaluative standards. To the show’s fans, Hart, Quall, Dunn and others have become bona fide stars. What was initially a fascination about performers defined by the unaware and/or amateur nature of their work is now an appreciation of each man’s distinctive talent on its own merits. This resetting of expectations is crucial to the rebellious, occasionally anarchic mission Tim and Eric tap into throughout the series.
Creating a cool brand out of the least likely, least “hip” cast is only one part of Tim and Eric’s strategy. Also of chief concern is the way in which seemingly sophisticated media entities control and diminish an audience. It is easy to miss the satirical point, because much of the humor Tim and Eric use is unmistakably juvenile.
But counterbalancing that content is a more complex level of humor that exposes the juvenile impulses that drive a lot of so-called adult behavior. In episode five, the charades and machinations of business come to the fore in a sketch about business hugs, in which Ray Wise instructs the viewer on how to properly express various emotions through hugs at work. Of course, within the alternate universe of this show, these embraces between middle-aged men are exceedingly awkward, complicated, and intimate. Wise pitches his techniques, such as “The Sensitive Cyclone” and “Sea Breeze” in a smarmy but convincing manner that would not be out of place in an actual instructional video.
The show is also very cynical about the way sex and romance are portrayed in popular entertainment. In episode two, “Chan”, Eric plays a wealthy character with a gorgeous wife (Holly Browning), a luxurious home, and a sports car. When he leaves for work, Tim’s character appears from behind greenery wearing only underwear and proceeds to have an acrobatic sexual affair with Eric’s wife. The sketch has the look and storyline of a legitimate pop culture work like the video for “Contagious” by the Isley Brothers featuring R. Kelly.
However, each shot of Tim and the adulteress is comically unrealistic, their bodies arranged in positions that create a lot of playful physical possibilities, but certainly not any illicit sexual activity. Another comic element that completely deflates what would be intended to appear “sexy” in a straightforward take on such material is a song by recording artist Sire. The song, “Sexual Romance” is ridiculously literal as it provides commentary on the action, beginning with, “It’s just adultery” and concluding with “It’s a sexual crime”. Sire dances earnestly across the screen, absolutely committed to the soulful song even as it interacts with the images to create a ludicrous combination.