[7 October 2009]
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.
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.
Frequently Quite Grotesque
In addition to instructional videos and music videos, Tim and Eric spend a lot of time skewering television’s worst tendency: to hawk useless and/or destructive products and services. The fictional Cinco Corporation, which seems to take control of the show through its product and service advertisements, provides much of the more traditional sources of humour. Serving a similar function as Saturday Night Live’s commercial parodies (though much cruder), Cinco advertisements feature limited-to-zero use products. In season three, many of these products do only one thing (and poorly at that), such as the Ed Begley, Jr.-approved Cinco-Fone, which features only one button, cannot take incoming calls, and requires cooling gel to avoid burning the skin.
Cinco products are frequently quite grotesque, such as Candy Tails, Urinal Shower, and D-Pants, which appear in other seasons. Yet even when they churn the stomach, these things are only a few degrees removed from actual products one would see advertised on television. In real life, companies like Cinco prey on the public’s desire for convenience, ease and effortlessness with preposterous, often dangerous products. Tim and Eric spoof the attempts to spin such products as innovative and easy to use.
“Resurrection”, the season’s first episode, wastes no time arriving at a major product send-up. The show begins with the resurrection of Tim, which is underwhelming for Eric, who “killed” him at the end of season two. It seems that Tim’s death and resurrection have given him the power to make tiger figurines appear just by thinking of them, and so he and Eric devise a scheme to produce Tiny Tigers at no cost in order to get rich.
Supernatural mode of production aside, their scheme and product are impossible to differentiate from the offerings of Specialty Merchandise Corporation (SMC), whose own inane infomercials dominated the late night American airwaves a couple years ago. As is the tradition with the show’s fake products, Tim and Eric shoot an annoyingly repetitive low-budget commercial (“We sell Tiny Tigers!”), but then they contrast it with another segment shot more like a professional short film. This section imagines the rise and fall of the Tiny Tiger store as a high-stakes drama, narrated in song.
The result of Tim’s failure to meet public demand for the tigers is his wasting away. One benefit of the success of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is that somewhat more expensive visual effects are available to the show’s creators, and when used here to graft Tim’s head on an emaciated body, the effect is startling. The storyline ends with an assisted suicide wherein Eric puts a clothespin on Tim’s nose in order to kill him, bringing the narrative of the episode full circle, before Hart announces to the viewers that Tim cannot truly die.
Another product that receives similar treatment is the Griddleman, which is sold on the show by real-life infomercial hostess Cathy Mitchell. John C. Reilly’s “Dr. Steve Brule” joins her to sell the Griddleman, and there are some initial moments when it is difficult to know whether Mitchell is in on the joke. As with the previously mentioned middle-aged and elderly male actors, this kind of tension is a cornerstone of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which doesn’t discriminate as it places individuals ranging from the famous to the unknown into absurd, hazily real scenarios. When Mitchell and Brule apply “horse grease” to the Griddleman in order to make a panini, that tension between informed participation and exploitation relaxes a little, because Mitchell must know it is a joke, mustn’t she? The audience can never be sure.
One criticism of season three is that the jokes too frequently culminate in violence, as if Tim and Eric couldn’t figure out any other way to end the sketches. “C.O.R.B.S”—an otherwise funny take on increasingly tired police procedurals—and “Larry”, which continues the tale of Solondzian romance between characters Carol and Mr. Henderson, end with gun murder and gun suicide, respectively. Even the otherwise flawless “Sexual Romance” video ends with another instance of Eric killing Tim. It is unfortunate that the show’s creators rely so much on violence, as its impact would be even stronger when used purposefully, as it is in episode “Jim and Derrick”. “Jim and Derrick” is the highlight of season three and of the series as a whole. Its synthesis of recurring themes like dysfunctional masculinity and deadly commercialization provides some of the most forceful and intelligent satire in recent years.
Although many of the sketches in the third season of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! use the visual and aural aesthetics of the media being lampooned, “Jim and Derrick” is the only episode that takes place entirely within a single, separate format. The hysterical “Muscles for Bones”, also in season three, uses a telethon structure to unite various characters and bits in a unified program, but “Jim and Derrick” entirely abandons the look of the regular series. Tim and Eric transform in to Jim and Derrick in order to attack the extreme sports-playing, energy drink-suckling, breast-ogling, slang-speaking media landscape that exists to dumb down young men and demean young women.
While the Cinco products material serves an interstitial purpose and links sketches, “Jim and Derrick” is an illustration of a form so infected by crass marketing that it’s impossible to separate the program from the commercials. In this sense “Jim and Derrick” is what Tim and Eric have been working towards all along—a declaration that TV is inherently limited to its purpose as a vessel for selling products. The episode so closely resembles the emptiness of modern programming that one could easily mistake it for an actual Spike TV original, an energy drink commercial, or some depressing commingling of the two.
Some of the verisimilitude comes from the use of genuine social actors who would likely appear in a real show of this sort. DJ Drez appears as “DJ Drezz” and scratches records throughout the episode. Elisha Cuthbert appears as “Elisha Cuthbert” in an interview segment. Other elements that are recognizable but not authentic are designed and executed with rigorous detail. One recurring motif is “Jim and Derrick” show sponsor Turbo Fuel Maximum Energy Soda, which carries a euphemism-challenged marketing mantra of “Suck, Swallow, Release”. The aggressive consumption of the drink is linked to the culture of consumption that supports such a product.
An excellent example of the real/unreal tension that Tim and Eric pull off so well, Turbo Fuel Maximum Energy Soda is believable because other actual products have been elevated to a similar status, even in fictional contexts. For example, Acceptable TV, which aired on VH1 in 2007, initially wrote Amp’d Mobile into sketches as jokes that the company later approved. The official sanction of mascot “Clarity the Amp’d Mobile Dog” and lines such as, “Why is purgatory brought to you by Amp’d Mobile?” added a sense of surrealism and perversion to the product tie-in that would not have been present in either a traditional product placement or a joke at an unconnected product’s expense. More recently, the Lonely Island used a similar pattern of development in the song “Dreamgirl”, which begins as a jam that extols the virtues of a certain kind of woman but descends into an endorsement of Chex Mix following a passing reference to the snack.
More apropos to “Jim and Derrick” and especially relevant since it occurred in the wake of the episode is the recent use of a real energy drink (Her Energy drink) as a ruse to get contestants to unwittingly appear on VH1’s Tool Academy 2. The “tools” of Tool Academy 2, lured by the possibility of becoming the official spokesman of a drink that’s for the ladies, are exactly the growing subspecies to whom Jim and Derrick belong and help to propagate.
There is no better, sadder, proof of Tim and Eric’s satirical point than the premiere episode of Tool Academy 2. At issue is not whether or not VH1 executives saw “Jim and Derrick”, but that the show they allowed to be created and aired is literally indistinguishable from such a ruthless parody. There is a great deal of disingenuousness in identifying these men as tools while relying on their toolishness to sustain advertising and ratings numbers. Tool Academy is deeply dishonest, as it wears the veneer of reform but depends on once and future tools in order to continue as a series.
Jim and Derrick exist in a dizzying rush of brands, slogans, hyperactive edits, unmotivated visual effects/format shifts and all sorts of trendy accoutrements. Sporting eyeliner, piercings, and tricky facial hair, they emptily read/deliver their lines with an emotionless disconnect from the cadences of genuine expression (“that was hella sick funny, you must’ve been wigging out, man” and “yeah, brah, I really missed you on the ramps, for real”).
Pathetically on-the-nose comedy sketches are additionally punctuated with text across the screen that reads “Comedy”, “LOL”, and “Sketch”. This force-feeding of information and the privileging of attention-deficit style over substance is also reflective of the lowest common denominator programming in Tim and Eric’s crosshairs. Jim and Derrick are obligated to mention the Turbo Fuel Maximum Energy Soda chug contest throughout the show and they do so as gracelessly as possible, encouraging viewers to text their vote for who will win. A visit to a skate park resurrects the worst visual strategies of MTV Sports, again using on screen text and graphics to express faux subversive messages like “Anarchy” and “Parents Suck” along with more obviously satirical invented language like “Crete Shred” and “Gnar-Bone”.
Critically, “Jim and Derrick” acknowledges how Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is perpetually at risk of being misunderstood and misused. In the Vista Fresh Mobile Viral Clip of the Week, a man (Bradley Needlehead) dressed to look like David Liebe Hart performs a puppet act and sings “I’m a weird man, I’m nuts, I’m crazy”. His self-consciousness is a symptom of corporately calculated “viral” content, the premeditated nature of which renders it inauthentic.
The wild frontier of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! sets up conditions where one sketch could fall entirely flat and another could catch on, but all sketches originate in the creators’ whims and inspirations rather than in studied, focus-grouped models based on what the masses find funny. Yet even a truly unique show like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is always on the verge of being appropriated by powerful media outlets, who would certainly dull its sharper edges if they thought their variation of the show could make money.
The panoply of product placements builds in intensity as the show continues and the Turbo Fuel chugging contest looms. Browning makes another appearance as a correspondent for a segment called Waz the Damage. She reports from Club Boost and delivers the episode’s funniest line—“I got a total Turbo Fuel buzz on”—as she invites Jim, Derrick, and their viewers to the club for Turbo Fuel drink specials. Her segment has its own sponsor, which is Tordo’s Xtreeme Flavor Dust, encouraging the viewer to “Lust the Dust”.
There are many other ingenious details in “Jim and Derrick”, and the cutting pace makes it necessary to watch the episode multiple times to take in all of the jokes and layers of satire. It concludes with the much-hyped chug contest, as a referee blows the whistle and a bikini-clad model begins to spray Turbo Fuel Maximum Energy Soda directly into Jim and Derrick’s mouths from kegs on either side of her. She sprays the drink at them, and fairly quickly the men have difficulty swallowing. The camera zooms in on the model’s chest and face lustfully as she smiles. This gaze is juxtaposed with images of Jim and Derrick as they suffer from what soon resembles an act of torture.
The show’s various superficial enhancements (record scratches, quick cuts, zooms) continue their assault on the viewer, unconcerned for the welfare of the hosts. After this climactic visual frenzy, the camera finally rests on a wide shot that frames the dead bodies of Jim and Derrick as the liquid continues to pour from the hoses. The model maintains her smile for the camera.
To kill off characters in such a disturbing fashion would not be acceptable on most network television sitcoms or in the safer outlets of sketch comedy. Mainstream comedy depends on the audience’s recognition of its own flaws and faults, but few audience members want to be subjected to onscreen avatars meeting their death by drowning in energy drink. The macabre suggestion that our culture of convenience is killing us could conceivably be appreciated at a distance, or misunderstood by those who miss Tim and Eric’s satirical point. After all, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is not, by and large, a show that carries a strong social message. The series is primarily an absurd comedy.
But season three, and particularly the episode “Jim and Derrick”, reveal a serious level of dissatisfaction and an indignation with the way we allow ourselves to be bought and sold by commercial concepts. Perhaps this is the way Tim and Eric choose to respond to fans’ expectations of them. Regardless of what inspired the confrontation, their level of passion for the material makes a convincing case for television as a carrier of substantive social commentary. That is the last thing one might expect from a late night sketch show on the Cartoon Network, but maybe the outer limit of the cable lineup is the only place such a message can survive in so pure a form.