Every week, Tim Heidecker, with Gregg Turkington (who also performs as Neil Hamburger), hosts a podcast called "On Cinema." Like every other movie podcast, it features two friends and movie nerds talking back and forth about a particular movie. The thing about "On Cinema," though, is that it's horrible, intentionally so. Heidecker and Turkington both mumble and meander; they fumble to remember names of actors; they spend half the show figuring out how their microphones work and often they haven't even seen the movies they're talking about. The joke, of course, is that this is what most podcasts are like—disorganized, amateurish, pointless and self-indulgent. Heidecker, like all satirists, just takes the phenomenon to its logical extreme. And, all told, it's a somewhat clever idea, if you're among the 0.0002 percent of Americans who listen to enough podcasts to appreciate a satire of them. On the other hand: Dude, you're satirizing podcasts. Is this really the most efficient use of your time? This is like satirizing anesthesiologists. If you're putting so much time and effort into a podcast to make fun of podcasts, who, exactly, is the joke on? Whoever's dumb enough to listen, I guess.
This, alas, is the comedy of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the longtime pals behind Adult Swim's Tom Goes to the Mayor and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job and, opening today in a few select theaters (and available on demand for a month or so now), Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie. It almost feels incorrect to even describe what they do as "humor," really. It's more about taking the skeleton of comedy and using it against itself. In the world of Tim and Eric, comedy exists just so they can kill it. This ends up being labeled as comedy even though it's purposely designed for you not to laugh. It's laughing at you.
It is really quite strange how much effort Tim and Eric—particularly Tim, who has always seemed, to these eyes, to be the mastermind of this particular schtick, with Eric as his game-for-anything cohort—put into nothingness. That is the point of this, after all: It is one thing to have a certain wry ironic distance, but it's quite another to make you feel stupid for thinking there might be any laughs here to mine. The "joke" of Tim and Eric is that you are a jerk for wanting to laugh. Sure, it would be soooo easy to make you laugh, you morons; Tim and Eric work doubly hard to show you just how high above that they are, and how low you are for thinking comedy is supposed to be fun.
Oh, do you like your Bridesmaids group-diarrhea jokes? (A film that, bizarrely, featured a wordless Heidecker as Maya Rudolph's fiancé.) Well, in Billion Dollar Movie, you get a scene in which six adolescent boys excrete on Wareheim for two full minutes. You laugh when Jason Segel stands naked, crying in Forgetting Sarah Marshall? In Billion Dollar Movie, you watch as Wareheim gets his penis pierced right there in front of you. Funny? Of course not. (God, I hope not.) Tim and Eric want to show you that the things you ordinarily laugh at ... well, you're stupid for laughing at them. I don't know why it's so important for them to make this so clear to us, but it unquestionably is.
This is not to say I don't sometimes appreciate what Tim and Eric are doing, how they're able to smartly deconstruct lazy comedy tropes and show them for the empty, airless clichés they are. (There's a nice bit in the film about Tim "adopting" a son for his own self-improvement that pays off amusingly.) But Tim and Eric want credit for working harder, for willingly going through so much trouble to point out the vacuousness of the comedy form. So fine. I salute you guys. This does not absolve Tim and Eric from the dirty business of actually being funny. Tim and Eric are beyond funny. They don't do funny. So I deign to ask, what is it that you boys actually do for a living?
This is another reason so many comics and actors tend to gravitate toward Tim and Eric, appearing both on the show and in the movie in small parts. (Will Ferrell and Jeff Goldblum have some good moments in Billion Dollar Movie; Zach Galifianakis and John C. Reilly decidedly do not.) It's a way to show they get it, that they're not like the comics Tim and Eric are satirizing, that they're In On The Joke. It also must be freeing for them to work with people who don't care what the audiences think of them, who actively reject positive feedback and reinforcement. This is the flip side of comedy, the part that hates the audience, the part that Tim and Eric embrace and that more popular, broad-based comedians would, too, were they not so saddled with the unsavory burden of actually making people laugh. There is a fearlessness to Tim and Eric that is appealing, at least in theoretical form; they follow every premise to its extreme conclusion and don't give a shit whether or not you follow along with them. They don't want you to, or at least won't respect you if you do. This is an admirable pose, I suppose, but boy, is it ever excruciating to watch. Comedy is to this the way that sex is to having your genitals smashed repeatedly with a rock.
It is the comedy of microphone feedback, of the finger over the camera lens, of the smart guy pretending he's stupid just to mock you. Maybe it's brilliant? Maybe it's moronic? Maybe they're all assholes? I'm not really sure anymore. I think I sort of respect it, all told. But good Lord don't make me ever sit through it again.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.