The press tour had been canceled. Everything is canceled. But as anyone familiar with the comedy of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim would appreciate, there was something almost too appropriate about having to view their faces as degraded images on a stuttering, grainy video stream amid a general feeling of discomfort.
That description could just as easily fit “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” the innovative and vaguely disturbing sketch comedy-cum-video art series that ran on Adult Swim from 2007 to 2010. It made cult heroes out of its two creators, better known as simply Tim and Eric, whose new series, “Beef House,” officially premieres on Adult Swim just after midnight Sunday (and after a surprise online debut of the pilot a week early).
On a mutually sequestered afternoon last week — with the new show in the offing and press interviews relegated to Skype — the description also characterized a three-way conversation, in which everyone was a little stir crazy but seemingly grateful for something fun to talk about.
“Should we do some comedy for you?” Heidecker asked. He was calling from his mother’s place in Southern California. Wareheim was calling from his own home in Los Angeles, where he’d been hanging with his cats.
“We could put on a show or something,” Heidecker added.
Even comedians get bored sometimes.
“Beef House” may or may not be the best antidote to these times, but that depends on your sense of humor. Like “Awesome Show,” which had an uncanny knack for lingering on awkward moments, for uncomfortable displays of masculinity, for poop jokes, the new series is funny, but also dark. And like most comedy that’s both smart and deeply absurd, it will probably find an audience that is as niche as it is devoted.
“I don’t think we’ve ever tried to intentionally alienate people, but this feels like the least alienating thing we could do,” Heidecker said. But as he was also quick to note: “It’s still dark and crazy and filled with things like Eric killing a busload of people.”
What is a Beef House exactly? Unclear. In the show’s world, it’s a term whose meaning is taken for granted, used to describe the house full of dudes at its center. (Infer your own connotations.) The series itself, which Heidecker and Wareheim wrote, directed and star in, is a bit easier to define, at least superficially: a bizarre spoof of family sitcoms, complete with laugh tracks, “awwws” and a multicamera format. The sets have three walls. The living-room couch is its center of gravity.
But that’s about where the similarities with classic family sitcoms end. Episodes of “Beef House” are about 11 minutes long. Jokes can be corny, but self-consciously so; almost always, they bear a vague but unmistakable stamp of something more grotesque. And in place of the traditional family are two middle-aged men named Tim and Eric; three elderly men of indeterminate relation to one another; a young boy, who shows up later in the series; and Eric’s wife, Megan, a sexually and intellectually frustrated police detective.
Why Megan abides in the Beef House — she makes the money, she makes the rules — is also unclear. Even the actress who plays her, Jamie-Lynn Sigler (best known as Meadow Soprano in “The Sopranos”), couldn’t quite say.
“She is an accomplished, sane, seemingly-of-strong-intellect-and-reason woman, so yeah, ‘Why is she living in a Beef House?’ is a good question,” she said, laughing. “I think there’s just a little bit of love there between her and Eric that she’s not willing to give up on.”
Two episodes in (the number previewed for journalists in advance), the reason behind such an odd cohabitation of characters hasn’t yet been revealed. Most likely, it never will be. As in most of Tim and Eric’s sketch humor, there are few whys and wherefores. You just have to roll with it.
The Beef House concept, whatever it means, started with a similarly inexplicable thought. “I think I suggested that this kid that we have in the show go to Beef Camp,” Heidecker said. “I remember saying to Eric — I know him so well — I was like, ‘I’m going to tell you something, and I guarantee you’re going to laugh and love it. I have a home run: Beef Camp.’”
“And then it just became Beef House,” he continued, “and then it was all we could talk about — one of those things in our careers when we’re like, ‘That’s what it is, and that’s all.’”
Wareheim did, indeed, love it. “One of the greatest things about this sitcom is that we don’t really explain why it’s called the Beef House, why we all live there, why my wife would put up with that kind of stuff,” he said.
“We just do things like that,” he said. “Our whole career, we’ve set up these situations that are very uncomfortable that people are forced to live in and experience.”
That approach has served them well in the more than two decades they’ve been collaborating. They got a break in the early aughts, when Bob Odenkirk agreed to executive produce their first series for Adult Swim, “Tom Goes to the Mayor.” Regular guests on “Awesome Show,” which played as half conceptual-art project, half public-access spoof, included Zach Galifianakis, John C. Reilly, Jeff Goldblum and Will Forte.
Ask people if they know about Tim and Eric, and you’re likely to be met with either a blank stare or a conspiratorial flash of recognition: This person gets it. On a recent comedy tour, audience comments during the Q. and A. were a reminder of their status as a litmus test among the comedy cognoscenti.
“People would be like, ‘I met my girlfriend or I met my boyfriend because of you guys,’” Heidecker said. “‘I had to make sure that they were OK with this kind of humor before I was going to continue the relationship.’”
Heidecker and Wareheim have been working with Adult Swim for over 15 years, and their “Beef House” pitch was fairly simple, said Walter J. Newman, head of program development: They wanted to do a sitcom, but make it twisted. Newman thought the idea could be pushed a little.
“The challenge that we presented to them was, ‘Hey, can you write this where it plays funny as a straightforward sitcom but still has the Tim and Eric sensibility in it?’” Newman said. The scripts would read as they might “on a sitcom on NBC,” he added, but would accrue that warped “extra layer” once Heidecker and Wareheim brought it to life.
The pair welcomed the push to go beyond a simple “goof on sitcoms,” Heidecker said. To make “Beef House” feel more like a real sitcom, they shot on cameras used for “Fuller House.” They hired the same person “Fuller House” used to mix their laugh tracks, too.
“There are things about sitcoms that we like in that you can tell a story, and you can have characters and build those characters and make them have relationships,” Heidecker said. “The things we don’t like are the jokes and the humor.”
Whatever their attempts to add authenticity, there seems little risk that “Beef House” will slide into the unfunny conventions of actual multicamera sitcoms. The episode premises alone should keep things weird. In Episode 1, the Beef Boys hold an Easter fashion show. In Episode 2, they collaborate to solve Tim’s constipation.
Then there’s that busload of dead people in a later episode. Funny? They probably found a way, same as they had managed to mine humor from an awkward video chat under pandemic lockdown. But “Fuller House” material it wasn’t.
“It looks and feels so much like what’s going on out there,” Wareheim said about the array of other sitcoms. “I feel like that was a challenge for us to see if we could get that close to the insanity that is a sitcom.”
“Yeah,” Heidecker added, “getting that close without getting totally burnt and burning up and destroying itself.”
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