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Adult Swim, Anti-Comedy, and Cringe Humor: What’s the Appeal?

IV. Tim & Eric Create a Comedy Empire

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Perhaps the biggest names to come out of Adult Swim programming are Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. The comedy duo began by making videos online, and, with the help of comedian Bob Odenkirk, adapted one of those shorts into a pilot for a show that would become Tom Goes to the Mayor. The show ran for two seasons and established a long-standing relationship between the duo and Adult Swim.

Tim and Eric’s breakout show, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, while not only being a cult success, is what best exemplifies the duo’s harnessing of both Anti-Comedy and Cringe Humor. The show is not strictly Anti-Comedy; there are hints of comedy convention to be parsed out of the show’s surrealist sketches. It is the show’s balance of Anti-Comedy, Cringe Humor, and conventional sketch comedy that gives Tim and Eric its unique brand of zaniness.

I’ll use an episode as an example; let’s break down Season 4: Episode 9 (entitled “Tennis”).

The main thread of the episode is established immediately, and it plays out in a standard three act structure: Tim bets Eric one million dollars that he can beat him in a single game of tennis. This scene is then returned to later in the show, twice. The first time, the match begins, and Tim fails to complete a serve, falling steeply behind. He finds himself one point away from losing, and we cut away. The second time, the match (and the sketch) concludes as one would expect it to: Tim, now the underdog, wages a fierce comeback but ultimately loses unceremoniously.

This A sketch follows a standard narrative and a standard comedy formula: indulging with the unexpected, heightening, re-centering audience expectations, heightening again, and taking a final left turn at the end.

Though, the A sketch is not devoid of subverted expectations either. We see a sub-standard use of cameos from comedy heavy hitters like the Lonely Island and Flight of the Concords, where the former are granted about one line per member, and the latter are given about four quick shots and zero dialogue. With this, it would be easy to miss that Flight of the Concords are in the episode at all. One would expect cameos in a comedy show to use those cameos to the fullest extent, but Tim and Eric allow them background status for the sake of a wink.

The B sketch, as I’ll call it, also follows a rather conventional heightening technique. It involves a series of commercials for liquefied tobacco that people can consume in non-smoking locations. Clearly, this premise is grounds for Cringe Humor at its cringiest. The sketch begins in an office, introduces the product, and indulges with some grotesque imagery of the product itself. The second sketch does the same thing, but in a movie theater. The third sketch depicts the promoter of the product calling his agent about negative side effects of drinking the “Cigarette Juice,” as well as repeating footage of the juice being dumped on the man’s head.

What the B sketch does is use Cringe Humor to satirize the branding of new nicotine products—such as E-Cigarettes—as a healthy option for smoking. It is also, frankly, disgusting. But that doesn’t mean it is devoid of humor; it is structured as a normal sketch, just with the addition of imagery that is cringe-worthy.

The remaining sketches in the episode are equally cringe-inducing. One is an interview-style sketch about a fake movie, in which the interviewee is a crudely animated blob. The awkwardness of the interview and the crudeness of the film’s animation contributes to the cringe humor. In another, Tim and Eric are seen sloppily eating chicken wings at a restaurant. This is cringe-inducing enough. Then they start singing about their desire for human contact, and awkwardness returns to the fore.

These sketches are part and parcel of what Tim and Eric do on the show. They mix gross imagery and awkward characters to create scenarios that border on the surreal but that are still grounded in the reality of self-aware industry parody.

The real question is: “Is this comedy effective?” Tim and Eric’s brand of humor certainly isn’t for everybody. In particular, it doesn’t seem to fit into the comedy brand found in competing late-night television. Talk shows generally stick within the pocket of conventional comedy. So while Tim and Eric may not appeal to the majority, it appeals to the audience that shies away from other late-night options. This is where the cult success of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! stemmed from, and it allowed for Tim and Eric (and some of their collaborators) to burst onto the entertainment scene.

In Part Five, Anti-Comedy on the big screen and the future of the form

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