During the golden age of public-access television in the 1980s, a gloriously low-rent corner of the media world flourished. In the absence of expectations of network executives and their advertisers, individuality reigned, and all manner of oddball delights were waiting to be discovered by curious teens: fanatical televangelist preachers, talent-show hacks, prank-prone call-in shows, and programs broadcasting the unedited perspectives of a multitude of marginalized people—minorities, LGBTQ folks, atheists, clowns.
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim were among the children of the 80s who were drawn to the bizarro world of public-access TV. They poured their affinity for the idiom—the outlandish hosts and unconventional guests, the often clumsy production methods, and the aesthetics of vintage video (tracking lines, animated graphics)—into Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! The sketch comedy series ran from 2007 to 2010, appropriately during Cartoon Network's night-owl block Adult Swim. Collaborator Doug Lussenhop, a Columbia College alum who's also worked on Portlandia and The Eric Andre Show, helped shape Awesome Show's surrealist antihumor with a distinctive eye-popping editing style full of stutters, skips, loops, repetition, and animation. A sketch could feature well-known comedians and actors such as Maria Bamford, Zach Galifianakis, Bob Odenkirk, and "Weird Al" Yankovic, or unknowns like David Liebe Hart, an amateur puppeteer and songwriter, and cut-rate celebrity impressionist James Quall. (John C. Reilly's clueless and painfully awkward Dr. Steve Brule was a breakout hit and became the basis for the Adult Swim spin-off Check It Out! that lasted six seasons.)
Like Heidecker and Wareheim, Chicago's Steve Gadlin shares an affinity for vintage public-access TV—but he happens to be a modern-day denizen of the public airwaves. As the host for two seasons of the variety show Steve Gadlin's Star Makers on CAN TV, he's given a platform to everyone from singer-songwriters and interpretive dancers to balloon artists and (literal) pickle lickers. The show—which has the winking tagline "Featuring tomorrow's stars of Hollywood and/or Broadway!"—is rife with Awesome Show-inspired elements: strained silence, gratuitous star wipes, off-key musical numbers, and chintzy stagecraft. Gadlin intends to fund a third season of Star Makers if his IndieGoGo campaign, "I'm the guy that sold 1,000 raccoon penis bones!," is a success. (Yes, he's actually selling raccoon penis bones.)
Gadlin previously hosted a show on CAN TV called Talkin' Funny, but he's perhaps better known as part of the local comedy scene, where he's been an irreverent presence for 13 years. For five years, he produced and cohosted Don't Spit the Water!, an interactive show at the Playground Theater in which audience members would fill their mouths with water and stand-ups and improvisers were given a minute to try to make them do a spit take. His weekly show Impress These Apes!—a competition for comedians judged by Gadlin and a panel of coconspirators wearing primate masks—gained a cult following in its eight seasons, most of them at ComedySportz. In 2010, Gadlin paid a Kenyan scammer $50 to write a play, which he mounted at the Annoyance Theatre under the title The Nairobi Project. Gadlin was featured on a 2012 episode of Shark Tank for his offbeat venture I Want to Draw a Cat for You; Mark Cuban invested $25,000, and to date Gadlin has drawn 19,843 kitties for $10 a pop.
Given Gadlin's full embrace of the absurd, there was no better Chicagoan to interview Heidecker and Wareheim. He spoke to each of the comedians separately over the phone in advance of the duo's three live shows at the Vic celebrating the tenth anniversary of Awesome Show. Their conversations have been edited together. —Steve Heisler
Steve Gadlin: On this tour, you're doing three dates in only two cities: New York and Chicago. Is there something special about performing here?
Tim Heidecker: This is gonna sound like pandering, but it's true: It is the best place to do comedy, and I don't really know why. The audience is smart but also engaged and excited and fun without being obnoxious.
Eric Wareheim: We always start with Pequod's pizza. We eat about two of those before we go on, and then we wanna seriously die because we can't move. So the first show is always a little slow, a little pizza induced.
I feel like [Chicago's food] is representative of Chicago people in terms of comedy. They're accepting of new, experimental cuisine, and it's the same as comedy. Everyone's open-minded and willing to freak the fuck out.
SG: We're the same age, 41, but growing up I never got into things like G.I. Joe or He-Man. I was a huge cable-access watcher. I'd find random Christian puppet shows and just fixate on them, and I think that's why a lot of what you guys do really resonates with me.
EW: I watched a lot of things like Cannonball Run, Airplane!—stupid comedies with my friends.
TH: I had a somewhat normal media diet because it was restrictive of what was available to me. I was a fan of G.I. Joe and He-Man and all that stuff. I consumed it dutifully. Growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, there was cable access. I recall watching televangelists with my dad and laughing at that. [The preacher] would talk in tongues. I loved it much more than sports, or karate movies.
- Tim Heidecker (left) and Eric Wareheim (right) accompany amateur puppeteer David Liebe Hart on an episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
SG: The Chicago comedy scene's different than the New York or LA comedy scenes in that we don't have pressure to create something marketable. It's this playground for people to try experimental stuff. Did you find that same atmosphere when you were coming up in Philadelphia?
EW: Yeah. But, I mean, we were on our own. We had no reference point, we had no fears, we were literally making stuff in our basement by ourselves. Now that I think about it, I'm very happy I didn't grow up in a comedy scene, because that would've tainted our experience.
SG: How so?
EW: Well, the way we came up was showing our stuff at film festivals versus showing stuff at comedy clubs, or we would open for indie-rock bands like the Shins.
TH: Is there a place for experimental comedy in Chicago?
SG: Chicago has plenty of great venues for experimental comedy outside its main institutions. We're lucky to have so many storefront theaters in all parts of the city eager to rent space to anyone with an idea.
EW: Do you feel like being in Chicago, there's a specific flavor to the performances you get from people on public access?
SG: I definitely feel it has a thick Chicago style to it, but the same way that The Gong Show had that Burbank style to it—it was still universally appreciated because of the sincerity. And it's just not the kind of thing you can shake.
EW: The world is filled with people trying to do really good things, and we want to showcase the underbelly. Like, what would it sound like if this guy was making a weird techno track in his basement? We've always been interested in that realness versus the glossiness of life.
SG: Were you big on prank calls? There's a pronounced realness to them.
TH: It was a thing to do after having drunk a 40 or two. We would call the local video store and mispronounce movie names—[instead of The Shining] we'd ask for Steve Cooby's Shiners. Just dumb shit.
EW: Yeah, big time. We'd play a game where Tim would look through the phone book and give me a number, and it would be a mystery of where it was. So I'd pick up the phone and it'd be like, "Aunt Myrtle's Bird Sanctuary, how can I help you?" We would do that for eight hours a night.
SG: The art of the phony phone call had to evolve as technology changed. I remember freshman year of college, when the Jerky Boys' CD came out, I was immediately influenced. I almost got kicked out of school because I happened to find this guy named Lincoln Butts in the phone book and couldn't hold back. He took the tape of my calls to the police and, uh, it ended badly.
TH: I'll probably make a prank phone call later today. It was fun when I discovered you could do the reverse prank phone call. You'd start getting all of these telemarketing calls, so if I stayed close to a recorder of some kind, I'd use it when I got somebody calling me about some supplement that I should be taking.
SG: A lot of what's great about Awesome Show is the sincerity that you get out of your actors. How do you direct people to honor that sincerity and make sure no one is approaching the work as mockery?
EW: What we do is tell them to act seriously, like they're in a drama. We recently made this new bit called Flatulent Pat. It's silly, but the only way to sell it in our style would be to have the actors take it very, very seriously.
TH: As Woody Allen says, it's 90 percent casting. It's finding the right person who has that earnestness about them. It's hard to explain. There's just certain people that we go, "You can't make that guy up." Whether his face is sort of funny or he's got a funny voice—there's a quality to them that makes them special, that makes them them.
- Amateur puppeteer David Liebe Hart was a regular on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
- Celebrity impressionist James Quall made frequent appearances on Awesome Show.
SG: For one of the shows I produce, I wanted my British friend to try doing stand-up on it, so I went to a website called Fivver on which you can pay people $5 to do anything, and I got a guy to write a routine and had my British friend read it—but he's reading it from the 'prompter for the first time. It was a great way to capture a very nervous, stilted, authentic performance without having to fake it.
TH: One of my favorite young comedians right now is this guy named Jay Weingarten, who does a lot of stuff with Fivver, and it just kills me. It's so funny the way he uses it. But yeah, we'll do stuff on Decker [the Adult Swim series Heidecker created with Gregg Turkington, aka Neil Hamburger] like rewrite a big chunk of dialogue and give the actor the [script for the day] ten minutes before to see in those eyes the thinking and the clock.
SG: There's a show I've produced here on cable access called Steve Gadlin's Star Makers that I had pitched to a bunch of places, and the response was, "This belongs on the Internet." But my gut was saying, "No, if I put this on the Internet, it's one of a million things." I need people to find this when they're flipping channels at two in the morning and have to question, "What the hell am I watching?"
TH: What drives that comedy?
SG: The need to cure loneliness. I want people who feel weird to find my stuff in unexpected places and have some reassurance that there are other weird people out there.
EW: We set off to make our friends laugh and us laugh, and that was really it. There was no goal, there was no endgame.
SG: How would the Internet have changed what you guys did if it had been as pervasive as it is today?
EW: We're now in the age where Awesome Show works so much better because it's such short clips, which is what everything is—Instagram and all that stuff. But kids have seen everything, so it's not as shocking. It was nice to grow up in that world of finding things that not everyone has seen. Like, people didn't even know what cable access was.
SG: Stumbling upon the VHS in your friend's dad's collection, or a marketing video or something—that influence comes through in Awesome Show.
EW: It's so special because it was a physical tape that you put in a VCR to play through a TV. That doesn't exist now. You're watching on your tiny phone while you're driving.
SG: I bought a Segway off Craigslist a few months ago, and it was one of the original models. And what blew my mind was it came with a VHS tutorial.
- Starmakers host Steve Gadlin interviews musical group Honor & Decency after a performance of their single “How About Both?”
SG: Who are your heroes?
EW: I'm really into wine right now. There are these guys that live in France by themselves on a nudist colony and make really natural wine. I know that's not interesting to write about, but—
SG: We'll just put down "Steve Martin." When you sent your stuff to Bob Odenkirk, another hero of yours, was there a context for the correspondence or was it like a cold call?
EW: That was a full cold call. Tim was working in New York at a horrible job and he had time to make DVDs. We also put in a head shot of us, and we charged him $100 in this unsolicited letter. Bob was like, "Who are these assholes that just charged me for this?" Mr. Show's the funniest thing we've ever seen. [When Bob got back to us] Tim called me and we were screaming and crying. We flew out to LA just to meet with him, and we had this horrible Arby's that gave me stomach cramps during the meeting.
SG: I remember hearing that story for the first time and thinking I needed to start sending you guys DVDs and force you to unsubscribe by sending me a letter back. Did you get your $100?
EW: No, man. Never paid. We have our lawyers on it. We'll get that hundred, though, I guarantee it. v
Correction: The story has been amended to reflect the proper styling of the title of Gadlin’s CAN TV show. It has also been amended to reflect the amount Gadlin paid the writer of The Nairobi Project.