On and On and On:
On On Cinema at the Cinema
By Max Carpenter
On Cinema at the Cinema at the Cinema, organized by Max Carpenter, will be shown at Museum of the Moving Image November 12–21.
Fall, 2012. Marc Maron sits down with comedian Tim Heidecker to record one of his famous deep-dive podcasts. From the get-go both men candidly address a vague awkwardness between them. A history of a few years of interpersonal misunderstandings and indirect barbs is touched on, though overriding this is a mutual respect they clearly hold for one another as shepherds of the American alternative comedy scene. As Maron begins to describe his own journey as a puzzled but awestruck viewer of Heidecker’s madcap Awesome Show, a different, subtler awkwardness fills the air: that of a generational impasse of worldviews. Maron groks generally what Heidecker’s comedic ethos is all about—a punkish, ironic, class-clown sendup of everything in sight, whether good or bad—but at the same time seems naturally wary of the intent of someone whose whole deal is, essentially, acting weird and above it all.
The year was a crossroads for Heidecker. As he tells Maron, he’s brimming with projects: writing half-silly rock music, touring his faux-amateur stand-up set, branching into serious acting with The Comedy, and overseeing, with his longtime creative partner Eric Wareheim, a flourishing comedy production company. An exciting buzz of activity, but it’s not quite what any rabid fan of Heidecker’s underground television programs would have predicted even a year prior. Tim and Eric’s star had been steadily on the rise; an in-the-works Will Ferrell–produced feature film, Billion Dollar Movie, had teased the prospect of a greater popular appeal and, perhaps, further cinematic endeavors. Alas, it was not to be. Released in early 2012, Billion Dollar Movie was widely critically panned, its humor proving to be very much not for everyone. In the film’s wake, Tim and Eric turned their focus back to short-form work, and even this more sporadically than before.
When Maron frankly asks Heidecker about this barrage of critical flak, Heidecker responds raw and a little defensively, not least of all because Maron thinly veils his own distaste for the film. “I’m happy with it,” Heidecker says of Billion Dollar Movie. “It makes me laugh. It’s not a perfect movie, but with what we had, what we were trying to do, you know.” Clearly Maron hits a fresh nerve with this line of questioning, and with hindsight I give him a few points for prescience. That is, he was bumping up against a brewing energy in Heidecker. The generalized societal anger that had fueled Tom Goes to the Mayor and Awesome Show had given way to a pointed irritation at being personally maligned.
Also in 2012, Heidecker and comedian Gregg Turkington had begun the process of transitioning their own parody movie review podcast On Cinema into a seasonal video series, On Cinema at the Cinema. Heidecker was no stranger to internet-based endeavors and offshoots, though these were usually funded with shoestring budgets by short-lived Turner Broadcasting ventures like Super Deluxe or (in On Cinema’s case) Thing X, and as such there was little reason to assume that On Cinema at the Cinema and its niche riffing on Siskel & Ebert–inspired vlogs would live on beyond a handful of videos; at the time it seemed a curious deadpan experiment with no discernible raison d’être. Still, from the beginning On Cinema at the Cinema possessed a rare focus and fierceness that begged to be allowed more and more episodes, more and more space to fester a while. It’s no small miracle that for eleven straight seasons Turner (via ThingX and adultswim.com) granted it this space.
Heaped like potato sacks in a row of red velvet theater seats, Heidecker and Turkington’s ungainly characters (who go by their real-life names—for clarity I’ll call them Tim and Gregg) fumble listlessly through the show’s first season with a sterility that smells of life ruts and bulldozed passions, awarding uninspired rave reviews to every slab of big-budget studio schlock that comes their way. Throughout, Tim only partially masks his interior ruin, which breaks through in a pathetic, wordless crying fit in the fifth episode and also serves to color his casual bullyish put-downs of Gregg’s geeky movie buff, who is never given the title of “co-host,” always a “guest.” Heidecker patiently sketches an unsettling anti-self-portrait of a small narcissist meekly punching downward to quench an unquenchable inner fire. The hindsight of a massive five-hour manslaughter trial that lies five years (and more than ten hours) aheadimbues this early sad-man profile with far more heft than it originally carried. In 2012 it sufficed that the show was simply a very silly playpen for two avant-gardists, but I, for one, will never again underestimate the consequences of mixing great visionaries and quiet anarchy.
Prior to On Cinema, Gregg Turkington had similarly spent years as an underground hit in the sardonic alternative comedy world. His incompetent, virulent, greasy, phlegm-coughing stand-up alias Neil Hamburger has the feel of an update on Tony Clifton (Andy Kaufman’s alter ego), made even brasher for the new millennium. Turkington developed the character, born on a prank call, through a handful of purposely terrible stand-up records made while he was deeply enmeshed in the San Francisco avant-rock scene. By the time Neil Hamburger appeared as an ill-tempered taxi driver on Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show in 2007 the insult comic had played small clubs all over the world and toured as an opener for the likes of Mr. Bungle and Tenacious D. The Bush II era served as an ideal backdrop for Turkington’s over-the-top deadpan shenanigans, just as it had for those of Tim and Eric, and in 2008 the duo worked with Turkington on a pilot for an unsettling Neil Hamburger–hosted game show for Adult Swim. Adult Swim dropped the ball on the show in 2009, and the pilot was never aired.
Show cancellations and bad reviews are the name of the entertainment game, especially in niche comedy circles, and by highlighting specific disappointing episodes in Turkington’s and Heidecker’s careers I don’t exactly mean to imply a Rosebud correlation to the genesis of On Cinema. What I see in common in both comedians’ career arcs is a rise in popularity in the post-9/11 world followed by a need to adapt as this world segued to Occupy Wall Street and the gig economy, or, more bluntly, as neoliberalism’s shit hit the fan. It is fascinating that neither comedian responded to this paradigm shift by dialing back the irony. Conversely they both doubled down to the point where the irony behind On Cinema is ubiquitous, almost invisibly so. It can feel a fool’s errand to try to locate reality’s threshold, especially in the first few seasons.
The structure of each On Cinema at the Cinema episode has remained largely the same through the show’s nine-year run: two movies with wide theatrical releases are rated by Tim and Gregg on a sliding scale of how many “bags of popcorn” they deserve (the answer is almost always indiscriminately five, the highest possible rating). An unflattering head-on two shot frames the men sitting two seats apart in a variety of ill-fitting button downs and various other fashion mishaps, intercut from time to time by angled medium close-ups. Some episodes start right into the reviews, which consist of Tim dyslexically tripping over himself reading cast names and plot summaries from flashcards, followed by a brief discussion of the movies’ dubious merits. Others devote a few extra minutes to Tim fancifully holding court on anything from alternative medicine to the benefits of eating bison in Jackson Hole to why corporate taxes are a societal ill, all while Gregg grimaces off to the side, muttering disdainfully about how the show should focus solely on “movie expertise.” However, when it does come time for this expertise to shine in Gregg’s own occasional sidebars, like Popcorn Classics (show-and-tell with VHS tapes from his collection) and On Cinema On Location (dizzyingly amateur videos of random Hollywood exteriors), it never amounts to anything a true-blue cinephile could shake a stick at. When the dust settles, neither Tim nor Gregg ever adds up to a reliably sympathetic persona.
A mysterious fascination keeps one watching as On Cinema chugs along, playing out like a never-ending purgatory of what in most universes would have been a short curiosity sketch. The series should by no means have the staying power it does, and yet it retains an immutable catharsis. For those of us mired deep in film culture, this catharsis is rooted in a searing burlesque of the rah-rah media apparatus in which we find ourselves trapped, but the show’s appetite for cultural commentary is grander in scale. If Tim’s shameless grifting and petty egotism grow to resemble those of Donald Trump more and more, especially as the 2016 election comes into focus, then Gregg is nothing if not a Hillary Clinton–esque foil with his frequent insistence on expertise and redirecting the conversation back to an IP-worshipping status quo. This allegory reached its peak in the show’s 287-minute Trial of Tim Heidecker in 2017, toward the end of which Tim calls real-life Star Trek film director Nicholas Meyer to the witness stand to settle an ongoing score with Gregg: which Star Trek film is set in San Francisco, II or IV? Meyer admits that it would make more sense to say Star Trek IV, which is a small if imprecise victory for Tim over Gregg, but in the context of Tim being on trial for the negligent manslaughter of nineteen young adults it plays like an unmistakably Trumpian flourish: a callous and feckless attempt at shifting the goalposts at the eleventh hour. That Tim improbably “wins” the case by mistrial (due to one rogue jury member) is just icing on the cake.
When I asked Turkington in 2019 about any inspirations for his performance as a movie buff extraordinaire, he dodged the question somewhat to say that he mostly just tries to act very predictable as a complement to Tim’s volatility. I was getting at the fact that Gregg starkly resembles many of the movie-addicted basement-dwelling types—like those featured in the documentary Cinemania—that theatergoing New York cinephiles know all too well, but whether it was humility or honesty that compelled Turkington to redirect his answer away from himself, his message was clear: this is Heidecker’s show. Gregg may be one of the greatest absurd comedic personas in living memory, but he will always exist foremost in counterpoint to Tim, who unquestionably sits in the same pantheon.
The character of Tim seems such a beautifully effortless and purgative outlet for Heidecker, though this off-the-cuff exterior belies the countless hours of research feeding the character, especially insofar as Heidecker has become a ravenous student of all the unhinged Mike Cernoviches and Alex Joneses of the online alt-right world. On Cinema at the Cinema’s current twelfth season takes place in a newly constructed set modeled after an online movie premiere on Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire show this past January, an event to which many On Cinema fans immediately alerted Heidecker and the rest of the On Cinema Twitter community due to its already striking resemblance to their show. (Season 12 is also notable as the show’s first independently funded one via the HEI Network, a subscribers-only web platform whose name evolved from a Season 11 plot point: a fictional On Cinema holding company, HEI, Inc., that reeks to high heaven of untold fraud.)
Heidecker exists on something of a continuum with various other comedy men embracing their inner abject: Andy Kaufman in his “wrestling women” stage, Alan Partridge after The Day Today, Conner O’Malley in everything he does. What darkness of spirit compels these comic virtuosos down a path toward self-annihilation, an embodiment of nightmare versions of their personhood with eerie familiarity, even pleasure? At the end of a Season 5 episode, Tim yells at Gregg with larynx-wrecking ferocity, “I WILL GO TO BED SLEEPING EVERY NIGHT KNOWING I DID THE RIGHT THING FOR THIS SHOW!” His character melts away, as does the meaning of the improvised words he’s yelling; this is primal scream territory—pure id—Jung’s shadow—etc. Tim’s frequent diatribes and outbursts betray repressed fascistic urges, and Heidecker plays his part like someone who’s put in his 10,000 hours. There’s a buried, hardened rage in Heidecker and the aforesaid absurdists and, if their underground popularity is any indicator, this barely ironic furor resonates with the hearts of millions of viewers of all generations and genders. Mixing provocative comedy and dangerous politics is inherently thorny business, but in rare strokes of brilliance this blend is a salve like little else, at least for those of us who crave one. How can I describe the unparalleled glee of watching, for instance, Chris Morris’s Brass Eye “Paedogeddon!” special or PFFR’s Wonder Showzen without revealing myself to be a bit of a sick fuck? On Cinema is cut from the same deranged cloth. If you don’t watch yourself it may set you off pontificating on the paradoxical nature of art and its ethical limits.
It’s easy and fun to lose oneself in the labyrinthine offshoots of On Cinema at the Cinema, which now include everything from the multi-season amateur Jack Reacher knockoff Decker; to eight live Oscar specials (two-plus-hours-long streams that accompany [though, in practice: distract from] each year’s Academy Awards); to Rock House, a new behind-the-scenes mockumentary series about the lives of Tim’s two bandmates in his Decker-born rock band Dekkar. Often the choicest bits of creative bravura erupt in the furthest reaches of this media racket, as is manifest in the entirety of The Trial of Tim Heidecker or in the finale of the show’s 2020 Oscar special. The bread and butter of the On Cinema universe, however, will always be On Cinema at the Cinema. Heidecker and Turkington could easily have ditched the inane structure of reviewing movies after a handful of episodes and still furthered their partnership. But it’s far funnier that they’ve stuck with the bit, and that’s true even after bracketing off that their onslaught of five-bag reviews perfectly echoes the unceasing depravity of the Hollywood slop trough, or, by extension, the mind-deadening inconsequential labor of most day jobs.
I once heard of a conversation between Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart in which both agreed that at any given moment in a guitar solo there’s a perfect note to be played and a daemonic mindset to tap into that will guide a player toward this note. Tim Heidecker, though he tells Maron he’sno fan of Zappa, is an actor guided by a similarly intuitive approach to improvisation. As On Cinema director Eric Notarnicola related to me after a screening of The Trial in 2019, the second the camera begins recording, Heidecker has an otherworldly knack for gravitating toward the comedic pressure points of a scenario with laser precision. Whether viewers find themselves vibing harder with Heidecker’s jazzy fretmanship or Turkington’s understated rhythm section, On Cinema at the Cinema flows out as expert comedic jamming. All that the duo and their rogues’ gallery of co-conspirators seem to need is a fistful of flashcards and a smattering of plot points; somehow this too-simple recipe will always do the trick, at least as long as Heidecker is at the helm.
If On Cinema at the Cinema truly was launched as revenge for Roger Ebert’s pan of Billion Dollar Movie, as a 2016 Bloomberg article posits, its longevity points not to the intensity of this vengeful spirit but instead to an enduring good juju between Heidecker and Turkington. I personally don’t buy the revenge narrative wholesale, especially since the On Cinema podcast predates Ebert’s article by five months, but even if the web series did in fact begin as a bad-faith takedown of criticism it’s to Heidecker’s strength as an artist that he was just as much taking the piss out of himself for caring in the first place. It’s an earnest case of irony that out of these flames came a work so unimpeachably masterful and adroitly absurd as On Cinema, which I can confidently assert will continue to reign as Heidecker’s magnum opus. On Cinema has demonstrated an innate capacity to entertain in manners both goofily stupid and ingenious, always with a formidable consistency that trumps that of most any film cheered on by Tim and Gregg. It’s an elusive quality I think we can all agree on a fitting name for: movie expertise.